European Court of Justice: In a landmark ruling the Bench comprising A. Prechal (President), M.L. Arastey Sahún (Rapporteur), F. Biltgen, N. Wahl and J. Passer, JJ., held that the employer is bound to reimburse the employees the cost of the spectacles, lenses and/or frames where such equipment are specifically for the correction and prevention of visual difficulties relating to work involving display screen equipment.
The General Court was hearing a case for a preliminary ruling regarding the interpretation of Article 9 of Council Directive 90/270/EEC of 29-05-1990 on the minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen equipment.
TJ, who was employed by the General Inspectorate for Immigration, Romania asserted that on-screen work and other risk factors, such as discontinuous visible light, the absence of natural light, and mental overload caused a significant deterioration in his eyesight. He, therefore, had to, on the recommendation of a specialist, change his glasses in order to correct the decline in his visual acuity.
Arguing that the Romanian national health insurance system did not provide for reimbursement of the sum representing the value of the cost of the spectacles, namely the cost of lenses, frames, and labour, TJ asked the General Inspectorate to reimburse him with that sum. However, the General Inspectorate rejected the said request.
When the matter reached the Court of Appeal, Cluj, Romania (the referring Court), the Court opined that the concept of ‘special corrective appliances', which appears in Article 9(3) of Directive 90/270 and which is not defined in that directive, needs to be interpreted first. Therefore, the referring Court referred the following questions for a preliminary ruling:
Whether the expression “special corrective appliances”, used in Article 9 to be interpreted as excluding spectacles with corrective lenses?
Whether the expression “special corrective appliances” be understood solely to mean appliances used exclusively at the place of work and/or in the performance of employment duties?
Whether the obligation to provide a special corrective appliance, refers exclusively to the acquisition of the appliance by the employer, or may it include an obligation upon the employer to reimburse the costs incurred by the worker in purchasing the appliance him or herself?
Whether the employer can cover such costs by means of a general increase in remuneration paid on a continuing basis and referred to as an “increase for arduous working conditions”?
The first and second questions
Under Article 9(3), if the result of the appropriate eye and eyesight test referred to in Article 9(1) or of the ophthalmological examination referred to in Article 9(2) show that it is necessary, and if normal corrective appliances cannot be used, workers are to be provided with special corrective appliances appropriate for the work concerned.
Noting that the purpose of Directive 90/270 is to lay down minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen equipment, the Court opined that compliance with the minimum requirements for ensuring a better level of safety at workstations with display screens is essential for ensuring the safety and health of workers. The Court further noted that the Article 9(3) of Directive 90/270 draws a distinction between, on the one hand, ‘normal corrective appliances' and, on the other hand, ‘special corrective appliances appropriate for the work concerned', namely work with display screen equipment.
While differentiating between ‘normal corrective appliances' and ‘special corrective appliances appropriate for the work concerned', the Court clarified that the former refers to appliances that do not correct visual difficulties established by the examinations referred to in Article 9(1) and (2), and are not necessarily linked to working conditions. However, a special corrective appliance must necessarily seek to correct or prevent visual problems which a normal corrective appliance cannot correct or prevent.
Therefore, holding that the expression ‘corrective appliances', within the meaning of Article 9(3) must be understood in a broad sense, inasmuch as they cover not only spectacles but also other types of appliances capable of correcting or preventing visual difficulties, the Court ruled:
Workers must be provided with such special corrective appliances if normal corrective appliances cannot be used to correct the visual problems found following the examinations provided for in Article 9(1) and (2).
The special nature of the corrective appliance presupposes that it is linked to work with display screen equipment, in that it serves to correct or prevent visual problems specifically linked to such work and found following the examinations provided for in Article 9(1) and (2) of that directive.
The display screen work need not necessarily be the cause of difficulties. Article 9 of Directive 90/270 cannot be interpreted as requiring an acausal link between display screen work and potential visual difficulties.
However, the ‘special corrective appliances' are not limited to appliances used exclusively for professional purposes.
The third and fourth questions
As per Article 9(3) of Directive 90/270, workers must be provided with special corrective appliances appropriate for the work concerned, provided that the examinations referred to in paragraphs 1 and 2 show that it is necessary and normal corrective appliances cannot be used.
The Court held that reimbursement by the employer of the cost of purchasing a special corrective appliance guarantees a better level of protection of the safety and health of workers. Hence, the objective of Article 9(3) and (4) of Directive 90/270, inasmuch as it seeks to ensure that workers are provided with special corrective appliances when they are needed, at no financial cost, can be achieved either directly, by the provision of such an appliance to the worker concerned by the employer, or indirectly, by reimbursement of the cost of that appliance by the employer.
The Court opined that Article 9(3) of Directive 90/270 does not preclude national law from providing that the employer makes special corrective appliances available to the workers concerned, as required by that provision, by means of a pay supplement enabling the worker himself or herself to acquire such an appliance. However, it must be pointed out that such a supplement must necessarily cover the costs specifically advanced by the worker concerned in order to acquire the special corrective appliance.
As a result, the Court concluded that subject to verification by the referring court, a general salary supplement, paid permanently in respect of the arduous nature of the working conditions, does not meet the obligations imposed on the employer by Article 9(3), since it is not intended to cover the costs advanced by the worker concerned for the purposes of such an acquisition. Hence, the employer's obligation to provide the workers concerned with a special corrective appliance may be met by the direct provision of the appliance to the worker by the employer or by reimbursement of the necessary expenses incurred by the worker, but not by the payment of a general salary supplement to the worker.
[TJ v. Inspectoratul General pentru Imigrări, C-392/21, decided on 22-12-2022]
*Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together.