Patrick's blog

Firefighters: Feeling the Heat

Monday, May 12, 2014

The European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and the European Trade Union Institute have jointly published a report entitled “Firefighters: Feeling the Heat,” based on questionnaire responses from EPSU affiliates. 

Most of us give little thought to firefighters’ working conditions. The head-turning sights and sounds of "blues and twos" as scarlet engines rush high visibility-clad crews to fires tend to overshadow what they do before, during and after. 

Firefighting is a risky business, yet firefighters’ health and lives can be better protected, as long as the right financial, material and human resources are put at their disposal. The complex relation, highlighted in the report, between effective firefighting and protecting workers underlines the importance of trade union involvement in health and safety in the sector.

In order to repond both efficiently and professionally to a fire, road accident or flood, an “emergency response chain” has to be set in motion. Every link in this chain is vital. The employment status of firefighters varies greatly: there exists both professional and voluntary firefighters in the public sector, military firefighters (both professionals and volunteers), privately-employed fighfighters for at-risk sites (such as airports, chemical plants and nuclear facilities), and firefighters that are seasonally employed during summer in Mediterranean countries. However, the number of firefighters is frequently too small to provide a consistently high quality service and, at the same time guarantee, good working conditions. In France and Spain, volunteers on precarious contracts are being employed to replace retiring professional firefighters. In Finland, an ageing workforce is the main concern. 

The number of female firefighters in very low in every European country. The demanding working conditions partially explain this situation, but studies have consistently uncovered a persistent macho culture that impedes women's integration into the fire service. 

If firefighters are to be able to fight fires effectively, they need equipment that will protect their health and safety. In most European countries staff representatives are consulted before purchasing equipment. However, in Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland these consultations sometimes either do not take place or are far from systematic. 

Most tasks performed by firefighters, with the exception of preventative services, are considered 'high risk.' The number of deaths on the job speaks for itself: in France, between 1992 and 2002, on average 20 firefighters died every year. In the UK, a firefighter has died very four months since 1978. On top of these shocking figures, the number of accidents and work-related illnesses must be taken into account. 

In the line of service, firefighters are confronted by the risks associated with extreme heat, namely maladies induced by high temperatures, such as heat exhaustion or  heat stress. On top of these, there are risks from the toxins and thermal radiation from the smoke, which can have long-term effects such as cancer. The list of dangers gets even longer when you add physical and psychosocial risks. 

The standards for personal-protection equipment are set by working groups and technical committees. The habitual absence of staff representatives in these discussions has led to the production of inappropriate, inadequate and inefficient equipment because the real-life use of such gear is not taken into account. Safety harnesses that are incompatible with long jackets is just one example of this.  This type of  standardisation may sound very technical, but it is a very effective way of these workers' health and safety, by ensuring the use of products and equipment that meet the demands of the work on the ground.  It is key that trade unions involve themselves in setting these standards. 

Firefighters must know themselves both physically and psychologically, so that they can be an effective part of their team. Younger recruits benefit from both physical and psychological strength, while older firefighters have the hands-off experience. As such, the team is reinforced by the strength of the former and the skills of the latter. 

In place of a culture of risk, a culture of health and safety has to be fostered in the sector. 

To read the full report on firefighters' health and safety click here, available in English, French, German and Spanish. 


Gender Pay Gap: Much Still to Do but Progress Can Be Made, Finds EPSU Survey

Monday, May 12, 2014

An in-depth survey of EPSU affiliates on the gender pay gap in public services helps make sense of a often confusing picture. Fighting for equal pay had long been a priority for EPSU, and is a particularly relevant issue to public services in many European countries due to the high percentage of women employed in the sector. 

Thirty-six unions from nineteen countries responded to the survey. The lack of coherent and generalised data collection by authorities and employers in many countries is one  of the first problems  highlighted by the responses. There is also widespread concern about the effects of involuntarily part-time work, outsourcing  and the imposition of flexible working on the pay gap, as well as discrimination due to parental leave and in training provision. Work that is traditionally viewed as ‘female’, such as cleaning, catering and care, is still less valued, and consequently less well-paid, that work that is traditionally dominated by men. 

One such case of this type of structural barrier is that of British affiliate UNISON which in 2013 won a ruling in the supreme court against a Scottish local authority, Dumfries and Galloway Council, following a seven-year battle. The union was successful in its claim that women working as classroom assistants could compare their pay with men working as groundsmen, refuse  collectors, drivers and leisure attendants.. The men received bonuses; the women did not. The ruling not only guaranteed equal treatment for the 251 women in the local authority’s schools, but also benefited around 2,000 women in schools across Scotland.

This is far from the only success story of union action getting results on equal pay. In many countries collective bargaining is a key tool to ensure that employers take action to reduce the pay gap. A strategy common to several unions has been to negotiate higher pay rises for the lowest paid, who are disproportionately women. In 2008, German affiliate Ver.di was able to negotiate an agreement that covers 1.3 million employees in national and local government that included  a €50 flat-rate pay rise. The most recent pay deal also includes a €90 minimum increase that will go some way to closing the pay gap.

Norwegian unions Delta and YS also emphasise the importance of  higher increases for the bottom grades in central government. Other unions, such as AOA in Denmark and GMB in the UK, cite the deletion of the lowest pay grades as concrete gains that have improved pay for women in the public sector. 

The report looks at the impact of public spending cuts on the gender pay gap. It is clear that austerity has severely damaged women’s pay and employment in many places – in Greece 28,600 women in the public service lost their jobs between July 2010 and February 2013, while their pay has fallen by 40%. Although in some countries pay freezes have hit higher-paid workers harder, which may have resulted in a temporary reduction in the pay gap, this trend may be reversed by cuts to equal opportunities programmes intended to improve women´s access to higher paid jobs. The most recent figures cited in the report would appear to show that for the EU as a whole the process of closing the gender pay gap has at least stalled with no change between 2010 and 2011. Of the 27 countries reporting in 10 the overall gender pay gap has increased, and in five there has been no change. 

If there is one clear conclusion to be draw it is that in this time of public service cuts and austerity the struggle to close the gender pay gap is as pertinent as ever and is very much on the agenda of public service unions across Europe. 

Full Gender Pay Gap report in available here in English, German, French, Polish or Swedish.