More Than Better Pay: If the Swedes Can Do It…

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More Than Better Pay: If the Swedes Can Do It…

by Matt Witt

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 3, May-June 1981, p. 19 — 23

This article was reprinted with permission from the Supplement to the International Woodworker Newsletter, of the International Woodworkers of America. 

Matt Witt is currently of the American Labor Education Center, an institute for publications and training programs for workers. He was formerly a staff member of the United Mine Workers and editor of the Mine Worker Journal.

In some ways, it was just like an American or Canadian sawmill, with conveyors moving past the saws which reduced logs to cants, cants to boards. 

But to the visitors from the International Woodworkers Association (IWA), there was something very different about this sawmill in Sweden. 

It was so quiet that they didn’t need ear plugs in much of the mill, and they could actually talk to each other over the sound of the machines. 

It was so clean that no dust had accumulated on the floor or equipment. 

Bright lights reduced both the stress on workers and the chance of accidents. 

Enclosed booths for machine operators looked like offices, with comfortable seats and little or no vibration in the floor. 

It wasn’t paradise, but the work environment in the Anebyhus Company’s sawmill was much better than in mills in North America. And it was just one of many impressive work sites visited by eight IWA members and staff and two government officials during a two-week study tour of the wood products industry in Sweden. 

(The tour, which was made possible by a grant from the German Marshall Fund, also included visits to West Germany and Austria.) 

IWA group members met dozens of local and national officials of government, management and unions, who taught them not only about wooden shoes, fermented herring, and Swedish drinking songs, but also about the Swedes’ highly effective program for job safety and health. 

The North Americans had a chance to see with their own eyes work environment improvements in sawmills, logging, board plants, and pulp and paper mills. And they were able to ask probing questions about the laws, union contracts, and overall philosophy that made those improvements possible. 

The Swedish system they saw has three main features. 

First, Swedish workers have won real power to prevent hazards, as well as the training to enable them to use that power. 

Second, the unions have a major voice in research programs on safety and health problems. Those programs are conducted through cooperative efforts of employers, manufacturers of industrial equipment, university researchers, government experts and rank-and-file workers. Research generally is designed to find specific solutions which can be put into practice. 

Third, the Swedish unions are trying to improve the total work environment — not just safety and health in the narrow North American sense. They recognize that physical safety hazards, health hazards such as noise and chemical exposure, and stress from heat or cold, speed-up, or boredom are not separate, unrelated problems. They are aware, for example, that noise, stress, or chemically-induced headaches may contribute to accidents, and that stress over long periods of time is often a health hazard. 

The Swedes are concerned not only about injuries and illnesses but also discomfort and lack of job satisfaction. They believe that all workers — not just corporate executives — are entitled to as humane a work environment and as much control over their jobs as possible. 

A Real Role For Workers 

In North America, labor-management “cooperation” on safety and health is usually an empty slogan because the employers have virtually all the decision-making authority. But in Sweden, cooperation works because the unions have real power. 

The key to the Swedish system is the safety committee. Under a combination of national laws and contracts, every Swedish workplace with 50 or more employees must have a labor-management safety committee — with more than half of the committee members elected from the union

In smaller workplaces where the workers feel a committee is necessary, one must be created. Otherwise, a “regional safety representative” from the union plays the same role as the union committee members in a larger operation. 

The union-dominated committees (or the regional representative) have the right to: 

  • Veto any plans for new machines, materials, or work processes for safety and health reasons. For example, at forestry operations visited by the IWA group, the union safety committee members were involved in choosing the model of chain saw the company would purchase. Pentachlorophenols are no longer used as wood preservatives because of worker complaints. Workers at a logging company said they have refused to work with the herbicide 2,4D in situations in which thinning could be accomplished manually with brush cutters. 
  • Decide how to spend the company safety and health budget. The size of that budget is negotiated at each operation, and was considered too small by each local union the IWA group visited. But union control meant that the budget was being spent on solutions to the most serious work environment problems — control of noise, dust, and chemicals — rather than being siphoned off for projects to improve productivity. 
  • Approve the selection and direct the work of the company doctor, nurse, safety engineer, or industrial hygienist. At the Ala Company sawmill, for example, the fact that the doctor and nurse report to the safety committee seemed to allow them to worry more about the health of the workers than about company profits. 

“We have the advantage that when we treat a worker, we know what his working conditions are,” explained Dr. Bertil Jonsson. “And it is part of our job not just to treat the patient but to recommend ways to change the working conditions so the health problem won’t happen again.” 

  • Review all corporate medical records, monitoring results, and other information on hazards. The Swedish unions have made access to information such a high priority that often when the group met with top company officials and a local union safety committee member at the same time, the managers would refer most questions to the union representative because he was more knowledgeable about safety and health. 

”The whole idea of the Swedish system is that workers have the right to be involved in workplace planning and design so hazards can be prevented,” explained Denny Scott, the IWA researcher who led the study tour. 

“The system is set up to minimize the number of cases in which workers must either accept hazards or lose wages while something is corrected,” he said. 

To monitor conditions on a daily basis, enough union safety stewards must be elected to cover each work area on each shift at all Swedish workplaces with five or more employees. These stewards, as well as individual workers, have the right to shut down any dangerous operation until it can be corrected — without fear of punishment. The mere threat of shutting down an operation seems to be quite effective, because stewards have had to actually use that power only about 25 times per year since it was established by law in 1974. 

Union stewards, safety committee members, and regional representatives have the right to determine how much time they need to carry out their duties. Although chosen by the union, all are paid from employer funds. 

Providing training for these union personnel is considered a cost of doing business in Sweden. In 1972, the unions won passage of a law creating a national Work Environment Fund. It is financed by a 0.1 percent payroll tax on all employers, and guided by a union-dominated board. 

The Fund has paid for the training of more than 4,000 safety stewards from the Swedish Woodworkers union, which represents 67,000 workers in sawmills, board mills, and other wood products manufacturing plants. Training has been provided to about 2,000 stewards from the Forestry Workers union, which has 25,000 members. 

Classes are given during normal work hours, with employers paying lost time. In the two-and-a-half years ending in June, 1979, woodworkers’ employers paid $1 million in lost time wages for safety training. Forestry employers have been required to spend more than $700,000. 

The 40-hour basic courses cover such topics as workplace planning, noise, ventilation, toxic substances, illumination, “ergonomics” (the science of fitting the job to the worker rather than the worker to the job), and “psychosocial factors” such as job satisfaction. 

Courses are taught in “study circles” rather than with the formal classroom approach usually used in North America. Trained study circle leaders, who generally are workers rather than safety technicians, guide the discussions. 

Safety stewards say the study circle method teaches them to work together and to rely on experts only for technical advice. Written materials and film strips explain basic principles, which are then applied by the students during special workplace inspections. A study circle graduate goes back to work with lists of conditions which must be corrected. 

Lennart Olsson, chief safety steward at a large government-owned hardboard mill, told the IWA group that the basic course “worked very well.” 

“It used my own workplace as the subject matter,” he said. “That’s the best way to learn.” 

Practical Research 

Both the forestry and woodworking industries have national work environment research committees, run jointly by the employers and the unions. Much of the research is financed by the union-dominated, employer-financed Work Environment Fund. The committees review all proposals from researchers to the Fund. The Fund is now spending more than $1 million to teach Swedish union representatives both to evaluate those proposals and to develop more of their own. 

One work environment research group has been working in 15 sawmills, a similar group has concentrated on woodworking factories such as furniture and prefab housing plants, and a third has worked in forestry under another $1 million Fund grant. 

These groups have succeeded because they include not only engineers, professors, doctors, and psychologists, but also representatives of the unions, employers, and equipment manufacturers. They have demonstrated methods for controlling noise, dust, chemicals, and other hazards, as well as for redesigning jobs to make them less stressful. 

In contrast to the North American system, in which research is mainly distributed to other researchers, the Swedish groups’ achievements are being explained to the unions’ regional safety representatives — at Work Environment Fund expense — and the representatives will, in turn, educate local union stewards. 

Bengt Ager, a professor who has served as leader of these research groups, told the IWA visitors that, “We are forming a circle of communication between those who study and design industrial equipment, those who make it, those who buy it, and those who use it every day.” 

Throughout their two-week tour in Sweden, IWA group members had many chances to see how the process Ager described has paid off in reducing workplace hazards: 

  • Noise and dust. The Swedish standard for average exposure to noise over an eight-hour shift is 85 decibels -— only half as damaging to the ear as the 90 decibels allowed in the U.S. and Canada. 

Noise control in logging has been achieved mainly by mechanization. With smaller trees to work with than in western North America, the Swedes are able to do much of their falling, bucking, loading, forwarding, and hauling by machine. Operators are provided fully air-conditioned cabs which reduce noise and dust and allow them to do the job comfortably and efficiently in all seasons. 

At the Anebyhus sawmill, work environment researchers have helped the safety committee make dramatic improvements. Acoustical tile and a concrete-wood sound absorbant mixture are used on the ceiling and walls to reduce the spread of sound from conveyor belts. For purposes of both noise and dust control, saws are completely enclosed in housings the size of small rooms, which are entered only for maintenance. Wood dust levels in the mill air are below one milligram per cubic meter. 

Saw blades at Anebyhus are chosen for the best design for noise control; adjustments in the angle of the teeth can mean a reduction of 5 decibels when cutting, 10 when idle, according to research engineer Anders Soderqvist. 

“A lot of things we saw, like controls for your noise or your dust, were simple, things anybody could understand,” reported tour member Joel Hembree of IWA Local 3-536. 

“Research doesn’t have to be some complicated thing, only for what you’d call ‘experts,’ ” he said. “A lot of what they’re doing is just common sense. And if they can do it, so can we.”

At a Wood Research Center established by the employers and unions in order to find cheaper hazard control methods for small businesses, the IWA group was shown a demonstration system for exhausting dust from a saw. The guard was placed as close as physically possible to the blade so dust would have no way to escape. The suction hose was placed below the saw at the point where the blade’s centrifugal force was throwing off the dust. Suction occurred only when the saw was cutting; when it was in idle position, the suction cut off. 

This system effectively reduces both dust and noise levels. There is less noise from ventilation when the saw is idle. Proper placement of the suction hose means that ventilation noise when the saw is cutting is also reduced because the amount of air needed is less.

“We are not preoccupied with standards, standards, standards,” said Rolf Ottosson, employer representative on the center’s board. “Standards are necessary, but they only tell you the state of scientific knowledge today, and they may always become more strict tomorrow when our knowledge changes. So we are trying to use our design expertise now to anticipate problems and to find ways to modify our processes in the best way possible.” 

  • Accidents. The Swedish National Safety Board, similar to OSHA in the U.S. and the provincial workers’ compensation boards in Canada, does issue standards, and its research shows that they make a difference. For example, chain saw-related hand and wrist injuries in the logging industry were reduced by 90 percent between 1967 and 1976, primarily as a result of new requirements for hand guards. A foot and leg injury reduction of more than 50 percent was achieved in one year through the introduction of chain brakes. 

Researchers from the College of Forestry didn’t have to dig very far to find that slips and falls while climbing onto equipment are a major cause of injuries. Employers traditionally have argued that the only answer to the problem is pep talks to encourage workers not to be so “careless.” Ladders leading up to the cab are often either not provided or jerry-rigged so that they are easily broken. With some prodding, Swedish manufacturers have solved the problem. They now build into logging machines a set of hydraulic stairs which is raised and lowered automatically as the machine is turned on and off. 

“In the past, we only worried about the work environment after a machine was built,” said Ake Ullman, safety director for the Osa forestry equipment company. “Now we find we can discuss work environment ahead of time and put it right in at the design stage.” 

  • Physical stress. Studies in the forestry industry confirmed workers’ reports that large numbers of loggers, especially older workers, suffer back problems. Employers, union members and researchers together developed a system for using one log as a bench and then falling other trees on top of it. Under this system, buckers don’t have to bend over as far. 

Noting that this technique might not always be practical, tour member Verna Ledger, IWA Region I safety director, commented, “The point is not whether we can adopt every solution the Swedes have found. The point is that we can adopt their way of thinking and then find our own answers.” 

“Their concern for older workers and people with back trouble is typical of their concern for the total work environment and for the total worker,” she said. “That’s what we have to learn from.” 

  • Psychological stress. At the Ala Company sawmill, the IWA group saw a booth in the trimming plant that was constructed for use by two operators monitoring a conveyor belt. The two-person booth protected the workers from noise and dust without forcing them to spend an entire shift totally isolated from other people. 

When IWA tour members entered the booth, the workers were talking and listening to a radio. The operators’ controls were embedded in the arms of their chairs, so that the workers’ arms were supported all day. The two men rotated with a third worker who was physically handling lumber on the belt, so that each operator was in the booth for 40 minutes and outside it for 20. 

At a large, cooperatively-owned forestry company, schedules of eight hours’ work plus a total of an hour for lunch and breaks had been changed to reduce operator stress. Under the new system, each operator worked three hours on the machine, three hours off it, and then three hours on. 

Workers told the IWA group that because of the three-hour break they could produce as much in six hours on the machine as in eight under the old system. One of the company’s shifts began three hours after the other, so the equipment was in use for 12 hours. 

“You can’t keep cutting or bucking for an entire shift without getting tired and making mistakes,” said a young worker operating a limber-bucker. “It’s bad for your health because of all the pressure, it’s bad for safety, and it’s bad for production.” 

  • Unsafe payment systems. A wildcat strike by Swedish forestry workers in 1975 ended the piece rate system in many companies. A Work Environment Fund study found that the new hourly rate system resulted in 30 percent fewer accidents and 35 percent less lost time. Yet there was no evidence of a decline in productivity. 
  • Uncomfortable protective gear. Swedes, like workers all over the world, do not like to wear uncomfortable protective clothing. College of Forestry researchers surveyed 2,000 loggers to find out their specific complaints. Not surprisingly, the workers said their hard hats were too heavy, eye protection blocked their vision, and ear muffs created too much pressure. Following the survey, equipment manufacturers were persuaded to design much more comfortable gear than is generally used in North America. 

Work Environment and Politics 

Why have Swedish employers accepted expensive work environment programs? One reason is that they had to. The basic structure of the system was created under the labor-backed Social Democratic party, which until 1976 had been in power for 44 years. About 90 percent of Swedish workers are unionized, compared to 20 percent in the U.S. and 31 percent in Canada. 

Most employers also see work environment improvement as a way to reduce absenteeism, wildcat strikes, and other results of worker unrest. When many North American employers resort to the stick, their Swedish counterparts often try to use the carrot. 

“When we have a national absentee rate of 10 percent, we have to start asking questions about the motivation of the 90 percent who do come to work,” said Dr. Rolf Lindblom, a work design specialist for the Swedish employers’ confederation. “What can we do to make work more rewarding, more satisfying, and with less danger?” 

In addition to increasing worker motivation and productivity, some employers hope that work environment improvement will take the steam out of growing union demands for control over the Swedish economy. A new law provides for “co-determination,” or employer consultation with unions in making business decisions, and the Swedish labor movement is proposing eventual union control of all of the country’s businesses, 90 percent of which are now privately owned. 

“Our goal is to reduce conflict,” said C.G. Sandberg, an employers’ confederation psychiatrist. “Whenever there is a concentration of resources, or power, you get a ‘we and them’ psychology. We want to improve communication, to solve problems people have, so this kind of conflict will not occur.” 

Ironically, Swedish unionists see the work environment movement as part of their overall drive toward “economic democracy.” They want not only to save lives, but to improve the quality of life on the job as well. 

“The fight to have more power in the workplace was the logical next step for Swedish workers,” said Birger Viklund of the Swedish unions’ Work Quality Center. 

“For decades we fought for political democracy — the right to participate in government,” he said. “Then we fought for social democracy, or security for every person to have a job, health care, and a place to live. Now we want economic democracy, which means not only a larger share of the wealth but also more control over working conditions. 

“We don’t believe that a few people should have all the control over decisions that affect the lives of so many.”


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