Work Environment Dialogue in a Swedish Municipality - Strengths and Limits of the Nordic Work Environment Model

By Frick, Kaj | Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Work Environment Dialogue in a Swedish Municipality - Strengths and Limits of the Nordic Work Environment Model


Frick, Kaj, Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies


A case to test the limits of the strong Nordic work environment model

Acase study of the work environment and codetermination dialogue in the Swedish municipality of Leksand (Frick and Forsberg, 2010) illustrates the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the work environment model in the Nordic countries. On the one hand, labour is relatively strong and there is an organized dialogue and a cooperative attitude between the social partners. This helps to resolve many risks at work and promotes broader improvements. On the other, there are limitations to what can be raised and achieved in the consensus-oriented dialogue between employees and a complex municipal management with a tight budget. The limitations may promote a resignation not only among the staff toward the dialogue but also among their safety representatives who by law have strong rights to raise and demand solutions to difficult and sensitive problems, such as workload and stress.

The objective of this article is to use Leksand's intervention project Hälsosam to explore the limits of what the Nordic work environment model can achieve against risks rooted in the employers' prerogative of organizing, resourcing, and managing the operations that create the risks at work. However, before we go further into the Leksand case, we shall present the main lines of what can be labelled a Nordic model for what is meant by the work environment and how its risks are to be handled. We will then describe the work environment, industrial relations, and organizational development in Swedish municipalities that this case study illustrates.

The Nordic model of dialogue and cooperation on broad work life improvements

The Nordic work environment model is not principally different from those in other countries. Yet, it is special in how it defines and in how it handles risks at work. In the wave of legal reforms during the 1970s and 1980s, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden and somewhat later Finland were early to change from a descriptive (extensional) definition of occupational health and safety as a gradually increasing list of risk factors to a more principal (intensional) definition of the work environment as every aspect of work and its conditions that may affect workers' health. In the Swedish Work Environment Act, this is expressed as "The employer shall take all the precautions necessary to prevent the employee from being exposed to health hazards or accident risks" (chap. 3, section 1: 2).

In theory, this intensional principle is old. Employers' general preventive duty was the basis for the first Swedish occupational safety legislation in 1889 (Larsson, 2000). Yet regulators, inspectors, employers, and others long concerned themselves only with risks for accidents and a limited number of diseases (Berggren and Olsson, 1988; Lundh and Gunnnarsson, 1987). This narrow perspective was related to worker compensation regulations and practices, with their (at first very short) lists of risks at work that were accepted as possible causes of occupational injuries or diseases.

When welfare grew outside the workplaces and chemical and stress risks grew within them, workers and their trade unions increased their pressure for healthy jobs during the 1960s and 1970s. With usually strong labour markets, a high unionization, and often labour governments, these demands were politically important in the Nordic countries. They were supported by more research on the risks of chemicals, of stress and harassment, and of musculoskeletal injuries of repetitive movements. Worker-union experiences and the research results broke the old boundaries of a list of accepted risks and pushed for modernized regulations and policies really based on the general duty to prevent all risks at work (see Nordfors, 1985, on Sweden, but the political process was similar, especially in Denmark and Norway). As a result, the Nordic countries were not only early and strict in their regulation of asbestos, organic solvents, and other chemical risks but also pioneered psychosocial requirements in their legislation from the 1970s. …

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