EU-OSHA looks back 25 years to its foundation

In 2019, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) celebrates 25 years of successfully building and mobilising a pan-European network of partners, all committed to making Europe’s workplaces safer, healthier and more productive.

Safety and health of workers is part and parcel of human security … Safe work is not only sound economic policy, it is a basic human right.
Kofi Annan, Workers’ Memorial Day speech, New York, 28 April 2002

Occupational safety and health (OSH) has been an integral part of the European project from its outset. Created in 1951, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the foundation stone of what would later become the European Economic Community and then the European Union (EU), brought together Europe’s coal and steel industries in an effort to mend a fractured Europe and pursue a collaborative future. In doing so, two of the most dangerous working environments at the time suddenly took centre stage. This triggered one of the key objectives of the ECSC: to ensure ‘the equalisation and improvement of living conditions of workers’ in the aforementioned industries.

It was not until 1985, however, that the tripartite approach to OSH gained momentum in Europe. Thanks to the initiative of Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission at that time, the concept of ‘social dialogue’ was given a constitutional mandate in the EU, paving the way for the publication of the Framework Directive (89/391/EEC) in 1989, celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019. This significant milestone for OSH not only established minimum safety and health requirements in the EU but placed the revolutionary notion of risk assessment at its core.

In the wake of the Framework Directive, the European Commission launched a Europe-wide campaign aimed at putting OSH and the detrimental effects of unsafe working environments well and truly in the spotlight: it declared 1992 the European Year of Safety, Hygiene and Health at Work. This was in response to shocking figures from Europe’s workplaces — 4 million workplace accidents, 8,000 of which were fatal, were reported annually in the early 1990s, costing Europe EUR 20 million. The European Year aimed to raise awareness of OSH risks and relevant legislation and highlight the work being done to improve safety standards.

The 1992 European Year and the increasing volume of legislation on safety and health at work laid the foundation for the creation of an agency dedicated to occupational safety and health — EU-OSHA.

The decision to set up the Agency was made at a Council Summit in October 1993, and Regulation (EC) No 2062/1994 establishing EU-OSHA was subsequently adopted in 1994 with a light amendment entering into force in 2019. 

It was wonderful to be part of the team establishing a new institution in an area of great importance in which so much good could be done. The aim was to raise the standard of safety and health in workplaces across the EU so that workers in every country would benefit from the same protection.
Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, former EU-OSHA Director

From the very beginning EU-OSHA has been aligned to EU OSH strategies and the European Commission and has been a key actor in these strategies and related communication.

EU-OSHA’s mission and vision were clear from the start:

  • to develop, gather and provide quality-assured information, analysis and tools to advance knowledge, raise awareness and exchange OSH information and good practice
  • to be a recognised leader promoting safe and healthy workplaces in Europe to ensure a smart, sustainable, productive and inclusive economy.

The Agency’s successful fulfilment of these objectives over the last 25 years can be attributed to its twin strengths: its network of focal points and its tripartite way of working.

The tripartite model allows the views of governments, employers’ organisations and workers’ unions to be both respected and represented in decision-making, reinforcing EU-OSHA’s values of collaboration and partnership. The combination of this model with EU-OSHA’s extensive network of focal points and partners at national level has had a twofold effect:

  • It has been essential in establishing a common understanding of workplace risks and how they should be tackled going forward.
  • It has enabled the Agency to effectively develop and promote a risk prevention culture in Europe’s workplaces.

These achievements have helped to significantly improve working conditions in EU Member States.

Here’s to another 25 years of successful collaboration and dedication to awareness raising and promotion of good practice in the field of OSH! Stay tuned for more articles in this series.