Working group on Worker Rights and Participation

Picture of Chair and Scribes

Chair: Marc Sapir, Trade Union Technical Bureau, Belgium EU
Cochair: Franklin E. Mirer, Health and Safety Department, UAW US
Scribe: Laura Kenny, U.S. DOL - OSHA US

A. Framework for Worker Participation

The European Union participants presented the EU consensus document, supported by coordinated presentations about specific applications in several countries.

Consensus Document Background:

There is a great diversity of situations within the European Union, reflecting specific characteristics of industrial relations with sometimes large variations from one country to the next, depending on sector and type of activity. Underlying labor law and practice, workers and unions have two main objectives: to be informed and consulted as early as possible before management decisions are made in order to influence their content and to concretize safety and health rights in the collective agreements with regard to employment and training. The workers representatives for safety and health are fully competent regarding information and consultation and bargaining power.

The forms of workers representation can be stratified into two basic forms: Representatives exclusively through the trade unions and their representatives (UK, Ireland, nordic countries) and the other form representative distinct from trade union presence and forms of representation ( France, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands). In other countries, we have hybrid models.

It is possible to define a number of general features which take account of shared broad trends and which can facilitate an understanding of the specifics in Europe as compared with the United States.

The common elements based on the framework directive 89/391 and found in all the member states include:

  • Specific forms of workers' representation at all workplaces;
  • Training programs for risk alerts, risk assessments and prevention strategies for workers and their representatives;
  • Information and Consultation of the Workers' representatives in the organization of corporate prevention and protection schemes, services and health protection programs;
  • Information and consultation of the workers representatives in the definition and implementation of prevention, rescue and emergency plans.

The consensus document highlights a case which addresses the question of chemical risk control. A concrete example of how the European social dialogue transpired to address this problem was presented. The SUMOVERA project describes several important approaches (strategies) including substitution, the agreement to establish an Observatory in the context of a European Work Council of ENI (Italian petrochemical) and the agreement between the European trade federation of chemical workers and the manufacturers/employers in the enterprise of the PVC industry.

Claudio Stanzani, National CISL Health and Safety Coordination Agency and SINDNOVA Institute, Italy

Mr. Stanzini described the ways realized and the new forms of workers' anticipation in matters of health and safety at work, in different models of industrial relations in Europe. European Community (EC) directive 89/391/E.C. is widely known to contain legislative measures aimed at promoting, among other things, the improvement of workers' health and safety through the affirmation of the principle of workers' participation, established by the so-called "European social dialogue". Workers participation is seen as an indispensable instrument for a prevention strategy able to couple workers' safety and corporate quality and management. For community legislation, safety is not only the result of an upgraded environment, activities and technologies to technical regulations and standards, but also, or perhaps most of all, the result of the consistent organization and management of the enterprises, the correct consideration of human factors, and a transparent system of rules and relations between the fundamentals actors of prevention )i.e., the employer and the workers. In building the European single angle market with the prospects of economic and monetary unity, the main preoccupation of community legislators is with the possibility that the goals of hygiene and safety at work may be subjected to social dumping and unfair competition. This is why social partners and the system of industrial relations in full respect of local traditions have been entrusted with the implementation of the measures needed to enforce common rights and rules on matters.

Dr. Alvaro Durao, Advisor on Occupational Health, Directorate General of Health, Ministry of Health Government, Portugal

Dr. Alvaro pointed out that it was difficult to summarize Europe's approach since there is great diversity. Workers' Information and Participation in Safety and Health is a cultural and social challenge in today's modern and global World. However, the European Framework Directive offers an important contribution to harmonize these standards among the 15 member States. Dr. Alvaro described the components of the framework outlined in 98/391/EEC of 12 June 1989. Please refer to his paper entitled, "Workers Rights and Participation on Occupational Health and Safety", for details.

Sylvester Cronin, Ireland, SIPTU, (labor representative)

Mr. Cronin described efforts in Ireland to improve and promote safety and health. He referred to a safety and health report published in 1983 that raised the question, why worker involvement in health and safety? The response is clearly that every employee has a keen interest in his or her working environment and therefore must have a means to defend his or her interest. In 1987, with unemployment at 16.9%, the Irish government asked the unions if they would participate in a program to build and contribute to national recovery. Safety and health legislation was adopted that covers 100% of the workers in Ireland. Section 13 - 1989 Act gave rights to workers and their representatives. Subsequent initiatives based on the EU Directive, require a master plan at each worksite which describes how health and safety will be managed and includes a risk assessment. These efforts have resulted in huge economic benefits. Unemployment stands at 4% or in effect, Ireland is experiencing full employment today.

Dr. Harald Frostling, Sweden, Svenska Arbetsgivareforeningen, employer representative

Dr. Frostling noted that Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland are very similar. There is a long tradition in Nordic countries for cooperation between labor and management. The 1978 Work and Environment Act requires health and safety committees in all worksites with fifty or more employees. Health and safety representatives have a good education with two - five days of training paid by the employer. Health and safety representatives have the right to stop work immediately if there is a serious risk of life. Local agreement are based on local risks. Joint safety and health Industrial Council produce information for different target groups. Sweden has the distinction of producing more than one million health and safety publications annually. There are 500 f/t roving health and safety representatives paid by federal funds at a cost of approximately 8 million dollars.

Hermann Fonck, CSC-ACV, Belgium, (labor representative)

Mr. Fonck stated that although there are differences in Belguim, many of the components are similar to Norway. The country is 80% unionized. Trade union representatives cannot be dismissed. There are serious consequences for an employer including significant fines. Training is provided by trade union funds. There is a joint labor-management committee. Workers in enterprises larger than 50 employees elect every member of the joint labor-management committee every four years. He provided an example on the branch level in construction. These committee members visit construction sites, give advice, and issue warnings.

Dr. Janet Asherson, CBI, Britain, (employer representative)

Dr. Asherson noted that the first health and safety initiative was established in the UK in 1873. In 1974, a major accident and entry into the EU resulted in numerous changes. The Health and Safety Work Act provides the framework. The main feature is the employer obligations and employees.

United States

Background document:

The background document from the US was prepared by Margaret Seminario of the AFL-CIO and Laura Kenny of OSHA. It was presented by Laura Kenny.


Workers and worker representatives play an important role in improving safety and health conditions in the United States, both in worksite safety and health activities and in the establishment and enforcement of safety and health standards. Rights guaranteeing worker participation, access to information and protection against retaliation are set forth in the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Mine Safety and Health Act and OSHA and MSHA standards and regulations. Additional rights are provided to workers and worker representatives under the National Labor relations Act. There presently is no federal requirement for worker or worker representative participation through the establishment of safety and health committees. Through collective bargaining agreements many unions have bargained for the establishment of safety and health committees and protections that go beyond those provided by federal and state law.

The rate of unionization in the United States is low compared to many other countries (13.9%) This means that for most U.S. workers, federal and state laws, not collective bargaining agreements provide the framework for safety and health protections and rights. Most rights guaranteed under these laws are provided to both individual workers as well as worker representatives. Unlike in Europe, in the U.S. there is no established tripartite framework for developing and implementing safety and health protections.

Nancy Lessin, Massachusetts AFL-CIO, noted that worker protection against discrimination (victimization) under US OSHA law (11C) was very weak and that Congressional investigation had shown that termination was a common outcome in small and medium-sized enterprises.

Franklin E. Mirer, Health and Safety Department, UAW
A Collective Bargaining Model

Dr. Mirer noted that the EU presentations were principally at the national level, while the UAW presentation would be focused on sectoral matters, although national in scope. He added that participation went beyond workplace level, and that worker and representation participation in health and safety policy and standard setting was also important, and that the US tripartite approach at these levels was also not as well developed as in the EU. He concurred with the US Background document that the most important legislation other than OSHA in this area was the National Labor Relations Act. However, worker participation, particularly in the matter of anti-discrimination is also impacted by a variety of other workplace legislation including legislation against race, gender, age and handicap discrimination, and workers compensation legislation. He noted that there are 54 different workers compensation programs in the United States, most based on private insurance or self-insurance.

The UAW represents 750,000 workers in 3400 bargaining units. Approximately 350,000 are employed in the auto industry. These are large units with national agreements. The balance are in smaller companies and in public employment primarily in Michigan, Indiana, and Puerto Rico. Dr. Mirer then presented the UAW collective bargained language, saying that the auto contracts were more complete than those in smaller employers, but that health and safety agreements had been negotiated in diverse operations such as the Detroit Casinos.

Dr. Mirer indicated that the initial national language in health and safety was agreed to by the auto companies as an alternative to the union or members filing OSHA complaints. The rights of the health and safety representative under the contract were similar to those which workers have only during an OSHA inspection. He noted that prior to 1973, the UAW had established elected representatives, and could address health and safety through the grievance procedure, local and national agreements, with the right to strike over production standards and health and safety during the life of the agreement. In 1973, an appointed health and safety representative with rights to information and investigation was established, as well as local and national health and safety committees. The next major advance was a joint approach to training and research in 1984, funded by 4 cents per hour employer contribution. Ergonomics were added in 1987, and other joint activities include access to higher management at the local and national level, and joint plant audits.

He noted that many negotiated programs became the model for standards and legislation, including the new OSHA ergonomics standard.

The UAW has demonstrated a statistically significant reduction of fatalities among their membership in the auto sector since this system was established, although the fatality rate in smaller plants has significantly increased over the last two decades. In recent years, injuries generally have decreased as a result of the ergonomic activities.

Specific Issues and Concerns

  • Three presentations noted that European development of worker participation structures came at times of social compromise. The Irish structure came at a time of economic crisis. The Swedish approach was part of a general cooperative structure needed for a small country to be competitive internationally. The EU framework directive was part of a grand compromise to balance expansion of trade and to prevent social dumping.
  • US delegates noted that the overall labor law was a product of the depression, also a time of crisis and compromise and the OSHA law came from the late sixties, also a time of ferment. However, the diminished tripartite approach in the US might also be a product of the lack of acceptance of organized labor as a social partner.
  • The EU system with its 15 member states is complex. Nevertheless, these diverse states have an achieved consensus on need for worker participation and agreement that the tripartite approach is very useful.
  • Some participants felt a need to explore other systems of participation other than regulatory
  • Some participants argued that company culture is as essential as the legal framework
  • Information and Consultation in EU is well-established and allows for greater influence over issues. However, what is the role of enforcement?
  • Worker participation including health and safety is needed for efficiency and competition. Must push for acceptance on the local level.
  • Some EU participants argued that participation by itself was not enough and that they need more technical standards established and enforced
  • Law/bargaining/law/bargaining-member states are supporting idea of participation at the local workaday
  • Explore ways within participatory and legal frameworks to challenge unsafe staffing levels, excessive work hours, problematic work loads and work pace, intensification of work and other unsafe and unhealthy working conditions.
  • Worker rights and participation very uneven in the U.S. Need to address concerns and obstacles facing contingent and immigrant workforce.

Proposed Work for Future

1. Case studies should compare worker participation and risk management in companies which operate in both Europe and the U.S. and which have European Work Councils. Perhaps other case studies should be included. This would be a research project requiring employer cooperation and would have to be conducted on both sides of the Atlantic.

2. The parties could explore the dimension of worker participation on some specific issues such as chemical information and setting of limit values.

3. Quantify the cost of poor health and safety programs for employers, workers, the economy and society.

4. Challenges for small enterprises-worker participation implications, transferring information, protect employee rights