This year’s Benchmarking Working Europe report – the joint flagship publication of the ETUI and ETUC – is a special edition, not only because it is the 20th-anniversary edition, but also because it analyses the consequences of a new and totally different crisis for the world of work.

Policymakers, at both national and European levels, are approaching this challenging juncture in a way that departs from the austerity-driven responses deployed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. It is therefore particularly apt for the 20th anniversary issue to set out our case for a socially responsive road out of the Covid-19 crisis. In doing so, this analysis demonstrates that the pandemic has provided a ‘stress test’ for occupational safety and health (OSH) in the EU, and revealed multiple systemic deficiencies that needs to be addressed.

First, the Biological Agents Directive failed to grasp the severity of the virus triggering Covid-19. While the definitions of the different categories clearly point to group 4 being the most appropriate one for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it ended up being classified in group 3. The failures evidenced by this revision exercise indicate the need for a deeper revision of the Directive, in order to place an additional emphasis on how an agent such as this virus can constitute ‘a serious hazard for workers’, and how the classification of viruses should take into account the occurrence of a pandemic situation.

Second, staffing shortages in the healthcare sector and their impact on the health and safety of healthcare workers during the pandemic reveals one of the most obvious misalignments between OSH theory and its practice. The consequences of staffing reductions were systematically ignored or downplayed, leading to a plethora of risks such as work overload, overtime, time pressure, and an insufficient number of breaks and time off. These also amplify other risks, such as the risks for accidents and, in the case of the current pandemic, the risk of infection by the virus.

Third, the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified emotional demands on frontline workers, with a striking majority of these workers being women. The unequal gender distribution of work-related psychosocial risks between women and men is partly a consequence of women working in sectors with higher exposure to these hazards such as care or services. This effect is reinforced by vertical segregation, which places women in the lowest positions of the pay and decision-making scales. While these are known facts, it is now obvious that measures to address these vulnerabilities have been irregular and inconsistent across member states.

Fourth, vulnerable workers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic, with low-skill and low-income levels linked with higher Covid-19 positivity rates and higher mortality rates. One critical factor is that occupations that require the physical presence of workers and in-person interaction with other people are often low-income jobs. Ethnicity and migrant status also often intersect with working conditions and employment factors, amplifying structural inequalities in the world of work.

Finally, the pandemic revealed the many limitations of platform work in terms of both its interdependence with the physical world of work and the weaknesses of the regulatory framework shaping it. The pandemic exposed the consequences of an inadequate application of an OSH regulatory framework conceived for the analogue world, and the visible struggles of adapting such a framework to the hazards faced by workers in the digital world.

Each of these are an indicator of the negative consequences of an interpretation of OSH legislation that is too narrow and does not consider the breadth of contexts to which the rules ought to apply. The results of the stress test clearly show that OSH principles need to be part and parcel of work planning, and thus be integrated into the subsequent development of whole sectors and all workplaces. That said, proper implementation and application of the rules is hindered by issues outside the scope of OSH regulation, most notably the unequal power relations that shape employment and working conditions.  Worker participation in their development must be strengthened for OSH policies and practices to be correctly targeted and truly fair.