According to official figures, two people die every day while working. Compared to its European neighbors, France has the worst record in terms of workplace accidents. For what ? What are the limits of prevention? Zoom in on these deaths that are too often forgotten.
On February 28, 2022, Benjamin, Caroline Dilly’s son, leaves for work like every morning. Except that that evening, he won’t come home. “My son Benjamin was a roofer and zinc worker” explains Caroline Dilly, spokesperson for “Collectif famille: Stop death at work”.He was working on a construction site and using a cherry picker, from which he fell.” she explains. “They called me at 7 p.m. to tell me that my son had died, without further details.”
Work accidents: deaths that we rarely talk about
After the shock of learning of her son’s death, Caroline Dilly seeks to understand. “Faced with the violence of the announcement, the absence of information on the exact circumstances of my son’s death… I had to do something.” She then begins to inquire about deaths at work and discovers that deaths occur daily, but that no one talks about them.
The only traces she discovered were local press articles and the work of Matthieu Lépine, professor of history and geography and author of a work entitled: “The invisible massacre – Investigation of deaths at work”. First produced on a blog, his work lists workplace deaths, bringing together all the information he can find in local media. “From memory, I believe that Benjamin is the 59th death of the year 2022, although he died in February” Caroline Dilly reports in a whisper.
She then learned of the death of Flavien, who died just a few days after Benjamin, and contacted his parents. Thus begins the history of the collective, to which other families will join, with the same desire to understand. “My son was 23 years old, he had a diploma and had started learning his profession at 16, he was not a beginner and yet he died in the exercise of his work: why ” asks the mother again today, who wants greater firmness in justice against companies. “Inspections by the labor inspectorate are still too infrequently carried out and convictions symbolic, which does not help to improve the situation.“.
France, a bad student on the European level
In France, the National Institute for Research and Safety (INRS) estimates that there were a total of 640,000 work accidents in 2021 and 693 deaths that same year. That’s about two deaths per day. At the European level, if we compare the number of fatal accidents to the number of people who work, France is therefore the worst student in Europe.
With a ratio of 3.5 fatal accidents per 100,000 employees, it ranks first, far ahead of the European Union average, which is 1.7! This type of comparison must be made with caution, since regulations regarding the prevention of workplace accidents differ depending on the country. As the Ministry of Labor reminds us, “French law considers that accidents are deemed to be of professional origin as long as they occur at the place or time of work, while other Member States have a narrower conception of the notion of accident at work, this which leads to statistical discrepancies between Member States“.
The ministry also pleads for a difference in declarations: “The level of reporting of work accidents is very heterogeneous between Member States: while almost 100% of serious and fatal work accidents are reported in France, this rate can be less than 40% in certain European countries.“.
A lack of labor inspectors in France?
On the other hand, we can only note a flagrant reduction in the number of labor inspectors, who are supposed to control companies. “There are 1,700 labor inspectors for 25 million active people and their number continues to decrease” says Frédéric Mau, federal secretary of construction CGT and employee of the Vinci group. Information denied by the Ministry of Labor.
However, these facts are confirmed by a report from the Court of Auditors in 2020, which reports a drop in staff numbers.by 9% overall between 2014 and 2018 (…), poorly correlated with a real definition of needs, the standard of one control agent for 10,000 employees experiencing real limits in its application”. The Court once again warned about the situation, as it had already done in 2016: “It is more important than ever to provide human resources for the control of companies“.
The government has launched a multi-year 2023-2025 labor inspection plan. This one “directs its activity around its essential mission of protecting the fundamental rights of workers, particularly the most vulnerable.”. In September 2023, a workplace accident prevention campaign entitled “Safety at work: company responsibility, vigilance of all” was also disseminated, as part of the Plan for the prevention of serious and fatal workplace accidents (PST4), established by the State, but also the social partners, Social Security and prevention organizations.
Every five years since 2004, public authorities have adopted major guidelines related to occupational health. This plan is therefore the fourth of its kind, setting the roadmap for occupational health over the period 2021-2025. “The workplace accident prevention campaign was dignified: we understand that something serious is happening, without seeing the tragedy” recognizes Caroline Dilly. But at the same time she underlines the limits of this action: “Unfortunately, it was not broadcast for long, less than a month, due to lack of allocated resources..
In smaller companies, the Ministry of Labor advances the role of “national and regional occupational health stakeholders, including Anact, Cnam and Carsat, INRS, OPPBTP, etc. who are implementing actions targeted at VSE-SMEs to support them in implementing implementation of appropriate prevention actions“.
15% of accidents occur within three months of employment
Prevention also involves “promoting it in the territories through missions which make it possible to raise awareness among companies, depending on the loss experience and the profiles of workers, in particular younger people or seasonal/temporary workers, who are more exposed to risk-taking” explains Evelyne Escriva, project manager at the National Agency for the Improvement of Working Conditions (ANACT).
Indeed, among the 693 deaths in 2021, 37 were young people under the age of 25. The sector of activity and seniority in the company are also factors to take into account: construction, agriculture, extractive industries, woodworking and transport are the most affected areas and according to the figures of the Ministry of Labor, 15% of workplace accidents occur within three months after hiring.
The prevention of workplace accidents is therefore everyone’s business, but especially that of the company, which must implement it individually. Because the law is clear: “The employer must take all measures to preserve the physical and mental health and safety of its employees.. Some employers point out that the tools and equipment offered for safety are not always in line with the reality on the ground… But according to Caroline Dilly, “absurdities” still remain today, “like companies that offer the installation of solar panels, without prior training for work at height for its employees.
What is the responsibility of employers?
How can we explain these dramatic figures and these grotesque situations? In theory, according to Evelyne Escriva, “it is necessary to anticipate the conditions for integrating a new element into a company. In this way, we avoid taking risks and unfamiliarity with the terrain, factors which favor accidents.”. But in reality, she admits, “the conditions are not always met, if a colleague is missing for example, or equipment…”.
A situation that Frédéric Mau knows too well. “The government, and the Minister of Labor Olivier Dussopt, are communicating by launching a campaign to prevent workplace accidents. Besides this, they are removing the CHSCT (health, safety and working conditions committee, editor’s note), reducing the arduousness criteria and increasing the retirement age to 64 years. he recalls.
“Contrary to what people want us to believe, things are getting worse and there are more victims than we say: the figures for accidents at work concerning temporary workers, self-employed workers and seconded workers or undocumented immigrants remain nebulous.
Does subcontracting encourage risk-taking?
For the union official, one of the causes of minimizing the number of workplace accidents in France is subcontracting. “There are sometimes up to seven levels of subcontracting, for construction sites in Greater Paris, employees work six days a week, twelve hours a day, for poverty wages.”. This cascade of subcontracting would dilute responsibilities when moving forward with a business…