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Do we have the right tools to fight for a better work environment?

| By Bjön Lindahl, editor-in-chief

Events that are near in time always get the most attention. But is that always smart? A study of work-related deaths from Finland’s top work environment experts shows that accidents in the workplace only counted for one per cent of deaths. Yet 57 per cent of state controls are performed to prevent accidents.

Other reasons why people die because of their work include exposure to chemicals as well as physical and biological stress. These issues are behind a large number of cancer-related deaths – 46 per cent of all fatalities. Next come cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. 

As part of its Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Sweden hosted a seminar in Stockholm in connection with the World Day for Safety and Health at Work. Here, the enormous costs of illnesses and deaths in the workplace were highlighted. According to the Finnish report and 2019 figures from the ILO, the total cost corresponds to around 4 per cent of the Nordic countries’ GDP.

We take a closer look at the work environment in two sectors. The risks associated with one of them – firefighting – are obvious. A Norwegian survey shows that firefighters run a 15 per cent higher risk of developing cancer than the average population.

But they struggle to have their illness recognised as work-related because the burden of proof lands on the firefighters themselves. They have now come together in Firefighters Against Cancer, and collaborate with their trade union to change this. 

The other sector is the horse industry. In Sweden, there are 34 horses per 1,000 people. There are a total of some 355,000 horses which in turn create 18,680 full-time jobs. The types of tasks involved in looking after horses in riding schools, trotting or at the farm have not changed much in the past few hundred years. 

It involves a lot of manual work with heavy lifting, repetitive work and strenuous working positions. The horse is also the animal which is involved in the highest number of serious work accidents.

Yet now, things are afoot to create a more systematic approach to the work environment in this sector, while certain tasks are being farmed out to robots.

Danish agriculture has faced a different problem lately. The sector has long traditions of welcoming apprentices from abroad. Previously, these came from European countries, but now they mainly come from countries much further away, like Vietnam and Uganda. 

What was once a cultural exchange has become a way for Danish farmers to secure cheap labour. 

There have been reports of even worse conditions from Finnish and Swedish blueberry forests. Berry pickers from Thailand who work for a few months in the summer and autumn have become the biggest group of labour immigrants. In Sweden, up to 6,000 people might pick 33,000 tonnes of blueberries each season. 

But nearly every year, there are stories in the media of the berry pickers’ poor working conditions. They are not paid a legal wage and sometimes are not paid at all. They work from early morning to late at night six days a week. They are forced to live in accommodation with poor sanitary conditions and few toilets. 

Finnish authorities this year decided to issue tourist visas to Thai berry pickers. From next year they will have to present a job contract and organised working conditions before they arrive. Yet these measures have been in place in Sweden for many years, without stopping new scandals.

Others besides Thai berry pickers also worry about not getting paid properly. A new survey of 5,000 Finnish youths shows that only 53 per cent of them are enthusiastic about entering working life, while the number in 2018 was 82 per cent.

They worry about poor pay and that work will take too much of their spare time away. It is particularly girls who fear working life will be too difficult. Young people’s worries have increased after the pandemic.


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