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Large differences in work environments and health among Danish workers

| By Marie Preisler

A new major survey exposes marked changes both for the better and for the worse in how Danes experience their own work environment and health.

There has been a considerable rise in the number of Danes who feel their physical work environment has improved, and more feel they have the support of management and colleagues. At the same time there's a strong increase in the number of people who say they experience violence and threats, and people with shorter educations are still the ones who feel most worn out by their job.

These are the results from a major new survey from Denmark's National Research Centre for the Working Environment (NFA). 10,600 workers and self-employed people between 18 and 59 from various trades answered questions about their physical and psychological work environment and health in 2010. Some of the questions were also asked in 2005, and the new survey can therefore map the development in how people experience their physical and psychological work environment. The result shows both marked progress and major setbacks. 

One area of major progress is the considerable reduction in the number of people who say they have to do hard physical work. There's a notable drop in people experiencing working days which for a large part include actions like carrying loads, back twisting, lifting or pushing and shoving. There is also a reduction in the number of people who say they're expected to work very fast, as well as a reduction in weekly working hours. 

This positive development in people's physical work environment does hide considerable local variations however, and is not entirely clear-cut.

There is a marked increase in the number of people who say they are exposed to vibrations from vehicles and machinery, and more people are executing repetitive finger and arm movements many times a minute. Compared to five years ago there is a slight increase in the number of people who are performing static work, and more say they suffer from being exposed to noise. There is a slight drop in the number of people who consider their general health as 'very good' or 'good', and the survey cannot identify a decrease in the number of people who said they had been victims of a reportable workplace accident.   

Increase in violence and bullying

Results are equally divided when it comes to the psychological work environment. More people say they get more support from close management and colleagues. But more workers also say their jobs put psychological pressure on them and fewer feel their work is meaningful. 

There is also an increase in the number of people reporting bullying, violence and threats of violence. The survey says there has been a 'marked and significant' increase in the number of workers who have experienced bullying in the work place, been threatened with violence or been victims of violence. 6.4 percent experienced threats of violence in 2005. In 2010 the number had risen to 10.6 percent. In 2005 3.3 percent said they had been victims of violence. In 2010 the number was 7.5 percent. And while 10.3 percent said they had experienced workplace bullying over the past 12 months in 2005, 12.5 percent said the same in 2010.

The majority of reported bullying cases come from those who work with people, especially within domestic care and among care assistants, pedagogues, pedagogue assistants and cleaning assistants. Those who have experienced violence or threats of violence at work over the past 12 months include police officers, prison staff, teachers, care workers and people with handicaps. Women generally experience more bullying, violence and threats of violence in the workplace than men. 

Warnings against cuts

The survey documents clear differences between different occupational groups. Cleaning assistants, home carers, pedagogues and self-employed people say they spend more than one quarter of their working day bending over forwards  or that they will twist or bend their back several times an hour. This is more than other occupational groups.

Psychological pressure is most often reported from those working with people, but these same groups of workers are also those who most often say they find their jobs meaningful.

Mechanics, machine and mechanical fitters and slaughterhouse workers are at high risk of workplace accidents and consider their safety at work as being lower compared to other occupational groups. And for young people between 18 and 24 the risk of workplace accidents is double that of their older colleagues. 

The survey has made Danish trade unions issue serious warnings against planned cuts to work environment funding. Ejner K. Holst, confederal secretary at The Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), has noticed how the survey uncovers that major social inequalities remain and he warns against the planned phasing out of Denmark's early retirement scheme:

"Groups like cleaning assistants, home carers and builders still face unreasonably hard physical work. Work which means they suffer from pain for many years before they can retire from the labour market. It is completely grotesque that a majority in the Folketing [parliament] wants to get rid of the early retirement scheme, which is aimed precisely at people with hard physical work," says Ejner K. Holst.

A need for prevention

The LO confederal secretary also finds it unacceptable that the government has made deep cuts to the Prevention Fund, which helps pay for measures to improve people's working environments. And he warns that planned public sector cuts must not include any cuts to the Danish Working Environment Authority.

FTF, Denmark's trade union confederation of some 450,000 public and private employees, is particularly worried about the increase in the number of workers who say they experience bullying, threats and violence in the workplace. FTF agrees with LO in the criticism of the government's plans for considerable cuts to the funding of the Prevention Fund and also warns against cuts to the Working Environment Authority and the Ministry of Employment. 

"It is deeply worrying that we see an increase of the number of workers who experience a bad psychological working environment. Therefore it is also completely unacceptable that the conservative-liberal coalition chooses to undermine the drive to prevent things like stress and psychological wear and tear," says Bente Sorgenfrey, FTF's president.

The survey comprises so-called descriptive analyses which do not uncover the reasons why the respondents experience their own work environment in the way they do. 

National Research Centre for the Working Environment (NFA)

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