Are Italy’s workplaces more dangerous than elsewhere in Europe?

Elaine Allaby
Elaine Allaby - [email protected]
Are Italy’s workplaces more dangerous than elsewhere in Europe?
A worker stands at the construction site of a tunnel in Chiomonte, northwestern Italy, on January 18, 2023. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP.

Following reports of yet another deadly workplace accident in Italy, does the country really perform worse than its European neighbours when it comes to worker safety?


On Monday, five workers maintenance workers were killed on the island of Sicily after inhaling poisonous fumes at a sewage treatment plant.

This latest tragedy follows the high-profile deaths of five workers at a Florence construction site in February, and the deaths of seven workers in an explosion at a hydroelectric plant outside Bologna in April.

The frequency with which these stories appear in the headlines can make it seem like there's a major workplace incident every other week in Italy.

The issue even made it into this year's Sanremo music festival with Paolo Jannacci and Stefano Massini's performance of L'Uomo nel lampo ('The man in the flash'), introduced by host Amadeus with a sombre reflection on the number of people killed on the job in Italy every day (around three).

READ ALSO: Rome square filled with coffins in protest over Italy's workplace deaths

But does Italy really perform significantly worse than the rest of Europe when it comes to worker protections, or does it just sometimes feel that way?

According to data from the European Commission's statistics office, Eurostat, in 2021 (the most recent year for which data is available) Italy had the eighth highest number of fatalities out of the 27 EU countries, with 2.66 deaths per 100,000 workers - worse than Spain and Portugal, but better than France and Austria.

The worst three countries for worker deaths were Latvia, with 4.29 deaths per 100,000, followed by Lithuania (3.75) and Malta (3.34); while the three least-fatal countries for workers were Finland (0.75), Greece (0.58) and Holland (0.33).

Workplace deaths in Europe in 2021. Source: Eurostat

If you look at Eurostat's standardised incidence rates - which adjust for the fact that domestic economies rely to a greater or lesser extent on different industries that carry different levels of worker risk - Italy remains in eighth place, but performs slightly worse, with more than 3 deaths per 100,000.

Data from Italy's state-run Workers Compensation Authority, INAIL, shows that worker deaths in Italy dropped from more than ten per day in the early 1960's to around one third that number in the early 90's, but haven't significantly declined since then.


INAIL figures also show that 191 people died at work in the first quarter of 2024 - no worse than any time in the past decade, when the numbers have consistently hovered around 200.

That's not good enough for workers' rights groups, who say those in power are failing to enforce adequate worker safety protections.

The Palermo chapter of workers union CGIL staged a general strike and a protest outside the city's prefecture on Tuesday, following a national protest calling for better worker safety protections last month.

Cardboard coffins fill Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on March 19th in a protest drawing attention to the number of deaths at work in Italy. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

"A business model based on contracts, subcontracts and precariousness is a model that kills," CGIL general secretary Maurizio Landini told reporters.

Unions are calling for "continuous and comprehensive inspections, supervision of the contracting system, and more attention to the training of workers."

Initial reports showed that none of the workers who died on Monday were wearing personal protective equipment. One was retired, and two were not technically qualified to carry out the works.


Italian President Sergio Mattarella described the incident as "yet another unacceptable workplace massacre," adding that he hoped that "full light will be shed" on the causes of the accident.

In a 2023 report, INAIL's supervisory board noted that the authority had a significant budget surplus, but that it couldn't be used for accident prevention because current regulations ringfence the funds for compensation payouts.

The authority's exclusive focus on building up financial reserves for insurance claims while neglecting to fund worker safety initiatives is counter-productive, the board wrote, "perpetuating a vicious circle that diverts resources needed for prevention by pouring them into the Treasury in excess of real needs."

Instead of simply building up reserves, they argue, the institute should focus its efforts on "decisive intervention" to reduce workplace accidents, "including through the funding of prevention initiatives".


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