Born in Örebro (Sweden) in 1975, with a degree in Political Science, Per Hilmersson is the new Head of Occupational Health at the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). He was elected ETUC Deputy General Secretary at the Vienna Congress last May. He has held positions of responsibility during the last 19 years in Swedish and European trade union organisations, in the European Parliament and in the European Commission. He is determined to promote significant progress in occupational health: occupational cancer, endocrine disruptors, psychosocial risks and work-related musculoskeletal disorders are among his priorities.
Occupational health and safety is one out of a large list of responsibilities that you have at ETUC, however, we have heard that you are really interested in this topic. Is it true?
Yes, I am very interested in occupational safety and health and the important role the EU is playing in making our members’ workplaces safer. It’s one of the areas where workers can see real results of EU cooperation. I am not an expert myself, but I have been involved with EU OSH legislation and policies while working in the EU institutions and in the trade union movement.
In recent Commission mandates, little progress has been made but something has been done in relation to occupational cancer. How does the ETUC plan to take further action?
I would say that the current European Commission has done more in the social policy field than previous Commissions under the leadership of José Manuel Barroso. The European Pillar of Social Rights and several legislative initiatives have put the EU back on the path towards a more social cooperation.
Concerning work-related cancer, the European Commission has established 25 binding limitations which is a significant difference with the lack of willingness sown by the Barroso Commission, yet it is still far from the 50 Occupational Exposure Limit Values (OELs) requested by the ETUC. Also, it is key that the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (CMD) is extended to reprotoxic substances and an EU-level methodology for adopting OELs for carcinogens without thresholds should be put in place.
Considering the growing need to renovate and improve the European building stock to increase energy performance, it is evident that asbestos will be handled in greater quantities. There is a significant complementarity between the European Commission’s policy and the safe removal of remaining asbestos and other hazardous substances. In this regard, the limit value for workplace exposure, as set in EU Directive 2009/148, is insufficient in terms of adequate health protection. The great variety in use of asbestos and consequential complexity in its safe removal justifies a EU conference on asbestos to take stock of experiences and needs in terms of technological progress, etc.
What are the ETUC's priorities beyond cancer?
Besides zero work-related cancer, I would like to mention a couple of other priorities for the ETUC in the OSH field. First, Psychosociological risks (PSR): Europe needs a dedicated EU Directive in the area of psychosociological risks in the workplace. The Directive should also tackle the risks which emerge from the new forms of employment, with special attention to telework and the work performed through digital platforms. Second, musculoskeletal disorders (MSD): The legislative framework established by the EU to prevent this type of work risk is not good enough. The European trade union movement has for many years been calling for a comprehensive directive on MSDs that takes the impact of work organization and psychosocial factors into account. We also continue to emphasise the links between MSD and PSR – everybody knows how pains can start to develop in shoulders, for example, during periods of psychological stress.
Lastly, workers in Europe should never have to work in temperatures that place their health at risk. In an era of climate change in which difficult weather conditions are likely to be more frequent and more extreme, it is essential to put in place appropriate legislative instruments to protect workers with clear roles and responsibilities for policy-makers, employers and trade unions representatives. Weather conditions do not respect national borders and so European action is required. The European Commission should introduce a legislative instrument that recognises this increased risk to workers and provides a framework for protecting workers.
In the area of chemical risk, what is your assessment of the functioning of the REACH regulation?
There is no doubt that the REACH system is needed to help prevent chemical risks for workers, consumers and the environment. There is a lack of safety information about the vast majority of chemicals that are on the EU market. Thanks to REACH, 21 000 substances produced in or imported into Europe in quantities of more than one tonne per year have been registered over the last 10 years with information on their (eco)-toxicological properties and their uses, which goes in the right direction. What has been less successful is the quality of the collected data and the updating of the registration dossiers. This is of importance for chemicals produced in volumes of more than 1 000 tonnes per year and carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic substances (CMR substances). It has become clear that once the dossiers are registered with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), very few companies update them, despite this being important to ensure safe use of the substances.
The ECHA has to encourage companies to update their dossiers and will need to be more strict when it comes to low-quality dossiers. It should use the stick more often than the carrot to encourage manufacturers to respect the ‘no data, no market’ principle. ECHA should also improve the incentives for companies to use alternatives to substances of very high concern with more substances covered by the authorisation system.
There is a criticism from companies that due to REACH, safety data sheets have become too complex for users. The ETUC will call on employers to ensure that their workers know how to understand and use the safety data sheets. It is this training that needs to be improved not the simplification of the safety data sheets.
On endocrine disruptors, what does the ETUC propose?
These substances need to be phased out from the market and replaced with safer alternatives. Scientific data indicates that the risks caused by endocrine disruptors can be particularly high in certain phases of life, especially for pregnant and young workers.
Workers often don't know that they are exposed to these hazardous substances (eg: cashiers in shops are exposed to Bisphenol A used in paper receipt). Most effects differ over time, sometimes even affecting the next generation. There is a crucial need to document and analyse better workplace exposure. This implies that health surveillance must be organised in a way comparable to that foreseen for carcinogens and covering the whole lifespan of those exposed. On the other hand, it is important to establish a better connection between work-related health data (on exposure) and public health data (covering for instance fertility problems, congenital deformities and other transgenerational afflictions).
As an urgent first step, EU legislation on workplace prevention against carcinogens must be extended to reprotoxic substances. This would cover a number of endocrine disruptors. Also the adopted criteria for identifying endocrine disruptors are weak and need to be improved. The European Union has the means to supervise the production and use of chemical products through a range of legislative acts: the OSH directives, the REACH regulation, the regulations on pesticides, biocides, cosmetics, on classification, labelling and packaging of chemicals, etc. What needs to be improved is the synergies between these legislations.
For carcinogens, the absence of a threshold below which exposure can be considered safe should prompt policymakers to promote substitution as a priority element of prevention. Substitution is also the only way of avoiding discriminatory consequences in terms of employment. The adoption of more Occupational Exposure Limit Values (OELs) for carcinogens under the Carcinogens & Mutagens Directive is also a key objective for ETUC. Under the Juncker Commission, 25 carcinogens have been covered with OELs. This is a significant step forward but it’s not enough, and the next Commission should continue its effort to cover at least another 25 priority carcinogens.
What about the controversial glyphosate?
The current EU approval of glyphosate expires on 15 December 2022, so the process for renewal must begin in December 2019, i.e. three years before the expiry date. This new re-approval process will be very closely scrutinised by the ETUC and we will urge the European Commission to ban glyphosate in the EU and to provide comprehensive support for a safer, healthier food and agriculture system which safeguards frontline agricultural workers from the consequences of injecting massive quantities of toxic chemicals into the environment. Some EU countries have adopted partial bans of glyphosate. Austria even approved in July this year a complete ban on the use of glyphosate in the country. This makes Austria the first EU Member State to adopt such legislation with a view to protecting public health and preventing cancer.
How do you value the strategy of prioritizing alliances with the environmental movement? Would be a priority for ETUC?
Any revitalisation of EU occupational health policies is largely dependent on mobilisations in companies and the ability of the union movement to create alliances with organisations defending the environment and public health. In matters of sustainable development, climate change, and energy policy, the ETUC is member of the multi-stakeholder platform on SDGs, which called on the European Commission to mainstream sustainable development into the funding priorities and decision making mechanisms around the future EU budget. The ETUC will continue to create alliances with other actors to support the ‘sustainability first’ principle in the EU.
We are on trial for suicides at France Telecom. For the first time, those responsible for organising work are sitting in the dock. Will this mark a before and after in European public opinion?
This sad case is an example that psychosocial risks are systematically replaced by the concept of "mental health", which focuses on mental health problems that pre-exist integration into work (or which are unrelated to the work) and those resulting from exposure to psychosocial risk factors at work. We also reject resilience narratives which emphasise the ability of workers to weather these occupational hazards. Employers must change workplaces—not workers—in order to make them safe. The decision of the French court is therefore to be welcomed as it set the focus of the suicide on the exposure to psychosocial risks. I am aware of a similar case in Spain, in which the High Court of Justice of Andalucía (TSJA) ruled that the suicide of an employee of the Cajamar Savings Bank was in fact provoked by the stress of an altercation the employee had had with a bank customer, and as such decided the suicide was a ‘ work-related accident’.
Europe needs a dedicated Directive in the area of psychosocial risks (PSR) in the workplace. The experience of the patchy implementation of the 2004 EU social dialogue autonomous framework agreement on work-related stress has demonstrated the need for legally binding requirements in the wider field of PSR. Importantly, we need to expand the scope and definition, so that organisational aspects of work are included (e.g. measuring the work and time pressure, control/influence, monitoring and surveillance, performance management and change etc) as well as the social aspects (e.g. management quality, support from management and peers, harassment and violence, bullying) along with physical factors such as noise, heat and vibration. The issue of workers’ right to disconnect, so that rest and holiday time is not interrupted, should also be raised. In addition, the impact of work organisation and the increase of precarious work needs to be taken into account, especially in the light of the rise of new forms of employment propelled by the digitalisation of the economy and the emergence of labour platforms.
One of the serious problems in the field of occupational health is how to promote prevention in small businesses without trade union representation. Surely you know the Swedish experience with regional safety representatives. What is the ETUC's position?
A growing number of workers in Europe do not have health and safety representatives because of the size of their company. According to EU-OSHA, only 69% of microenterprises perform regular OSH risk assessment in the EU. Initiatives such as the regional or sectoral OHS representative who can act in organisations in which trade unions are not represented are praiseworthy and its implementation should be explored in other countries. Countries like Sweden and Italy have a longstanding tradition of these practices. In any case, the ETUC emphasises that the best option to perform and effective prevention of risks at work are elected trade union health and safety representatives. The ETUC is against derogations for SMEs from occupational safety and health regulations on the ground of ‘administrative burden’. The size of a company should not decide the health and safety of workers.