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Health and safety at work

What is occupational health and safety? Where does it come from?

Occupational health and safety is the goal that every worker should be able to perform his or her work safely, and in such a way that this work does not lead to any negative consequences for health. This concern has emerged relatively recently in the history of work. The first major advances came at the end of the 19th century, at the time of the development of industrial societies, where accidents at work were so numerous and working conditions so appalling that nations felt the need to put in place systems to protect workers. In Europe, this movement led to the passing of various pieces of legislation, notably on limiting and then banning child labour, improving safety in the workplace and reducing working hours.

Occupational health and safety is a field of investigation in its own right, which studies the links between a given work environment and the impact on the health of the people who work there. It is multidisciplinary in nature and draws on contributions from a wide range of disciplines: physics, chemistry and biology with regard to the safety of the physical working environment, management sciences (which include both logistics and human resources management), organisational sociology, social psychology, hygiene, ergonomics, occupational medicine, labour law, etc.

Occupational health and safety is above all based on the principle of prevention: it is guided by the logic of the nine hierarchical principles of prevention (see Box 1), which have regulatory force and indicate the objectives to be achieved in an order ranging from the most effective prevention (principle 1) to that which is less effective (principle 9).  It shares this preventive logic with other disciplines: preservation of nature and biodiversity, prevention of industrial risks, prevention of addictions, etc., hence its other name of "prevention of occupational risks". The word "safety" refers to the protection of workers from the risks of physical harm (injury or death) resulting from exposure to various hazards in the working environment. The word "health" includes physical and mental health. The word "work" is to be taken in the non-restrictive sense of any work-related situation, i.e. not only work carried out on the premises provided by the employer, but also work carried out on assignment, at events organised in other places, in teleworking, etc.

Am I concerned by occupational health and safety?

Yes, everyone in any kind of work context is subject to various occupational hazards; we are not always aware of this... In France, the Institut National de Recherche et de Sécurité (INRS), a reference organisation for the dissemination of the culture of occupational risk prevention and for research in this field, lists, notably in its brochure ed840 (https://www., at least 17 types of risk, ranging from well-known physical risks (falls from the ground, fire, collapsing or falling objects, risks related to products, emissions and waste, nuisances related to noise, light environments, etc.) to psychosocial risks, which have been recognised and studied more recently. In addition to this list, there are also certain risks that are specific to certain activities, situations or work methods, such as isolated work, night work or certain production organisation methods (lean management, for example). Finally, it is also a question of organising the prevention of any moral or sexual harassment at work (see Box 2).

What are the regulations in force in this area?

At the European Union level, occupational health and safety is governed by Council Directive 89/391/EEC of June, the 12th, 1989, on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work:

French version:

English version:

These provisions have been transposed into French law in the following texts :

• Employees under private law employment contracts:

Part IV of the Labour Code: (in French)

• Employees under public law employment contracts:

Decree nr 82-453 of May, the 28th, 1982, modified, on occupational health and safety and medical prevention in the civil service: (in French)

In practical terms, what can I do to protect my own health and safety at work within the organisation that employs me?

French regulations contain a series of provisions designed to protect workers' health :

  • Looking after my own health and safety at work

Everyone may realise, at one time or another, that they are exposed to an occupational risk : damage to an element of the physical working environment (broken step, for example), defective work equipment, cognitive overload due to noise pollution caused by work, chronic stress for various reasons (work overload, difficulties in an interpersonal working relationship, total overhaul of working methods following a reorganisation …etc). Sticking your head in the sand won't make this risk go away, so you need to take action, and first and foremost not be left alone with "your" problem. Inform your hierarchy of the problem in writing, in particular by filling in the Occupational Health and Safety register, the “registre Santé Sécurité au Travail”. An active attitude on the part of everyone is desirable, and in fact the fact that every worker takes care of his or her own health and safety is even considered an obligation, within the meaning of Article L4122-1 of the Labour Code.

This is a register made available directly to staff (and visitors, if the establishment receives members of the public) so that they can report any observations relating to the detection of an occupational risk, as well as any proposals they may wish to make to prevent this risk.

This register is consulted on a regular basis by the prevention assistant, who then informs the head of department, who then takes the measures he or she deems appropriate to control the risk. As the register is open to consultation by any employee and/or user, it should not be used to pass on information that would implicate the work or attitude of an employee by name.

  • Use my right to a periodic medical check-up

All newly recruited employees must undergo an initial information and prevention visit within 3 months of taking up their duties. The purpose of this visit is to inform the employee of the occupational risks associated with the position and the preventive measures to be implemented. The regulations also lay down specific provisions for certain employees, in particular disabled workers and pregnant or breast-feeding women, who must be referred to the occupational physician, who will suggest any necessary adaptations to the workstation or assignment to other workstations.

  • Contribute to the Occupational Risk Assessment Document (Document Unique d'Évaluation des Risques Professionnels)

The employer has to report the results of the assessment of all the occupational risks identified in the establishment into this document. It is called "unique" because it must bring together all the information relating to the risks existing in the structure. It must be updated once a year, and includes the annual prevention programme (together with its action schedule). This contains the preventive measures approved by the head of department, which may concern the three dimensions of work: organisational (modifying the collective organisation of work), human (training and informing) and technical (providing suitable premises and work equipment). The single document must be made available to all employees working in the establishment.

  • Report any work-related incident or accident

You may witness the occurrence of an incident, i.e. an undesired event with benign consequences; it is important to report it via the Registre Santé Sécurité au Travail. If no real remedial action is taken, the same event may occur again at a later date, with potentially more serious consequences due to a combination of circumstances.

If you are the victim of an accident at work or a commuting accident (see definitions in Box 3), you must notify your employer in writing within 24 hours. Your employer must then report the accident to your Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie within 48 hours. If your employer fails to do so, you may do so yourself as soon as possible, and in any event no later than two years after the accident occurred.

For details of the steps to be taken to declare an accident at work and have medical expenses covered, consult this page (in English & in French) from the Service Public website.



Box nr 1 :


The nine general principles of risk prevention


Article L4121-2 of the Labour Code


The employer shall implement the measures provided for in Article L. 4121-1 on the basis of the following general principles of prevention:


1° Avoid the risks;


2° Assess the risks that cannot be avoided;


3° Tackle the risks at their source;


4° Adapt work to people, in particular with regard to the design of workstations and the choice of work equipment and work and production methods, with a specific view to limiting monotonous work as well as work at a predetermined speed, and reducing the effects of such work on health;


5° Take technical developments into account;


6° Replace what is dangerous by what is not dangerous or by what is less dangerous;


7° Plan prevention by integrating, as a coherent whole, technology, work organisation, working conditions, social relations and the influence of environmental factors, in particular the risks associated with bullying and sexual harassment., as defined at articles L. 1152-1 et L. 1153-1, as well as those linked to sexist behavior at article L. 1142-2-1 ;


8° Take collective protection measures, giving them priority over individual protection measures;


9° Give appropriate instructions to workers.




Box nr 2 :


Definitions of psychological harassment, sexual harassment

and acts of a sexist nature in French law


Psychological harassment: article L1152-1 of the Labour Code


No employee should be subjected to repeated acts of psychological harassment, the purpose or effect of which is to worsen their working conditions in such a way as to infringe their rights and dignity, to damage their physical or mental health or to compromise their professional future.


Sexual harassment: article L1153-1 of the Labour Code


No employee should be subjected to acts:

1° Either of sexual harassment, consisting of repeated remarks or behaviour with a sexual connotation which either violate their dignity by being degrading or humiliating, or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation for them;

2° Or assimilated to sexual harassment, consisting of any form of serious pressure, even if not repeated, exercised with the real or apparent aim of obtaining an act of a sexual nature, whether this is sought for the benefit of the perpetrator or a third party.


Acts of a sexist nature: article L1142-2-1


No one should be subjected to sexist behaviour, defined as any behaviour related to a person's sex, the purpose or effect of which is to undermine their dignity or to create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.



Box nr 3 :


Definitions of the job-related accident and of the commuting accident


Job-related accident : article L411-1 du Code de la Sécurité Sociale


A job-related accident, whatever its cause, is deemed to be any accident arising out of or in the course of work to any person employed or working, in any capacity or in any place whatsoever, for one or more employers or company managers.


Commuting accident : article L411-2 du Code de la Sécurité Sociale


Is also deemed to be a job-related accident, any accident occurring to a worker during the outward and return journey, when the victim or their beneficiaries provide proof that all of the following conditions have been met, or when the investigation enables the fund to have sufficient presumptions on this point, between:


1°) the main residence, a stable secondary residence or any other place to which the employee habitually goes for family reasons and the place of work. This route may not be the most direct if the detour is necessary as part of regular carpooling;


2°) the place of work and the restaurant, canteen or, more generally, the place where the employee usually takes their meals, and insofar as the journey has not been interrupted or diverted for a reason dictated by personal interest and unrelated to the essential requirements of everyday life or independent from the job.




          Links :

The risk assessment process:

• Website of the Institut National de Recherche et de Sécurité :

(In French only)

• On Youtube, two videos by European Union information agency for occupational safety and health, OSHA.

« Risk assessment with OiRA in 4 steps”

The first video is aimed at company directors, but it is an interesting way of explaining the overall prevention approach:

(in English)

The second video looks at psychosocial risk and how to deal with it:


What is an information and prevention visit (« visite d’information et de prévention », which is part of occupational medicine) ?

In English and French.


Institutions working in the field of occupational health and safety:

International Labour Organisation

• Homepage :

French version:

English version:

Page dedicated to occupational health and safety statistics worldwide:

European Institutions:

• Dedicated section of the European Commission website:

• Website of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work:

• Website of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions:

French Institutions :

• Website of the INRS (Institut National de Recherche et de Sécurité) :

English-speaking section:

• Dedicated section of the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’s website: