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Perceptions of Workplace Health and Safety Across European Countries, and the Reality…

Category: Health & Safety | Bryan Richards Twitter | Published on: May 12, 2017 | Updated: May 18, 2017 Read more: Health & Safety

Good health and safety in the workplace is a priority for Europeans, who typically value long and healthy lives protected against illness and accidents. But perceptions don’t always mimic reality. Whilst the need to improve working conditions is a collective concern, the reality of how safe a working environment is perceived can be skewed by various relative factors, it would seem.

Here we take a look at the total number of health and safety incidents recorded across various European countries in 2014, versus the perceptions of workplace safety the following year in the Eurofound Sixth European Working Conditions Survey 2015. What is revealed is that the countries with the more dangerous working conditions aren’t necessarily the people that perceive it that way.

Workplace Health and Safety Incidence Rates in 2014

In 2014, according to Europa statistics, there were close to 3.2 million non-fatal accidents and 3,739 fatal accidents at work across the 28 EU states. That’s a ratio of around 850 non-fatal accidents for every fatal one.

An accident at work is defined as ‘a discrete occurrence in the course of work which leads to physical or mental harm’. A fatal accident at work is defined as ‘an accident which leads to the death of a victim within one year of the accident’.

The highest incidence rate was recorded in France, which had an average of 3,326.98 per 100,000 persons sustain an injury that left them unable to return to work for four days or longer (see table below). France was followed by Portugal (2,892.6 per 100,000 employees), then Spain (2,788.51), and Denmark (1,995.4).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the countries with the lowest recorded health and safety incidence rates were Romania (68.69), Bulgaria (85.34) and Greece (96.43).

Surprisingly, Romania, which had the lowest non-fatal accident rate in the EU, had the highest fatal injury rate at 5.5 per 100,000 persons in employment. Romania was followed by the Baltic nations of Lithuania (4.74) and Latvia (4.5) – also amongst the lowest for non-fatal accidents (it should be noted, though, that fatal accidents are relatively rare events and can vary greatly from one year to the next).

Greece came out one of the safest places for workers both in terms of fatal and non-fatal accidents.

workplace incidence rates

International Perceptions of Safety in the Workplace in 2015

Now let’s compare what the figures show in 2014 to what people actually think about the working conditions in their own countries.

The Eurofound European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) in 2015 took responses from 44,000 randomly selected workers across occupations, sectors and demographics (that’s 1,000 to 3,300 people per country). The survey questions asked were about how exposed workers feel they are to physical and psychosocial risks; how well work is organised; their work-life balance; and the general quality of health and wellbeing.

The survey revealed some surprising discrepancies when compared with actual incidence rates. For example, whilst Romania has the best incidence rate in the EU, it has the lowest percentage of respondents say they are “Very Satisfied” with their working conditions (11%). On the other hand, whilst Denmark has one of the most satisfied work forces, the Danes had the fourth highest accident rate in the EU.

Meanwhile, Greece has one of the lowest fatal and non-fatal accident rates across the EU, but has amongst the highest percentage of people say they were dissatisfied with their working conditions (4%). A low accident rate and high worker dissatisfaction could be a result of economic factors in Greece though – total accidents recorded in a year will be related to some extent to the overall level of economic activity and the total number of persons employed.

France also saw high dissatisfaction, but this appears to be in-line with the country’s high incidence rate. Overall the European Union had an average incidence rate of 1,536.25 per 100,000 workers, with 26% saying they were “Very Satisfied”, 60% “Satisfied” and 3% “Very Dissatisfied”.

european working conditions

Analysis by Gender

Men are shown to be considerably more at risk of suffering an injury at work than women. In 2014, more than two thirds (68.7 %) of non-fatal accidents at work across the EU member states involved men.

This could be attributed to the fact that there were more men than women in the labour force — although after adjusting for this, the incidence rates recorded in 2014 for men remained consistently much higher than those for women. In Austria, for example, the rate for men was 3.3 times as high as that for women, rising to 3.5 : 1 in Malta and peaking at 3.8 : 1 in Romania.

In the Eurofound survey, men were found to be least satisfied with their working conditions in Romania, whilst the highest proportion of satisfied males were in Denmark and Finland. Women were also least satisfied in Romania, whilst they were most satisfied in Austria and Switzerland.

Understandably, the number of accidents vary significantly between economic activities and sectors. More than one in five (20.9%) fatal accidents at work in the EU-28 in 2014 took place within the construction sector, while the transportation and storage sector had the next highest share (16.6%), followed by manufacturing (15.4%) and agriculture, forestry and fishing (14.3%).

Since these activities typically employ more men than women, this could explain why accidents rates are higher for men in general.


Denmark and Romania appear to be the countries with the largest gulfs between perception and reality in occupational health and safety. France, on the other hand, appears to have its perceptions more clearly aligned with the relative number of accidents in the workplace.

But national accident rates aren’t the whole story, and incidents themselves won’t be the only factor influencing how safe employees feel at work. Overall job quality might play a part, as will factors such as engagement, financial security, the development of skills, national labour laws, etc. National health and safety laws will play a part in how the accident data is collected. In addition, non-fatal incident reporting culture will vary between EU countries and so readers should take these figures with a pinch of salt.

How do health and safety perceptions vs reality match up in your country? Feel free to leave your comments below. Take a look at our international health and safety page for further information.

total volume workplace incidents

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