Research: New Occupational Safety and Health Act has given more responsibility to Finnish workplaces — only the most serious violations and crimes against occupational safety regulations go to court

Researcher Jyri Paasonen from the University of Vaasa, and Henriikka Lindfors have studied penal practices of violations and crimes against occupational safety legislation. The research revealed, that the new law has shifted more responsibility to workplaces and they now take occupational safety more seriously. However, only the most severe cases end up in court.

A violation of occupational safety means that the employer has intentionally or through negligence caused a deficiency or grievance that violates occupational safety regulations. For example, if the job orientation or the number of workers or supervisors is not in line with the hazards of the work, it can be regarded as a violation. Violation is usually relatively minor compared to a crime against occupational safety regulations. The most common punishment for a violation is a fine. Since 2012, the annual number of sentences has remained between 3 and 6. According to the research, interpretation problems in following safety regulations include misunderstood definitions and possible variations in interpretations of the content of the act.

A crime against occupational safety regulations is more serious than a violation. It involves a failure to supervise or take care of occupational safety. Typical crimes like this includes failures to carry out site inspections, deficiencies in protective equipment in construction work, failures to carry out asbestos removal, and inadequate plans and instructions for work. The fulfillment of the characteristics of a crime does not require, for example, an injury to the employee, but mere negligence is sufficient. The conviction for a crime is usually a fine or imprisonment for up to a year. The research, shows that the penal practice for crimes against occupational safety regulations in Finland does not correspond to the international level or even to the level of other offences considered to be less serious in the national comparison.

A crime against occupational safety regulations is investigated by the police, but only a few investigations are opened and not all crimes come to the attention of the police. The number of crimes is essentially related to the number of accidents at work, as the majority of cases often involve physical injury. In 2003, a new Occupational Safety and Health Act came into force, to ensure and maintain the working capacity of employees as long as possible throughout their careers. According to the research, the act gave more responsibility to workplaces and changed attitudes towards occupational safety issues. In workplaces, occupational safety thinking has become safety management. Safety management focuses on defining responsibilities and obligations and targeting sufficient resources to achieve the goals. This way, occupational safety can be guaranteed more comprehensively at work. The allocation of occupational safety responsibilities is particularly important as, for example, subcontractors are used more than before.

In addition to the positive development, the statistics show great differences among workplaces in the development of the quality of working life and the treatment of employees. The changing working life, which includes, for example, more temporary work and changes in working methods, has also brought new types of occupational safety risks into statistics on accidents at work and occupational diseases. For example, factors related to workload have increased and are often shown as symptoms of various health problems.

Criminal liability can lie with many parties

The employer is obliged to take care of the safety of the employee. However, the legislation does not specify how the employer's responsibilities are distributed in the organisation. In criminal proceedings in occupational safety matters supervisors are usually the defendants because they command and supervise at the workplace. The employer may also delegate supervision or management of the work outside the organisation. In this case, those who control and manage the work are also considered to be the employer's representatives. They, too, may end up with criminal liability.

A corporate fine is also used as a punishment to punish the whole community instead of an individual. However, the research revealed, that the distribution of corporate fines is relatively low. For example, in 2010–2018, they ranged from 22 to 42 cases. In addition, the amounts of the fines have remained small and are therefore unfair.

The research aimed to find out more information about the penal practices of violations and crimes against occupational safety legislation in Finland. The research looked at employees' accidents at work and the annual change in their number. In addition, the development of accidents at work and violations and crimes against occupational safety regulation in 2010–2018 was examined.

 

Further information

Jyri Paasonen, University of Vaasa, phone: +358294498356, email: jyri.paasonen(@)uwasa.fi