EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life
Danish building and construction sites are hazardous workplaces
According to a newly released report from the Labour Inspectorate, over the course of 1993-5 the building and construction sector experienced a 22% increase in industrial accidents. Although the parties recognise that many safety campaigns have had little or no effect, there is no agreement on the way ahead. This feature outlines the different arguments which have been advanced in the debate.
According to the report Reported industrial injuries in the building and construction sector, 1993-1995, from the Labour Inspectorate, the sector experienced a 22% increase in industrial accidents over the course of 1993-1995. The general increase in industrial accidents in the period was 11%. Whereas approximately 5% of the workforce are employed in the building and construction sector, this sector reported 8% of all industrial accidents. Every month one fatal and 50 serious accidents occur in the sector, and 84 fatal accidents took place at all Danish workplaces in 1995. The increased number of accidents in the building and construction sector, according to the Labour Inspectorate, can largely be explained by the sector's 9% job-growth and the improved reporting of industrial accidents.
The public authorities and the social partners in the building and construction sector are deeply disappointed and recognise that years of intensive campaigning have failed. The debate which took place following the publication of the report therefore focused on various ways to improve management's respect for safety regulations by observing its legislative responsibilities, on the one hand, and employees assuming responsibility for their own safety, on the other.
Increased penalties, preventive measures and joint responsibility
The major trade union in building and construction, the General Workers Union in Denmark (SiD), recognises that its own extensive campaign on safety has not produced results, and it has stressed the need for its members to take safety seriously. SiD's counterpart, theDanish Contractors' Association, agrees, stating: "we all agree that the rules are good enough, but there is a lack of compliance - it is therefore an attitude problem that we will have to solve". Whilst SiD recognises that attitudes towards safety do not change overnight and that its own safety campaigns have had a limited impact, the union suggests that the legislative option of penalising individual employees who do not respect safety regulations should be employed more often.
The Work Environment Act places the overall responsibility for safety on management and supervisors. Although the Act provides for the possibility of penalising individual employees, it has become common practice to prosecute and fine both employees and employers for disregarding safety, even where employees themselves are largely responsible.
The suggestion from SiD gained support not only from the Danish Contractors Association and the Danish Employers' Confederation (DA) but additionally from the Minister of Labour, Jytte Andersen, who said:
"I do understand that employers are not happy about getting penalised, if it is the employees who have neglected the safety precautions. If employers, who bear the ultimate responsibility for safety, say that a railing should be erected or ear protectors should be used, and employees do not follow these instructions then employees should take responsibility for their own actions."
By utilising the legal option of fining individual employees more often, the Minister wishes to underline the joint responsibility of both management and employees, without changing the fact that ultimate responsibility for safety lies with employers.
According to the Labour Inspectorate, out of a total of 530 cases in 1995, 13 individual cases were initiated against employees for infringement of the Work Environment Act. The typical fine imposed on employees in 1995 was DKK 500 and the average fine imposed on management and employees in 1994 was DKK 14,000. The highest fine ever imposed in Denmark for infringing the Work Environment Act was DKK 300,000.
Changing the practice was not welcomed by the vice-president of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), Tine Brøndum, who instead mooted the idea of allowing employees to be dismissed, which, in her opinion, would be a far more severe sanction than fines. Minister Andersen came out strongly against the idea, stating that "it is too easy for the LO simply to say that employers only have to dismiss their employees. LO owes us an explanation, as to what and how the LO will do to get its members to comply with safety at the workplace". LO argues that the emphasis on fining the individual employee takes the focus away from the real problem of safety at construction sites. Ms Brøndum, supported by the director of the Labour Inspectorate, suggests that there should be an increasing emphasis placed on preventive measures and that safety precautions should be incorporated in construction planning.
As part of a continuing debate on amending the Work Environment Act which started in May 1996, on 16 April 1997 Parliament considered what political action could and should be taken. The Minister of Labour gained support from a majority of parties on a proposal to increase fines for employers which were "responsible for fatal accidents" at the workplace. Furthermore, according to officials in the Ministry of Labour, the present practice of initiating very few prosecutions of employees is likely to change, so as to emphasise the notion of joint responsibility and encourage individual employees to assume responsibility for safety without altering the fundamental obligation and responsibility of employers for safety in the workplace. The Ministry of Labour is also considering various economic incentives to encourage employers to improve safety.
So far, seven fatal accidents have occurred in the construction of theGreat Belt Bridge betweenFunen and Zealand. This is the largest number of fatal accidents in the history of bridge-building in Denmark. The continuing construction of the bridge between Denmark and Sweden has a poor safety record. The bridge consortium has introduced extensive preventive measures and safety checks. In connection with a campaign entitled "One industrial accident is one too many", it offered DKK 25,000 twice a year to those contractors which have the best safety record. Although one fatal accident has occurred to date, the Labour Inspectorate has noted "that a positive change in the work environment has taken place".
According to recent statistics fromEurostat (Population and social conditions, 1992:2), 5 million industrial accident occur yearly in the EU, which means that one out of 25 European employees is exposed to industrial accidents necessitating more than three day's sick leave. The frequency of industrial accidents is geographical unbalanced in the EU. Portugal has the highest frequency of industrial accidents in the EU, followed by Luxembourg, Spain and France. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark have the lowest frequency of accidents. The building and construction sector is by far the most hazardous workplace, with twice as many accidents as all other sectors. (Kåre FV Petersen, FAOS)