The first safety officers were appointed in Sweden in 1912. It was a difficult commission when they started, with the risk of losing your job if there was a dispute with the employer. But over the years the role of safety delegate has been strengthened, and now they have the right to stop dangerous work as the ultimate measure.
A large number of serious accidents, appalling working conditions and a growing labour movement lead to Sweden’s first labour safety law. It was launched in 1912 and meant that workers had the right to appoint their own dele-gates. They were there to represent the workers, mostly when the government occupational inspectors paid their visits, but also to monitor the state’s interest in better health. Being a safety delegate was not without its risks, though. Christina Järnstedt at LO is project leader for a newly published book about the history of safety officers. She is very familiar with the labour laws and conditions of that era, and they left a lot to be desired.
“In the beginning, safety delegates had no legal protection at all. To take on the assignment could mean, in the worst cases, that you lost your job if you did not get along with the employer, and it was not particularly popular to be a safety delegate,” she says.
SAN trained safety officers
During the first years it was the workers themselves, not the unions, who appoint-ed the delegates. The risks of the commission meant that recruitment went slowly, but as the role and rights became stronger, more delegates were found. Christina Järnstedt says that in 1930 there were 1,000 workplaces with safety delegates; in 1935, the number had doubled, and another five years later there were 4,000 workplaces with safety delegates.
“Protection of delegates was improved and there was an official letter describing how harassment against them would be dealt with. That made recruitment easier, of course.
1950s and 1960s: Technical worker protection, prevention of accidents due to machines and falls.
1970s: The decade of chemical scares, from one alarm to the next: asbestos, vinyl chloride, solvents, jet fuel, pesticides and so on.
1980s: Repetitive strain injuries started to be noticed as the most common type of physical problems; some recognition of psychosocial problems.
1990s: EU adjustment and systematic work environment management (SAM) [Sam was first introduced onboard in 2003]; towards the end of the decade there was an explosion of questions about long-term sick leave.
2000s: Long-term sick leave, psychosocial aspects such as stress, burnout, fatigue depression; health promotion measures and health care.
Source: Swedish National Institute of Public Health
In the late 1940s the law on occupational safety and health was renewed. It became compulsory to appoint delegates at workplaces with five or more em-ployees, and to set up safety committees in companies with at least 50 employees. It also became possible to appoint regional safety delegates with a mandate to manage work environment issues at small workplaces who lacked their own dele-gates. But at the same time, there was rising discontent over delegates’ limited powers of action. Many believed that they had insufficient power and were ruled too much by their employers.
“In the 1960s there was a report showing that safety officers had no real
influence. They had not made the work environment better, but had instead helped rationalization carried out by companies. People wanted to have more say, and that human factors should be considered in decisions concerning the work environment,” says Christina Järnstedt.
The criticism resulted in widespread strikes and lobbying throughout the 1960s, and the next decade saw the big breakthrough for work environment questions. In 1978 there was a new work environment act. The fact that that the concept of worker safety was replaced with the work environment showed a broadening of the perception of what the law covered. Safety officers’ capacity to act was widened and they were given the right to stop dangerous work as the ultimate measure. In 1965 it became possible to appoint safety officers onboard ships and in the 1970s a large number of marine safety officers were trained by SAN. To celebrate the centenary of safety officers, LO, TCO and Saco have jointly established the Safety Officers’ Day. It will be on 24 October every year and will be celebrated for the first time this autumn.