Ensuring that employees are consulted and informed about health and safety at their workplace is an important part of keeping them safe. There are structures providing employee representation in the area of health and safety in all the countries covered. However, there are differences in how this representation is organised. The structure found most frequently is a combination of employee health and safety representatives with their own powers and a joint employee/employer committee. However, other states only have joint committees, some only have employee representatives, while in others the existing works council plays the key role. There are also variations in how health and safety representatives are chosen, the thresholds at which the bodies must be set up and the powers they have.

Obligation to inform and consult

The Health and Safety at Work Framework Council Directive 89/391 adopted in 1989 requires all EU member states to ensure that employees are informed and consulted about health and safety matters at the workplace, allowing them to make their own proposals for improvements and changes. This consultation can be with employee representatives rather than with employees themselves, and the directive makes that clear these representatives must have appropriate rights and safeguards. Outside the EU, the directive applies to Norway as it is part of the European Economic Area (EEA). In the UK, the domestic legislation implementing the directive remains in force. And, while Switzerland has never been covered directly by EU legislation, its domestic legislation includes information and consultation rights on health and safety.

Differences between countries

With this EU legislative framework there are many aspects of employee representation in the area of health and safety that are common across the states examined. However, there are also points of difference, reflecting national developments in health and safety – many countries had their own lengthy history of legislation in this area before the 1989 directive – and overall national structures of employee representation.

Structures for health and safety representation is organised can be divided into four broad categories, although the divisions between the categories are not always precise.

Representatives and committee

The most frequently used model is a combination of employee health and safety representatives, elected or chosen in some other way, who have their own specific rights, plus a joint employee/employer health and safety committee. Around half (14) of the countries use this model although with important differences. They are Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

Committee only

A second model is where employee health and safety representation is provided through the employee members of a joint employee/employer health and safety committee, and there are no separate health and safety representatives with their own rights. The four countries in this group are Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark and Lithuania, plus the public sector in France.

Representatives only

A third variant is where the structure provides only for employee health and safety representatives not a joint employer/employee committee. Five countries use this model: the Czech Republic, at least in some cases, Greece, Italy, Latvia and Malta.

Using existing structure

The final model is where health and safety issues are primarily dealt with through the existing representational structure for other issues (often through a works council). The seven countries in this group are Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Switzerland, although there are important variations between them in terms of the way they relate to the main employee representative body and the role of the employer (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Health and safety representation in the 27 EU Member States, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom

Who chooses?

The way employee representatives for health and safety are chosen also varies considerably. In 16 states (Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Norway, Portugal, and Romania) employee representatives for health and safety are chosen directly by the workforce. In six states (Czech Republic, Italy – in larger companies only, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden and the UK) they are chosen, or can be chosen, by the union, although the details vary and often have election as a fallback. In the remining eight states (Austria, France – private sector only, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland) employee representatives dealing with health and safety are chosen indirectly by the members of existing representational structures. However, in both Austria and Germany, while the employee representatives on the joint committee are chosen by the works council, the individual health and safety representatives/delegates are appointed by the employer.

Further details on the selection of employee representatives dealing with health and safety are included in the national reports. They also include information on the thresholds above which health and safety structures must be established, the companies they can cover, their ability to halt work if they consider employees’ safety is threatened and their rights to training and protection against dismissal.

Across Europe