Work accidents and occupational diseases represent one of the major risks covered by social security since the first social security schemes were introduced in Europe more than 120 years ago, and the provision of prevention, compensation and rehabilitation for work-related illness and injuries constitutes an important element of many social security systems worldwide.
Prevention: Long-term investment for a more prosperous future?
Evidence shows that prevention has saved millions of lives by reducing work-related accidents and diseases. It also contributes to increased competitiveness and economic growth – an important factor that business leaders and policy-makers should consider in their responses to the financial and economic crisis. It is estimated that the costs related to occupational accidents and diseases amount to 4 per cent of the world’s GDP. A long-term investment in prevention with the aim of reducing work-related accidents and diseases can also help limit social security expenditure, by decreasing expenditure on insurance benefits and health-care costs, and can contribute to a country’s overall economic performance (2).
The impact of the crisis on safety and health at work
Past recessions have revealed the potential negative impacts of poor economic performance on working conditions in general and on safety and health at work. These impacts have included:
The European Agency on Safety and Health at Work has arrived at similar conclusions regarding the effects of the financial and economic crisis and its aftermath, based on a recent survey. The majority of European citizens interviewed about the impact of the crisis felt that the crisis would lead to a deterioration in working conditions (Figure 1).
In order to be able to provide a first insight into potential trends worldwide, the ISSA conducted a survey of selected ISSA member social security institutions from several regions (Figure 2). Although the survey was limited, it indicates that those regions of the world that were most severely hit by the crisis also experienced the most significant negative impact on working conditions.
The survey data shows that this view was prevalent in a variety of contexts, in both OECD and developing countries. Notable differences can be observed between the experiences of Europe, North and South America (regarding, for example, stress levels, or the impact on employment) and the rest of the world. Arguably, other parts of the world were less affected by this crisis, as they were less exposed to the financial problems that have been endemic in North America and Europe.
The crisis forced many businesses to scale down their economic activity in order to remain competitive, leading to lay-offs, extended working hours and increased workload, and consequently higher levels of stress among employees. How did this situation affect occupational safety and health (OSH)?
Reduced activity and thus less employment in high-risk sectors like the construction or the manufacturing industry seem to result in a lower number of accidents. In Italy, for example, the unemployment rate increased by 2 per cent over the last year*, while the occupational accident rate dropped by 10 per cent. Similar figures are expected in Belgium, Spain and in the United States. However, the crisis has instilled new levels of exposure to occupational risks, which must be weighed against the reduction of accidents in order to get a complete picture of the overall impact of the economic crisis on OSH.
Lay-offs in many sectors have often increased the workload and, as a consequence, the stress levels of workers. Already a third of those working admit to being “very concerned” that they may lose their jobs in the future (3). In view of the existing high burden of stress-related sickness, a more difficult situation could be expected to develop in the future. This is anticipated through reference to past experiences, when similarly stressful work situations occurred in countries such as Finland and the USA, and an increase in bullying and harassment cases was also observed. In a similar vein, a recent study by the International Labour Office (ILO) predicts that the negative OSH trends manifested in a changing world and workforce are expected to be accentuated by the crisis, and that the number of occupational accidents and diseases will rise (4).
The economic decline and reduction of government and commercial funds have in some cases led to cuts in investment in prevention. This was stated by ISSA member institutions in Argentina, Brazil, Cameroon, Poland and Spain. The USA reported more positive news: the construction sector, which was one of the worst hit by the crisis, has so far not cut back on training for prevention. Likewise, Belgium reported that companies had not reduced their spending on safety and health management, as comprehensive OSH management systems are required by law and consequently enforced.
A recent survey in the United Kingdom (5) has revealed that the economic crisis will lead to a surge in the proportion of people who intend to work beyond the national State retirement age of 65. This survey suggests that, as a result of the impact of the crisis on pension funds, savings and investments, 71 per cent of workers over 55 now plan to work beyond the State pension age, as most people simply cannot afford to retire.
With more older workers. to keep the workforce safe and healthy in old age may become an additional challenge for OSH experts. According to Eurostat, most fatal work-related accidents happen in the age group of 55-65. It is also known that older workers take longer to recover from accidents, which leads to a longer absence from work. Accident insurance and national bodies in charge of prevention will therefore need to develop programmes with a special focus on the safety and health of older workers.
The results presented here reveal wide international variation in the reported impacts of the economic crisis on OSH. They confirm that there is a need to ensure that existing prevention efforts are not jeopardized by the financial constraints that business, social security institutions and governments are facing.
Failure in the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases cannot be excused on the basis of economic restrictions. Successful and effective prevention is often a result of strong management commitment and effective social dialogue at enterprise level. Positive change can be introduced without major financial commitment, and the initial investment, for example, in safety training and protective equipment is recouped when prevention strategies begin to pay off, as less work-related accidents and diseases are expected to result in lower production costs, reduced absenteeism, leading to higher motivation and productivity.
Successful outcomes need to be based on a proper regulatory OSH framework and risk management systems, especially during times of economic difficulty. This approach is also part of ISSA’s broader vision of Dynamic Social Security, which aims to encourage a worldwide prevention culture through various initiatives (6). The ISSA also promotes programmes of prevention through the ongoing work of the ISSA Special Commission on Prevention (7).
Social security plays an important role in protecting workers and their families against a variety of contingencies, and in particular during times of crisis. Protection levels must be maintained during the current financial and economic crisis and the challenging period that will follow. Cutbacks on safety and health at work may aggravate the economic situation of workers due to the negative impact of an increased numbers of accidents and diseases. Prevention must therefore play a key role in social security strategies and be considered as an important investment in the economic recovery of societies – and one that will help ensure sound economic and social development in the future.
* The first semester in 2009, compared to the first semester in 2008.
(1) ISSA survey: Social security responses to the financial crisis. June 2009
(2) DGUV. 2009. Return on prevention (in German only). http://www.dguv.de/bgag/de/forschung/forschungsprojekte_archiv/qdp/qdp_abschluss/_dokumente/qdp_ab05.pdf
(3) EU Social Agenda Magazine. November 2009. http://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=4206&langId=en
(4) ILO. April 2009. Health and life at work : A basic human right. www.ilo.org/public/english/protection/safework/worldday/products09/booklet_09-en.pdf
(5) Study conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2009/nov/25/employees-working-beyond-retirement-age
(6) Promoting a worldwide prevention culture. www.seouldeclaration.org
(7) ISSA Special Commission on Prevention. www.issa.int/prevention