Responsibility for occupational safety and health in the workplace lies with your employer. Employers must set up and maintain the tools, machines, and equipment, etc., the entire workplace, so that as an employee you are protected from safety and health risks. They must take action to prevent accidents at work and work-related health risks, and to provide ergonomic workplace organisation and design. They must do this by law, under national occupational safety and health provisions – notably the Occupational Safety and Health Act (Arbeitsschutzgesetz) and ordinances (secondary legislation) based on it – and accident prevention regulations published by the accident insurance funds.
Occupational safety and health involves for example the following areas:
- The workplace, including workplace hygiene
- Tools, machinery, and equipment
- Hazardous substances
- Working hours and rest periods
- Organisation of workplace occupational safety and health
- Preventive occupational health care
- Load handling
- Biological agents
- Noise and vibrations
- Artificial optical radiation
- Electromagnetic fields
The rules and regulations on occupational safety and health apply to all employees, including in agriculture and public service.
Children and adolescents enjoy special protection under the Act on the Protection of Young People at Work (Jugendarbeitsschutzgesetz). Of this group, only adolescents – defined for this purpose as persons aged from 15 to 17 – are normally allowed to work.
Employees are insured against occupational accidents and diseases with a statutory accident insurance fund (see also the Accident insurance chapter). For most employees this will be one of the occupational accident insurance funds for the industrial sector (gewerbliche Berufsgenossenschaft), whose members are employers.
The occupational accident insurance funds have set up technical inspectorates. Together with the occupational safety and health inspectorates in the various Länder, these make sure that all occupational safety and health requirements are strictly observed and that all available protective equipment is used.
Stipulations on occupational safety and health are to be found in various acts and ordinances, and in the accident prevention regulations published by the occupational accident insurance funds.
Occupational safety and health rules and regulations can apply to specific sectors of trade and industry, for specific types of manufacturing plants, for workplace organisation and design, and so on. Other examples include:
- Rules on the use and characteristics of machinery and equipment;
- Rules on the use of specific substances that are needed in production processes;
- Rules that apply to specific groups of people.
Not all hazards and sources of danger can be eliminated or avoided by technical or organisational means. There will always be hazards in any workplace. As an employee, this means you must follow safe working practices and support your employer with regard to safety precautions. These obligations are laid down in the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Accident prevention regulations also include rules on conduct for all employees who use tools and equipment. As an employee, you are also required to observe rules of conduct specifically devised by your employer for your workplace. In case of health problems in the workplace you have the right to preventive occupational health care.
Key occupational safety and health legislation
Occupational Safety and Health Act
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (Arbeitsschutzgesetz) requires your employer to assess psychological and physical health hazards at the workplace, take appropriate preventive measures, and inform you about the measures applied. Your employer must take precautions for especially hazardous areas and situations and provide preventive occupational health care. If you are in immediate danger, you have the right to leave your workplace without fearing for your job. The Act gives you the right to submit suggestions on all workplace occupational safety and health matters. You can also complain to the inspectorates about inadequate occupational safety and health provision at your workplace without fear of retribution if you have already taken a complaint to your employer and nothing has been done about it.
Occupational Safety Act
The Occupational Safety Act (Arbeitssicherheitsgesetz) requires employers to appoint occupational physicians (Betriebsärzte) and occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals holding a recognised occupational safety and health qualification (to support them in occupational safety and health matters, including ergonomic workplace organisation and design. The duties of the occupational safety and health experts include advising employers on the entire range of safety and health factors in the working environment. This begins with the planning of operating facilities, the purchasing of equipment and workplace organisation and design, and extends to advising employers in the assessment of working conditions. Among other things, occupational physicians are responsible for advising on the integration and reintegration of persons with disabilities. The Act is supplemented by German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV) Regulation 2, the Accident Prevention Regulation on Occupational Physicians and OSH Professionals (DGUV-Vorschrift 2, Unfallverhütungsvorschrift Betriebsärzte und Fachkräfte für Arbeitssicherheit).
Working Time Act
The Working Time Act (Arbeitszeitgesetz) lays down the maximum length of the working day, minimum breaks during working hours, and minimum periods of rest after work for the protection of employee safety and health. Specific protection is provided for night workers regardless of gender. There is a general ban on Sunday and holiday working, with exceptions subject to certain requirements.
Act on the Protection of Young People at Work
The Act on the Protection of Young People at Work (Jugendarbeitsschutzgesetz) protects children and young people from overwork. For example, it specifies a minimum working age, how long minors may work, and how much annual paid leave they must be granted. The Ordinance on the Protection of Children at Work (Kinderarbeitsschutzverordnung) sets out in greater detail the types of light employment allowed by way of exception and deemed suitable under the Act on the Protection of Young People at Work for children from age 13 and for older children required to attend school full time.
Product Safety Act
Only safe products are allowed to be brought into free circulation within the European Union. Accordingly, only products that meet various safety and other requirements are allowed to be marketed and sold in Germany. This applies equally to consumer products and to products used by employees in the course of their work. The legal basis for this comprises the Product Safety Act (Produktsicherheitsgesetz) and the Product Safety Ordinances issued under it (which transpose European directives into national law) together with EU regulations that have direct effect and corresponding national implementing acts.
Ordinance on Preventive Occupational Health Care
Occupational health care serves the purposes of individual awareness-raising and employee consultation on interactions between work and health and is an important adjunct to technical and organisational occupational safety and health measures. Its objectives include preventing work-related illness and maintaining employability. The Ordinance on Preventive Occupational Health Care (Verordnung zur arbeitsmedizinischen Vorsorge) lays down obligations on employers and physicians, guarantees employee rights, provides transparency regarding the need for mandatory and optional preventive check-ups, and strengthens employees’ entitlement to voluntary check-ups. It stipulates a general separation of occupational health care and aptitude physicals, the admissibility of which is governed by labour law and data protection law. The ordinance is supplemented by occupational health rules. Drawing up rules in line with current occupational health knowledge and of occupational health recommendations is among the responsibilities of the Occupational Health Committee (Ausschuss für Arbeitsmedizin).
Ordinance on the Use of Personal Protective Equipment
The Ordinance on the Use of Personal Protective Equipment (PSA-Benutzungsverordnung) relates to the selection, provision and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in all sectors. Employers must also ensure that employees are instructed in the safe use of such equipment.
Handling of Loads Ordinance
The Handling of Loads Ordinance (Lastenhandhabungsverordnung) governs safety and health in manual load handling where there is a health risk to employees, and particularly where there is danger of lumbar injury. Employers must avoid manual load handling where possible. Where manual load handling cannot be avoided, employers must ensure the maximum level of safety and minimum health risk to employees. For this purpose, working conditions are assessed to decide appropriate occupational safety and health measures.
Construction Site Ordinance
The provisions of the Construction Site Ordinance (Baustellenverordnung) aim to reduce the enhanced accident and health risks inherent in construction work relative to other industries and to improve the safety and health of construction workers. Key elements include communication of prior notice in a specified manner, the drawing up of a safety and health plan, and the appointment of a coordinator. These elements are calculated to improve the planning and coordination of construction projects so that dangers to employees can be identified and eliminated at an early stage.
Operational Safety Ordinance
The Operational Safety Ordinance (Betriebssicherheitsverordnung) sets out objectives and provisions to ensure that the use of tools and machinery does not endanger employee safety and health. It also comprehensively stipulates on measures to protect employees and third parties in the use of installations subject to monitoring. Such equipment includes steam boilers, pressurised containers and elevators.
The Workplace Ordinance (Arbeitsstättenverordnung) specifies how workplaces – factories, workshops, offices and administrations, warehouses, shops, etc. – must be equipped and operated. Employers must ensure that there is no risk to employee safety and health in the operation of workplaces. The Ordinance thus covers a wide range of matters including display screen work, workplace dimensions, ventilation, lighting and temperature.
Hazardous Substances Ordinance
The Hazardous Substances Ordinance (Gefahrstoffverordnung) stipulates on the protection of employees from hazardous substances – primarily hazardous chemicals – at work.
Based on the risk assessment the Ordinance gives employers freedom of choice in the selection of workplace-specific protective measures because only they know the full extent of the working conditions at their facilities. Where more detailed stipulations are required, the Hazardous Substances Committee (Ausschuss für Gefahrstoffe/AGS) drafts Technical Rules on Hazardous Substances (Technische Regeln für Gefahrstoffe/TRGS). If these rules are observed, compliance with the Ordinance is presumed. Employers are nonetheless free to implement measures other than those contained in the technical rules as long as they are appropriate, adequate and justifiable. The Ordinance contains a number of annexes setting out detailed provisions on specific areas requiring particular attention with regard to occupational safety and health.
Biological Agents Ordinance
The Biological Agents Ordinance (Biostoffverordnung) provides an up-to-date, cross-sectoral legal framework for the protection of employees from biological agents (microorganisms) at work. Based on a classification of biological agents into risk groups, protective measures are stipulated for the protection of employees against infection and any sensitising or toxicological effects.
These provisions protect an estimated five million employees who come into contact with biological agents at work in research, in biotechnical production, and in the food, agriculture, waste disposal, waste water and health care sectors. To address these various areas of application in a single piece of legislation, the Ordinance takes an underlying approach of stipulating uniform and flexible basic rules allowing employers to lay down and implement measures to protect employees in accordance with the specific workplace risk situation. The Committee on Biological Agents (Ausschuss für Biologische Arbeitsstoffe/ABAS) provides detailed stipulations in Technical Rules for Biological Agents (Technische Regeln für Biologische Arbeitsstoffe/TRBA).
Issues such as bird flu and H1N1 (swine flu) make the protection of employees who come into contact with such pathogens a focal point of everyday activity. The Biological Agents Ordinance and the associated Technical Rules also provide for safety measures, notably for health care employees, in the event of hazards from highly pathogenic viruses such as the globally feared Ebola virus and the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Noise and vibrations in the workplace
The Ordinance on the Control of Noise and Vibrations in the Workplace (Verordnung zu Vibrationen und Lärm an Arbeitsplätzen) is designed to prevent noise-induced hearing loss (one of the most frequent work-related disorders), muscular and skeletal disorders, and neurological disorders that can arise from long periods of exposure to strong vibrations.
Ordinance on Occupational Safety and Health Protection of Workers Exposed to Artificial Optical Radiation
The Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance on Artificial Optical Radiation (Arbeitsschutzverordnung zu künstlicher optischer Strahlung) focuses on protecting employees from risks of artificial optical radiation at work, which can arise e.g. due to the exposure to laser beams or sources of ultraviolet light and their harmful effects.
Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance on Electromagnetic Fields
The Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance on Electromagnetic Fields (EMF Ordinance) (Arbeitsschutzverordnung zu elektromagnetischen Feldern) protects the safety and health of employees from risks arising from electromagnetic fields at work by preventing e.g. interference with medical implants (such as pacemakers), the stimulation of nerves or tissue damage due to overexposure.
New Quality of Work Initiative
The New Quality of Work Initiative (Initiative Neue Qualität der Arbeit/INQA) is a joint initiative in which stakeholders from government, business, the unions, research and civil society have joined forces to seek practicable solutions for making working conditions both more attractive, motivating and healthy for employees and more conducive to innovation and economically viable for employers. The New Quality of Work Initiative cuts across otherwise conflicting interests by providing an independent, non-party-political platform with broad employer and union support for constructive, practice-focused exchange.
The New Quality of Work Initiative brings together all those seeking to shape employment in Germany, providing a wide range of opportunities for exchange, low-threshold and practice-focused advice and information services, practical tools, funding programmes, and a website including inspiring real-life examples. The Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, employer associations and unions, chambers, the Federal Employment Agency, the Conference of Ministers for Labour and Social Affairs, the Federation of German Local Authority Associations, social insurance funds and foundations work closely together to this end.
Demographic change and structural upheavals in the labour market make it increasingly urgent for the public and private sector to position themselves as attractive employers as they compete for skilled labour and to be innovative in recruitment. Developments in the labour force place special importance on investing in employee loyalty and establishing an employee-centric organisational culture. Shaping good, healthy and motivating working conditions for employees is a key element here.
This is where the New Quality of Work Initiative comes in. Its central aim is to raise awareness in both the public and the private sector for these interdependencies and for low-threshold, practice-focused solutions.