How can Labour Inspection support Labour Prevention?

On the Role of Labour Inspection in Small and Medium Enterprises.


(John Graversgaard, Danish Labour Inspector, oct. 2000)




1.      The welfare state and labour inspection.

2.      Market economy and SME`s.

3.      Labour inspection in SME`s.

4.      Worker participation and enforcement.

5.      Active participation of labour inspectors.

6.      Proposals.


1. The welfare state and labour inspection.


The socalled welfare state model with a high degree of public spending in education and health has reached its zenith....or has it? Good governance in a democratically oriented society means the state must support an economy with possibility for people to earn a living to support their families but also safe and healthy a value in itself and against social exclusion.


I define labour inspection as a central societal value expressing respect for the concerns of working people and their families. In Scandinavia we have seen a development, where the labour- and union movement have fought for a welfare state model with effective state labour inspection intervention in branches and enterprises not respecting the health and safety laws. What is the lesson of this in relation to the problems in SME`s in sectors with the most serious risks to workers?(1). How can labour inspectors fullfill their splendid and important task of workers` protection?


2. Market economy and SME`s.


The creation of an internal market in EU has accelerated the phenomena of social dumping. With stronger incentives for transnational and multinational enterprises to shift investment to the lowest cost areas. With the opening of markets in Eastern Europe and the more or less rapid emergence of a private sector, the ILO has pointed to the problems and uncertainties for the labour inspectorates in a period of transition.

"Employers in SME`s are often in breach of the law, and many of these new employers do not understand their obligations, their motivation essentially being that of maximum profit from minimum investment"(2). Some of the consequences is reflected in labour inspectorates reporting failure to pay full wages and the issue of a great number of notices to stop work due to immediate risk to life or health of workers


3. Labour inspection in the SME`s.


Much points to the fact that the role of the labour inspector in the small businesses is the single most important factor in changing the affairs. SME`s form the major proportion of EU businesses and in growth-and marked-driven economies like EU and the Eastern European countries the safety and health problems are well-known and well-docu-mented. With this in mind it becomes central that labour inspection is effective and focused on the central risk factors, integrating safety and health risk factors(1).


We see contradictory statements from EU in this area. In relation to SME`s the Programme from 1988(88/C 28/02) mentions " a need to keep regulations down to a necessary minimum" and at the same recognizing the special problems in the SME`s.

Such contradictory statements can lead to a reduced role for labour inspection as different ministries( labour versus finance) and political ideologies will compete for hegemony.


Especially the idea of self-regulation is a strong dimension in the employers effort to guard against intervention in the internal affairs of their enterprises. This is also reflected in the sucess in marginalizing the safety and health agenda from the public forum. We can observe employers with a bad record in workers` safety and health playing the role as "entre-preneurial heroes" in the media. And a marginalizing of the labour inspection control of SME`s due to limited political support in the parliaments.


A good example of labour inspection being accorded a primary and visual role is the Polish systems with labour inspection being responsible directly to the parlia-ment(Sejm). But this is a model against the stream of one-sided economic thinking which is popular in these times, subordinating workers` needs to market-driven priorities.


Small and medium employers have strong visions of independence and large freedom

of action. And as buyers of labour-power they play a pivotal role providing economic safety for workers in economies with low social benefits. Workers are often under a strong economical and psychological pressure not to complain about their working conditions for fear of dismissal. Labour inspection have access to these workplaces and must therefore be supplied with the necessary means to fullfill this important mission.


4. Worker participation and enforcement.


The problem of a low level of trade union organization is not specific phenomena in Eastern Europe. A common conclusion is that workers at enterprises with low union strength must not be forgotten: "In the absence of trade union workplace organization, the role of law and its enforcement by the labour inspectorate becomes more central to worker participation"(3). The different degrees of unionization is manifest and a high degree of unionization seems to be supportive of establishing safety and health manage-ment systems. In Denmark and Sweden the labour inspection makes enforcement notices to appoint safety representatives, safety commitees and training of these. This points to the fact that  election of safety representatives in SME`s can be supported by an active approach by the labour inspection.


5. Active participation of labour inspectors.


We must be careful not to overemphasize the role of detailed regulations as labour inspection often is limited in ressources. Of central importance is "local activity" where informed players take their roles in guarding the workers safety and health. Essential is active union presence in the enterprises.


An example of a legalistic mentality is the often over-optimistic hopes that The Framework Directive in the Eastern European Countries in itself will raise the level

of safety and health. Especially the obligation for employers to evaluate all the risks to safety and health of workers shows examples of a limited approach. Instead studies by the European Foundation(4) show that a wider approach, called workplace-assessment, better supports a general preventive policy. When all aspects of work are raised, it is more open towards improvements in the general work situation. Involvement of workers are e prerequisite and supports the general worker participation.


Off course good laws are a precondition to effective labour prevention. And in practice the labour inspectors are foreseen to play an active role and pivotal role: "Bringing to the notice of the competent authorities any defects or abuses not covered by existing legislation"(from ILO Convention no. 81). If development of the health and safety laws shall be dynamic, it must  be openly and democratically discussed. Labour inspectors can play a central roles if they provide concrete documentation on the actual risks to workers and the practical, political and legal problems of  reducing or abolishing these risks. And concrete documentation on the non-compliant employers/branches.


This documentation can often be "unpopular" to some political and economical sectors. One reason can be that labour inspectors` documentation on risks or "black spots" often will parallel the social criticism from union and labour parties.  And here labour inspection often takes a passive role,  taking neutrality for status quo.


Instead I propose an active public role! Unless there is real participation the experiences from concrete inspection work will be filtered away in the government bureaucracies, with the labour ministries taking a "closed mind"-look at the technical-legal-political level when compromises are taken to soften the conflicting views of the main actors

in the labour market. The use of the media in raising public awareness to particular health hazards must not be underestimated. It can both compensate for the reduced resources in manpower and be an investment in a future hope of more goodwill from

the political system "discovering" the important social role of labour inspection.


The independence of labour inspectors is fundamental to the principal ILO-Convention No. 81 on Labour Inspection. They must be protected by "improper external influences" and "independent of changes in government" and "receive training to perform the duties assigned to them". But in reality labour inspectorates are experiencing reductions in public spending which play a central and neglected role as a disciplining measure. Labour inspectors face enormous challenges with a lot of contradictory and stressful

demands. Besides labour inspectorates in the eastern Europe still suffer problems rising from the non-integration of safety and health inspection systems.


To meet these challenges, training of inspectors is of primary importance and must cover subjects like: Prevention in both safety and health, Communication with workers and employers with low knowledge of the health and safety laws, Non-unionized workplaces, Precarious employment patterns, Psycho-social risk factors, Child work and how to use modern media.


6. Proposals.


To raise the level of public insight in real working life problems, labour inspection must take a more active role. Tripartite responsibility as "the third leg" demands an inde-pendent , openminded and offensive labour inspection. This can be catalysed by an active role played by media, researchers and NGO`s in bringing to light the risks to workers` life and health when there is a weak regulation and enforcement regime. Independent monitoring of labour inspectorates(both at european and international level) must focus at the effectiveness of different labour inspectorates.  Restricting the role of labor inspection to a more advisory function, will foremost be harmful to workers in small and medium enterprises. And good safety and health management must be based on good legislation that is concrete and detailed to support effective prevention policies in all establishments. We must build on models not based on a minimum-level principle, but based on "best EU practices" regarding labour preven-tion in SME`s.(1).




1.Safety and Health Management in SME`s. Best EU practices regarding safety and health management in small and medium enterprises(SME`s). How can labour inspection support labour prevention. John Graversgaard, Danish Labour Inspection, Phare-project to the Polish State labour Inspection, 1996.


2.  Labour Inspection Systems in the Transition Countries. Conference in Tihany,     Hungary, 1996, ILO- Labour Administration Branch, Geneva, 1998.


3. Employee representation in health and safety at the workplace. A comparative study in  five European countries(France, Italy, Spain, Greece and UK), D.R. Walters & R.J. Freeman, Commission of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 1992.


4. Assessing working conditions-The european practice, Mossink J.C.M  & De Gier H.G. TNO Prevention and Health in Leiden, European Foundation for the Improvement of living and working conditions, Luxembourg, 1996.