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New Swedish work environment strategy: No more fatal work accidents

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: the Social Democrats

The Swedish government wants a vision zero for fatal work accidents, a sustainable labour market and measures to improve the psychosocial work environment. The government recently presented its work environment strategy for 2016 to 2020.

The government’s new work environment strategy comes as a response to recent years’ increase in work-related illnesses, especially psychiatric diagnosis. It is this development the government now hopes to reverse with its three focus areas, but also through two inquiries. 

One will look at which work environment rules are needed in the modern labour market. The other will be used to create a basis for a national centre of work environment expertise. 

“We were missing the National Institute for Working Life”, Sweden’s Minister for Employment Ylva Johansson told the press during the strategy launch, referring to the centre-right government’s decision to close the Institute in 2007.

“I believe there is a link between increasing sick leave and the severe cuts to work environment initiatives imposed by the former government. In 2007 the Swedish Work Environment Authority faced cuts and the National Institute for Working Life was axed,” she said.

Work on the new work environment strategy has been going on since 2015 and is carried out in cooperation with the social partners. It involves seminars and meetings with various experts. Work environment issues have been a priority for the centre-left government since it came to power in 2014, and it has set aside 100 million kronor (€10.7m) every year for work environment issues, which includes more funds allocated to the Work Environment Authority, regional safety officers and occupational health. 

The government has also allocated 55 million kronor (€5.9m) to more labour market research.

A vision zero for fatal accidents

In the coming years the government will shape its work environment policies based on three main focus areas. One of them is a vision zero for fatal accidents and preventative measures to achieve this.

 

Fatal accidents graph

Fatal work accidents are far less frequent than they use to be 

 

The number of fatal work accidents has indeed been halved in the past 25 years, but still there is nearly one workplace death every week. Most at risk are people in the construction, manufacturing, transport, agriculture and forestry sectors. The Minister for Employment believes the only aim must be a vision zero.

“It is horrible and unacceptable that people loose their lives at work,” said Ylva Johansson.

A sustainable labour market

The second focus area is a sustainable labour market. In the report ‘Work Environments 2013’ 14 percent of employees between 50 and 64 said they did not think they would manage to work until pensionable age. But young people are also struggling in today’s labour market. It can be hard to gain access, simply securing a job. The number of unskilled workers has dropped from some 50 percent of the labour force to 10 percent today.   

This means a labour market with increasing demands while the skills base has not always kept pace with the development. Many young people also have jobs which involve heavy lifting and stress, for instance in the restaurant trade.

Another issue for the sustainable labour market initiative is new technology which for many workers means disruptions to their work/life balance. The types of employment are also undergoing major change. The sharing economy creates new ways of working, many are working as sole traders or as part of a supply chain, while others are dependent on staffing agencies. There are also many foreign companies, which might not be as au fait with Swedish regulations.        

“We will look at other ways of organising work than what we are used to. Do the changes mean we have to adapt existing legislation and rules? When the labour market changes we also need to change how we handle the work environment,” said Ylva Johansson.

The psychosocial work environment

The psychosocial work environment is the third focus area. Since 2010 sick leave has increased with 75 percent. Two thirds of the people on that statistic are women, and the massive increase is due to stress and other psychological ailments. Many of the victims are women of childbearing age. One reason is more domestic work, but also a challenging work environment.  

One particular area of concern is the fact that sick leave is becoming more prevalent among younger people. So-called contract jobs are judged to be particularly straining: Assistant nurses in elderly care, social workers, nursers dealing with people in crisis. 

 

Annika Strandhäll

 

“These are people who are needed in our welfare society, not in our social benefit systems. If this development is not halted, we will have 70,000 more people on sick leave by 2020. That would cost 14 billion kronor (€1.5bn) in sickness benefits alone, and it would be a tragedy for individual workers, employers and the society as a whole,” said the Minister for Social Security Annika Strandhäll, who also attended the media seminar.

How will the new work environment strategy change things? One path is increased knowledge about the new labour market and work environments. The aim is also to create a new forum for dialogue between the social partners, the Swedish Work Environment Authority and the Ministry of Employment.

“There is a lack of knowledge today and this is one piece of the jigsaw which the government can help put it place. We know that in areas where a systematic work environment focus has been applied, things run pretty smoothly. This is also where you often find close cooperation between the social partners and with occupational health. My ambition is to see to it that a larger part of the Swedish labour market will apply a systematic work environment focus. This should be carried by the social partners, but with help from the authorities,” said Ylva Johansson.

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