Occupational health and safety legislation under reform
A new Occupational Healthcare Act came into force in Finland on 1 January 2002. It strengthens employee healthcare services in companies with the aim of enhancing the well-being of employees. Furthermore, in December 2001, a tripartite committee examining a reform of the Occupational Safety and Health Act issued its proposals. One of the aims of the new legislation and proposals is to address work-related stress, by reorganising conditions at the workplace so as to promote 'coping' at work.
Finnish employee protection legislation has been renewed, with the coming into force on 1 January 2002 of a new Occupational Healthcare Act. The reform seeks to deal with changes in working life and the increased stress involved in work. Furthermore, a committee examining a reform of the existing Occupational Safety and Health Act issued its report in December 2001.
Occupational Healthcare Act
The new Occupational Healthcare Act strengthens employee healthcare in order to develop the wellbeing of employees and 'working communities'. The aim of the Act is to direct employee healthcare measures toward ensuring that the employees can stay longer in working life. The focus will be shifted towards promoting health and the ability to work, and addressing issues concerned with working conditions.
Under the new Act, the employer must arrange employee healthcare services and must have a written action plan for them. The employer can provide the services itself or subcontract them. In the preparation of decisions on employee healthcare, the employer must cooperate with the employees or their representatives, who have the right to make proposals concerning the care.
The Act also includes provisions on the handling and confidentiality of information. The employer and employee must give to the employee healthcare service any information on the work and workplace that is needed for evaluating and preventing any possible disadvantages caused by the work. The duty of the employee healthcare service is to inform the employer and employees of the dangers involved in the conditions at the workplace, including factors connected with stress at work. Information that should be kept secret cannot be passed on if the person concerned does not give permission for this.
Proposal for new Occupational Safety and Health Act
The tripartite committee examining a reform of the Occupational Safety and Health Act issued its unanimous recommendations for a new Act in December 2001. The proposal deals with the mental and physical workload, ergonomics, threats of violence, harassment and other inappropriate treatment and solitary work, alongside the traditional issues of work safety and the prevention of accidents and occupational diseases.
The recommendations on workload are considered to be especially significant. The aim is that risks or disadvantages caused by workload factors should be avoided or decreased in the planning phase of the work. More generally, the proposed amendments to the Act seek to promote 'coping' at work and a longer working life, through matching the requirements of the work to the resources of the employee in an appropriate way. The goal is to increase the average retirement age, which is currently under 60.
Violence and the threat of violence have become an increasingly significant risk factor in Finnish working life. It is thought to be experienced by 100,000 people a year in occupations such as social and health care, policing, or hotels and restaurants. The proposed amendments to the Act seek to promote control of employees' safety so as to advance and maintain security and health at work, and the ability of the employees to work, in the most effective way. The improvement and maintenance of safety should be an ongoing process carried out throughout the organisation. This means underlining the employer's responsibility in this area.
The proposals also aim to combat harassment and other inappropriate treatment at the workplace, such as bullying and insults. One specific category of harassment is sexual harassment. According to the proposals, the employer would be obliged to take the available measures in order to remedy grievances in this area after being informed of them. The employer would be obliged to monitor the working environment, the condition of the 'work community' and the safety of working procedures.
The employee, too, has responsibilities, according to the committee. The employee is not only the object of protection, but also an active participant, who must by all available means take care of his or her own safety and that of other employees. The importance of cooperation between the employer and employee, and of training and orientation given to the employees, is emphasised.
Views of the social partners
In the view of the Confederation of Finnish Industry and Employers (Teollisuuden ja Työnantajain Keskusliitto, TT), the committee's proposal for reform of the Occupational Safety and Health Act is relatively well-balanced, in that it takes into consideration both the 'traditional' needs of industry and the need to address new issues brought about by changes in working life in various sectors. These new aspects refer to the committee's proposals concerning special risks and stress factors disadvantageous to health that are particularly connected with harassment, the threat of violence and solitary work. TT believes that the committee has presented correctly the role of employees - who have the best knowledge of their own work - in taking care of their own and other employees' health.
The Employers' Confederation of Service Industries (Palvelutyönantajat, PT) also believes that the committee's report is balanced. It applies well to current conditions and takes changes in working life into consideration. Instead of solely focusing on the traditional issue of accident prevention, the aim of the proposals is to promote physical and mental wellbeing at the workplace, states PT.
According to the Commission for Local Authority Employers (Kunnallinen Työmarkkinalaitos, KT), the proposal as a whole is good and up-to-date, offering versatile tools not only for safety at work but also for development of working life. An important reform in the view of KT is the highlighting of cooperation and shared responsibility. Employees are not only the objects of protection, but must also take care of their own safety and health and avoid unfair treatment of other employees.
According to the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (Suomen Ammattiliittojen Keskusjärjestö, SAK), the new legislation and the committee's proposals can justifiably be seen as signalling a 'rebirth' of labour protection. The organisation values the fact that employers' organisations are to play their own part in ensuring employees' health and safety. However, it awaits evidence of employers taking responsibility at individual workplaces by committing themselves to the improvement of 'coping' at work.
The Finnish Confederation of Salaried Employees (Toimihenkilökeskusjärjestö, STTK) thinks that the proposals to modernise the Occupational Safety and Health Act are likely to succeed. STTK believes that the proposed new legislation will represent a useful tool for supervisors and occupational safety personnel, who deal with safety at work in practice. Concerning work-related stress, which is experienced extensively among its members, STTK finds it important that the mental/psychological aspects of work are now being considered alongside physical factors.
According to the Confederation of Unions for Academic Professionals (Akateemisten Toimihenkilöiden Keskusjärjestö, AKAVA), protection for employees mental well-being is of particular relevance for its members. The committee's proposals are seen as promising significant and very necessary improvements in this area, providing for prevention and intervention. AKAVA regards the proposal as enabling the prevention of mental overload by measuring and planning work appropriately.
Finland's educational and industrial strategy is based on building the 'information society'. The resulting rapid and continuous changes taking place at the workplace pose a major challenge for employee protection legislation, while the mental stress involved in work has become one of the major causes for concern in Finnish working life. The new Occupational Healthcare Act and proposals for a reform of the Occupational Safety and Health Act are a significant step towards comprehensive protection for employees, and focus especially on mental/psychological aspects.
The widespread desire of employees for early retirement is interpreted as a sign that they have concerns about their well-being at work. Recent research also indicates that 'burn-out' has become more common, especially in certain jobs - despite the various action programmes in this area, such as 'coping at work' programme (FI9911127F). These national programmes aim to increase the preparedness of workplaces to cope with new requirements. The aim is that the risks or disadvantages caused by stress factors should be reduced in the planning phase of the work, and considerable weight is thus given to cooperation and good employment relations.
The new legislation and proposals aim to create a framework for better protection at the workplace. It remains to be seen what results they will have. Actual developments at the workplace tend to take place regardless of any control through such norms. Management and organisation cultures have an important role to play in employees' ability to cope at their work. The renewed legislation can provide the basis for this task. (Juha Hietanen, Ministry of Labour)