We can see that in industries with many women there is a perception of greater pressure and heavier workloads. This is why safety and the work environment is an important gender equality issue, says IF Metall’s Chair Marie Nilsson in this interview.

Have increased rationalisation and an increased focus on earnings affected how companies prioritise work on the safety culture?

If we look at the 21st century as a whole, we can confirm that a shortage of time and stress at work have been increasing, continuously and constantly. This can in itself cause employees to perceive that company management teams are not taking safety as seriously and that the issue no longer has the same focus as before. There’s a major risk that when there’s time pressure and staffing levels are slimmed down, safety takes a back seat as the delivery is considered more important. I myself come from the process industry, and I know that it’s important to keep production moving. If there’s a stoppage in a process, this can generate major costs and perhaps even a machine breakdown. So if you take a shortcut to rescue the situation, it’s easy to overlook things. This creates a dual morality if company management is at the same time talking about creating a good safety culture. This sends out odd, dual messages to our members.

We organise many different industries, from mining and steel to the pharmaceutical industry and laundries. What we can see is that in industries where there’s a high proportion of women, many perceive a higher level of pressure and a heavier workload. This is why the work environment is definitely a gender equality issue.

The mining and steel industries were very much neglected in the past. What is the current situation there regarding safety work?

In the mining industry, which has been traditionally what is referred to lazily as a macho industry, I think that between us – trade unions, companies and employers – we have worked well together, with the positive result that we’ve achieved a greater focus on safety.

Jointly with the employers, we’ve developed a training course on safety culture. Most mining companies have held courses with all employees and worked in a conscious, structured way on the safety culture.

In recent years the steel industry has suffered a number of fatal accidents. In this area, we at IF Metall have been critical of the way some companies have handled safety issues. This has resulted in a dialogue and an overhaul, in which they brought in consultants to review their safety work. Steel companies are now taking safety issues very seriously indeed. They always conduct a risk analysis first, before they perform a job. And if the job can’t be done safely, it mustn’t be done at all. It’s very important that the emphasis on safety work comes from management. SSAB’s CEO Martin Lindqvist says that he is really trying to get out the message that safety first is what now counts. He has stated that he will declare the first employee to stop a production run because of an unsafe situation to be a hero. Such signals are incredibly important.

How important are health and safety officers for safety work?

Our health and safety officers out at the workplaces are crucial, they’re a group we cherish very highly. They are the ones who our members’ link to achieving a good, safe work environment. We make sure they get the right training and can carry out their assignment. Unfortunately this spring we’ve noticed that it’s been harder to find members to act as health and safety officers at small and medium-sized companies. The truth is, someone who takes on the role of health and safety officer also has to be a little uncomfortable sometimes.

Is there a difference in safety awareness between large and small companies?

Yes, large companies, especially publicly listed ones, have a clear focus on sustainability, which also definitely includes the work environment. They can’t cheat on that if they want to be credible and do good business at the same time.

For smaller companies, it’s often a question of resources. Of course there are also a lot of people there who are skilled and take work on the work environment seriously. It’s all about engagement. I believe that in those companies that aren’t doing this work properly, it’s largely because of a lack of time. Management and employees don’t think that they really have the time for safety work. And maybe you also have to work closer to the boss, which makes it tougher to raise an objection if you feel that a task is not safe or sound.

We’ve therefore developed support for small workplaces in the form of regional health and safety officers, who travel around to visit companies and conduct health and safety inspections. They work together with management teams to address any deficiencies that they discover. Then there are employers that are more difficult to work with. We have a small company in Nyköping, for example, where both the emergency services and our regional health and safety officer have criticised them for not handling chemicals correctly and not having the right knowledge, which means that they need training for this. They responded by threatening to shut down the business.

How is the work environment affected by the increased level of automation in industry?

In the best case scenario, further robotisation can replace jobs that are now repetitive, physically demanding and wearing, and cause occupational injuries. But the development can also have the opposite effect, as jobs become even more dull and monotonous. It’s important here that we get involved and perform impact assessments. How is the work organisation affected by new machines and processes? What we’ve been able to confirm over the last ten years is that in bigger engineering industries with line production, work processes have become simpler and more repetitive, while job cycles have also become shorter. A cynical approach to business has developed, with temporary staff being hired and employees being easily replaceable. This is not a good trend if industry wants to attract young people. It has to be able to offer interesting, more developmental jobs.

Is this a problem for the work environment and safety?

Yes, there are a number of surveys showing that hired staff in production suffer far more occupational injuries than permanent staff, which I find alarming.

These staffing agreements are also not cheap, and for companies it can ultimately mean that it’s more expensive to hire temporary staff compared with having permanent staff. The problem is that the costs are allocated to different accounts. Middle managers can use temporary staff to show their senior managers that they can maintain a certain staffing level. It’s then less important that such a setup ultimately costs the company more money.

Have levels of temporary hired staff increased in industry?

Yes, the number of temporary employees has been increasing steadily and strongly in recent years. We have more than 10,000 organised members in the staffing industry, but in total we believe that there are perhaps 50,000 people working in staffing companies in Sweden.

Finally, how important is safety work in Swedish companies?

It feels good to know that we’re all on the same side in this issue. There is a general desire from all concerned to improve the work environment. Collaboration between health and safety officers and employers is not usually a problem.

Our joint initiative in the safety culture is a long-term, strategic task to improve safety at workplaces and bring down the number of accidents at the workplace, reduce fatalities to zero and create a healthier work environment.