‘One In, One Out’ is a danger to workers’ health and safety

by Per Hilmersson on 24th October 2019
The new European Commission’s ‘One In, One Out’ approach to ‘burdensome’ legislation would stymie progress towards safer, healthier workplaces.The incoming European Commission’s working methods statement, published in September, announced that the executive would ‘develop a new instrument to deliver on a “One In, One Out” principle’. It elaborated: ‘Every legislative proposal creating new burdens should relieve people and businesses of an equivalent existing burden at EU level in the same policy area.’
That may sound simple, but in the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) we are concerned that it makes no sense in practice. No policy area demonstrates that better than health and safety at work. What does ‘One In, One Out’ mean? That whenever a new piece of legislation to protect workers is introduced, an existing law will be dumped? How can that be reconciled with progress towards safer and healthier workplaces?
Already, back in July, we regretted that the work programme Ursula von der Leyen presented to the European Parliament, as incoming commission president, failed to include proposals on occupational safety and health. Trade unions were pleased to see the commissioner-designate for jobs, Nicolas Schmit, remedy that omission, when he assured MEPs at his hearing in the European Parliament that health and safety would be ‘an absolute priority’, including legislative measures.
Because there’s a lot to do—as this European Week for Safety and Health at Work attests. Over 3 million workplace accidents occur every year in the EU, with almost 70 deaths per week, and 120,000 people die annually from occupational cancers. Over a quarter of workers in Europe experience excessive work-related stress and 23 per cent believe that their safety or health are at risk because of their work.
Even though the European Pillar of Social Rights guarantees that ‘workers have the right to a high level of protection of their health and safety at work’, and in spite of the initiatives taken by the Juncker commission, too many Europeans still suffers from work-related illness and accidents.
Ill-concealed attempt
The ‘One In, One Out’ initiative looks just like a reframing of the notorious ‘REFIT’ strategy. Evolving out of the original 2002 Better Regulation programme, this was always condemned by the ETUC as an ill-concealed attempt to deregulate and weaken key legislation for workers’ rights.
It was largely due to so-called Better Regulation that moves to amend and update the 2004 EU directive on carcinogens and mutagens were stalled for almost ten years. In October 2013, the commission stopped developing exposure limits for cancer-causing chemicals because of a ‘REFIT’ review. In the end it was largely trade-union pressure that forced legislators to act.
Since then, three rounds of amendments have constituted an important victory for trade unions and the workers they represent. In 2016, binding occupational exposure limits for an additional 11 cancer-causing substances were added. Further changes followed in 2017 and 2018, and the updated 2019 directive on the protection of workers from risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work should be in force in the member states by July 2021.
These rules could be the difference between life and death for some workers, and lives cannot be played off against business costs or a mechanical principle governing the amount of legislation. Now we want progress in limiting exposure to all the 50 priority cancer-causing substances identified by unions, while some existing limits are still too high. The EU must aim for a zero work-related cancer target. That can only be achieved through legislation, but not at the cost of other vital safety measures.
Workers’ rights
The EU’s Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work expires next year, and now is the time to set priorities for a renewed strategy. The new parliament, commission and council must demonstrate they are serious about protecting workers’ health and safety.
For example, last year the ETUC called for a directive to combat stress and psychosocial risks in the workplace. In June this year, the International Labour Organization adopted a new convention on violence and harassment at work, and these recommendations also need legal enforcement.
An ambitious revision of the EU directive on asbestos to protect all workers from exposure—with a focus on removal—should be another ingredient in the new strategy.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are an under-reported but growing workplace hazard, affecting an estimated 44 million workers in Europe and costing up to 2 per cent of EU GDP. For workers, they can range from daily aches and pains to disabilities forcing people out of work. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work is currently carrying out a four-year study of MSD, and the EU must be ready to legislate on recommendations for prevention and treatment. All workplace accidents and illnesses have a cost, and prevention would bring economic benefits for both businesses and society at large.
New risks
Changes in work patterns also bring new risks. Where employers try to evade their responsibility for workers’ safety, for example through online platforms and bogus self-employment, legislation is required to clarify their role. And as climate change threatens to raise workplace temperatures, decent working conditions and protection should be legally enforced.
Finally, as well as a zero target on work-related cancer, the new strategy should embody a zero vision for fatal accidents at work.
In short, a ‘One In, One Out’ rule could endanger society and citizens by delaying, blocking or weakening much-needed measures. Regulation should not be perceived as a ‘burden’ by the EU, but as a vehicle of progress towards a more sustainable and social Europe.
No-one should risk death or injury due to work. The ETUC urges the new commission to focus on improving the lives of working people, rather than on arbitrary legislative targets.
This column is sponsored by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)
(Per Hilmersson is deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation.)