Mauri Johansson & Timo Partanen
Trade Unions in workplace safety- and health promotion. With focus on cooperation between workers and academics in promoting health
Public Health Partner, Denmark
Finnish Institute of Occupational Health
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, workers have organized in unions and parties to strengthen their efforts toward improvement of health and safety at work, job conditions, working hours, wages, job contracts, and safety. During history alliances have, from time to time, been established between workers, their unions and academically trained persons, working in solidarity with the workers and on their premises.
During the last decades there are in the Nordic countries some interesting examples of this type of co-operation between workers and their organizations on the one hand and scientists, practitioners of medical, social, hygienic, and technical occupational health on the other. These coalitions have occasionally been instrumental in improvements in regulation and legislation pertaining workers’ health. They also have been active for a surprisingly long period of time, in spite of ideological changes in the societies in the mean time.
In early 1970s, adverse health effects of organic solvents that were regularly used by construction painters were virtually unknown or alt least unrecognized. In the vivid years following 1968, when joint activities between workers and academics evolved all over Europe and elsewhere, a local painters� union in Aarhus, Denmark, contacted a group of medical students, asking for help to find out about severe central nervous symptoms among their members. Using interviews, short questionnaires and finding relevant scientific documentation it was shown that exposure to organic solvents could explain both acute and chronic symptoms, described by the painters. This led to a joint report , demanding that the working conditions had to be changed and the toxic substances eliminated. The co-operation resulted in a new type of organizations (“Co-operation Worker – Academics” (SAA) in Aarhus and “Action Group Worker Academics” (AAA) in Copenhagen), which still exist. They have produced more than 80 nontechnical reports, pamphlets and other material covering a broad range of industrial and other areas in working life. Most of them were initiated by single workers or shop-stewards, who with help from their local unions followed the problems up with active students and academics. The publications had a wide distribution among workers and were used in training sessions for safety representatives and had positive influence on working conditions throughout the country. AAA has also published a newsletter for distribution among active union representatives. The painter reports were followed by systematic research at university levels, confirming the findings , , . Threshold Limit Values were reduced, and the painting industry was forced to develop and apply water-based paints. Chronic illnesses among painters and others exposed to solvents became compensated as occupational diseases. The number of new cases of chronic solvent syndrome is considerably reduced during the 90’ies. Strong counteractions were taken by the oil industry, hiring scholars to deem the research as false . The public presentation of the oil industry report in 1984 was greeted by red union banners at the University auditorium to mark the protests.
These reports had a considerable impact during 1972 -1975 in Denmark. In a State Committee set up to propose revisions of the 1954 Worker Protection Act, seven of the reports were appreciated by the way they exposed the problems . The committee proposed the main elements to a new Working Environment Law, passed 1975 and enforced since 1977. Workers� influence on their working environment and on occupational health and safety in general was strongly secured. This law in many respects served as inspiration for the European Union Framework Directive as of 1989/391. Also the Danish National Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) was forced to accelerate its working environment programs and demanded influence on university research .
A similar worker-academic coalition (“The Health Front” – Terveysrintama) has been active in Finland since early 1970s. In fact, is has been communicating steadily over the years and occasionally joined forces with the Danish organizations, some times attending each others meetings. So, a report, prepared in Denmark by SAA, covering the questions of psychic working environment, was used as a model for an alike Finnish publication in 1978. The Finnish organization is an NGO, and has published a 8-to-16-page newsletter four times a year, prepared and distributed pamphlets, booklets, and books, and organized various campaigns and training sessions. One of the books presented the laws and formal regulations in a language understandable for ordinary workers. In particular, a set of strict threshold limit values for workplace chemicals and other hazardous exposures , and a draft for a law on occupational health services (OHS) were prepared. Both were printed and distributed among trade unions and unionists, particularly safety representatives, and are likely to have influenced legislation and regulation of workplace chemical exposures and OHS in the country. Annual conferences were held during a long range of years with dozens of participants – both workers and academics, posing statements and resolutions for public debate.
In Sweden, delivery truck drivers employed by a brewery had for years had serious ergonomic problems and accident risks in unloading and delivering cases of beer and mineral water down the steps to basement-placed bars and restaurants. A safety representative and a shop steward contacted the local University Department of Occupational Medicine. The problems were carefully examined, and proposals for a solution were made. After a systematic campaigning, binding regulations were enforced, with a maximum of 5 steps accepted, otherwise no delivery. Mini-elevators were drafted for easier delivery.
On European level a cooperation between workers, their local and national unions and academics has existed since the late 80’ies, collecting hundreds of activists every second year for policy planning. Permanent working groups e.g. on OHS are working between the bigger meetings. A very successful e-mail network assists continuously workers and unions with qualified answers to new hazard problems. This network has i.a. been strongly fighting for a total asbestos ban globally. Contacts can be taken on e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
What represents research in the above examples might today be called participatory or action research, the research problems being defined by those at risk, and academics providing support with their experience in literature search, systematic documentation, report writing, etc., and the workers contributing with their practical experience and knowledge of what kinds of solutions would be applicable. It must be stressed, that the joint activities between workers and academics during the first years were characterized by some scepticism and the debates were brisk, until differences in the background cultures were mutually understood and accepted. The examples may be considered narrative, since the causal relations between the events were not confirmed in the strict sense.
In conclusion it can be said, that this type of cooperation has been extremely useful and influential on working environment questions. Also broader topics of cultural nature have beet taken up (what do children in schools learn about workers working and living conditions? How can the history of workers struggle for better conditions be presented etc.). The beginning of the co-work was hard both for academics and workers, but as time vent by, it helped mutually.
I can only recommend you to do all your best to establish alike structures to improve the working and living conditions for the working class and others striving under the burdens of the global neoliberalistic experiments.