Overview of policies, strategies and programmes in relation to the occupational health and safety of older workers - Belgium

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Initiatives from government/ government-affiliated organisations

National level

Occupational health and safety

The latest National Strategy for Well-being at Work dates from 2008-2012[1] and a new strategy is currently being prepared by the National Labour Council. The 2008-2012 strategy included 5 “Programmes”, along with thematic projects. For each project, objectives and actions were defined. In the preamble of the strategy, older workers, workers with reduced working capacity and workers with disabilities are all mentioned as in need of particular attention. The following programmes are relevant in the context of an ageing workforce:

  • Programme I: Strengthening the prevention of occupational illnesses and accidents at work
    • Project 3: Strengthening the prevention of occupational illnesses in particular concerning musculoskeletal disorders and stress at work
    • Project 5: Dealing with new risks (older workers are considered a new risk group in the preamble of the strategy)
    • Project 7: Strengthening well-being at work and organising continuous assessment (workplace health promotion)
  • Programme II: Improving the treatment of occupational illnesses and the reintegration of workers
    • Project 8: Facilitating the professional reintegration of workers in a state of incapacity for work

The Federal Public Service Employment, Labour, and Social Dialogue evaluated the general objectives of this national strategy in the period 2012-2013[2]. Based on this evaluation, a number of recommendations and avenues were put forward for the development of a new strategy.

The labour inspectorate does not have a multiannual strategy. The inspectorate works with annual programmes. These programmes are more operational and focus on high-risk sectors (construction etc.). Currently, there is no consideration for ageing workers or return-to-work in these programmes.

Professional Experience Fund

In 2001, the Professional Experience Fund[3] (Fonds de l’expérience professionnelle) was created by law as a reaction to the Lisbon Strategy (2000), aiming at increasing the employment of workers aged 55+ and the length of careers and raising retirement age. A first Royal Decree in 2003 determined the criteria, conditions and modalities of operation of the Fund, which became operational in 2005. The Royal Decree of 2006 made amendments to the original one. The Fund financially supports companies for projects, intending to improve the quality of labour of their older workers (45+), to keep them at work longer. The projects need to lead to or introduce concrete adaptations of the working conditions or organisation for those aged 45+. Additional criteria for funding are:

  • Need to go beyond actual legal regulations.
  • Need to involve concerned workers in the conception of the project.
  • Need to receive positive advice of the committee and service for prevention andprotection at work

The studies or adaptations proposed by companies need to improve well-being at work, with priorities for: occupational safety, health, ergonomics and psychosocial charge.

Employers can receive financing for different types of projects:

  • Grant type 1: measuring the work ability of older workers (study);
  • Grant type 2: analysis of the working environment: making a diagnosis of the points to improve in the working environment (applied study);
  • Grant type 3: improving projects (adaptations) for working conditions.

For all these type of grants, certain maxima exist in co-financing.

During the first years of the Fund, focus was on creating and maintaining networks, developing partnerships and creating brochures to promote the application for grants. Specific emphasis was on communication to change negative views of older workers, i.e. ‘older workers are too expensive’ versus ‘the employment of older workers should increase’. Nowadays, emphasis lies largely on the promotion of applying for grants in companies and on analysing the dossiers.

The project has been running since 2005. In 2011, 292 applications were granted, 20 were refused. On average, each application covers 26 older workers. Although the Fund prefers companies to first, measure the work ability of workers, then make a diagnosis and finally develop an adaptation project based on the diagnosis, in practice most applications concern adaptation projects. The 2011 Annual Report[4] revealed that 285 applications concerned adaptation projects, 68 applications were related to a diagnostic method and 54 to the use of a measurement instrument (e.g. questionnaires to measure the work ability of older workers such as the Work Ability Index (WAI)). Annually, the number of applications exceeds the Fund’s budget (see Annual Report 2011).

Since the Royal Decree of 2006, sectorial instances can receive financial support to develop information campaigns targeted towards their member employers. The table below shows for each of the sectors, their partnerships.

Sector partnership From Until
25 Domestic and elderly Care – Flanders – PC 318.02 2008 2009
Wood PC 126 2008 2010
4 Textile -white- PC 214 2008 2010
Textile -blue PC120 2008 2010
Construction PC 124 2009 2011
Eweta PC 327.0 2009 2011

Employment Plan for Older Workers

In order to support companies with the implementation of their Employment Plan for Older Workers (as per Convention 104 – see Section 1.3), the Federal Public Service Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue (FPS ELS), in collaboration with the Universities of Liege, Namur and Ghent, produced in November 2012 a “Guide on Age Management in Companies” (guide sur la gestion des âges en entreprise) targeting among others HR managers, prevention councillors and members of the occupational prevention and protection committees. The guide intends to raise awareness of Belgian companies to the issue of age management and present possible measures and common barriers for the implementation of age management barriers through the experience of 45 Belgian companies of different sizes and sectors.

Generation Pact

As part of the Generation Pact, agreed by the social partners (see section 1.3), a number of measures have been proposed to companies to maintain older workers at work. Some of these measures have a focus on OSH or working conditions:

  • A collective agreement concluded in 1990 by the social partners, as part of the Generation Pact. The aim of the agreement is to allow older workers to stay on the labour market longer and hence raise the employment rate among older workers, providing for a transfer to a less stressful work system for older workers who practice night work for an extended period of time[5]:
    • workers 50 years and older with (at least) 20 years of professional activity in night work and with serious health problems can switch to day work;
    • workers older than 55 years with 20 years of professional activity in night work can switch to day work at their own request.
  • In 2001, the social partners created the ‘time credit’ (crédit-temps) for workers over 55[6]. The system became a regulatory requirement and entered into force in 2002. It was reformed in 2007 and 2011. The latest reform in 2011, enforced in 2012, introduces stricter provisions for receiving the allowance (age and experience conditions). It is implemented by the ONEM (National Agency for Employment) which deals with unemployment insurance. According to the latest reform, the ‘crédit-temps’ provides workers over 55, with at least a 25-year career and having worked for their current employer for at least the last two years, with the possibility to work half-time or reduce their working hours by 1/5 until retirement, benefitting partly from their normal wage, partly from a pension. A specific provision allows workers who had a painful or heavy job for at least five years, workers with a 28-year career, and workers of companies in difficulty or undergoing restructuration, to obtain the allowance at the age of 50. Older workers have a right to benefit from this system, once the conditions are fulfilled, they do not have to justify their application. This system replaces the former career break system, which had been adopted in 1985 to reduce mass unemployment. The ‘crédit-temps’ introduces a new perspective, aimed at maintaining older workers longer in the active population. This measure has become increasingly popular among older workers: the number of workers over 50 represented almost 60% of users in 2007 (compared to 40% in 2003) according to the statistics of the National Employment Office (ONEM).
  • As of 1 May 2010, an allowance by the ONEM became available to employees aged 50+ who, at their own request and with a loss of monthly gross income of at least EUR 265.30, can transfer from arduous work (that they have been carrying out for at least five years) to lighter duties with the same employer[7]. This allowance amounts to EUR 80 per month for 12 months for workers aged under 55, EUR 106 per month for 24 months for workers aged 55 to 58, and EUR 133 per month for 36 months for workers aged over 58. The aim is to encourage workers to remain in the labour market for longer and hence to raise the employment rate among older workers.

Antidiscrimination

On 24 September 2012, the Federal Public Service Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue (FPS ELS) launched an awareness-raising campaign called ‘Still young, already old at work’[8]. The campaign aims for a change in mentality towards employment of older workers (50+). Because the labour market is considered unfavourable for older workers, due to prejudices of workers, employers and public opinion, the campaign wishes to counter those prejudices by giving arguments to invest in older workers, and tips for both workers and employers to keep older workers at work, emphasising the benefits of employment of workers aged 50+. The campaign includes TV spots, advertisements in newspapers and a website with information.

The CAPA project ‘Evolution of the physical and physiological capacities related to age – An answer to stereotypes concerning older workers’[9], started in 2004 by the FPS ELS, in collaboration with the universities of Louvain, Ghent, Namur and the External Services for Prevention and Protection at Work, has a double goal: gaining insight into stereotypes about workers (through interviews) and providing answers to deal with them (based on literature and research). CAPA aims at gathering and the dissemination of information on risk factors, prevention and intervention. The organisation of information and sensitisation campaigns is one the tasks of the FPS ELS. The project resulted in two publications, one on stereotypes, the second on tools to get more insight into the work of older workers; an inventory of (general) questionnaires on psychosocial aspects and musculoskeletal disorders and a bibliographic database on literature related to ageing at work.

The Law of 10 May 2007 against certain types of discrimination (see section 1.3) has expanded the competences of the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism[10], which looks after victims of discrimination and gives advice. In particular, the Centre has observed that discrimination based on age occurs frequently in job advertisements. The Centre has therefore developed a check-list tool, that enables the assessment of whether the job advertisement contains possible discriminative phrasing. The check-list, entitled “Discrimination based on age in job advertisement” is based on an instrument developed in the Netherlands by the Expertise centrum Leeftijd and has been adapted to the Belgian context. It allows employers to better understand whether age discrimination is allowed as per the law in their job advertisement or if it is just the result of negative and distorted views and stereotypes on the alleged abilities (or inabilities) of older workers. The check-list is in two parts: the first part checks whether there is a direct or indirect discrimination based on age in a job offer and the second part checks whether there is a legal reason for this discrimination.

Employment

The pension bonus[11], set up by the FPS ELS, as part of the Generation Pact and through the Royal Decree of 1 February 2007 establishing a pension bonus, intends to be an encouragement for workers who wish to stay active on the labour market after the age of 62 or after a career of 44 years. For workers eligible for a pension and who fulfill one of the conditions (62 years, 44 year career) a gross bonus of EUR 2.2082 per full day of effective employment is granted. It is valid for pensions with a starting date between 1 January 2007 and 1 December 2013. The Study Commission of Ageing evaluated the system in 2012. The impact of the pension bonus on employment is considered rather limited, mainly because of the existence of other measures, such as for example the system of early retirement or supplementary pension, that have a discouraging effect (and rather create an incentive for workers aged between 55-64 to leave the labour market). The pension bonus also appears not to be well known by the target group.

In 2012, the FPS ELS published a brochure entitled “Continuing or restarting a career after 50”[12]. The brochure gives an overview of measures (financial incentives and other) to keep older workers longer at work, measures to restart a career after a period of inactivity and measures to find a new job after resignation. The measures are illustrated with concrete examples. The target group is older workers, employers and (older) job seekers.

Regional/local level

Wallonia

The Centre for the Validation of Skills (Centre de validation des compétences)[13], composed of public institutions for vocational training, is a public structure which provides ‘validation of competence’ certificates to people who have acquired skills throughout their professional careers but do not hold any official certificate as evidence of these skills. The mechanism aims at officially recognising professional knowledge and know-how acquired outside of typical training channels. Such a mechanism is particularly helpful for older workers who may wish to change jobs, including for health reasons, and would need to have their experience and professional knowledge officially certified to succeed in a very competitive job market.

Flanders

‘Diversity plans’ for companies are also part of the package of measures introduced to implement the ‘Vilvoorde Pact’, concluded in 2001 by the Flemish government and social partners, in the wake of the Lisbon Strategy (EU)[14] The Pact aims to eliminate the underrepresentation of older workers, women, the disabled, immigrants and low-skilled workers among the employed by 2010. Flemish companies and organisations from all activity sectors can receive subsidies from the government if they develop such a plan. Specific quantified targets concerning the inflow, internal mobility and training of the disadvantaged groups must be included in the demand for subsidies.

The Flemish Government, trade unions and employers' organisations agreed on a programme entitled ‘Together for the defence of the 50+’ in October 2008<refWebsite ‘De juiste Stoel’: http://www.dejuistestoel.be/ (Accessed December 2014)</ref>. A number of activities have been undertaken under this programme, including a prevention campaign for employers and workers launched by the Flemish Government with the aim of retaining people older than 50 years of age in work. A ‘toolbox’ is at the disposal of the employers. The toolbox contains a series of tools, advice and information intended for all the actors of the working world in order to keep people over 50 years old in their work and to give incentives to hire job-seekers aged over 50. It also resulted in the creation of the website ‘De juiste Stoel’. Through awareness campaigns, employers, employees and other labour market players are encouraged to use this toolbox. Various themes are covered by the toolbox: development of career, organisation, health and well-being, etc.

Brussels

Brussels Employment Office, Actiris, has created a specific department focusing on the issue of diversity in companies. It has developed a specific website[15] in which it provides advice to companies that wish to improve diversity of their staff, including the possibility of creating a ‘diversity plan’. A ‘diversity plan’ is a set of measures and actions focused on disadvantaged groups, including workers with a disability and older workers. These measures are supposed to create possibilities to facilitate the internal mobility of disadvantaged groups within the company and to reduce the turnover of these groups. Although not primarily focused on OSH but rather on recruitment and mobility, the Diversity Plans can also include measures related to career development and lifelong learning (relevant for older workers), measures related to workplace adaptations for workers with disabilities and measures to manage workers coming back to work with a health problem after a long sickness absence. Financial and technical support is provided to the companies that wish to develop these plans. In particular, specialised consultants, so-called ‘diversity counsellors, help companies set up the plan through a series of steps. The successful implementation of a diversity plan can lead to the award of a ‘diversity label’.

Initiatives from social partners

The Federation of Belgian Enterprises (FEB – VBO) produced a brochure entitled “Experience is our capital – how to keep the 50+ longer at work?”[16] for a forum on the same topic which took place on 21 September 2011[17]. The brochure contains four different analyses looking at the current situation and the challenges and provides recommendations for practical solutions. It also compiles a number of case studies of age management practices in Belgian companies.

In the context of the ‘diversity plans’, Flemish trade unions have deployed ‘diversity consultants’ to raise the employment equity and diversity awareness of their staff and the union representatives (e.g. through publications, events, etc.). The diversity consultants also support the union representatives in persuading employees to participate in the diversity plans. Experience has shown that the most successful diversity plans are those in which employees and their representatives actively participate.

Initiatives from other organisations

ICHEC Enterprises (Brussels management school) and Business and Society Belgium (a private networking organisation for Corporate Social Responsibility) created a Practical Guide: From a 55+ policy to an integrated age-policy[18], which includes the results of a working group (2007-2009) working on sustainable and creative options for an age-aware human resources policy and intergenerational relations. There is a focus on qualitative labour conditions, including job content, training/education, motivation and well-being at work. The guidelines are related to the recruitment of the 45+, lifelong learning, career development, internal mobility, management of competences and skills, health and well-being, balance of work-private life, etc., as well as an integrated approach of all these aspects.

In 2007, Prevent, one of the most important OSH service provider and OSH research centre in Belgium, has launched a two-year project called “Ageing at work” in collaboration with several European partners (and with EU funding from the Leonardo da Vinci programme)[19]. Based on a literature review and an assessment of needs, the project aimed at building a training programme for HR managers on age management. Pilot training programmes were built for Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland. At the end of the project, a number of recommendations were disseminated via a wrap-up symposium to more than 120 workplaces actors (HR managers, business owners, OSH representatives, etc.). Examples of recommendation included:

  • Do not focus only on older workers but consider all workers whatever their age.
  • Do not focus only on people’s skills, pay also attention to their health through well-being measures.
  • Collaboration between HR managers, OSH prevention services, line managers, etc. is critical for a successful approach to age management.

References

  1. Strategy available (also in English) on the website of the Belgian Safe Work Information Centre (BeSWIC): http://www.beswic.be/nl/systems (Accessed December 2014)
  2. Evaluation of the national strategy available on the FPS ELS website: http://www.werk.belgie.be/moduleDefault.aspx?id=39435 (Accessed December 2014)
  3. Information on the website of the FPS ELS: http://www.ervaringsfonds.be or http://www.fondsdelexperienceprofessionnelle.be (Accessed December 2014).
  4. Hermans V., Motmans R., Himpens A., ‘The Professional Experience Fund - A Belgian example for support of the quality of work for elderly workers’, 4 p., web publication at: http://www.beswic.be/nl/news_board/Paperfees.pdf (Accessed December 2014)
  5. Website of the Federal Public Service Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue: http://www.werk.belgie.be/ (Accessed December 2014).
  6. More information on the ‘crédit-temps’ on the websites of the ONEM (National Employment Office – in French): http://www.rva.be/frames/frameset.aspx?Language=FR&Path=D_opdracht_LBO/&Items=6 (Accessed December 2014); and the Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique: http://www.fgtb.be/web/guest/files-fr/-/file/558819/ (Accessed December 2014)
  7. More information on this measure on the website of Prevent (in French): http://www.prevent.be/fr/banque_de_connaissance/prime-pour-les-travailleurs-de-plus-de-50-ans-passant-d%E2%80%99un-travail-lourd-%C3%A0-un (Accessed December 2014)
  8. More information on the website of the FPS ELS (in French): http://www.emploi.belgique.be/defaultNews.aspx?id=37530 (Accessed December 2014)
  9. More information on the website of the FPS ELS (in French): http://www.emploi.belgique.be/CAPA-F.aspx (Accessed December 2014)
  10. Website of the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism: http://www.diversitybelgium.be/ (Accessed December 2014)
  11. More information on the website of the FPS ELS (in French): http://www.emploi.belgique.be/defaultTab.aspx?id=8558 (Accessed December 2014). An evaluation report (2012) is available in French at: http://www.docufin.be/websedsdd/intersalgfr/thema/publicaties/documenta/2012/BdocB_2012_Q1f_CSF_vieillissement.pdf; and in Dutch at: http://www.docufin.fgov.be/intersalgnl/hrfcsf/adviezen/PDF/vergrijzing_pensioenbonus_2012_06.pdf (Accessed December 2014)
  12. More information on the website of the FPS ELS (in French): http://www.werk.belgie.be/publicationDefault.aspx?id=32198 (Accessed December 2014)
  13. Website of the Centre (in French): http://www.cvdc.be/fr/accueil.html (Accessed December 2014)
  14. More information on the website of the Flemish government: http://www.werk.be/online-diensten/loopbaan-en-diversiteitsplannen (Accessed December 2014)
  15. Actiris website on diversity: http://www.diversite.irisnet.be/-Pret-pour-plus-de-diversite-dans-.html (Accessed December 2014)
  16. Website of the forum: http://www.experienceisourcapital.be/ (Accessed December 2014)
  17. Website of the forum: http://www.experienceisourcapital.be/ (Accessed December 2014)
  18. Webpage of Business & society website on diversity: http://www.businessandsociety.be/index.php/mvo-2/mvo-in-de-wereld/?lang=en (Accessed December 2014). The Brochure was no longer publicly available in December 2014
  19. Website Ageing at Work: www.ageingatwork.eu (Accessed December 2014)