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Health and Safety

EU legislation means that in all EU states there are structures providing employee representation in the area of health and safety. However, there are differences in how this representation is organised. A combination of employee health and safety representatives with their own powers and a joint employee/employer committee is the structure used most frequently, but other states only have joint committees, some only have employee representatives, while in others the existing works council plays the key role. The way employee health and safety representatives are chosen also varies: in around half of the countries they are elected directly by the workforce, while in the others existing bodies, such as unions or works councils, choose them. There are also variations in the thresholds for choosing representatives and setting up committees as well as in their powers.

The Health and Safety at Work Framework Council Directive 89/391 adopted in 1989 requires all member states to ensure that employees are informed and consulted about health and safety matters at the workplace, allowing them to make their own proposals for improvements and changes. This consultation can be with employee representatives rather than with employees themselves, and the directive makes that clear these representatives must have appropriate rights and safeguards.

With this European legislative framework there are certain aspects of employee representation in the area of health and safety that are common across EU member states. However, there are also many points of difference. These reflect national developments in health and safety – many countries had their own lengthy history of legislation in this area before the 1989 directive – and overall national structures of employee representation.

Structures of representation

The way health and safety representation is organised can be divided into four broad categories, although the particular national characteristics of each system mean the divisions between the categories are not always precise.

The most frequently used model is a combination of employee health and safety representatives, elected or chosen in some other way, who have their own specific rights, plus a joint employee/employer health and safety committee, normally in larger workplaces. The members of this joint committee are typically the employee health and safety representatives, on one side, and, on the other, the employer (or a representative) plus the health and safety professionals in the company (works doctor, safety expert and so on) and, in some cases, other managers.

A total of 13 countries use this model (Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom), although with some important variations. In Hungary, for example, there can also be an employee-only committee of health and safety representatives. In Portugal, joint health and safety committees can only be set up where there is a collective agreement to do so. In Ireland and the UK, the joint committee is only set up if the employee representatives request it; and in the UK there are separate arrangements for union and non-union workplaces – in non-union workplaces the employer decides whether to have representatives and they have no right to call for a joint committee. In Poland, there is a joint committee and elected employee health and safety representatives, but these elected representative are only allowed where a union is present.

A second model is where employee health and safety representation is provided through the employee members of a joint employee/employer health and safety committee, and there are no separate health and safety representatives with their own rights. Five countries are in this group (Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, and Lithuania). In Belgium and France another existing body – the union in Belgium and the employee delegates in France – takes on health and safety functions where there are not enough employees to have a joint committee.

A third variant is where the structure provides only for employee health and safety representatives not a joint employee/employer committee. Five countries use this model (the Czech Republic (but see below), Greece, Italy, Latvia and Malta), although in the case of Greece and Latvia, there is also an employee-only committee in larger workplaces. Although these countries do not have a joint committee as such, in two states the legislation provides for regular meetings between the employer and the employee health and safety representatives – in Greece they should be every three months, in Italy once a year.

The Czech Republic fits into this category, in that there is no joint employer/employer heath and safety committee. However, under Czech legislation, employee representation in the area of health and safety can be provided either through elected representatives or through the existing workplace trade union organisation. It is the employees who decide whether they want elected representatives – a third of them must request it – and it is possible for both union representation on health and safety and elected health and safety representatives to coexist in the same workplace, although their powers are slightly different.

The final model is where health and safety issues are primarily dealt with through the works council or a works council subcommittee. Five countries (Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Slovenia) are in this group, although there are important differences between them. In the Netherlands and Slovenia, the works council plus, in some cases, a subcommittee is all that exists. In Austria and Germany, on the other hand, there is also a joint employee/employer health and safety committee and individual employees with a particular health and safety tasks – these are not experts but employees enjoying the confidence of their colleagues. Finally, in Luxembourg, the only one of the five where the works council is not a purely employee body, there is also an employee representative with specific health and safety tasks and the existing employee delegates have an ongoing health and safety role.

Methods of selection

It is not just the structures that are different. The way that employee representatives dealing with health and safety are chosen also varies from country to country. In 14 countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, and Romania) they are elected by the workforce. In Ireland and Malta, while they are chosen by the employees, the legislation does not specify an election. (In Malta the employer appoints if the employees do not choose a representative.)

In Sweden and the UK, health and safety representatives are appointed by the union; if there is no union they are elected by the whole workforce, although only where the employer wants this in the UK. In Italy, health and safety representatives are elected in small workplaces and chosen by the union structure in larger ones. In Slovakia it is the union or works council that makes the recommendation, with election as a fall back if there is no union or works council, and in the Czech Republic the union makes its own choice, although the employees, if they wish, can also elect representatives. In Poland, the employee members of the joint committee are chosen by the union, or elected if there is none, but the health and safety representatives, who can only be present if there is a union, are elected by the whole workforce.

In Luxembourg and Spain, existing employee representatives choose the health and safety representatives and the same is true for Austria and Germany in terms of the employee representatives on the joint committee, although not the individual employees with specific health and safety tasks. In both these countries they are appointed by the employer. In Austria the works council must agree to the appointment, while in Germany the works council must be informed but the employer takes the final decision.

Finally in the Netherlands and Slovenia, it is the works council that both chooses the members of the subcommittee, where it exists, and makes up the majority of its members.

A brief description of the position in each country is set out in the table, although these are necessarily truncated and to get a more complete picture it is necessary to read the individual country reports.

Country

Main form of representation

How employee representatives are chosen

Austria

Works council plus joint health and safety committee and individuals with health and safety role

Works council elected; representative of works council on health and safety committee; individuals chosen by employer with agreement of works council

Belgium

Joint health and safety committee

Elected

Bulgaria

Joint health and safety committee/group

Elected

Croatia

Health and safety representatives and joint committee

Elected

Cyprus

Health and safety representatives and joint committee

Elected

Czech Republic

Union structures and/or health and safety representatives

Unions make own choice; health and safety representatives elected

Denmark

Joint health and safety committee/group

Elected

Estonia

Health and safety representatives and joint committee

Elected

Finland

Health and safety representatives and joint committee

Elected

France

Joint health and safety committee

Elected

Germany

Works council plus joint health and safety committee and individuals with health and safety role

Works council elected; representatives of works council on health and safety committee; individuals chosen by employer

Greece

Health and safety representatives and employee-only committee

Elected

Hungary

Health and safety representatives plus employee-only committee and joint committee

Elected

Ireland

Health and safety representatives and joint committee

Chosen by employees

Italy

Health and safety representatives

Elected by employees in small companies; chosen by the union structures in larger ones

Latvia

Health and safety representatives and employee-only committee

Elected

Lithuania

Joint health and safety committee

Elected

Luxembourg

Works council (employee delegates in smaller companies) plus health and safety representative

Works council and employee delegates elected; health and safety representative chosen by employee delegates

Malta

Health and safety representatives

Chosen by employees, but where none is chosen in this way management appoints

Netherlands

Works council plus employee-only subcommittee

Works council elected; members of subcommittee chosen by works council

Poland

Joint health and safety committee plus health and safety representatives in union workplaces

Committee members chosen by union or elected if no union; health and safety representatives elected by workforce

Portugal

Health and safety representatives and joint committee (where collective agreement provides it)

Elected

Romania

Health and safety representatives and joint committee

Elected

Slovakia

Health and safety representatives and joint committee

Appointed on recommendation of union or works council; elected if there is no union or works council

Slovenia

Works council plus employee-only subcommittee; if no works council health and safety representatives

Works council elected; members of subcommittee chosen by works council; health and safety representatives (if no works council) elected

Spain

Health and safety representatives and joint committee

Chosen by and from among existing employee representatives; if do not exist direct election

Sweden

Health and safety representatives and joint committee

Chosen by union; if no union elected

United Kingdom

Health and safety representatives and joint committee but, if no union, have fewer powers and no joint committee

Chosen by union; if no union elected if the employer wants representatives

Employee thresholds

There are also differences in the employee thresholds required before a health and safety representative must be appointed and before a health and safety committee must be set up (see table).

Among the 20 states with employee representatives or individuals with a special responsibility for health and safety, there are seven where there is no employee threshold for their appointment, although in Poland there must be a union. Among the rest, the most common threshold is 10 – applied in five countries, either in legislation or in practice – with Austria close at 11. In Cyprus, Latvia and Sweden the threshold is five, in Spain six, in Luxembourg 15, in Croatia 20 and in Hungary 50. In Germany the threshold is also 20, but the individuals are not representatives.

The thresholds for a joint health and safety committee, in the 19 states where these exist, vary less. The commonest threshold is 50 employees, found in 10 countries. In Cyprus and Denmark the threshold is 10, and in Finland and Germany it is 20. At the other end of the scale, joint health and safety committees need only be set up when there are 100 employees in Slovakia and Austria (250 in offices) and 250 in Poland. In Ireland, Portugal and the UK there is no set threshold.

In the two countries where health and safety committees consist only of employees, the thresholds are 50 employees in Greece and 10 employee health and safety representatives in Latvia.

Country

Threshold for representative

Threshold for committee

Austria

11

100 (250 offices)

Belgium

 

50

Bulgaria

 

None for group (50 for committee)

Croatia

20

50

Cyprus

5

10

Czech Republic

10 or union

 

Denmark

 

10 (35 for two-tier structure)

Estonia

10

50

Finland

10

20

France

 

50

Germany

20 – but not representatives

20

Greece

None

50 (employee only)

Hungary

50

50

Ireland

None

Not specified

Italy

None

 

Latvia

5

 

Lithuania

 

50

Luxembourg

15

 

Malta

10 – in practice

 

Netherlands

Entirely through works council

Poland

Only if union

250

Portugal

None

Not specified

Romania

10

50

Slovakia

None

100

Slovenia

Entirely through works council

Spain

6

50

Sweden

5

50

United Kingdom

None

Not specified

Other differences

In the vast majority of countries, health and safety representatives only cover the workplaces or companies where they are employed. The two main exceptions are Italy, where a so-called area safety representative can be chosen to cover smaller companies without their own safety representatives, and Sweden, where regional safety representatives can exist alongside workplace safety representatives for workplaces with fewer than 50 employees.

The terms of the EU directive mean that there is considerable commonality in relation to the tasks and rights of employee health and safety representative and health and safety committees, although there are also some differences.

One important question is whether they have a right to require work to be suspended in a way that goes beyond the terms of the directive, which says that workers should not be disadvantaged if, faced with a “serious and imminent” danger to themselves and/or others, they take appropriate steps to avoid that danger.

The countries where they clearly have further powers are: Denmark (where the joint safety working group can require work to be halted) Estonia, Finland, Poland, Spain (where it is the existing employee structures that have the right) and Sweden.

The individual country reports provide greater detail on the tasks and rights of employee health and safety representative and health and safety committees, as well as their rights to time off and their protection against dismissal.

L. Fulton (2013) Health and Safety Representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication prepared for worker-participation.eu)

Countries

This section summarises key features of the way industrial relations are arranged in the different member states. Information covers the following topics: trade unions, collective bargaining, workplace representation, board-level representation, European-level representation, health and safety representation and financial participation. It also includes a list of useful links for each country.