Regional health and safety officers set for cleaning industry and hotels and restaurants

A proposal to introduce regional health and safety officers in the cleaning industry as well as the hotels and restaurant sector was issued for consultation by the Norwegian Ministry of Labour and Social Inclusion in June 2009. The system of regional health and safety officers has so far only existed in the construction sector. It is regarded as an important mechanism for combating health and safety violations and for stemming the expansion of the informal labour market.

On 25 June 2009, the Norwegian Ministry of Labour and Social Inclusion (Arbeids- og inkluderingsdepartementet, AID) issued a proposal (in Norwegian) for consultation, recommending the introduction of regional health and safety officers (RHSOs) in the cleaning industry as well as the hotels and restaurant sector. The consultation process is due to be completed by 26 October 2009. The proposal is a part of Action Plan 2 against social dumping, introduced by the government as a part of the 2009 state budget proposal (NO0902039I).

Background

Under Norwegian law, every company in all sectors of economic activity employing 10 or more people is obliged to have a company-level health and safety officer. This officer is elected by and among the employees, and is responsible for employees’ rights in relation to health and security environment (HSE) issues. RHSOs also represent employees in HSE issues. However, they are not elected by and among the employees, but are employed and appointed by the trade unions. The RHSO tries to compensate for the lack of company-level health and safety officers in many companies, and works closely with the National Labour Inspectorate (Arbeidstilsynet). To date, RHSOs have only existed in the construction sector, where they were introduced in 1981. The RHSO system is currently regulated by the administrative provisions (in Norwegian) on regional health and safety officers at construction sites of 19 September 1997 (No. 1018).

Role of regional health and safety officers

The main role of the RHSOs is to help maintain a safe, healthy and good quality working environment at the workplace. This is partly achieved through conducting safety inspections at workplaces where there is no company health and safety officer in place. They are also responsible for establishing company-level health and safety officers and/or working environment committees (Arbeidsmiljøutvalg) where no such arrangement exists. The RHSOs are under no obligation to regulate wages and other working conditions; however, if they suspect a violation of regulations relating to these matters, they may report this to the Labour Inspectorate. In companies where no company-level health and safety officers are present, RHSOs benefit from the same rights as company-level officers do, in accordance with the Working Environment Act (in Norwegian) (Arbeidsmiljøloven).

The RHSO function is financed by the employers. The system is overseen by a board (Fondsstyret) on which both trade unions and employer organisations are represented, as well as the National Labour Inspectorate.

A survey (in Norwegian, 342Kb PDF) conducted by Econ Pöyry in 2007 (Report No. 2007–094) for the Ministry of Labour and Social Inclusion concluded that there was a general consensus that RHSOs have contributed to improving health and safety as well as preventing injuries and accidents at the workplace.

Proposed regulation

AID is proposing to replace existing regulations with new administrative provisions covering not only the construction sector, but also establishments in the cleaning industry and in the hotels and restaurant sector. The extended RHSO scheme will be based on the same system as previously, and the RHSOs will be run by a joint board. The board will determine both the number of RHSOs and the areas within which they are to operate. The basic objective of the RHSOs’ work and their responsibilities will be maintained, although one minor change will be introduced: the RHSO will now also be able to operate in companies where a company-level safety officer has been elected, but where the safety service is not functioning well.

When introducing the proposal, the Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion, Dag Terje Andersen, stated that the need for such an arrangement must be seen against the backdrop of the working environment situation in these industries – more specifically, in the context of the frequent violation of HSE regulations and the increased use of informal labour. A growth in labour migration has also begun to emerge in these industries, according to the minister. The RHSOs will be particularly important for safeguarding HSE issues and for reporting cases of informal labour, particularly in relation to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); in general, SMEs do not have company-level health and safety officers in place. In the consultation document, the AID also points to the low trade union density, along with the large number of employees with temporary contracts and the lack of employment contracts in these industries.

Mixed response to proposal

The Labour Inspectorate has welcomed the proposed extension of the scheme to the hotels and restaurant sector, pointing to the efficacy of the RHSO system. The social partners, on the other hand, are divided over the issue. The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO) is strongly opposed to the proposal, arguing that it will jeopardise the future of the tripartite industrial relations system in Norway. The rationale behind this strong reaction is the attempt by the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) to have such regulations incorporated into the basic agreement during the 2006 bargaining round, although without success as NHO was opposed to it. NHO feels that the minister has paid no heed to this disagreement and as such has ignored the employer side. LO, on the other hand, supports the proposal, regarding it as an important measure for combating social dumping.

Kristin Alsos, Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science

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