Occupational safety and health: Definition, regulations, importance

As an employer, you have a duty to protect and improve the health of your employees. This duty was firmly laid down in the German Occupational Health and Safety Act ArbSchG in 1996, transposing the European Occupational Health and Safety Framework Directive 89/391/EEC into national law.

Occupational health and safety is not an onerous duty for employers, but a meaningful and necessary service to the community that has a positive impact on business through fewer workplace accidents, less sick leave and higher performance.

To determine the potential for hazards, an assessment of potential hazards arising from working conditions is conducted at each workplace. This risk assessment in accordance with Section 5 of the German Occupational Health and Safety Act (ArbSchG) not only evaluates the physical, chemical and biological effects of working conditions on the health of employees, but also the effects resulting from “the design of work and manufacturing processes, work procedures and their interaction” and “inadequate qualification and instruction of employees”. In operational environments, particular attention is paid to working postures, weights to be moved, noise exposure and vibrations. Special attention is given to the handling of dangerous goods and hazardous substances. In administrative environments, the focus is on ergonomics and on hazards arising from VDU work and stress. Since 2013, employees’ mental stress in the workplace has also been included. In addition to the hazards themselves, the causes of the hazards are also analyzed and documented.

In order to know which legal provisions are applicable to your company, it is advisable to create a legal directory and update it on an ongoing basis. The operator obligations can be derived from the legal regulations, which in turn include inspections, instructions, notifications, etc.

The results of the risk assessment should be used to specifically improve conditions with regard to the health of employees by means of suitable preventive measures. At workplaces where certain hazards cannot be avoided, employees should be protected by personal protective equipment appropriate to the hazard.

The employer is responsible for occupational safety. While they may delegate duties and tasks to employees, the employer must ensure implementation. The employer must define and introduce binding occupational health and safety regulations and guidelines that meet the requirements of the ArbSchG. Employees are obliged to follow instructions on occupational safety and to report identified hazards to the employer.

Employers who fail to comply with the requirements of the ArbSchG in a comprehensible manner must expect heavy fines, and even imprisonment in the event of intentional or repeated failure to comply with the regulations. Therefore, set up occupational health and safety in your organization in a formal and legally secure manner. As an employer, make a clear commitment to occupational health and safety. Appoint a suitable and qualified occupational safety officer. Do not assume that occupational health and safety is the responsibility of your employees; instead, delegate occupational health and safety tasks to suitable persons in your organization in a binding and comprehensible manner. Reflect the duties of your employees with regard to occupational health and safety in the function or job descriptions. Ensure that all your employees receive appropriate training on occupational health and safety issues on a regular basis and that this training and the participants are documented in a comprehensible manner. Also ensure through instructions and checks that risk assessments are always carried out when you change work processes or make investments in new machinery and equipment.

Occupational health and safety also includes effective operational emergency management. This is also the personal responsibility of the management. You should therefore ensure that your company has a functioning and comprehensibly documented system in place and is practicing it.

In Germany, occupational health and safety is subject to co-determination. Employee representatives must be involved in risk assessments, in the definition of preventive measures, in the documentation of measures and in monitoring their effectiveness. As a rule, the cooperation between employer and employees is regulated in a company agreement on occupational health and safety.


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