ACCESS TO INFORMATION FOR EMPLOYEES - In the case of Vilnes and Others v. Norway the European Court of Human Rights held that Norwegian authorities failed to provide deep sea divers with essential information about risks associated with their employers’ use of rapid decompression tables. The case concerned former complaints by divers that they are disabled as a result of diving in the North Sea for oil companies during the pioneer period of oil exploration (from 1965 to 1990).
This case is of interest because it complements the Court’s case-law on access to information under Articles 2 and 8, notably in so far as it establishes an obligation on the authorities to ensure that employees receive essential information enabling them to assess occupational risks to their health and safety.
The Court found that the authorities had failed to comply with their obligation under article 8 to provide access to essential information enabling individuals to assess the risks to their health and lives. Indeed, although there had been a lack of scientific consensus regarding the long-term effects of decompression sickness, diving companies had been allowed to keep their respective diving tables secret merely in order to have a competitive advantage over other companies. Therefore, divers had been denied access to essential information on rapid decompression times and on the consequence that this could have on their health and safety. As a result, they had been unable to fully assess the risks involved and give their informed consent:
"244. Having regard to all of the above-mentioned considerations, in particular the authorities’ role in authorising diving operations and in protecting the safety of such operations as well as the lack of scientific consensus at the time regarding the long-term effects of decompression sickness and the uncertainty about these matters which existed at the time (see paragraph 147 (h) above), in order to minimise the possibility of damage a very cautious approach was called for (see paragraph 85 above). In the Court’s view it would therefore have been reasonable for the authorities to take the precaution of ensuring that the companies observe full transparency about the diving tables used and that the applicants, and other divers like them, receive information on the differences between tables, as well as on their concerns for the divers’ safety and health, which constituted essential information that they needed to be able to assess the risk to their health and to give informed consent to the risks involved. This the authorities could have done when, for example, granting authorisation of diving operations and upon inspections. Had they done so they might conceivably have helped to eliminate sooner the use of rapid tables as a means for companies to promote their own commercial interests, potentially adding to the risks to divers’ health and safety. By failing to do so the respondent State did not fulfil its obligation to secure the applicants’ right to respect for their private life, in violation of Article 8 of the Convention. There has accordingly been a violation of this provision."
Courtesy Press Service of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg