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Comparing EU Health & Safety Laws Across European Countries

By Luke Rees
Published: March 3, 2016 | Last updated: August 27, 2020 07:51:34
Key Takeaways

Whilst EHS laws and directives are binding for the whole of the EU, national legislation and how it is enforced actually varies quite a bit between European countries.

Source: Arinite

The European Union has a solid framework covering health and safety regulations at work, adopted on the basis of Article 153 of the Lisbon Treaty. This framework covers all aspects of workplace health and safety: including working environment and conditions; social security and protection of workers; and consultation of employees.

European Directives also set out minimum requirements related to risk assessment, as well as the responsibilities of employers and employees. This covers how specific workplace tasks are to be carried out, and specific hazards at work (e.g. exposure to dangerous substances), as well as certain work-related aspects, such as the organization of working time.

But while these laws and directives are binding for the whole of the EU, national legislation and how it is enforced actually varies quite a bit between European countries. As this new interactive infographic from health and safety consultants Arinite shows, legislation and conviction rates are very different across Europe – particularly with regards to the working time directive, employee consultation, fire and explosions, and working from heights.


The Work Time Directive

The working time directive outlines the maximum number of hours employees are allowed to work without taking a break. In France, Germany and Spain, employees are entitled to a minimum number of daily and weekly rest periods, with hours limited to 48 per week. Whilst in the UK, they have the option to opt-out of this clause – meaning they can go on working for as long as they like.

Employee Consultation

In France and Spain, companies with more than 50 employees are entitled to a consultation on working conditions. In the UK, employers must consult all employees not represented by safety reps under 1977 Safety Representatives & Committees Regulations.

In general, proportional presence of OSH worker consultants in combination with high management commitment by country is highest in the Nordic countries, and lowest in the smaller southern European countries, such as Greece and Portugal.

Fire and Explosions

In the UK, employers are required to assess fire risks and provide general fire precautions themselves. Whilst in France, there are specific regulations stipulating the obligations of the employer with regard to workplace design and the methods for preventing fires.

In Germany and Spain, employers are required to consult a professional depending on the size of the operation.

Work from Height

In the UK, employers are responsible for ensuring work at height is properly planned for, with collective protection measures (e.g. handrails) given priority over personal protection measures (e.g. harnesses). In France, Spain and Germany, working at height is treated as an extension of Work Equipment. Mandatory training is required for all non-specialists across Europe.

Enforcement Across European Countries

French organizations seem to have one of the toughest times keeping up with health and safety standards. Its national health and safety focal point – the Labor Inspectorate – sends 6,000-8,000 cases to the prosecutor each year, 30% of which are to do with illegal working. About 76% of H&S cases lead to fines in France, 12% to fines and imprisonment, and 2% to imprisonment.

However, this high volume is likely because they have many more safety authorities responsible for their population: France has the Ministry of Labour; social security bodies financed by employers’ contributions; the French Agency for the Safety of Health in the Environment and in the Workplace, which helps to improve knowledge of occupational risk prevention; and finally the National Agency for the Improvement of Working Conditions, which offers impartial advice to companies.

In contrast, Britain has the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and a few local authorities with enforcement responsibilities. As a consequence, the British HSE prosecuted just 1,058 offences in 2014/15 resulting in 905 convictions: a conviction rate of 86%. Fines totalled £16.5 million with an average penalty of £18,198 per offence.


The German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) has a maximum sentence for an offence an unlimited fine or one-year imprisonment. The fines imposed can be €250,000 if the offence committed is one of ‘negligence’, and as high as €500,000 if it had ‘intention’.

Finally, in Italy, offences carry penalties of around a €30,000 fine or 6 months’ imprisonment, with inspectors issuing a ‘prescrizione’ (an injunction) to the employer, which sets out specific measures aimed at redressing worker health and safety hazards and a deadline for compliance. The average fine per injunction in 2004 was €729, totalling €6,066,666.

France may appear to be one of the strictest enforcers of health and safety law in Europe – sending a very high number of cases to the prosecutor each year. However, as has been shown, the way health and safety is regulated, and the manner in which cases are handled, cannot truly be compared like for like across the EU.


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Written by Luke Rees

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Luke is a blogger from the UK who writes about health and safety issues on behalf of H&S consultants, Arinite.

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