30th May 2023


Cut 'red tape' — and watch EU workplace deaths rocket

  • Algorithms which manage platform work are pushing riders to go faster and take more risks to win more work (Photo: European Parliament)
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With a trip to the United States planned for the month of his 19th birthday, dedicated student Tom Le Duault took a holiday job in an abattoir near his home in Brittany to earn some extra money.

But just hours into his first day on the job, he was crushed under a box weighing 500kg. This is one of the real life tragedies which lie behind worrying new statistics about fatal accidents at work across Europe.

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  • The number of parents, partners, children and siblings who went to work and never came home — should be enough to keep employers and politicians awake at night (Photo: David King)

An analysis of newly-published Eurostat data by the European Trade Union Institute found that fatal workplace accidents are on the rise in 12 EU member states, most notably in Italy (+285), Spain (+45) and Portugal (+27).

This is a wake-up call for everyone, particularly bosses and politicians, who assume workplace deaths will just gradually disappear as part of a natural progression of society.

There has, of course, been huge progress made over the last few decades in making workplaces safer thanks to stronger legislation and collective bargaining agreements, but our figures show that progress is coming to a halt in some countries and being completely reversed in others.

There has been a successful corporate pushback against what their spin doctors branded "red tape".

For example, the number of people being injured by machinery in Europe has increased over the last decade following a European Commission decision to scrap third-party safety checks as part of its deregulation policy — pushed for by business lobbyists.

There are new risks to workers' lives emerging too, none more so than climate change. 60-year-old cleaning worker José Antonio González collapsed and died of a heart attack after being forced to sweep the streets of Madrid in temperatures of over 40 degrees.

He is among a growing number of workers losing their lives because labour law hasn't changed with the climate.

The wild west of platform work is also claiming lives.

Last month, 26-year-old Sebastian Galassi was working as a food courier for Glovo in Florence when he was hit and killed by an SUV.

The investigation into his death is still ongoing but research shows algorithms which manage platform work are pushing riders to go faster and take more risks to win more work.

As the threats to workers' safety change and grow, then so must the laws to protect them. The atmosphere of complacency over health and safety at work has to end.

Frankly speaking, the numbers in our study — all of them representing parents, partners, children and siblings who went to work and never came home — should be enough to keep employers and politicians awake at night.

As a wake-up call, the ETUC has launched its Zero Death at Work campaign which challenges politicians at EU and national level to commit to taking the actions needed to eradicate these avoidable tragedies.

For example, by reversing the huge cuts that were made to workplace safety inspections in the name of austerity. The number of inspections fell by 18 percent across the EU during the previous decade, leaving too many workplaces completely unprepared for the pandemic as well as being more likely to be the scene of fatal accidents.

Beyond accidents, there also needs to be a renewed push to eradicate occupational cancer — something which still today claims the lives of over 100,000 people every year.

The EU recently agreed new protections for workers from three more cancer-causing substances, but there remain another 23 for which there are no exposure limits.

By far the biggest cause of workplace cancer is exposure to asbestos, which causes 90,730 deaths a year and will claim 120,000 lives a year by 2029 without further action.

Berlaymont's asbestos hypocrisy

The European Parliament voted for the exposure limit to be decreased to 0,001 fibres/cm3 in line with the recommendation by the International Commission of Occupational Health.

But the European Commission, which removed the asbestos from its own headquarters 25 years ago, has proposed a new exposure limit ten times higher than the experts' recommendation.

Why? It will save businesses money. Instead the bill will be footed by taxpayers who will continue to pick up the annual €40 billion cost to Europe's public health systems of treating people with asbestos-related cancer.

Too many politicians say the right things but aren't willing to take the decisions which would save lives.

The situation is summed up by the fact that EU countries voted at the International Labour Organisation for health and safety at work to become a fundamental right — but the majority of them have still not ratified the ILO conventions that would put that right into action in their own countries.

However, if the political will exists then fatal workplace accidents could be eradicated in the EU as soon as 2030 — instead of 2062 as is currently projected.

So far, ministers from seven EU governments — Belgium, Romania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Finland, Slovenia and Slovakia — have signed our Zero Death At Work manifesto which commits them to taking the actions necessary to eliminate fatal accidents as quickly as possible.

People go to work to earn a living but too many people in Europe are instead losing their lives to work.

The family and friends of Tom Le Duault held a march in his memory this weekend and we will remember Tom, Sebastian and José as we fight to ensure there is no repeat of the avoidable tragedies which took their lives.

Author bio

Claes-Mikael Stahl is deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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