Commission fiddles while workers suffer!
There are estimated to be 23 million people living in the EU with a work-related health problem. It was therefore encouraging that the European Commission decided to organise a major conference on the burden of occupational diseases.
The conference took place this week in Brussels and was attended by over 200 people. There was a mixture of academics and government/regulators as well as a smattering of employers and union people.
Sadly anyone expecting any action from the Commission would have been bitterly disappointed. The conference came up with no proposals for tackling the crisis that workers face, nor was there even any sense that governments or the Commission had any willingness to do anything. There was a loud and clear message from the employer’s representatives, the Governments, and the Commission itself that there must be no more regulation. It was like a mantra. Never mind that the current framework clearly is not working, especially on MSD’s. Never mind that the research all shows that there was a need for strong regulation and enforcement. It was clear that any proposal to actually do anything was off the table.
OK – so what do they proposed instead? I have no idea, and nor do they. While there is good practice going on out there, such as the agreement between the European employers and unions on hairdressers, or some of the stress work in France, none of that was given a slot at the two-day conference. In fact the biggest disgrace was the absence of any voice of workers or victims. No trade unions made presentations, nor did any Hazards or victims groups. The best we got was the research body the ETUI (who made some excellent points in their two presentations) and a couple of trade union people chairing workshops.
The conference was more or less given over to academics who talked about their own research, almost all of which was already pretty well known by those present. There was nothing new, or surprising. In fact the only presentation I really got anything out of during the two days was one by Professor Agius of Manchester who give an only too short presentation on the need to use predictors of toxicity or harm, giving as an example how it is often possible to predict whether a new substance is likely to cause asthma by looking at its chemical structure. He also made the same point about many substitutes. To paraphrase him – if a substance has the same size, shape and density as asbestos, there is a good chance it is going to act like asbestos.
Now academics have their place, and I am definitely not knocking them. We need more people researching occupational diseases and we need to share their results. But that is only of use if we are going to actually use the research to develop strategies to deal with the problem, and the one thing that we have learned is that, it does not matter what the evidence says, or how much research is done, this Commission, like this Government, intends to continue to allow millions of people to have their health, and lives, ruined because of preventable illnesses caused by their work.