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Book in review: A hundred years of occupational safety and health

| Text: Anne Inga Hilsen, the Work Research Institute

A recently published study from the National Institute for Working Life in Sweden offers a fascinating introduction to the development of the work environment and safety at work in Sweden during the 20th century

The stated aim of the book is to introduce Swedish historical research on this topic to an international readership, to integrate this research into international discourse and to stimulate new research within the field.The book consists of nine articles covering a range of occupational safety and health (OSH) issues.

 Describing work life from an OSH perspective is an interesting approach, and the book is a valuable contribution to the field of work research. I would like to concentrate my comments on the discussion of industrial work and OSH, as covered in the first three articles. 

The topic is first described through the eyes of proletarian writers.This is followed by an historical analysis of the development of OSH issues in Swedish work life, using the iron and steel industry as an example case.The subject is further elaborated by a discussion of the silicosis problem in the Swedish iron and steel industry. 

The book discusses regulatory and organisational structures that influence the slowly changing state of OSH in the Swedish iron and steel industry. I would like to point out some discrepancies between the two countries, Sweden and Norway, with regard to work life and work environment issues in the industrial sector. The book describes how the Swedish industrial relations model was based on the logic of regulation which did not always fit the structural relations characterising the iron and steel industry.

The Swedish model (as the Norwegian model) is based on tripartite co-operation between organised parties in the labour market and the government.This logic of regulation assumes that social partners have equal bargaining power, representing well organised interests of labour and capital.Within this logic, OSH issues would be negotiated and settled in collective agreements. The book states that the historical conditions for the local parties to act as organised and independent parties can vary greatly. 

The Swedish iron and steel industry has a history of paternalism and dependence. The workers were beholden to the employer for their livelihood, and the book seems to indicate a strong relationship of subordination that extends into both everyday life and the workplace. The example of silicosis (a lung disease caused by inhaling quartz dust) also demonstrates how the handling of OSH problems can pitch groups of workers against other groups of workers, so that it is not only a subject of labour-management conflict. 

Many of the factors which influence the efforts concentrating on improving working conditions in Swedish industry, apply to the Norwegian industrial sector as well. One significant factor missing from Norwegian industry, is the regional aspect. Sociological studies of industrial communities in Norway (e.g. the Årdal studies - Årdalsprosjektet) during the early 1970s identified some concepts which appear irrelevant to Swedish ironworks communities, as described in the book. The Årdal studies described the typical ironwork community as a one-generation community (én-generasjonssamfunnet). Natural resources were the deciding factor in localisation, and energy (waterfalls) and transportation (deep harbours) were the main prerequisites.This lead to the establishment of communities in isolated places, where the workers had to be “imported” to man the industrial plant. The management in the industrial plants also comprised mainly employees from companies outside the area (often outside Norway).This situation may have made for a more professional relationship between workers and management, as demonstrated in a long history of class struggle and management- labour conflicts. 

Because workers moved to the communities solely in order to work at the factories, they were not so bound to the paternalistic ties between employer and employees established through a shared geographic and cultural history, than is indicated in the Swedish articles. I would like to raise the question of whether industrial relations, seen as negotiations between organised and independent parties, have historically occupied a stronger position in Norway as a result of this demographical difference. 

The book can be seen as a valuable contribution to the research on the development of production, work and work processes, and their social implications. By attempting a simple comparison with Norwegian conditions, I would like to suggest that this issue might be worth further attention within the shared Nordic discourse on working life.


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