European directives on safety and health at work

European directives on safety and health at work

A directive is a legal act provided for in the EU Treaty. It is binding in its entirety and obliges Member States to transpose it into national law within a set deadline.

Article 153 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union gives the EU the authority to adopt directives in the field of safety and health at work. The Framework Directive, with its wide scope of application, and further directives focusing on specific aspects of safety and health at work are the fundamentals of European safety and health legislation.

Member States are free to adopt stricter rules for the protection of workers when transposing EU directives into national law. Therefore, legislative requirements in the field of safety and health at work can vary across EU Member States.

Directives per topic

Directive summaries are available only in English, but links at the end of each summary lead to the full text of the directive in all EU languages.

In addition to the Framework Directive, a series of individual directives focusing on specific aspects of safety and health at work were adopted. Nevertheless, the Framework Directive continues to apply to all areas covered by the individual directives. Where individual directives contain more stringent and specific provisions, these special provisions prevail. Individual directives tailor the principles of the Framework Directive to:

  • Specific tasks (e.g. manual handling of loads)
  • Specific hazards at work (e.g. exposure to dangerous substances or physical agents)
  • Specific workplaces and sectors (e.g. temporary work sites, extractive industries, fishing vessels)
  • Specific groups of workers (e.g. pregnant women, young workers, workers with a fixed duration employment contract)
  • Certain work-related aspects (e.g. organisation of working time)

The individual directives define how to assess these risks and, in some instances, set limit values for certain substances or agents.

The European Commission has announced its top three occupational safety and health actions in its Communication Safer and Healthier Work for All - Modernisation of the EU Occupational Safety and Health Legislation and Policy, which is based on the ex-post evaluation of the European Union occupational safety and health directives (REFIT evaluation).

In addition, some EU directives based on Article 114 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union relate to safety and health aspects. On that legal basis, a series of technical directives under the so-called ‘New Approach’ were adopted whereby the European standardisation organisations — European Committee for Standardization (CEN), European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) and European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) — set and update European standards on a regular basis.

European Legislative Process 

The EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021–2027 sets out the political framework for European safety and health policy. The starting point for legislative initiatives at European level is a legislative proposal drafted by the European Commission. Under the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’, it is the European Council and the European Parliament that adopt EU directives. In some cases, they delegate the legislative power to adapt directives to technical progress to the European Commission.

The European Social Partners play a vital role in the European decision-making process in the field of safety and health at work, as they have to be consulted at various stages. The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union also foresees the possibility of concluding autonomous agreements. So far, European social dialogue has resulted in the adoption of several autonomous agreements.

Historical background on safety and health legislation

The first European directives on safety and health at work were adopted on the basis of the general market harmonisation provisions. This was due to a lack of an explicit legislative competence in the Treaty in the field of safety and health at work until the mid-1980s. Before this, occupational safety and health was seen as an annex to market harmonisation and the economic policies of the European Economic Community. For example, Directive 77/576/ EEC on the harmonisation of national laws on safety signs in the workplace and Directive 78/610/ EEC on the harmonisation of occupational exposure limits to vinyl chloride monomers were adopted on this basis.

The Single European Act 1987 was a major step forward in that it introduced a new legal provision on social policy to the Treaty aiming for ‘improvements, especially in the working environment, as regards the health and safety of workers’. By inserting this provision into the Treaty, the importance of safe working conditions was made evident. Moreover, the new Social Chapter authorised the European Commission to promote social dialogue between employers and labour representatives at European level.

With the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, the legislative competence in the field of European social policies was further strengthened by the incorporation of the social agreement into the Treaty. The Treaty of Lisbon — apart from the renumbering of the Articles on social policy — kept the substance of the provisions of ex Articles 136 ff TEC (now Articles 151 ff of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).