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New centre of knowledge for Swedish working environments

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

A new, national centre for knowledge about and the assessment of working environments should be established either at Stockholm University or as a new government body, according to a proposal presented to the Swedish government.

“When the previous government closed down the National Institute for Working Life in 2007, major resources disappeared from working environment research, as did the natural support for Swedish working environment knowledge vis-a-vis the social partners and international society. The task has not been to reestablish the Institute for Working Life, but to fill the gap which emerged when it was closed down,” said Minister for Employment Ylva Johansson during a meeting with the press in March.

Just over a year ago the Swedish government presented a new working environment strategy for the years 2016 to 2020, with the aim of creating order in the labour market. The government also wanted to develop the Swedish model. Focus would rest on three main areas – a vision zero for fatal workplace accidents, a sustainable working life and measures to improve the psychosocial working environment. 

The government also commissioned two reports and allocated more resources for working environment issues. One report would look at which working environment rules were needed to cover the new labour market, while the other would create a basis for a national  working environment centre of knowledge. These two reports are the ones which have now been presented to the government.

Lacks an institution

Commissioner Maria Stanfors, who has been looking into how a new national knowledge centre can be set up, its mandate and where it should be situated, concluded that the starting point for such a centre is that a sustainable working life is dependent on a good working environment for all. That is why it is necessary to have an organisation that gathers knowledge, but which also coordinates this knowledge. Unlike many other countries, Sweden does not have such an institution – although some exist within other policy areas.

“Some see this as an oversight, including the social partners. There is currently a great hunger for knowledge and an impressive desire to know what works,” said Maria Stanfors.

The idea is to upgrade knowledge about the working environment, an area which Maria Stanford says has had fairly low priority lately, in terms of research and other things. Sweden has also been lacking an international contact point for working life issues, which has led to the country loosing out on international knowledge while other countries have not been able to learn much from Sweden. 

Now the new knowledge centre should be able not only to concentrate on gathering relevant knowledge on working environments, but also analyse and evaluate working environment policies. What works when you want to create a better working environment, and why?

“The report has concluded that you need an institution which can be a focus point and a coordinator. The new centre will gather and spread knowledge, but also analyse and evaluate existing work and measures. You could say the spread of knowledge about working environments links up with analysis and evaluations. This is something new in the working environment area, yet you find it within several other policy areas and it works well,” explained Maria Stanfors.

The idea is also that the new centre of competence will look beyond Sweden’s borders and represent the country in different international fora, including the Nordic working environment committee and at Eurofond.

“The new centre can contribute to improving the working environment area, but it also means knowledge about working environments will now have a more visible source,” said Maria Stanfors.  

According to the proposal, the new centre will be a smaller organisation, independent from those it will study. The report has also considered where such a knowledge centre should be based, and suggests it should either be integrated into Stockholm University or become a new government agency. Stockholm has strong working environment research traditions at universities, but also at Karolinska Institutet and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. This means there is knowledge which will now be gathered at the new knowledge centre.

“The report suggests the new centre be placed close to where the research is taking place, regardless of the type of organisation, in order to maintain a high scientific quality,” said Maria Stanfors.

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When the government presented a new Swedish working environment strategy in March last year, two new government reports were also commissioned. They were completed and presented in March this year. One is “SOU 2017:24 A changing working life – how is the responsibility for the working environment affected?”. The report is a knowledge overview of changes to working life since the Working Environment Act came into force in the 1970s. 

It also recommends that regional safety representatives are given a greater role and that they can also be appointed in workplaces with no trade union members. This could be relevant when foreign companies carry out work in Sweden.

The other report, ”SOU 2017:28 A national centre of knowledge about and assessment of working environments”, recommends a national centre which can gather knowledge about working environments. The report says this centre could be set up at Stockholm University, or as a new government body.


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