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Risk-based inspections on the wrong track?

Risk-based inspections on the wrong track?

| Text: Kari Skarholt and Øyvind Dahl, Senior Research Technicians, SINTEF Technology and Society

Nordic labour inspection authorities still have some way to go to perfect their methods for identifying businesses for inspection. But critics who imply that these authorities lack the will to seek out risk, are off target.

National inspection authorities tasked with monitoring working environments in their respective Nordic countries, have all chosen a risk-based approach for the work they do. They are still often criticised for how they choose their inspection targets. Some of the criticism indicates that choices are made on a basis of convenience and not in light of risk assessments. But these allegations are not correct.

When you take a risk-based approach when inspecting working environments, you ideally focus your activity on businesses where you find the greatest risk for work-place accidents, illegal practices and unfortunate working environment strains. The underlying idea is that this will be the most cost-efficient way of carrying out inspections.

Yet despite the fact that Nordic authorities in this sector ideally want inspections to be based on risk assessments, their priorities often come in for criticism.

These authorities’ risk-based approach is the focus of the ongoing research project NORDRISK, which we at the Norwegian SINTEF research institute are part of. Our findings indicate that controversial choices of inspection targets are not a result of ‘ill will’, but rather due to not having the best tools and methods to fully understand the complex risk reality of working life.

Criticism of how the public labour inspection authorities prioritise comes both from employers’ and employees’ organisations, research environments and control authorities. For instance, The Swedish Agency for Public Management said in its analysis of the Swedish Work Environment Authority in 2014 that the authority’s inspection practices did not mirror their ambition to reach businesses with the greatest level of risk. As a result, the Agency for Public Management now calls for a clarification of which principles should be applied when choosing businesses for inspection. The same issue is pointed out in The Swedish National Audit Office’s review of the Work Environment Authority in 2016.

The Danish Working Environment Authority has been similarly criticised after an increase in the number work-related psychological problems and muscular and skeletal strains. The Confederation of Danish Employers (DA) has expressed a wish for the government’s newly appointed working environment expert group to focus on how to secure a more targeted inspection regime. DA also underlines that the Working Environment Authority should prioritise the few businesses which are in real trouble, not the many that have good working environments.

Norway’s Labour Inspection Authority has also come in for criticism for its choice of inspection targets, despite the fact that the authority has prioritised the development of tools for risk-based inspection methods. Vibeke H. Madsen from the employers’ organisation the Enterprise Federation of Norway (Virke) is the latest in the line of critics.

In an opinion piece for NRK on 13 May 2017 she wrote that the Labour Inspection Authority had its priorities wrong, that it approached the wrong businesses in one out of every three inspections, that criminal operators got away and that the authority used “too much time on making social calls to serious businesses.”

Madsen’s criticism implies that the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority not only prioritises wrong, but that it does so because it lacks the will to pursue businesses where the greatest challenges can be found. But this goes against what we find in the NORDRISK research project:

We have studied and analysed relevant documents, carried out interviews with the relevant Nordic authorities and have got relevant input through a Nordic workshop.

Despite the fact that all of the Nordic authorities in this sector face challenges linked to how to develop the best possible methods for choosing businesses, we find little evidence that these challenges are due to a lack of will to seek out risk. Risk-based inspections are challenging for very different reasons – including these three:

Different stakeholders often have different views of risk. For instance, employees’ organisations, employers’ organisations, political authorities, control authorities and labour market researchers never share an identical understanding of where in the labour market the risk is highest, or which types of risk are the most serious and should therefore be prioritised. While one stakeholder considers one type of risk as high, another will consider this to be marginal. Risk is, in other words, not an objective phenomenon. There are no objective measurements for comparing different types of risk.

The risk situation in the working environment is complicated. A labour inspectorate must identify, rate, prioritise and carry out inspections across a range of different risk areas, for instance the psychosocial working environment, social dumping, work-related accidents and exposure which can damage health.

Each one of these areas can be split into even more specific types of risk. Exposure which can damage health could for instance include vibrations, heat, freezing conditions, noise, dust, radiation, biological materials, smoke, steam, gasses and solvents. It is challenging to take all these specific risks into consideration; to compare them to each other and to identify which risks to prioritise.

The number of potential inspection targets is big. Norway’s Labour Inspection Authority oversees some 230,000 businesses with one or more employees, for instance. It is a very complicated task to identify which of them that really do not take things seriously. This kind of circling in ‘the bad guys’ requires access to broad and deep enough data material, the development of relevant analysis methods, the access to the exchange of data between different public authorities and enough analysis capacity.   

Nordic authorities in this field keep developing risk-based approaches, with risk assessments for different trades and different types of risk. Yet developing an adequate method for how to identify which businesses are most exposed to risk, is a complex job. A lot of work still needs to be done.

The aim of SINTEF’s NORDRISK project is to allow all of the authorities to learn from each other’s challenges and solutions, which can give them support to further develop tools and methods for risk-based inspections.

In order to bring the debate on risk-based inspections back on track, however, it is important that all parties understand that identifying the ‘correct’ inspection target is not a question of good or ill will, but a question of possessing the right tools and methods for understanding the labour market’s complex risk situation.

SINTEF Technology and Society

carries out research to find solutions to major social challenges, as described in national planning documents and in the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. Research areas include: work and businesses, energy and climate, health, demography and welfare, smart transport solutions and innovative societies.

Kari Skarholt 

Kari Skarholt, Senior Research Scientist, SINTEF Technology and Society

 Øyvind Dahl

Øyvind Dahl, Senior Research Scientist, SINTEF Technology and Society

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