Précis –  In April, the European Agency for Occupational Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) revealed data that suggests that workers in the UK are more confident than workers from anywhere else in Europe that health and safety issues would be addressed once they have been raised with their employer.

What?  The EU-OSHA survey considered trends in job-related stress, general public awareness of health and safety in the workplace, attitudes towards the role of good health and safety practices in raising the retirement age and in economic competiveness.

So What? In general the number of positive responses about health and safety has increased in the UK when compared against the figures from the last time the survey was completed in 2009.

While the statistics may reflect favourably on UK industry, many TMT organisations work over a series of different jurisdictions and may find inconsistent attitudes towards health and safety at their different sites across Europe and around the world. Moreover, wherever health and safety incidents actually occur, they often involve victims from many different nationalities.  March 2012 marked the 25 year anniversary of the Zeebrugge tragedy, perhaps the worst passenger ferry disaster in history to have involved a British ferry company. However, the disaster did not occur in British waters and many non-British people died in the incident. The Concorde disaster in Paris and the recent Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster in Italy were also shocking examples of health and safety failures. All of them involved citizens of different nationalities and all of them resulted in enormous loss of life.

In the aftermath of these multi-national disasters, there has yet to be any successful attempt to create a uniform approach to enforcing health and safety law throughout Europe.  People, money and goods now move around Europe with ease and speed. The introduction of the Euro, cross-border labour laws, and technological advances, have changed the way in which companies do business throughout Europe. However, this harmonisation of commerce is not necessarily reflected in the area of health and safety law. The framework of health and safety law is broadly similar in a lot of countries but the priority and resources given to enforcing these laws and the typical punishments that result from breaching these laws varies enormously across Europe.

The fact that EU-OSHA only conduct this survey every three years shows that there is still residual apathy towards a European ‘wide-angle’ consideration of how to police, investigate, prosecute, and sentence health and safety law. In general, there is a lack of detailed statistical or legal comparison throughout Europe. The EU-OSHA survey is interesting but by no means conclusive. For example, Poland scored very positively (4th out of the countries surveyed) in the section concerning the likelihood that workers’ health and safety concerns would be addressed but has traditionally a very high proportion of workplace fatalities (e.g. see the incidence rates (excluding road traffic accidents for 2008) at http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/european/european-comparisons.pdf). Much more work could be done to assess health and safety standards and the best way of enforcing health and safety law throughout Europe.When Professor Lofstedt completed his review of Health and Safety legislation in the UK last year, he announced that there would be a follow up European-wide review of European health and safety legislation and that he is likely to be heavily involved in it. A joined up European-wide approach to health and safety law, particularly in relation to the prosecutions resulting from large scale disasters, may be needed. Investigations, prosecutions and sentencing should be as consistent as possible throughout Europe. From experience, this is not currently the case, and for now (until the European review in 2013 is completed and has an impact), TMT organisations will need to seek advice from consultants, lawyers and other third party advisors who have international capability and experience.

A prudent TMT organisation will apply a consistently high level of health and safety standards across all countries in which it operates and trades in, recognizing the moral and reputational element of health and safety compliance. The EU-OSHA survey demonstrates that improving health and safety compliance and enforcement in European countries is not solely about the legislation passed by member states; it is also concerned with employers’ recognition of the business case for health and safety and the priority and resources given to health and safety by governments and public authorities. The UK (as leaders in health and safety awareness and compliance) is in a good position to take the lead in this.