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Risk-based inspections on the agenda at Tampere working environment conference
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Risk-based inspections on the agenda at Tampere working environment conference

| Tekst: Berit Kvam, foto Riita Grönroos

Risk-based inspections was the theme for the 2016 Nordic working environment conference in Tampere. More than 100 participants from across the Nordic region were engaged in the big debate on how authorities can carry out inspections to secure a good working environment in a more efficient way.

“We need to evaluate whether we are efficient when it comes to finding the most important companies, but also look at the way we carry out inspections and how we disseminate knowledge about the working environment. Are we doing this in the right way? How do we move forward?” says Wiking Husberg, ministerial adviser at the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. 

The Finnish delegation had invited all of the Nordic countries and the autonomous areas to explain their current system for risk-based inspections and their future strategies. 

“We have a Nordic tradition, a Nordic form of legislation and we have a Nordic way of adapting that legislation where we don’t put the civil servant first, but the citizen. The Nordic tripartite cooperation, where Nordic civil servants don’t work in isolation but together with the labour market’s organisations, is a real cooperation. It goes beyond calling a meeting for a brief discussion and then returning to your individual jobs. 

“Doing it this way takes time, but in the end the effect is better. This whole tradition and these links is what creates the Nordic cooperation, regardless of whether things are organised slightly differently [from country to country],” says Wiking Husberg. He also has experience from labour market systems in Africa, Russia and the former Soviet Union. 

“This is why I really clearly can see how we in the Nordics understand each other in a different way. We try to improve things together, without ending up punishing someone or side-lining them when we make improvements.”

Everyone needs to return from work

Labour inspection authorities are under pressure in several countries. How high a political priority is the focus on working environments?

“It varies from government to government, but it is my feeling that when we bring up the right of all men and women to be able to return from home, we all agree. We must become better at removing death and suffering in the workplace. We must be safe in the knowledge that when you leave for work in the morning, you should be able to return from work with your health intact. You can then ask yourself which are the most efficient methods and what is more important: catching the thief, preventing crime or strengthening the fulfilment of the law?

“The other thing worth highlighting is how much absence caused by musculoskeletal injuries or psychosocial problems costs,” says Wiking Husberg.

Finnish labour inspection authorities have for years been doing research on the costs of bad working environments.

“Three years ago we did it again together with the research institutes which cooperate with the social partners, because we wanted to find a trustworthy minimum figure for the costs of sick leave. A small group of researchers worked for a year to pinpoint these costs. 

“They found out that it costs 24 billion euro a year, we are loosing two billion euro every month. If you think of the fact that Finland needs to save four billion euro every year, you realise the magnitude of that number.”

Agents of change – it pays

Kevin Myers

Kevin Myers, former Secretary General at the British Health and Safety Executive (HSE), now President of the International Association of Labour Inspection (IALI)) counting more than 100 members world-wide, captured the audience’s attention as the opening speaker for the three day long Nordic working environment conference.

One of the questions he asked was what role the inspectors should play. Should they only make sure the law is not being broken, or should they be agents of change? If the point is change, how do you carry out that task in the best possible way?

During Kevin Myers’ time as head of the HSE, the new UK government cut the executive’s budget by one third. That triggered new thinking. The solution was to reduce bureaucracy and to develop inspection methods. No inspectors were fired, but those who retired were not replaced. So what did they do? Simply put, the message was ‘sell, don’t tell’. 

In short, that means inform and convince those with power and influence about their responsibility for looking after the health and safety of employees, the public and the consequences of the type of work carried out, in cooperation with those who were exposed to risks. There are no simple answers. This is about context, both politically and socially, but also about specific industries and about culture. 

“Kevin Myers from the Health and Safety Executive shows that the UK labour inspection authority shares our Nordic reflections and considerations,” says Wiking Husberg. 

“They have the same problems with reaching all workplaces and finding the right workplaces. So they have concentrated on how they can improve their work and reduce bureaucracy. This gives a more nuanced image of how our colleagues work in England.”

Zero fatal accidents

Kevin Myers highlighted one good example: the construction of the Olympic park for the 2012 London Olympics. It had zero fatal accidents during the construction period, and a far lower frequency of injuries compared to the trade as a whole and to the industry generally, despite the fact that the construction industry is considered one of the most dangerous.

How did they do it?

“My explanation is that the people planning the Olympics development decided early on to take health and safety seriously. The construction industry does not have a good reputation when it comes to delivering the right quality to the right time and the right cost. But you cannot say that we are the free man’s slaves to the Olympics. The planning started with securing the process. Health and safety was considered a driving force for getting this done. 

During the planning phase the people responsible realised that they needed many, many workers from countries across Europe, because the need was far greater than what the British construction industry could handle. They needed to carefully consider how to handle risk. 

“The thinking was that if we demonstrate to the workers that we treat them with respect and take their health and safety seriously, they will answer us by delivering the quality of work which we are looking for, in a way that we want. This was part of the culture which was incorporated in the planning process from the start.”

There was a lot of criticism in the press over the long planning process when they needed to make sure then entire supply chain would support what they wanted to do, says Kevin Myers. He thinks the most important thing was that the client was the one controlling the whole thing, and in this instance the client was the authority in charge of construction of the Olympic park. 

“Often the client is not interested in these kinds of things, they just want the job done and consider health and safety to be the responsibility of the provider. But here the client said what has since become law in the UK: We make the rules, and some of those rules are about health and safety.”

So the client introduced a culture where health and safety was important. It had value, and they used a toolkit to explain this to workers every day:

“This is what we shall do today. This is they way we shall do it. We communicated with the workers through pictures more than words. They were pictures which showed what was good practice and what was bad practice. This is the way we will do things in this project. This is how we will not do it. These are our expectations.”

How was such an impressive execution received?

“It was loudly praised at first, but later it turned a bit more silent. But the experience and progress is documented on the website Learning Legacy, explains Kevin Myers.

Research of good practice 

The conference also looked at whether cooperation between research and inspection authorities could create a better basis for how inspections can be best carried out. All inspection authorities have a large database where information from inspections are stored. The question is whether research could be given access to the national databases.

“Each inspector has vast amounts of experience and knowledge which he or she uses in their job, but how could this knowledge be used as a basis for the planning of future inspection work? How could research get access to the information in the national databases? Creating a system based on these experiences would provide better knowledge for where and how inspections can be performed,” says Wiking Husberg.

“The best method could be to influence employers so that they change and improve the way they operate. If you get access to the information, the tacit knowledge, and can generalise it into not one, but many methods which the Nordic countries can use in different trades and situations, you could develop a repertoire for how to approach different situations and perform inspections which are better adapted and more efficient. 

“The methods must be based on an overarching plan for what it is we want, based on the inspection authorities’ own statistics, EU strategy and current political considerations for what we want to achieve in the coming years.”

In two years time, Iceland will be hosting the Nordic working environment conference, which is held every second year. There the results from research on the inspection authorities’ own statistics could form an important part of the debate.

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