April 28th marks the World Day for Safety and Health at Work. We have taken this opportunity to look at the recently approved Spanish Occupational Health and Safety Strategy, which focuses on matters such as occupational diseases, new ways of organizing work, SMEs and the most vulnerable workers.
The Spanish Occupational Health and Safety Strategy for the period 2023-2027, approved on March 14, 2023, takes into account the EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027 and is based on two fundamental pillars: prevention and collaboration, with an integral approach that affords the same level of protection for physical and mental health.
With the aim of achieving a safe working environment, the strategy defines, in the form of six objectives, the priorities to be addressed to meet this goal and of which we will need to take heed, since they will surely entail reforms in the coming years. We analyze the six objectives below.
Since a high percentage of occupational accidents are avoidable, the first objective seeks to “improve prevention of occupational accidents and diseases.”
It will focus on occupations that account for the highest percentage of occupational accidents (as indicated, the construction sector, followed by agriculture and industry have the highest accident rate), by stepping up campaigns for technical assistance and monitoring and control of regulatory compliance. Equally, it sets out the need for education through campaigns to raise awareness, placing particular importance on improved prevention of psychosocial risks and occupational road safety.
The first objective also contemplates the development of a National Agenda for Occupational Cancer Prevention to ascertain the current situation of the disease in Spain and to improve prevention measures and early detection. It provides for a series of steps aimed at preventing exposure to silica dust – particularly on construction sites and in sectors related to the manufacture and installation of quartz conglomerates –, radon gas, reprotoxic substances, and hazardous medicinal products. In the light of the revision of the EU Directive on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work, Royal Decree 396/2006 establishing minimum health and safety provisions applicable to jobs at risk of exposure to asbestos will also be revised, and the implementation of the integral health monitoring program for workers who have been exposed to asbestos will be promoted in all autonomous communities.
From a preventive standpoint, and in light of the impact of the green, digital and demographic transition on the future of work in Spain, the second objective establishes the need to “manage the changes deriving from new ways of organizing work, demographic trends and climate change.”
A review will be conducted of occupational risk prevention legislation to mainstream age and generational diversity into prevention management and reinforce worker protection from psychosocial risks. For the first time, the strategy will also pay particular attention to mental health, with specific plans for the identification, assessment and prevention of psychosocial risks in activities with a higher prevalence of mental illness.
Recognition will be given to companies that demonstrate best practices in handling mental health issues and preventing mental illness, and action will be taken to ascertain the potential causes of workplace-related depression and anxiety.
Action plans to improve and monitor working conditions in activities most affected by environmental changes due to exposure to extreme temperatures will also be promoted.
The largest and most complex challenges faced by SMEs when tackling prevention management are addressed in objective three: “improve management of health and safety at SMEs, promoting integration of, and training on, occupational risk prevention.”
With this in mind, it proposes a legislative review to facilitate the application of laws and favor the mainstreaming of prevention aspects, fostering compatibility formulas involving an external prevention service and seeking to improve the quality of prevention documentation. It will also promote the education and training of designated occupational risk prevention personnel at companies, as well as the assessment and adaptation of the Prevención10.es tool to facilitate prevention activities using inhouse resources.
In order to “reinforce protections for the most vulnerable workers”, action will be taken to improve the level of protection of specific high-risk groups, such as workers in the healthcare sector, home help services, domestic service and migrant workers.
There is also a specific section dedicated to fostering research and the design of protocols to facilitate the return to work after a prolonged period of temporary incapacity.
In the case of self-employed workers, the legislation will be analyzed to improve the unequal framework for the coordination of business activities between employees and self-employed workers, taking into account the different types of self-employed workers, in order to achieve a comparable level of health protection between both systems.
The fifth objective, “introduce the gender perspective into occupational health and safety”, is addressed through lines of action such as the review and update of the regulatory framework and the promotion of awareness-raising initiatives in prevention policies. It notably seeks to step up measures aimed at monitoring the obligation on employers to have protocols in place to prevent and deal with sexual and sex-based harassment, and to promote better training for occupational risk prevention professionals, developing guidelines and toolkits to aid gender mainstreaming in risk management.
Lastly, with a view to shoring up institutions and establishing a mechanism for coordination between them, the last objective is to “reinforce the national health and safety system in order to successfully withstand future crisis situations.”
A coordination committee will be set up, with representatives from all ministerial departments, tasked with preparing an internal coordination protocol to address future adverse situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Equally, institutions dedicated to occupational risk prevention, such as the Labor Inspection Authorities and the National Occupational Health and Safety Institute, will be reinforced and strengthened.
Another highlight is the redoubling of collective bargaining in the area of occupational risk prevention, and the recommendation that matters such as digital disconnection, addiction prevention and intervention plans, and gender mainstreaming be included in collective agreements.
The strategy envisions major occupational health and safety challenges in line with EU policy, which promotes zero tolerance of health hazards as a factor for business competitiveness, sustainability and social welfare.
Meeting these objectives and achieving a safe and healthy working environment will require commitment and effort by all social partners, employers and workers.