On 22 December 2022, the European Court of Justice ruled on whether an employer must cover the cost of corrective glasses for a display screen employee with vision problems. This preliminary ruling, brought before the Court by a Romanian judge, was answered affirmatively.
What does this imply for the Belgian employer?
The facts underlying this preliminary ruling concern a Romanian employee who claimed that his work caused him to suffer from severely deteriorating eyesight. On the advice of his doctor, he bought himself corrective glasses. Since the Romanian national health service does not provide for the reimbursement of these glasses, the employee went to his employer. However, the employer refused to reimburse the cost of the purchased glasses. That is why the employee initiated legal proceedings before the Romanian court. Before the Romanian court ruled on the dispute in appeal, it submitted a preliminary ruling to the European Court of Justice.
The question of whether an employer actually has to bear this cost must be answered by referring to European Directive 90/270/EEC on the minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen equipment.
Article 9 of this directive states that employees must be able to undergo an appropriate eye and eyesight examination before starting to work with a display screen, or at regular intervals or when visual disturbances resulting from working with a display screen occur. If this examination shows that an ophthalmological examination is required, employees must be able to undergo it. The article further provides that if the general or ophthalmological examination shows that normal corrective appliances cannot be used, special corrective appliances related to the work concerned must be obtained. In addition, the article stipulates that under no circumstances may this entail additional costs for the employees.
The court ruled that this article should be interpreted to the extent that special corrective appliances can include glasses with corrective lenses and that these appliances do not have to be used exclusively in a professional capacity. Thus, glasses specifically aimed at correcting and preventing vision disorders related to work can also be used privately. In addition, the Court stipulates that the eye damage suffered must not have been caused by the work on a display screen.
The Court emphasises that the directive does not prescribe how the employer must fulfil its obligation: he can provide or reimburse the glasses. Reimbursement may even be provided by means of the payment of a supplement. However, this supplement must necessarily cover the cost of purchasing the special corrective device. Thus, a general salary supplement paid on a permanent basis was not taken into account, as it did not appear to be intended to cover the expenses of the vision correction device.
National judicial authorities, including Belgian ones, are bound by ECJ decisions. The question therefore arises whether a Belgian employer must provide glasses for its display screen employees with vision problems.
Directive 90/270/EEC was incorporated into Belgian law in Book VIII - Title 2 of the Codex on well-being at work. The Codex provides that employees who habitually use display screen equipment during a significant proportion of their normal working time can also claim a corrective device in certain cases. Specifically, the Codex prescribes that when the results of the ophthalmological examination so require and when a normal corrective device does not make the performance of working on a monitor possible, the employee must be provided with a special corrective device exclusively related to the work in question. The cost of this corrective device is to be borne by the employer.
Consequently, the Belgian Codex on well-being provides for a similar provision to what is provided for in Directive 90/270/EEC. In view of the ruling of the European Court of Justice, we can conclude that glasses with corrective lenses can also be considered a special corrective device. Although the corrective device may only be related to the work in question, the ECJ does not exclude that it may also be used in the private sphere.
However, it is not the case that every employee can simply bring in his/her receipt for the purchase of glasses to the employer. Both the directive and the Codex on well-being expressly state that the employer should only intervene when a normal remedy is not sufficient.
As an employer, be mindful that in certain cases your employees may be entitled to monitor glasses if they spend a significant amount of their working time in front of a screen. However, this right is only open to employees for whom ordinary glasses or reading glasses do not adequately protect against work‑related vision impairments.