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Alarm bells ring after many fatal workplace accidents in Sweden
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Alarm bells ring after many fatal workplace accidents in Sweden

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

Men working high up in construction and men loading and unloading trucks. Two risk-filled jobs that have claimed lives this year in Sweden. But the initial increase in fatal accidents earlier in 2019 has subsided.

2019 had only just begun when a 53-year-old driver died while loading his lorry with a forklift truck at ICA’s Helsingborg warehouse on 1 January. An automatic gate designed to close automatically as the lorry leaves the warehouse closed early by accident. The man crashed into the gate and fell off the forklift truck. The fall killed him.

One day later, a man in his 30s died when a piece of concrete fell on top of him at Södra Cell in Mönsterås. Five days after that, on 7 January, a 61-year-old carpenter died after falling three metres from a balcony on an industrial site – this too in Helsingborg.

At the end of January, nine people had died in workplace accidents. In February a further three died. This set alarm bells ringing. Minister for Employment Ylva Johansson got together with five other government ministers and launched an initiative to prioritise work to prevent workplace accidents.

“We can never accept that people die as a result of their work. Everyone should have the right to come home from work. Each death is a failure for the employer and for society,” said Ylva Johansson.

The Swedish Work Environment Authority was tasked with analysing workplace deaths from 2018 and 2019 to see if there were any common factors or measures that needed to be implemented. Their analysis will not be ready until November. 

But the Nordic Labour Journal has looked at the statistics, and it is worth noting that the numbers stabilise in September. So far this year (until 12 September when this is being written), 27 people have died in workplace accidents. In 2018, there were 31 fatal accidents by the end of September, which includes 18 days more than this year’s statistics. 

 Source: AV

The grey line represents 2019 in the graph above. The year started with nine deaths in January, but since then the number has largely been lower each month compared to the same time periods 2017 and 2018. Source: AV

We could, of course, see more fatal accidents in the final part of September, after this has been written. In the worst case, the number of deaths in the last three months of 2019 could be higher than for 2017 and 2018. Yet 2019 could well turn out to be a "normal" year for fatal workplace accidents after all. 

The number of fatal workplace accidents has fallen considerably if you look further back in time. It is only just one tenth of what was common in the 1950s.

Source: AV

The graph above shows a great difference between men and women. Historically, very few women have died compared to men. The only exception is the Estonia accident in 1994, as there were many women on business trips onboard the ferry.

For each fatal accident, there are many more non-fatal ones. Nearly 50,000 workplace accidents are reported in Sweden every year. By analysing these figures, the Swedish Work Environment Authority has identified four main risk factors.

Occupation – mostly within agriculture and craftsmanship as well as among process operators.

The sizes of the workplace – risks rise when many things must be done in a small area, e.g. on a construction site.

Sector – the highest risk is within the transport and storage sector, along with six other sectors.

Education levels – the shorter the education, the higher the risk.

If all these four factors are present, the risk of an accident is 15 times higher than normal. Other risk factors include workplace ownership, if the individual worker has a foreign background as well as age. When the eight greatest risks are present, the risk is 25 times higher. 

Looking at fatal accidents in 2019, some fit well with what we know about occupations and sectors carrying great risks. Falling from heights and accidents during loading and unloading represent 1o of the fatal accidents. Seven of these were linked to various types of falls, while three Swedish workers died during loading and unloading (as well as two foreign workers who are not part of the official statistics because they were not part of the Swedish workforce).

There are also many traffic-related accidents during working hours. Eight people died in car crashes, while another two died in a plane crash in Ethiopia (in which a total of four Swedes died). One person was murdered when she arrived to clean at a private house.

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