On 5 June 2019, Dr Christa Sedlatschek, the Executive Director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), welcomed attendees — including distinguished guests, long-standing partners, key figures in EU-OSHA’s history and current staff — to a very special event marking the culmination of the Agency’s 25th anniversary celebrations. The event took place in the beautiful ceremonial hall of the University of Deusto, in the Agency’s home city, Bilbao.
The Agency’s Director passed on a message of congratulations from Felipe VI, King of Spain and attendees watched a specially recorded message from Marianne Thyssen, the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, who highlighted EU-OSHA’s crucial role in Europe’s pioneering successes in improving occupational safety and health (OSH).
Joost Koorte, the European Commission’s Director-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, spoke next, saying, ‘The Agency has really managed to be very attentive to the real needs of workers and businesses ... you are and have always been a very reliable partner.’ He pointed out that EU-OSHA’s effectiveness was particularly remarkable given the Agency’s relatively small size.
Yolanda Valdeolivas, the Acting Secretary of State from the Spanish Ministry of Labour, Migration and Social Security, and María Jesús San José, the Basque Government’s Minister for Employment and Justice, also made opening statements. They made clear not only the support and appreciation that Spain and the Basque Country offer to EU-OSHA but also the political will that there is at national and regional levels to tackle OSH issues.
Two lively panel discussions followed, one reflecting on EU-OSHA’s history and the other looking forward to its future.
Panel 1 — looking back
Asked to describe the Agency’s very early days, panellists — including Tom Walsh, the first Chair of the EU-OSHA Management Board, Francisco Jesús Alvarez Hidalgo of the European Commission, and Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, the Agency’s first Executive Director — spoke of the pioneering spirit and drive for innovation that fuelled the establishment of EU-OSHA.
Europe is about creating partnerships. Together we are stronger. And this was behind the idea of creating the Agency ... It was felt that something innovative had to be done in terms of prevention.
Francisco Jesús Alvarez Hidalgo, European Commission
Mr Konkolewsky said that he could summarise the experience of setting up the Agency in three words: ‘It was a challenge, but it was also a privilege, and it was a pleasure — it was fun.’ He paid warm tribute to the enthusiasm, courage and hard work of the first members of staff, the board and the focal point network, saying, ‘We shared a feeling that this was something special.’
Another former Executive Director on the panel was Jukka Takala, whose time in charge saw the introduction of ground-breaking projects such as OiRA, ESENER and OSHwiki. He commented, ‘I always appreciated the idea of having both evidence and communication together ... This is really important in the Agency, and I think probably unique in the field of occupational safety and health.’
Dr Sedlatschek discussed some of the more recent challenges that EU-OSHA has faced. These have included new safety and health issues linked to the changing world of work and digitalisation in particular as well as an ageing population. She also explained how the Agency has managed to do ‘more with less’ following budget cuts. The introduction of new budgeting and planning methods has been vital to the Agency’s continued effectiveness. According to Dr Sedlatschek, ‘We have much more efficient planning, a clearer view of what is needed and a better allocation of resources.’
Martina Häckel-Bucher, EU-OSHA’s Austrian focal point, was the voice of the national focal point network on the panel. She painted a picture of motivation, dedication and camaraderie in the work of the national focal points. Ms Häckel-Bucher said, ‘One thing I learned here in Bilbao is to feel more European. Working for a European network, looking beyond borders, is special.’
Panel 2 — looking to the future
Asked about what challenges they saw ahead for EU-OSHA and for the safety and health of Europe’s workers, the panellists raised a range of issues. Per Hilmersson, the Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, made the point that, even with the tremendous progress made in the past 25 years, there is still much to be achieved. He reminded the audience of annual statistics on serious accidents, deaths resulting from work-related cancer and fatal accidents in the EU. He and other panellists also highlighted growing psychosocial risks as a major challenge. Natalie Lotzmann of the multinational SAP, one of EU-OSHA’s long-standing official campaign partners, highlighted the mental health risks posed by the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous nature of work. Heinz Becker, Member of the European Parliament, spoke about the urgent need to adapt to demographic change and focus on healthy ageing in Europe’s workforce.
Though, the panellists believed that EU-OSHA and the EU more generally are well placed to tackle these challenges. Mr Hilmersson mentioned the adoption of the Pillar of Social Rights and revisions to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive as encouraging developments, while Kris de Meester of BusinessEurope highlighted the importance of agility and adaptability as a strategy for managing the OSH issues arising from a fast-changing world of work.
Charlotte Grevfors Ernoult of the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion spoke about the recent positive evaluation of EU-OSHA and the EU OSH Framework Directive as grounds for optimism, commenting, ‘It was so pleasing to see how well the Agency came out of it and how much we can rely on you.’
William Cockburn, the head of EU-OSHA’s Prevention and Research Unit, summarised the Agency’s key strengths. He emphasised that it is in a special position in being able to carry out large pan-European research projects, which both feed into policy debates and produce results that can be used for awareness-raising and as good practice examples directly in workplaces, in particular through the Healthy Workplaces Campaigns with the support of EU-OSHA’s partners.
Evaluation after evaluation has shown that we are punching well above our weight and achieving real impact through those awareness-raising activities.
William Cockburn, Head of the Prevention and Research Unit, EU-OSHA
Several panellists identified the Agency’s unique tripartite way of working as vital to safeguarding its future success. Christa Schweng, Chair of EU-OSHA’s Management Board, described it as ‘a living dialogue with all the stakeholders’, and commented that, although the future was uncertain, ‘as long as we have that dialogue, we can manage’.
The evening’s celebrations
EU-OSHA put its network centre stage — quite literally — with guests sitting down to dinner on the stage of the Euskalduna concert hall. Live music was provided by the Bilbao Sinfonieta, under the direction of comedian and musician Rainer Hersch, who got the audience to participate in a very entertaining performance.
In her speech at the dinner, Dr Sedlatschek paid tribute to the city that EU-OSHA is proud to call home, saying, ‘As an Agency, we have been inspired by and are immensely proud of the economic, social and cultural transformation we have witnessed in Bilbao since we first made our home here — and the city’s achievements.’