KANBrief 3/15

We can only win by working together

Professor Harri Vainio was Director General of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) from 2003 until the end of July 2015. He has been very committed to the idea of European cooperation and has played an active part in the EUROSHNET network. In this interview, he draws attention to the challenges in occupational safety and health that Finland – and other countries – will face in the coming years. 

In your opinion, what developments will have a major impact on occupational safety and health in Finland in the years to come? 

Finland is ageing. Out of 5.5 million inhabitants, over 1 million are now aged 65 or over. This number will reach 1.5 million by 2030. In the working population, too, the proportion of older workers is increasing. Besides this, the labour market in Finland will be characterized by increasing diversity as more immigrants and expatriates enter the labour market. 

As a consequence of this demographic situation, people are expected to have longer careers. As ageing leads to an increase in the incidence of health disorders and chronic diseases, health issues are the most common reason for persons leaving the workforce before statutory retirement age. The challenge is to organize work and to design workplaces in such a way that work-related ill-health can be prevented, and people retain their good health and are motivated to work until retirement age. 

Working conditions have become more complex in recent years. Has this resulted in any new laws, specific plans, public debates or social negotiations? 

Development of working life has traditionally been and still is topical in Finnish policy-making and in public discussion. It is currently being addressed in the Working Life 2020 Program, carried out by the ministries and social partners. Working conditions are among the topics for the future, but are linked with competence, management and innovations. 

What are the driving factors for the improvement of occupational safety and health in Finland?  

Working conditions are considered both according to the logic of health, i.e. the quality of life of the employees, and according to the logic of economics, i.e. the sustainability of the pension system. These two are interlinked and must be seen against the background of complex economic, social and ecological factors. This is often phrased as the connection between well-being at work and productivity. At the same time, the logic of economics has entered into health policy. Cost-effectiveness has become the keyword in the evaluation and development of health care – and also of occupational safety and health.  

However, the basics of primary prevention, i.e. the elimination or reduction of worker exposure to toxic or otherwise hazardous agents, should not be forgotten at a time in which the logic of economics prevails. Cost-effectiveness may not be immediately obvious for many preventive measures, but they still have an important impact in the long run. Over the past 40 years, this has been shown in many instances: the reduction in exposure to lead both among workers and the public at large due to its elimination in gasoline, for example, or nurses’ use of protective equipment when dealing with oncostatic alkylating drugs.  

How does Finland deal with the sensitive issue of working conditions? 

The strong culture of social dialogue in the Nordic Countries facilitates a serene approach. The development of working life in Finland is a tripartite approach. Conflicts of interest arise, sometimes presented very prominently in the media, but there is also a culture of hard negotiation, which in the end leads to solutions and agreements.  

The concept of “well-being at work” being linked to productivity can be expected to strengthen further in the future and could evoke positive attitudes to the improvement of working conditions elsewhere in Europe beyond the Nordic countries. 

What role does European and international cooperation play for FIOH’s work? 

In an era of globalization, occupational health and safety does not stop at national borders. FIOH is therefore committed to continuing its collaboration with international, European and Nordic networks. I believe that we only gain by giving, and we can only win by working together.