Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

How Do We Understand Working Environment Policies, Programmes and Instruments?

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

How Do We Understand Working Environment Policies, Programmes and Instruments?

Article excerpt

How do different forms of regulation influence working environment and working life? How can centrally formulated programmes create changes at complex, often multi-layered local work places, and how can insights from work life studies shed light on the social mechanisms at stake in different types of regulation? Under the heading of working environment policies, programmes and instruments, the aim of the current issue has been to address these issues. In essences, it is society's intentional attempt to regulate working environment conditions in the workplace. It could be through health and safety legislation and labour inspection. But it is much more than that: The states are not restricted to writing rules, inspecting and sanctioning them. They put together insurances systems and they support massive campaign efforts. And they get labour market parties, nationally, by the sector or within the companies or workplaces, involved in similar activities; sometimes, labour market parties or other stakeholders even do it without prompts from the state. All these efforts are made to a larger or smaller extent because they are seen as beneficial to the health of the employees. But we know surprisingly little about how policies, programmes and instruments work, the social processes at stake, to what extent they do work and whether there could be better ways to reach the overall goal of creating a better working environment. There seems to be several reasons for the lack of knowledge about the processes involved in regulating the working environment.

The challenges of regulation

One reason seems to be that the very field of working environment itself is becoming increasingly complex (Aalders & Wilthagen, 1997; Alvin & Arronson, 2003; Kamp & Nielsen, 2008). Once workers' health was almost exclusively seen as a problem of accidents; the majority of regulation aimed at workers' health was either aimed at specifically vulnerable groups-children or pregnant women-or at accidents. But the agenda has been growing for a long period to encompass illness and diseases, and through that cover a much wider array of working environment factors, from noise, asbestos, chemicals, over ergonomic/physiological factors (from work postures to repetitive work), indoor climate, to psycho-social factors (from shift work, over bullying to work pressure and excessive affective demands). The agenda has grown, yes, and in a way that complicates matters: If there is a risk of an accident or a problem with a chemical, remove the risk; if there are unhealthy affective demands (e.g. in working with aggressive citizens in a mental ward), then there is no nice and easy way to remove that risk. When workrelated stress is tied to new work forms, for example team work and increasing individualization of work organisation, it becomes difficult to identify and remove the risk. Even accidents are these days perceived in much more complex way that requires efforts aimed at the risk factors, but also at the safety climate and culture.

In addition to this, in the age of globalisation, organisational fragmentation and restructuring, work places are seldom easily delimited units, but are parts of multi-layered organisational chains wherein decisions influencing working environment as well as employer responsibilities are located outside and organisationally remote from the physical work place.

Not surprisingly, related to these issues, regulation itself has become more complex and new forms of regulation as well as new agents have appeared on the scene. In the area of 'traditional' regulation by direct political legislation, National legislation has been supplemented with international (mainly EU) legislation in the form of the EU Framework Directive and other directives (Walters (ed.), 2002). And the EU level is involved in campaign activities, too, for example via the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in Bilbao. In addition to the increasing complexity in legislation, new forms of market-based voluntary forms of regulation have also appeared in the field of OHS regulation (Blewett & O'Keeffe, 2011, Hohnen & Hasle, 2011; Rocha, 2010). …

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