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Health and Safety Representation

The works council has a key role in representing employees on health and safety issues. It sends representatives to the joint health and safety committee and its agreement is required in some areas, such as the appointment of the works doctor.

Basic approach at workplace level

The employer is responsible for health and safety in the workplace and is obliged to appoint works doctors and health and safety specialists, although for smaller companies these will be provided by external bodies. The works doctor and health and safety specialist are required to cooperate with the works council in carrying out their tasks.

Employee health and safety bodies

The works council (Betriebsrat) which can be set up in all workplaces with five or more employees has an important role in health and safety issues. In addition, in larger workplaces (more than 20 employees) a health and safety committee (Arbeitsschutzausschuss) should be set up. This is a joint employer/employee body, which includes two members of the works council. Finally there are also individual employees with health and safety tasks (Sicherheitsbeauftragte), who are also members of the health and safety committee.

Numbers and structure

The works council is a purely employee body and its size increases with the number of employees (see table).

Number employed

Number of works council members

5-20

1

21-50

3

51-100

5

101-200

7

201-400

9

401-700

11

701-1,000

13

1,000-1,500

15

From 1,500 to 5,000 employees the number in the works council increases by two for every 500 employees or part thereof; from 5,000 to 7,000 by two for every 1,000, and above 9,000 by two for each additional 3,000 employees.

A health and safety committee should be set up in all workplaces with more than 20 employees. It consists of the employer or the employer’s representative, two members of the works council, the works doctor(s), the health and safety specialist(s) and employees with health and safety tasks (see below).

The number of employees with health and safety tasks to be appointed depends on the number of employees and the nature of the work and the risks involved. The legislation foresees that at one will normally be appointed in workplaces with more than 20 employees. However, the detailed rules on numbers and thresholds are left to the occupational insurance associations (Berufsgenossenschaften) who provide accident insurance. The typical numbers appointed in a more hazardous workplace are set out in the table.

Number of employees

Individuals with health and safety tasks

21 to 50

1

51 to 100

2

101 to 200

3

201 to 350

4

for every additional 200

1

In an office environment, the numbers would be lower, with perhaps only one employee with health and safety tasks for every 250 employees. However, although they should enjoy the confidence of their fellow workers, it is important to stress that they are not employee representatives.

Tasks and rights

The works council has a general responsibility to try to ensure that the health and safety provisions and accident prevention measures are observed and to support the appropriate health and safety authorities and other bodies in their efforts to eliminate hazards by offering suggestions, advice and information.

It has the right to participate in health and safety inspections and to be given details of any instructions issued by the appropriate authorities. It should also receive details of any reports on health and safety issues as well as notification of any accidents. The works doctor and health and safety specialists must inform the works council of any significant developments in the area of health and safety and of any proposals they intend to make to the employer. They must also advise the works council on health and safety issues if the works council asks for this.

In addition, the works council must approve the appointment or dismissal of the works doctor and the health and safety specialist. The arrangements for the prevention of accidents and occupational diseases and for health protection are also subject to works council agreement. If no agreement is reached, the issue goes to the external arbitration committee (Einigungsstelle), made up of representatives of both employer and works council with a neutral chair, for a decision.

The works council must also be consulted on the appointment of employees with health and safety tasks. However, it is not necessary to obtain its agreement to their appointment.

The health and safety committee should be informed and consulted on health and safety and accident prevention issues and it provides a forum in which measures to improve workplace health and safety can be developed.

The role of the employees with health and safety tasks is more limited. They are to support the employer in health and safety issues, to influence employees and to note failings. The intention is that individuals appointed to this position should enjoy the confidence of their colleagues and be aware of both how the work is organised and what needs to be done to keep it safe. They should get the information they need to be effective in the role but they are not paid for holding the position, they cannot issue instructions and they cannot be held responsible for health and safety failings.

Frequency of meetings

The works council should meet the employer at least once a month, although many issues other than health and safety will be discussed. The heath and safety committee should meet at least every three months.

Election and term of office

Works council members are elected by the whole workforce and the term of office is four years.

The works council representatives on the health and safety committee are chosen by other members of the works council.

Employees with health and safety tasks are appointed by the employer in cooperation with the works council, but the employer takes the final decision.

Resources and time off

Works council members have paid time off to carry out their duties, including those connected with health and safety, and in workplaces with more than 200 employees at least one works council member has the right to be completely freed from other duties. They also have the right to take part in training connected with their activities.

There are no specific time-off rights associated with membership of the health and safety committee, although attendance at its meetings is paid.

Employees with health and safety tasks also have no specific time-off rights. However, they are likely to be given training which will often be provided by the employers’ occupational insurance association.

In certain circumstances, provided the employer agrees, the works council can bring external experts, paid for by the employer, and this right may be used in connection with health and safety issues.

Protection against dismissal

Works council members can only be dismissed for extraordinary reasons – such as gross misconduct – and only if the works council or the labour court agrees.

Employees with health and safety tasks do not have special protection against dismissal. However, they should not be disadvantaged because of their activities in the role.

Key legislation

Act relating to Works Doctors, Safety Engineers and other Occupational Safety Experts (Occupational Safety Act) 1973

Works Constitution Act 1972

Social Code (VII)

Gesetz über Betriebsärzte, Sicherheitsingenieure und andere Fachkräfte für Arbeitssicherheit (Arbeitssicherheitsgesetz – ASiG) 1973

Betriebsverfassungsgesetz (BVG)1972

Sozialgesetzbuch (SGB) VII

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