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Health and Safety Representation

The works council and specially appointed health and safety representatives are the key elements in employee health and safety representation. Although not elected, health and safety representatives can only be appointed with the agreement of the works council and should be appointed in workplaces with more than 10 employees. In workplaces with more than 100 employees (250 in offices) a health and safety committee should also be set up.

Basic approach at workplace level

The employer is responsible for health and safety at the workplace, using, where necessary, the services of a health and safety expert and an occupational physician. The works council must be consulted and informed on health and safety issues, and in all but the smallest workplaces separate health and safety representatives, with special responsibilities in this area, must also be appointed.

Employee health and safety bodies

The works council, which in theory should be set up in all workplaces with five or more employees, has an important role in health and safety.

In addition, employers with more than 10 employees should appoint at least one health and safety representative (Sicherheitsvertrauensperson or SVP in German), an individual with particular responsibility for health and safety. Their appointment must be agreed with the works council, and the health and safety representative represents employees on health and safety issues, in agreement with the works council. However, their appointment does not change the fact that the responsibility for health and safety at works rests with the employer.

In larger workplaces, the employer must set up a health and safety committee (Arbeitschutzausschuss or ASA in German), which brings together the employer and employee representatives, as well as health and safety experts.

Numbers and structure

A works council should be set up if a workplace has more than five employees and its size increases in line with the number of employees (see table).

 

Number of employees

Number of works council members

5 to 9

1

10 to19

2

20 to 50

3

51 to 100

4

101 to 200

5

The number of works council members then increases by one for every 100 employees until 1,000, when it increases by one for every 400.

 

The minimum number of health and safety representatives (SVP) appointed depends on the number of employees in the workplace, starting with one, when there are at least 11 employees. Up to 1,400 employees the numbers of health and safety representatives are as follows:

 

Number of employees

 

 

Number of health and safety representatives

 

 

11 to 50

 

 

1

 

 

51 to 100

 

 

2

 

 

101 to 300

 

 

3

 

 

301 to 500

 

 

4

 

 

501 to 700

 

 

5

 

 

701 to 900

 

 

6

 

 

901- 1,400

 

 

7

 

Above 1,400 employees one additional health and safety representative must be appointed for every 800 employees.

Where there are several health and safety representatives, they can appoint a chair who has a coordinating function.

A health and safety committee (ASA) must be established in workplaces with 100 or more employees (250 if at least three-quarters of the posts are in office work). It consists of the employer, or a representative of the employer, the individual responsible for adherence to health and safety procedures, the most senior health and safety expert, the occupational physician (sometimes known as the works doctor), health and safety representatives and a representative of the works council, or one from each works council if there is more than one. The meetings are chaired by the employer or the employer’s representative.

 

Where employer has several workplaces with their own health and safety committees, a central health and safety committee should be set up. This consists of the employer, or the employer’s representative, plus a maximum of two other individuals representing the employer, three representatives of the appropriate level work council and three members each from each of the lower level health and safety committees. The three members are a health and safety representative, a health and safety expert and the occupational physician.

 

Research by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in 2014 found that 67% of these workplaces in Austria had a health and safety representative. This is above the EU-28 average, where 58% had an individual with similar responsibilities. For health and safety committees, where the threshold for setting one up is relatively high in Austria, the picture is different. Only 7% of Austrian workplaces had one, below the EU average of 21%. (The figures are for workplaces with five or more employees.)note1

Tasks and rights

The works council must be consulted in good time about all issues relating to health and safety at work. In particular, it must be consulted about the introduction of new technologies, about the choice of production methods and material, the organisation of working conditions and the influence of work environmental factors on health and safety. It should also be involved in the choice of personal protective equipment and the identification and assessment of risks, as well as the counter measures taken and how this is communicated.

The employer is also required to give the works council:

  • access to documents relating to health and safety and reports on accidents at work;
  • information about work organisation;
  • the results of measurements of dangerous substances, noise and other hazards, and records relating to these issues;
  • information, including the reasons for the event and the measures taken where safety limit values are exceeded – to be provided immediately;
  • information coming from the regulatory authorities, such as permits and official material and a right to be consulted in advance on information resulting from protective and preventative measures;
  • a right to be consulted in advance about health and safety hazards and the measures taken to counter them, both in general and for the particular type of work being undertaken; and
  • a right to be consulted in advance on information on health and safety hazards and action to counter them provided to the employer by external experts, as well as on the information they provide on first aid, fire prevention or the evacuation of staff.

The employer must consult with the works council on the proposed appointment or dismissal of occupational health experts or works doctors, as well those responsible for first aid, fire prevention and evacuation, unless these issues are dealt with in the health and safety committee. The works council has the right to invite the state labour inspectorate to the consultations, and appointments of occupational health experts and works doctors without the involvement of the works council or the health and safety committee are invalid.

If it chooses, however, the works council can delegate all these tasks to the health and safety representatives. In addition, where there is no works council, these tasks fall to the health and safety representatives.

Other than this, the main tasks of the health and safety representative in the area of health and safety are:

  • to inform, advise and support employees;
  • to inform, support advise and work with the works council;
  • in agreement with the works council to represent the interests of the employees in dealings with the employer, the authorities and other bodies;
  • to advise the employer in ensuring health and safety at work;
  • to check that the appropriate equipment and procedures are in place and to inform the employer of any failings;
  • to ensure that the measures provided for safety at work are used; and
  • to work with safety experts and the occupational physician.

In addition, in all questions related to health and safety, health and safety representatives have a right to demand that the employer and other appropriate bodies implement the necessary measures, to make proposals for the improvement of working conditions, and to require that any failings are remedied. Employers must listen to the health and safety representatives in all questions related to health and safety. Health and safety representatives must also be consulted in advance about the use of any external organisations providing health and safety services, and must be informed about the appointment or dismissal of health and safety experts, occupational physicians and personnel dealing with first aid, fire prevention or the evacuation of staff.

 

In addition, with the exception of information relating to the works council, the health and safety representatives have the same rights over access to documents, the results of measurements of dangerous substances, information from the regulatory authorities and so on, as the works council (see above).  

 

The health and safety representative cannot be bound by instructions from the employer in the area of health and safety.

 

The role of the health and safety committee is essentially one of coordination, aiming to improve health and safety through an exchange of information and experience between all the workplaces belonging to the same employer. It is able to examine all issues relating to health and safety and in particular to discuss reports and proposals coming from health and safety representatives, health and safety experts and the occupational physicians.

 

There are, however, some rights, found in some other European countries, which are not present in the Austrian system. Neither the works council nor the health and safety representative has the right to carry out independent workplace assessments, to require that these assessments should be carried out by an external body, or to instruct that work should be stopped.

Frequency of meetings

The works council must meet monthly and the health and safety committee must meet at least once a year. However, there are no regulations on how frequently heath and safety representatives should meet, if there are several of them.

Election and term of office

Works council members are elected by the whole workforce for a period of five years.

Health and safety representatives are appointed by the employer rather than elected. However, the works council must agree to their appointment, even where the individual is a member of the works council. If there is no works council, employees must be informed in writing of the name of the individual to be appointed and if at least one third of the employees object, another individual must be chosen.

In making the appointment the employer should take account of the gender breakdown of the workforce, and health and safety representatives must have appropriate experience and personal characteristics. They must also be appropriately trained (see below). 

Health and safety representative are appointed for a period of four years, although they can be removed earlier at the request of the works council, or, where there is no works council, at the request of a third of the employees.

Resources, time off and training

 

Works council members have the right to the paid time-off necessary for them to represent the employees and in larger workplaces one or more members does nothing but works council duties. In workplaces with 150 to 700 employees there is one full-time works council member; 701 to 3,000 - two; more than 3,000 - three; with one extra for every additional 3,000. They also have the right to up to three weeks’ and three days’ training during their period of office and should be given the facilities they need for their duties.

 

Employers must also ensure that health and safety representatives have sufficient time, which should be paid working time, to undertake their duties, and employers should also provide the necessary means and support. The must also give health and safety representatives the opportunity to acquire and extend their technical knowledge, including a minimum 24 hours  (three days) of training on health and safety issues during the first year, if they have not already received this.

Protection against dismissal

Members of the works council can in most cases only be dismissed if their dismissal has been previously approved by the labour court and the court will only approve their dismissal in very limited circumstances. Health and safety representatives also have some protection. They may not suffer disadvantages because of their activities as health and safety representatives, in particular with reference to pay, promotion opportunities and transfers. The works council must be immediately informed if a health and safety representative is dismissed, and dismissal because of their activities as a health and safety representative is unlawful.

Other elements of workplace health and safety

 

The legislation provides that all workplaces, irrespective of size, should have access to the services of a health and safety expert and an occupational physician. In workplaces with up to 50 employees (provided that the company as a whole does not employ more than 250 people) these services are provided free of charge by the accident insurance body.  In addition, the employer can take on the functions of the health and safety expert in workplaces with up to 50 employees, although he or she needs specialist training if there are 25 or more.

 

National context

 

The main ministry responsible for health and safety at work is the Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection (Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Soziales, Gesundheit und Konsumentenschutz – BMASK). The main official health and safety inspection and monitoring body in Austria is the Labour Inspectorate (Arbeitsinspektion), with separate bodies covering agriculture and forestry, public sector workers and religious institutions.

 

Trade unions and employers have a guaranteed role in health and safety at national level through their participation in the tripartite Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Board (Arbeitnehmerschutzbeirat), set up under the main health and safety legislation. The unions and the employers each have two representatives.note2

 

Legal changes, which came into effect from January 2013, reinforced the importance of mental health and the prevention of work-related mental stress in ensuring health and safety at work. They make it clear that health includes both physical and mental health, and they include a requirement that an assessment of the adequacy of the measures in place should be undertaken after incidents, such as an attack or a high levels of complaints.

Key legislation

Federal Law on Health and Safety at Work (Employee Protection Act)

Bundesgesetz über Sicherheit und Gesundheitsschutz bei der Arbeit

(ArbeitnehmerInnenschutzgesetz - ASchG)

L. Fulton (2018) Health and safety representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Produced with the assistance of the Workers' Interest Group of the Advisory Committee for Safety and Health at Work (of the EU Commission). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.