I wish to thank the Swedish Presidency for this opportunity to discuss occupational health and safety. It is indeed my pleasure to participate in this roundtable discussion, which provides an opportunity for us decision-makers to meet and exchange our views and ideals, while exploring ways that may lead towards a common vision and a shared political framework to address the dual transitions and the challenges they produce in the remit of occupational health and safety.

The existence of a safe and healthy working conditions is a precondition for a healthy and productive workforce.

Here we are talking about people’s lives and workers’ health. The existence of a safe and healthy working conditions is a precondition for a healthy and productive workforce. During the last three decades, we have made significant progress in the field of OSH: Fatal accidents at work in the EU fell by around 7% between 1994 and 2018. Nonetheless, more than 3,300 fatal accidents have occurred in the EU in 2020, and more than 200,000 workers die each year from occupational diseases. Maintaining and improving workers’ protection standards remains a challenge and constant necessity.

We are now at the beginning of two powerful transition processes, the innovation-driven digital transformation, and the policy-driven climate transition. At the same time, we are now facing a pandemic-driven restructuring of important sectors of our economies. During Covid-19, OSH policy and legislation had a crucial role in helping workers, businesses, and governments to protect lives and manage well-being risks, business continuity, and sustainability. It is thus essential to draw the lessons of the pandemic and increase preparedness for future health crises by improving not only the physical health, but also the mental health of our workers.

With the green and digital transition, the nature of the workplace and the pattern of work is changing. Within this context, our governments need to find innovative and creative solutions to anticipate and manage such changes.

Primarily, many of the challenges being anticipated because of green and digital transitions can be easily addressed by the correct application of existing European occupational health and safety Directives, and the direction given in the strategic Framework.  To name a few examples, Member States can ensure the integration of actions in the national health and safety inspectorates’ work plans, placing these challenges on the agenda of the meetings between Government and Social Partners; or for instance, by launching national inspection and awareness raising campaigns that address such challenges.

At an implementation level it is essential that  the respective stakeholders  work together to effectively integrate occupational safety and health measures into green and digital initiatives, the collaboration of all the parties involved is imperative, not only on these issues, but on all safety and health matters at work. It is essential that we recognise that we are here also dealing with important social impacts that have considerable effects on our citizens. It is therefore essential to adopt a bottom-up approach in order to ensure that all voices are heard.

At a local level, the Ministry responsible for Public Works and Planning, together with the national Occupational Health and Safety Authority, have been stressing  this point for several years. We need to move away from a situation where Government dictates what needs to be done, and instead embrace a philosophy that we are all in this together. A healthy and safe workforce is the fundamental basis of a strong and resilient economy and society. At Social Partners’ level, there should be meaningful initiatives to support the efforts being taken by Government. Employers should strive towards self-regulation where they act on the risks they are creating and, at the same time, committing themselves to do more than the law requires.

When it comes to addressing mental health aspects at work in the context of the dual transitions, the key is finding ways to develop the skills, competence and resources at an enterprise level to address such challenges; for example, by ensuring that the employers’ protective and preventive services and measures are aligned towards this challenge.

Effective help in the early stages can help prevent long-term problems both for individuals and for the organisation.

It is also important that situations involving issues of mental health are addressed as early as possible, and that the employer takes the appropriate, early action when faced with warning signs in support of the wellbeing of its employees. Effective help in the early stages can help prevent long-term problems both for individuals and for the organisation. Likewise, it is crucial to highlight the importance of teaching healthy coping skills, which can also be described as dynamic responses to psychological stress. These should in fact be considered as important life skills; the relevance of which transcends the working environment.

It also seems to be a common experience to find that psychosocial hazards are generally neglected by duty-holders and at times not even considered. This may partly be due to the fact that most national workplace health and safety campaigns tend to focus on key “physical” hazards, while the subject of psychological health is addressed through ad-hoc campaigns. This is why psychosocial risks need to be mainstreamed into all information and inspection campaigns so that mental health stops being considered as an afterthought.

Organisations shall also ensure that they have policies or programmes to prevent, anticipate and address these problems at the workplace from a very early stage. Existing tools such as the online and interactive risk assessments and guidance on these subjects will thus be of utmost importance. By way of example, guidance to employers and workers may cover those situations which are associated with these challenges, such as work arrangements, workloads, working hours or remote working. These challenges will also affect the national inspectorates, and hence, assistance in this regard will also be needed. It is also important to highlight the actions that may be needed by the Social Partners to help their members, both at EU and local levels.   

Meanwhile, Governments must take a common approach across the EU. While, in the long term, some form of legislation and enforcement will be warranted, in the short term, there is more scope for education and promotion.

In addressing the occupational safety and health improvement, while minimising the psychosocial risks at work in the context of these dual transitions through collaboration and knowledge-sharing among stakeholders, it must be noted that for small Member States like Malta, one cannot overstate the wealth of information that is already available at EU level, such as that being prepared and disseminated by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Social partners are advised to make use of this already available information for the benefit of their members.

Unfortunately, and despite the magnitude of the problem and its impact on workers, the economy and society in general, psychosocial health remains the Cinderella of occupational health and safety. Even in the years to come, everybody’s focus and attention will be on reducing asbestos risks, lowering the exposure limit values for carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxic substances, musculo-skeletal disorders, problems associated with display screen equipment and so on. These are also important issues, but they cannot remain at the forefront of action at the expense of psychosocial health.

Greater awareness raising and promotion are the least to expect, as would be the promulgation of guidance and the development of employee support programmes. I am proud to say that an initiative taken by the Maltese Government to establish a mental health support unit and make it accessible to all Government employees has been a huge success. This Employee Support Programme was also commended by the European Agency for Safety and Health as an example of good practice. But we need to do more, although a cautionary approach to developing new legislative instruments in this field may be indicated, practical solutions based on exchanges of best practice may be the best way forward.

Thank you very much for your attention.