Occupational safety and health in micro and small enterprises

©EU-OSHA/David Tijero

Micro and small enterprises (MSEs) are key drivers of economic growth, innovation, employment and social integration, and they form the backbone of the EU economy.

Commission Recommendation 2003/361/EC defines MSEs as follows:

  • A micro enterprise has fewer than 10 employees and an annual turnover or balance sheet total that does not exceed EUR 2 million.
  • A small enterprise has fewer than 50 employees and an annual turnover or balance sheet total that does not exceed EUR 10 million.

In 2018, there were slightly more than 25 million SMEs in the EU, of which 93% were micro-SMEs. SMEs accounted for 99.8% of all enterprises in the EU non-financial business sector (NFBS), generating 56 .4 % of value added and 66.6% of employment in the NFBS.

Source: Annual report on European SMEs 2018/2019, p. 11

What challenges do MSEs face?

Occupational safety and health (OSH) is often poorly managed in MSEs, with workers at greater risk of workplace accidents and work-related ill health. MSEs are heterogeneous and they lack cohesive representation. This poses challenges in terms of monitoring working conditions, raising awareness and the enforcement of OSH. The issue is a priority in national OSH strategies, in the European Commission’s Strategic Framework and in the context of the European Pillar of Social Rights.

Various studies, including EU-OSHA’s European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER), show that the smaller the enterprise the more significant the challenges in handling OSH. Nevertheless, the ESENER results also show that even very small enterprises report high levels of OSH management in some EU countries and sectors. This suggests that, with the right support, OSH management in MSEs can be substantially improved. 

EU-OSHA's project to improve OSH in micro and small enterprises

EU-OSHA’s wide-ranging project ‘Improving OSH in micro and small enterprises’ (2014-18) aimed to identify key success factors, in relation to policies, strategies and practical solutions, for improving OSH in MSEs in Europe.

What does research tell us about OSH in MSEs?

The first phase of the project revealed the extent of the OSH challenges faced by MSEs across Europe and some of the factors that contribute to poor OSH management in these enterprises. The literature review Contexts and arrangements for occupational safety and health in micro and small enterprises in the EU points to a ‘general and multifaceted lack of resources’, causing a substantial proportion of MSEs to pursue ‘low road’ business strategies. The key characteristics of such companies are a weak economic position; concerns about economic survival; lack of investment in OSH; limited knowledge, awareness and competence on the part of owner-managers; and attitudes and priorities that do not favour OSH.

The workplace perspective

OSH attitudes and practices in MSEs were explored through 360 in-depth interviews with both workers and owner-managers. Some of the frequently observed attitudes included a strongly reactive approach to OSH; the perception that ‘common sense’ is a sufficient OSH measure and the belief that risks are ‘part of the job’. However, examples of good practices were also found.

Read the report Safety and health in micro and small enterprises in the EU: the view from the workplace.

Are there good practices we can build on?

There are a variety of examples from across Europe of successful OSH policies, strategies and tools that target OSH in MSEs. Over 40 such interventions are described in depth in Safety and health in micro and small enterprises in the EU: from policy to practice — description of good examples.

The good examples were explored further to determine ‘what works, for whom and in what circumstances’, including their wide-ranging potential for positive impact and transferability.

Read the report From policy to practice: policies, strategies, programmes and actions supporting OSH in micro and small enterprises, which also explores the experiences of OSH intermediaries that work with MSEs.

How can we ensure that OSH policies and interventions reach MSEs?

The overall findings of the project have been analysed to provide evidence-based recommendations for the development of more effective policy programmes and interventions aimed at improving OSH in MSEs. Safety and health in micro and small enterprises in the EU: Final report from the 3-year SESAME project points to the importance of:

  • engaging all key regulatory actors;
  • strengthening regulatory inspections;
  • offering sustainable, easily applicable and transferable solutions;
  • the better integration of OSH into sector-specific education systems;
  • the involvement of trade unions and employers’ organisations in the development of policies that can reach MSEs;
  • better supply chain arrangements.

EU-OSHA helps MSEs assess their workplace risks

Proper risk assessment is the key to healthy workplaces. But carrying out risk assessments can be quite challenging, particularly for MSEs, which may lack the resources or know-how to do so effectively.

EU-OSHA’s Online interactive Risk Assessment (OiRA) platform aims to overcome this. OiRA is the first EU-level initiative aimed at encouraging MSEs (mainly via Member States and social partners at the EU and Member State levels) to assess their risks.

To learn more about occupational risk assessment in MSEs, see this related OSHwiki article.