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Danish working environment in crisis – and measures are about to change

| Text: Marie Preisler

The Danish government has become so worried about the deterioration of the quality of working environments that it is now making changes to working environment measures. Trade unions are calling for a stop to cuts to the Working Environment Authority.

In just five years the number of Danish workers reporting suffering from work-related psychological strain has grown by 17 percent, and 15 percent more are experiencing muscular and skeletal strain. The standards of Danish working environments have fallen so rapidly that the Minister for Employment Troels Lund Poulsen from Venstre, the Liberal Party of Denmark, has acknowledged that existing working environment measures have not worked and must be revised. 

“As the Minister for Employment I am worried about how things have developed. With the figures that we see today, I must conclude that the working environment measures have failed. They are simply not doing what they were meant to do,” the minister told the press in the wake of a major new report published by the National Research Centre for the Working Environment (NFA).

The report concludes that things are going in completely the wrong direction compared to what has been the overarching political aims for improving Danish working environments. In 2011 a large majority in the Danish parliament decided that three goals for working environments should be met by 2020: 25 percent fewer serious workplace accidents, 20 percent fewer people experiencing psychological strain and 20 percent fewer people experiencing muscular and skeletal strain. 

But the country is further away from those goals than ever: More people are experiencing psychological and physical strain. The only thing going in the right direction is the number of workplace accidents: The number of serious workplace accidents have fallen by 18 percent.

Stop cuts to the Working Environment Authority

A politically appointed expert committee has therefore been tasked with coming up with recommendations for comprehensive and improved working environment measures, and the social partners have already expressed what they would like to see happen. Many are calling for a stop to cuts to the Working Environment Authority – in Danish Arbejdstilsynet – including Lizette Risgaard, the President of LO-Denmark. She believes it is the cuts to Arbejdstilsynet that have forced the working environment measures out of kilter. 

The LO President also encourages politicians to remove planned savings in Arbejdstilsynet. 40 million Danish kroner (€5.4m) were cut in its 2017 budget, and further cuts in 2018 look likely if fresh money is not found when parliament enter budget negotiations this autumn.

The Danish Union of Early Childhood and Youth Educators, BUPL, sees no reason to wait for the expert committee. Educators represent one of the groups suffering from poor working environments, so BUPL wants immediate action. An earlier survey of the working environments in 54 different trades published in Ugebrevet A4 landed educators in 49th place. 

The Djøf trade union, which organises lawyers and economists, agrees with LO that cuts must take some of the blame for the obvious deterioration of Danes’ psychological working environments. Another contributing factor is constant change in the work places, the union believes.

Arbejdstilsynet's internal problems

There have also been major changes to and problems with working environments internally at Arbejdstilsynet as a result of recent years’ cuts. This has had wide-ranging consequences, although it has not impacted negatively on the work against social dumping. 

The authority’s employees have reported working environment problems relating to a lack of trust in the top management, and more than 100 employees have left in recent years citing dissatisfaction with the working environment. Earlier this year the authority’s Director General stepped down, saying a new director general was needed in order to realise goals and strategies. The post remains to be filled.

Despite the internal unrest and lack of ability to reach the goals for physical and psychological working environments, Arbejdstilsynet has succeeded elsewhere – at least according to itself: 

The regulations which the authority imposes on companies are efficient also in the longer term. Arbejdstilsynet is also good at identifying companies which are risking developing working environment problems. And four in five companies which have been visited by the authority are happy or very happy with their dialogue with them. This according to Arbejdstilsynet's 2016 user survey.

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