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       Hazards, number 158, 2022
Zero deaths: Europe’s unions set a deadline to end work killing
There are far too many deaths at work – but how low can the toll get? Zero, says Claes-Mikael Stahl, the European Trade Union Confederation’s deputy general secretary. And he says unions across the continent now have a plan to get there by 2030.


The last two years have demonstrated how humankind is innovative and resilient. Never in history has a vaccine for such a deadly virus been found in as short a timespan as the vaccine for Covid-19. 

We have also seen that medical research has made a leap in development and fast-forwarded innovation from what would have been a 10-year period into less than two years. When we put our heads together to solve a problem that faces all of us, when enough of us are seeking the same goal, we succeed. 

In contrast, after many years of talk of ‘Zero Death’ we have still not seen an end to deaths at the workplace. It is for this reason that the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is calling for a genuine and high-level political commitment to Zero Death. Zero death at work is not utopian. The trend in fatal workplace accidents is down and eradication of fatal accidents is achievable. However, while fatal accidents are declining, occupational diseases are increasing.

Cancer from exposure to dangerous substances is the most common cause of occupational death. Long working hours and psychological pressure at work cause heart disease, stroke, depression, and suicide. Bad posture, repetitive movement and heavy lifting cause back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders and in turn cause depression, as well as people being unable to work.

The manifesto

Occupational safety and health have always been a priority for the trade union movement and for the ETUC. It is for this reason that the ETUC launched the Zero Death manifesto on International Workers’ Memorial Day, 28 April, this year. 

The campaign not only brings to the forefront the realities of work-related deaths, but seeks to persuade all stakeholders, across Europe, including non-EU countries like the UK, to commit to Zero Deaths at the workplace, just as much as the trade union movement is committed to it.

Specifically, there needs to be a shift among stakeholders on the way the workplace and work itself is organised, putting the focus on workers’ physical and mental health, rather than solely on profits.  We also need to see that workplace accidents and occupational diseases not only decrease but are prevented.

Today’s reality

Whereas fatal accidents at the workplace are decreasing, still every day, within the European Union countries, 12 workers do not come back home to their loved ones because they have died at work. It is anticipated that within this decade 30,000 people could lose their lives at work. We are also seeing a significant decrease in workplace inspections throughout Europe.  Half a million fewer workplace safety inspections are taking place now compared to the start of the last decade.

Also much more needs to be done to end cancer caused by workplace hazardous substances, which claims the lives of 100,000 people every year. However, radiation, stress and other factors related to work organisation and conditions have also all been linked to work-related cancer. In 2015, work-related cancer accounted for an estimate of 53 per cent of all work-related deaths in developed countries.

The challenges at the workplace are increasing; the past two years have shown how a pandemic such as Covid-19 is easily contracted at work. Climate change – with extreme temperatures and weather events – is also increasing risks for working people. For people working outside, high temperatures are particularly dangerous and make the use of personal protective equipment much more difficult. High temperatures can cause dehydration and other major health problems. Bad weather can also add to psychological stress. 

ETUC analysed workplace death trends across nine EU countries, and calculated when zero deaths will be achieved if the trend over the period 2010 to 2019 continued. Poland would hit the mark by 2027. France and Spain would never get there.

A separate ETUC analysis of the current trend in the UK also puts it in the under-performing ‘never’ group, with an additional 4,318 workplace deaths between 2019 and 2030.

A linear analysis of this type will almost certainly over-estimate both additional deaths in the worst performers, and reductions in deaths in the better performers. But it does provide an indication of which nations are heading in the right direction – and which are not.

Making it happen

There needs to be the will from everyone – employers, legislators and policy makers – to ensure that workers’ health and well-being are protected at the workplace. This starts with legislation being far-reaching, ambitious, and enforced. 

The European Union launched its strategy framework for the period 2021-2027 in June 2021, aiming at eliminating workplace deaths.  However, this framework is not far reaching enough to bring about the ambitious goal it attempts to achieve. Legislation needs to not only cover workplace deaths but also include workplace related accidents and diseases. 

To this end it is necessary that all causes of workplace related cancer are recognised and addressed.  Currently only 27 carcinogens have exposure limits under EU law, whereas there are at least 50 dangerous carcinogens that workers are exposed to that need to be addressed as a priority.

INDUSTRIAL QUANTITIES Barely half of the top 50 workplace cancer risks identified by ETUC have exposure limits. It can mean workers are frequently unaware of their exposures or if their cancer could be linked to their job.

Physical and social risks also need to be clearly defined and outlined. This should include all elements that cause physical and mental illnesses. Furthermore, deaths related to such risks need to include suicide. The onus of preventing such risks cannot be with the worker; they are the employers’ responsibility.

Having a comprehensive package of legislation that protects the workers will be a good start but is not enough. Enforcement is crucial. It is enforcement that will strengthen rules and guidelines. Enforcement identifies and addresses the cause of accidents and deaths. Enforcement raises awareness. It is essential that governments across Europe not only stop cutting the budgets of agencies that carry out workplace inspections but increase their budgets to ensure that ambitious talk becomes a reality.

There needs to be a shift in the way that workplaces are organised. Physical and mental wellbeing should be at the core of choices in business models. Technology has enabled work models such as platform work, the use of Artificial Intelligence, remote working; however, these have not necessarily improved workers’ health, and many times reversed it (Hazards 157). 

Furthermore, it is necessary to take into consideration the impact that climate change is having in the way businesses are being transformed and how work is changing.

Target 2030

The ETUC and the trade union movement is not on its own in this call for Zero Deaths by 2030. The manifesto launched in April 2022 with the support of nine ministers from six European countries, a number of key members of the European Parliament, health and safety institutions and academics, including the editor of Hazards, and trade unions across Europe – 70 people and organisations at the outset. 

By International Workers’ Memorial Day 2023 we aim to have mobilised an overwhelming consensus that the EU and all European countries – including UK – need to take the next step and actually implement the actions that will deliver Zero Death by 2030.

For the EU this means not only delivering now on their existing promises on legislative action, but also a crystal-clear commitment to use the 2024-27 European Commission and Parliament mandate to put in place all additional legislative and other initiatives necessary to achieve Zero Death.


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There are far too many deaths at work – but how low can the toll get? Zero, says Claes-Mikael Stahl,
the European Trade Union Confederation’s deputy general secretary. And he says unions across the continent now have a plan to get there by 2030.

The manifesto
Today’s reality
When will zero be achieved?
Making it happen
Target 2030

Hazards webpages
Hazards news
Deadly business