Marie Boström, LO: “Why we want to strengthen the important role of safety officers.”

It’s tough being a safety officer. Often thankless. Many are discouraged, harassed and threatened. In unions affiliated to LO, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, the number of safety representatives has fallen by 12,000 in eight years.
We must break this trend, says Marie Boström, ombudsman at LO, who will be taking part in the 2022 Safety Representatives’ Days.

The pandemic has made the task of safety representatives even tougher, a topic that will be discussed extensively at the Safety Office Days on 16-17 March in connection with the Maintenance Fair at the Swedish Exhibition & Congress Centre in Gothenburg.

One thing that has provoked Marie Boström, the officer with central responsibility for work environment issues at LO, is the constant calls from ministers and the Public Health Agency to work more from home.

– This does not apply to our members. You can’t drive a bus from your couch. Not can you cast concrete slabs or remove the old ones. Everyone in the LO collective, and not least the safety officers, has reacted to these calls.

The same applies to the call not to go on a crowded bus or tram, but to wait for the next one.

– This is not so easy when you have a work schedule to adhere to, Marie notes. It’s also not easy to stay home at the first sign of infection if you’re an hourly wage earner and can’t afford to turn down a shift.

One consequence has been that safety representatives have been faced with new challenges. In the beginning, it was all about getting the right protective equipment.

– There’s been great concern about this. Both in terms of getting infected and infecting others.

Marie points to employees in public-facing professions such as in healthcare, retail and hospitality, where you meet people all the time, who are particularly vulnerable.

– It has been difficult for safety officers to relate to what the authorities have said, as the messages have often been vague and difficult to interpret.

As a result, special crisis groups have been set up in all 14 LO unions to provide guidance and information to safety representatives. This support has been important because the safety officer is the person who is expected to put their foot down in the workplace.

– They have had an especially difficult time during the pandemic, says Marie Boström. For example, the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s inspectors have worked remotely and haven’t come out to the workplaces to assist the safety representatives.

Being a safety officer is the finest and most important trade union job there is, she says. But also the toughest:

– It is the safety representatives who take the hits in the workplace. When they stand up to managers and authorities on behalf of their fellow workers, and when they insist on following safety instructions. This has been accentuated during the pandemic.

Some employers find safety representatives a pain to deal with. But  others see them as a useful resource.

– There are smart employers who recognise the value of working with safety officers to make progress on health and safety issues. They see it as an investment in the business to make sure people don’t get hurt. It gives hope.

In 2016, LO conducted a survey among all 70,000 union health and safety officers. It showed that one third of safety officers had been obstructed in their work, twelve per cent had been subjected to harassment and six per cent to threats or violence. Fewer and fewer want to shoulder the responsibility. 12,000 have left since 2013.

– It’s a tough climate, says Marie. In lean organisations, with many hourly workers, it is particularly difficult: people often do not dare to point out shortcomings in the working environment because of the risk of being perceived as “inconvenient” and perhaps losing their job.

– We cannot go on like this. This is why LO is now implementing a project to provide unions with tools and support to recruit more health and safety officers and strengthen their role. We will also conduct a new nationwide survey.

During the pandemic, there have been few opportunities for safety officers to meet physically to be updated and trained or to discuss current issues. Against this backdrop, the 2022 Safety Officer Days will be particularly important, Marie believes.

– There is definitely a pressing need, she says. Ideally safety officers from all over the country would be able to come. Not only from industry, but also from other sectors and professions that would not normally attend the Swedish Maintenance Fair. This is important for everyone!

The Swedish Safety Officer Days is organised by the Swedish Exhibition & Congress Centre together with the Nordic Safety Association, IF Metall, Dagens Arbete and LO in conjunction with the Underhåll trade fair in March 2022 – a cross-industry forum where engineers and decision-makers meet the technology of the future and learn from each other’s experiences in smart maintenance, sustainability and industrial safety. For more information on both the Safety Officer Days and the trade fair visit