Notify, record, investigate and compensate to prevent work-related accidents and diseases.
by Thanasis Samaras
The numbers of work-related accidents and diseases are important
How many occupational accidents and diseases take place? It is hard to know. Our best estimate depends on a number of factors such as the definitions of occupational accidents and diseases, the accuracy of notifying all such incidents, and having a system in place of compiling, analysing and announcing statistical data.
The definition of an accident could be broad or narrow. It could include, or not, road and other traffic work-related accidents. It could include, or not, injuries requiring more than three days off work. It could include, or not, instances where the injured worker requires medical aid only, without time off work. For a system to be effective, all accidents and diseases must be reported, under-reporting should be penalised and incidents that involve no injury or property damage could be taken into account. The same system should provide for the processing of this type of information and publicising the results.
This type of information is extremely important for the workplace, the distinct industry and the nation or union of nations. It is the basis for occupational risk analysis and for designing prevention programmes for the particular workplaces and industries. It is the foundation for specific prevention campaigns and targeted prevention programmes for nations or unions of nations, which may vary because of differing priorities. It is the starting point for legislators to set the rules for healthier and safer workplaces.
Surveys are important
This was stated by Pascal Paoli, Research Manager of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, because they help identify current risks in the workplace, which are not reflected by available data. They give the workers’ point of view. Workers participate as experts in their workplace, while the results contribute in bringing back occupational health and safety on the political agenda. However, surveys cannot replace actual accident and disease notification and statistics.
The actual numbers of occupational accidents and diseases that take place world-wide are not known because of lack of competent and comparable reporting and recording systems. It is known that there is considerable under-reporting. However, the published and estimated figures are very high. This is not encouraging or comforting at all. According to the 1999 International Labour Office (ILO) estimates, "over one million work-related deaths occur annually". The same source notes that "by conservative estimates, workers suffer approximately 250 million occupational accidents and 160 million occupational diseases each year" and warns that "work-related diseases are expected to double by the year 2020". As a result of the same study it is estimated that "asbestos alone kills more than 100,000 workers every year".
Occupational accident and disease statistics are invaluable. As it is seen from the data provided by the ILO, a ban of a single substance – asbestos – would save more than 100,000 workers’ lives every year.
As it is explained in the United Kingdom’s Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR 95), "reporting accidents and ill health at work … enables the enforcing authorities to identify where and how risks arise". The authorities can then investigate, help and advise on preventive action to reduce injury, ill health and accidental loss.
Similarly, OH&S committees, safety officers, occupational physicians and management can take preventive action on the company level. Policy and lawmakers, accordingly, can design central preventive programmes.
According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, accidents are investigated to find out the causes and to prevent similar occurrences in the future. The investigations of accidents also help determine their cost, compliance with applicable safety regulations, fulfil legal requirements and process workers’ compensation claims. "Incidents that involve no injury or property damage should still be investigated to determine the hazards that should be corrected".
The April 1999 ILO press release states that "in many industries, occupational and work-related diseases and injuries are not even reported". The very high numbers of recorded incidents in the workplace therefore only represent a portion of the actual incidents. "Improved policies and legislation, wider availability of occupational health services, improved infrastructure and manpower and better recording and notification systems" are recommended to improve occupational health and safety world-wide and lower the soaring numbers.
Occupational accidents and diseases have a very high cost. The direct cost includes compensating the injured workers, which means payment for lost wages, medical and vocational rehabilitation and eventually the cost of a return to suitable employment. It could also include property damage. The indirect cost includes losses to the families of injured workers, a slow down in production, lower productivity and higher training costs to employers. Having to cover this cost provides employers with the incentive required for maintaining healthy, safe and more productive workplaces. Surveys - without any cost attached - could not drive preventive action in the workplace.
The existence of a just workers’ compensation system is acutely important. Workers’ compensation is a basic right of working people. Apart from the socio-economic value of this kind of system, it would encourage workers to report accidents and, even more, occupational diseases. This will provide a better picture of the risks involved and help prevent injury and disease based on more complete data. It is presumed that job security protection will be included.
Such a system should be based on the principles of no-fault compensation, covering the lost wages of the worker involved for as long as the disability lasts, and collective, rather than individual, employer liability. Experience rating would bring back under-reporting and transform workers’ compensation from a social security system into a - legal or no legal - battlefield for the two sides.
A well designed workers’ compensation system that covers all working people is, naturally, the most appropriate system for accident notification, recording and reporting statistics.
The European experience
In the European Union, national data on work-related accidents have not been comparable and the statistics could not be used to accurately study risk levels and plan action. In 1990 a harmonisation programme was initiated, called European Statistics on Accidents at Work (ESAW). Two years later the definitions, variables and coding systems were adopted: it was decided to cover "accidents causing absences from work of more than three days and accidents leading to the death of the victim". They include "accidents caused by third parties, road traffic accidents during working time and acute poisonings, but do not cover commuting accidents between home and the place of work or occupational diseases". In 1997, Eurostat made the first results, for the year 1993, public.
The success of the programme is questionable. Despite the effort, no other than the 1993 figures were published, and even those still have discrepancies and are not fully comparable. It was reported that only 9 of the 15 Member States had records of all work accidents, because their insurance bodies require notifications in order to pay the bills. Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom notify work-related non-fatal accidents partly, ranging from 30 to 58%. Notification rate for Greece was not available. It should be added that statistical rates, although provide a broad picture, do not help much to prevent actual injuries and diseases in the workplace.
The Health and Safety Executive of the UK undertook a study of injury statistics back in 1991. It reports in the results that "the Dutch Ministry of Labour considers that fatal injuries are under-reported in the Netherlands" where "43 fatalities (were) reported in 1991 but the Ministry estimates that about 150 fatalities occurred". It also reports that Greece had not "supplied Eurostat with statistics in a right form which (could) be compared with other countries".
The experience in Greece
How many work-related accidents and diseases occur in Greece each year? The actual numbers are not known. In fact, no work-related diseases are reported today, or were ever reported, at all.
According to Article 141 of Presidential Decree 14/3/1934, all accidents had to be notified to the Ministry of Labour Inspectors within 24 hours. In addition, for fatal and serious accidents, it was required that all details were accurately recorded for future reference and identification of the causes of the accident. Article 8 of Presidential Decree 17/1996, repeats the employers’ duty of notification of all accidents and adds the obligation to announcing them to the insurance agency covering the worker involved, as well.
The Ministry of Labour (MofL) and the Social Security Institute (IKA) publish the figures we see below. They refer to accidents and fatal accidents for a ten-year period, starting with the year 1989 and ending with 1998, the last year that accident statistics were published. The IKA figures show numbers of subsidised claims. Subsidisation starts from the day of the injury. The MofL figures cover, according to legislation noted above, all accidents.
|Year||All accidents||Fatal accidents|
As it is seen above:
- * The MofL announced no work-related accident statistics for the years 1995 to 1998.
- The figures for "all accidents" provided by the MofL are considerably lower than those provided by IKA, instead of being the other way around. IKA insures about 46% of the workforce.
- The figures for "fatal accidents" provided by the MofL, some years, are lower than those provided by IKA. This complicates the explanation for the lower "all accidents" figures of the MofL (see above), that this is the result of covering only the serious accidents.
- While "all accidents" constantly decline, that is not the case with "fatal accidents".
It is interesting to contrast the above figures with those of the Canadian Province of Ontario, as the two have comparable population. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario reports for year 1999:
- 279,512 allowed claims, including occupational diseases, from which
- 100,726 lost-time claims, and
- 178,786 no lost-time claims.
- 283 allowed fatality claims, from which
- 134 due to occupational disease,
- 85 due to traumatic accidents, and
- 64 while the person on 100% permanent disability pension.
What does this difference mean? Does it mean that Canada is a much more dangerous place to work or does it mean that in Greece accidents are not so well reported? It seems to me that it is the second.
The Hellenic Institute for Occupational Health and Safety
The Hellenic Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (ELINYAE) was created in 1992, to provide scientific and technical support to all parties involved. Its aim is to promote and help improve occupational health and safety in Greece through advice to workers, employers, policy makers and legislators. The ILO identified the need for the existence of such an institute, when invited by the Ministry of Labour in the late seventies to study the state of OH&S in Greece. This need was also recognised by both workers’ and employers’ organisations.
The formation of the Institute was agreed to at the time of the negotiations for the 1991-1992 National General Collective Agreement, by the Greek General Confederation of Labour, the Federation of Greek Industries, the Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises of Greece and the National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce. The founding documents were finalised and registration of ELINYAE as a private, not for profit, organisation took place in July of 1992.
The constitution of ELINYAE represents a significant effort for the promotion of occupational health and safety in Greece, independent of the Ministry of Labour’s official Labour Inspection Department. The main characteristic of this endeavour is the non-governmental nature of the organisation, consisting of an interdisciplinary scientific staff with a global approach to the problem. The trust and support of organised labour and all employers' organisations will be important elements in the successful achievement of ELINYAE’s goals.
The political will of governments world-wide is necessary for bringing about results. Hopefully, ELINYAE will assist such government action for the realisation of healthier and safer workplaces in Greece.
Thanasis Samaras has worked in the field of occupational health and safety and workers’ compensation in Canada, from 1980 to 1996, for the following organisations:
- Injured Workers’ Consultants, an Ontario Legal Aid Clinic, funded by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, and the
- Office of the Worker Adviser of the Ontario Ministry of Labour.
Since 1997, he has been working for the Hellenic Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.