How do different countries measure up in terms of health & safety? This blog overviews how approaches to workplace health & safety vary worldwide.
According to figures from the International Labor Organization (ILO), last updated in September 2022, the UK, Iceland, Bahrain, The Netherlands and Finland are among the safest places to work. These countries have an occupational fatality rate of less than one death per 100,000 workers.
But although some of these countries, most notably the UK, also have fewer workplace accidents, having a low number of occupational fatalities doesn't always correlate to a low incidence of workplace injuries.
For example, the US's 2021 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) recorded a fatal work injury rate of 3.6 per 100,000 workers. Still, ILO statistics show that the USA has a much better health & safety record in terms of non-fatal injuries than countries such as Iceland, France, The Netherlands and Finland.
Some of the figures are conflicting too, which doesn't help when trying to clearly understand which countries have the best (and worst) health & safety records. From the ILO data, Sweden appears to have the second-highest workplace fatality rate (8 deaths per 100,000 workers). Still, EU data published by Eurostat in 2020 ranked Sweden as having the second lowest rate of fatal incidents (after The Netherlands) of all the EU 27 countries.
These contradictions could be due to the different periods when data was collected - fatal accidents at work are, thankfully, relatively rare events. So their incidence rates can vary significantly from one year to the next.
The UK, Japan, Russia and the Post-Soviet states have the lowest workplace injury levels within the ILO dataset. Respectively, the UK, Japan and Russia recorded 335, 266 and 97 incidents per 100,000 workers. Therefore, when establishing countries with the safest workplaces, it may be better to focus on non-fatal accident rates.
Drilling into the EU data, rates ranged from less than 100 non-fatal accidents per 100,000 people employed in Romania and Bulgaria to more than 2,500 per 100,000 persons employed in Denmark and France.
However, inconsistencies in how data is collected and recorded make it difficult to draw accurate comparisons between countries regarding their health & safety performance. In some cases, low incidence rates for non-fatal accidents may indicate under-reporting. In the same way, effective and established reporting systems may explain the high incidence rate in some countries. Then there is the question of how the data is sourced - different countries use different methods for collecting data. Some countries also exclude specific sectors in their data, such as construction.
Nevertheless, it is still possible to draw broad conclusions from the data: the UK is one of the safest places to work, and fatalities across Europe are relatively rare.
The ILO's latest findings show three main global trends in this respect:
According to Eurostat data, men are considerably more likely than women to have an accident at work in the EU. In 2020, more than two out of every three non-fatal accidents at work in the EU involved men. This can be mainly explained by the proportion of men and women in employment and their different types of work.
For example, far more mining, manufacturing or construction accidents tend to be male-dominated.
Within the EU, 63% of all fatal accidents and 44% of non-fatal accidents at work were in the construction, transportation and storage, manufacturing, agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors in 2020. Most of these were in the construction industry, accounting for more than one-fifth of all fatal accidents at work.
However, visible performance improvements have been made across all sectors in the last decade, most notably in the manufacturing industry, where the number of non-fatal accidents at work fell by one-third between 2010 and 2020.
Health & safety tends to be implemented most stringently by the UK, the European Union, the US and Canada. It is both historic and economic - developing countries only began implementing workplace safety regulations in the late 2000s, which aren't always acknowledged by local employers unless there is strict government supervision.
The Middle East is earning a reputation as a strong health & safety advocate: nations such as Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are particularly thorough with health & safety regulations due to activities overseen by the appropriate governments. The Middle East's partnership with large international corporations that enforce high health and safety regulations also contributes to this.
Even within Europe, different countries have different working conditions. While the EU has implemented a baseline to protect workers' rights and safety, systems for enforcement, recording and reporting vary from country to country. UK businesses are more likely to have a health & safety policy and follow this up with formal risk assessment than other European countries.
In terms of global overreach, the ILO, a United Nations Agency, has over 40 health and safety codes to protect workers from illness, accidents, and disease within their workplace. These include the Occupational Safety and Health Convention 1981, Hygiene (Commerce and Offices) Convention 1964, Safety and Health in Mines Convention 1995, and Asbestos Convention 1986, to name a few.
Individual countries have also implemented their own health & safety laws. In the US, for example, the principal statute protecting the health and safety of workers in the workplace is the Occupational and Safety Health Act (OSHA), and each state has the power to develop its own programme, which must be at least equal to, or equivalent to, federal requirements. In all, 25 states have instigated their programmes. While most adopted standards are identical to federal ones, some, like California and Michigan, have developed more demanding requirements. It is equally complicated in Canada, with 14 jurisdictions, each with its own rules and regulations.
The EU has created health & safety laws through a series of European Directives. The Framework Directive, Directive 89/391/EEC, lays down the overarching principles and minimum requirements. Further EU laws set out the detail on specific topics such as noise and the use of chemicals.
The EU directives are implemented through the national legislation of Member States. Member States may adopt stricter rules to protect workers, but their legislation must comply with the minimum standards. As a result, national health & safety legislation varies across Europe. A list of the national implementation measures can be found at the end of each directive's abstract in the EU-OSHA section on European Directives. The UK, for example, has implemented EU health and safety directives by means of regulations made under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Although health and safety approaches vary worldwide, one overall trend unites all developed nations: a continuous reduction in workplace injuries and fatalities. Regardless of economics and politics, all countries are committed to driving down workplace accidents by advancing their approaches to health & safety.
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