Denmark: Siemens case sparks debate on working environment

Since May 2016, much political attention has focused on the so-called Siemens Case, when 64 cases of occupational diseases were identified in a workplace that had previously received an award for its excellence in occupational health and safety.

Background

On International Workers’ Day, 1 May, DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) featured a news story about 64 workers at the Siemens Windpower company suffering from severe work-related health issues. From 2006 to 2015, the workers had been exposed to epoxy and isocyanate at work and suffered damages causing chronic diseases such as asthma and eczema. This is a serious case but it  has drawn even more attention as Siemens Windpower is certified by the Danish Working Environment Authority (WEA) to be self-controlling and received a 'crown smiley' award from the Danish Working Environment Authority.  

One type of certification is the Danish equivalent of the international standard OHSAS-18001, which can be achieved through external control from private authorised working environment counsellors. In order to receive the certification, the business has to prove that they have a safe and healthy working environment. If they can also prove that they have done an extraordinary effort to secure a safe and healthy working environment, they are granted the 'crown smiley' award.  Siemens Windpower gained both the certification and the crown smiley award, meaning that they, on paper, make an extraordinary effort to secure a good working environment. However, ironically, at the same time it was proved that their workers suffer from severe work-related health issues. This paradox has sparked debate among politicians as well as the social partners.

Reactions from the government and social partners

The unions and the parties traditionally affiliated with the unions have criticised the certification and crown smiley scheme as a whole arguing that it leads to a lack of control, which in reality leads to poor efforts towards occupational health and safety from the certified businesses. This is just one of the issues in the debate among employers' and employees' organisations.

Following the disclosure of the Siemens case, the Minister for Employment, Jørgen Neergaard Larsen, asked the WEA to specify the initiatives to be taken in both this case and in general for all certified businesses. A statement from WEA was issued on 26 May, stating that WEA have to pay more attention to the registration of occupational diseases and three other self-critical points, to which Minister Neergard replied: 'The Working Environment Authority have failed to use and react on information on reported occupational diseases in relation to a business like Siemens, that is certified. I have now emphasised to them that they have to improve.'  He also launched a discussion on this issue in parliament.

This reaction met with approval from the social partners. However, the unions criticised the fact that no extra resources were allocated to the WEA. The Chairman of LO Confederation, Lizette Risgaard stated: 'If the Working Environment Authority is required by the Minister to carry out additional tasks, they should also receive additional resources.'  The unions led by LO have stated that they expect changes in the Crown smiley scheme as a result of the political negotiations and call for more public control with the businesses that are certified. The employers led by DA stated that the crown smiley scheme is working and it is good and that they don’t see a need for change. They however would welcome more coordination and information exchange between WEA and the Labour Market Insurance (monitoring occupational diseases). 

Court case

On 30 June, the Court in Aalborg judged in favour of three former workers who had taken the case to court via their union 3F and found Siemens guilty of violating the Law on Working Environment. Siemens was sentenced to pay between 136,000 DKK (18,200 Euro) and 504,000 DKK (67,500) to the three workers.  Although the workers do not have a recognised occupational disease, they have proved, that their working environment was dangerous. Siemens have not yet decided whether they will appeal the decision.

Next steps

The next step in the political case will be a debate on how the certification and crown smiley scheme can be approved, monitored and controlled. The discussion will include the political parties as well as the leading social partners.  

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