Spain’s relatively poor record on workplace accidents and health was given a boost by a law short-circuiting long construction supply chains, but a struggling economy has left workers feeling vulnerable
Back in the mid-noughties, Spain was responsible for 20% of all workplace accidents in the EU: in 2005, an average of five people a day died in workplace incidents. Spain’s responses included new legislation introduced in 2006, Law 32/2006 Regulating subcontracting in the construction industry, to address the worst offending sector. By limiting the number of subcontractors in a supply chain to three, plus the lead contractor, the intention was to reduce the ability to transfer responsibility for managing risks down the chain of command to SMEs.
The law arrived in parallel with a new Construction Safety Act (Royal Decree 1627) and other preventative measures focused on construction, and had a positive impact on the sector, says Arsenio Valbuena Ruiz, managing director of health and safety training provider Elinor, which forms part of RRC International. “The subcontracting law helped control the very long chain of subcontracting in construction and required all companies to appear in a public registry, which improved the application of safety and health measures,” he said.
However, construction still has the most reported accidents and fatalities of any industry, he adds: “That’s due to little or no professional or health and safety training for operatives – training is only theoretical and there are no exams. Simply attending [a course] is enough to get a certificate to work.”
“Although major industries, public companies and state employees enjoy above average health and safety conditions, most other companies are suffering.”
Occupational health and safety effectively arrived in Spain in 1995 with the Prevention of Labour Risks Act, which required all organisations to implement the principles of risk prevention. “It represented a fantastic change in awareness and knowledge. Health and safety practitioners were incorporated into the labour market and became real agents of change,” says Ruiz.
Implementation is overseen by the Ministry of Employment and Social Security and the Spanish National Institute for Safety and Hygiene at Work. Spain’s 19 autonomous regions each have certain competencies in occupational health and safety matters, with local regulations implemented by regional labour authorities and regional centres or institutes.
At company level, every employer must develop a health and safety policy identifying workplace risks. Those with more than five and fewer than 30 employees must have a health and safety staff representative, chosen from the existing workforce; those with between 31 and 49 employees must appoint a specialist health and safety representative, known as a delegado de prevención.
Government inspectors visit company premises every three months to monitor and enforce compliance. Instant fines of up to €6000 can be issued for breaches.
Economic slump continues
Spain is still recovering from the post-2008 economic crisis, which has led to high unemployment and deteriorating working conditions. According to the 2015 European Working Conditions Survey, 36% of Spanish workers believed their health and safety was at risk because of their job, compared to 18% in the UK and an EU-28 rate of around 23%.
“Although major industries, public companies and state employees enjoy above average health and safety conditions, most other companies are suffering,” says Ruiz. “The big industry players and regulators are not facing the problem with realism or efficiency. It does not feature in public political debate, just in technical studies.”
Health and safety professionals lack the respect afforded to them in other countries, he argues: “It is not a valued or well paid profession and lacks proper input into training, which is designed by employers and the labour unions.”
Other areas for concern include a correlation between rising workplace accidents and increasing employment, and the marginalisation of occupational diseases in Spain, with official figures much lower than actual figures due to a lack of recognition and legislation.
However, Ruiz says some industries in Spain are leading the way in terms of developing corporate wellness programmes, tackling stress at work, and the risks associated with new materials such as nanotechnology and the accelerating use of IT.
+ SAFETY IN NUMBERS
Population: 46.56 million
Working age population: 30.9 million, according to OECD figures
Unemployment rate: 17.2%
Regulator: Inspectors are employed by a directorate of the Ministry of Employment and Social Security. Meanwhile, the Instituto Nacional de Seguridad e Higiene en el Trabajo (Spanish National Institute for Safety and Hygiene at Work) advises on legislation, undertakes research, and provides technical advice to companies and regional authorities, on safety, hygiene, ergonomics, psychosocial issues and occupational medicine.
Fatalities in 2014: Spain saw a rate of 1.47 per 100,000 employees, compared to 0.55 in the UK, 0.81 in Germany and 1.15 in Italy.
Initiatives: The Spanish Strategy on Safety and Health at Work 2015-2020 promotes better enforcement of health and safety legislation, and encourages the continuous improvement of working conditions with a focus on the prevention of work-related diseases.