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Challenges for MSEs


Micro and small enterprises (MSEs) are seen as key drivers of economic growth, innovation, employment and social integration. They account for nearly 99 % of enterprises in the EU and employ nearly 50 % of EU workers.

Given the significant role that MSEs play in society, as well as in the EU economy, the importance of effective means to prevent harm to the safety and health of workers in these firms is apparent. Effective occupational health and safety (OSH) management in MSEs is essential to ensure both the well-being of workers and the long-term economic survival and competitiveness of these enterprises.

Statistics and studies show, however, that the safety and health of many workers employed in MSEs is poorly protected. The EU Occupational Safety and Health Strategic Framework for 2014-2020 acknowledges that MSEs show lower levels of compliance with OSH regulatory standards than larger businesses and face many challenges in implementing effective OSH management. The framework prioritises actions focused on MSEs in a number of respects, including the facilitation of their compliance with legislation and the possible reduction of administrative burdens. It also invites social dialogue on how to reach MSEs more effectively and develop innovative OSH solutions to their problems.

Micro and small enterprises: a challenge for occupational safety and health

  • Numerous studies identify reasons for poor uptake of arrangements for managing OSH in these enterprises. They include:

    • the weak economic position of many MSEs and the low levels of investment they are able to make in OSH infrastructure;

    • the limited knowledge, awareness and competence of MSEs’ owner-managers in relation to both OSH and related regulatory requirements;

    • limited capacity to manage their affairs systematically;

    • their attitudes and priorities: given the limited resources at the disposal of MSEs, and owners concerns for the economic survival of their businesses, OSH has a low profile in many MSEs.

  • Observations drawn from the research literature point towards the conclusion that, overall, risks of serious injuries and fatalities are significantly greater for workers employed in MSEs than for those in employment in larger firms. Moreover, the risks of other forms of work-related harm in many smaller enterprises probably follow the same pattern.

  • While evidence concerning working conditions and work-related health effects is more difficult to evaluate in terms of company size, there are many examples of poor outcomes in these areas too. There is, therefore, good reason for concern about the arrangements for safety and health in a substantial proportion of MSEs. This is a concern that applies to a greater or lesser degree across all the Member States of the EU and gives little reason for complacency in any of them.

  • Primary reasons for poor safety and health performance are found not only in the limited arrangements made by these firms for OSH, but in the ways in which such enterprises are situated in the economy, the business strategies that determine their survival and the multifaceted limitations on their resources (including not only economic resources, but knowledge, skills and recourse to protection for workers).

  • Research on the regulation of OSH in MSEs has painted a portrait of generally limited engagement and weak compliance practices on the part of owner-managers in these firms. However, the situation is complex and the heterogeneity of MSEs makes for a mixed picture.

  • In the literature, typologies are found that attempt to describe compliance behaviours and the reasons for them, which further confirm that many MSEs pursue ‘low road’ strategies towards their survival; as a consequence, workers in MSEs are disproportionately likely to experience exposures harmful to their safety and health. Regulatory research often also identifies greater prevalence of non-compliance among MSEs.

  • Robust research analysis demonstrates an inverse relationship between establishment size and serious injuries and fatalities, while work on less reliable indicators (such as injuries resulting in lost time) sometimes suggests different patterns such as better performance in microenterprises than in small ones. These polarised views of MSEs are explained by limited availability of reliable data and the heterogeneity characterising MSEs as a group. This heterogeneity indicates a need for caution before generalising about MSEs.

  • With regard to arrangements for the health, safety and welfare of workers in MSEs, both the older analytical literature and recent EU-wide survey findings consistently demonstrate that they are considerably less well developed in smaller workplaces than they are in their larger counterparts, and this holds true regardless of sector or country. While not all of these enterprises can be so described, a substantial proportion pursue ‘low road’ survival strategies and many operate in sectors traditionally regarded as presenting high risks of physical injury and ill health. There is further evidence of a relationship between these observations and the disproportionate levels of poor safety and health arrangements and outcomes, and poor job quality, in a substantial proportion of these firms.

More information available in Contexts and arrangements for occupational health and safety in micro and small enterprises in the EU