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Systematic work environment management and risk assessment

Systematic work environment management means, among other things, doing a risk assessment where you review which duties or situations may expose your employees to the coronavirus and the disease COVID-19.
Image of two women in front of a whiteboard that shows plans for systematic work environment.

Assess the risks 

At the moment, the coronavirus, COVID-19, is a risk to many work environments, and as with all risks, you as an employer need to investigate and determine what the risks are in your particular business. A risk assessment is helpful in determining which measures are the best to take. The measures may vary. If the risk cannot be fully eliminated, it is oftentimes a question of managing the risk, for example through special routines, such as changing your cleaning routines, instructions, or information campaigns. Another example of handling or minimising a risk is to use personal protective equipment (PPE).

Adaptation

Investigations, risk assessments, and measures always need to be adapted to your business and the duties. The coronavirus was an unknown risk to us all just a few months ago. This is why it is important to keep up with the knowledge development currently taking place within the field to ensure effective occupational health and safety management. New information on the coronavirus and the disease COVID-19 may also mean that investigations, risk assessments, and measures will need to be re-evaluated more frequently than usual.

The novel coronavirus brings more work environment risks than the risk of infection itself, such as the anxiety employees experience. This also needs to be investigated, risk assessed, and remedied.

You can find more information on systematic work environment management and the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s provisions on risks of infection in the links below:

Work on the work environment

Working Hours Act

FAQ on risks of infection and the Working Hours Act

FAQ on risks of infection and the Working Hours Act

For a business, an infectious outbreak may mean that some employees need to work more than usual. For example, there may be a need for extra overtime/additional hours, emergency overtime, working nights and going without a daily or weekly rest period.

In a situation when exemptions are applied, it is of utmost importance that the employer works systematically with the working environment, in accordance with the Work Environment Act and the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s provisions, with particular focus on employees having the rest and recovery they need to execute their duties in a sustainable manner.

Will some form of emergency law overrule the Working Hours Act in case of a major infectious outbreak?

No, the law applies as always. There are special provisions that apply when the country is at war or under the threat of war, but they are not applicable on other types of crises.

For those of us who work in essential services such as healthcare, fire service, and police – are there any specific rules that apply during a major infectious outbreak?

There are special rules on exemptions for public activity such as the armed forces, the police, and protective and rescue work, where the activities are such that you cannot avoid violating the rules on working hours.

The exemption only applies to situations that deviate from standard operations for these types of services, which always requires continuous staffing and quick responses. The European Court of Justice has stated that essential services are services that are essential for maintaining the protection of safety, health, and public order in extraordinarily serious and far-reaching conditions. The activities do not need to be operated by the government to be covered by the exemption; the type of work performed is what matters.

A major infectious outbreak may trigger the exemption, if the activities are under significantly increased pressure due to higher demand, potentially in combination with unusually high absence due to sickness.

In this case, regulations on maximum total working hours, daily rest period, working hours for night workers, and compensation for temporary derogation from the weekly rest period do not apply. This provision is found in Section 2, paragraph 3 of the Working Hours Act.

In a situation where the exemption is applied, it is of utmost importance that the employer works systematically with the working environment in accordance with the Work Environment Act and the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s provisions, with particular focus on employees having the rest and recovery they need to execute their duties in a sustainable manner.

Is the requirement of 11 hours of daily rest applicable if you do not work in essential services?

Normally, every employee shall have at least 11 hours of consecutive rest during each 24-hour period, so-called daily rest period. But employers may temporarily deviate from this under special circumstances that the employer could not have foreseen, providing that the employee receives a corresponding compensatory rest period. This provision can be found in Section 13 of the Working Hours Act.

In the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s opinion, a major infectious outbreak could, in certain cases, be considered special circumstances that would allow temporary deviation from the rule on daily rest period. It could, for example, be that a business supplies goods or services that are in particular demand due to the contagion, or that some businesses need to be shut down in an organised manner, potentially in combination with unusually high absence due to sickness.

In decisions on exemption from the daily rest period, the Swedish Work Environment Authority has normally required a compensatory rest period at the end of the work period corresponding to 11 hours for every 24-hour period worked.

Breaks and pauses are necessary under all circumstances, and especially important if making exemptions from the daily rest period. In a situation where the exemption is applied, it is of utmost importance that the employer works systematically with the working environment in accordance with the Work Environment Act and the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s provisions, with particular focus on employees having the rest and recovery they need to execute their duties in a sustainable manner.

Does the weekly rest period requirement always apply if you do not work in essential services?

Normally, every employee shall have a minimum of 36 hours consecutive rest during each 7-day period, a so-called weekly rest period. But the employer may deviate from this temporarily, if prompted by any special circumstances that could not have been foreseen by the employer. Such deviation may only be made providing that the employee is afforded a corresponding compensatory rest period. This provision can be found in Section 14 of the Working Hours Act.

In the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s opinion, a major infectious outbreak could in certain cases be considered special circumstances that would allow temporary deviation from the rule on daily rest period. It could, for example, be that a business supplies goods or services that are in particular demand due to the contagion, or that some businesses need to be shut down in an organised manner, potentially in combination with unusually high absence due to sickness.

Breaks and pauses are necessary under all circumstances, and especially important if making exemptions from the weekly rest period. In a situation where the exemption is applied, it is of utmost importance that the employer works systematically with the working environment in accordance with the Work Environment Act and the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s provisions, with particular focus on employees having the rest and recovery they need to execute their duties in a sustainable manner.

Can you order overtime due to a major infectious outbreak?

The employer may order so-called general overtime when there is a special need to increase working hours. In addition, the employer may order so-called extra overtime if there are special grounds for this and the situation cannot reasonably be resolved in any other manner. The provisions can be found in Sections 8 and 8a of the Working Hours Act.

General overtime may be worked up to a maximum of 200 hours per calendar year. Extra overtime may be worked up to a maximum of 150 hours per employee and calendar year. General and extra overtime may be worked up to a maximum of 48 hours per employee over a period of 4 weeks, or 50 hours per calendar month.

In the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s opinion, a major infectious outbreak could result in a special need to increase working hours in certain businesses that would motivate both types of overtime. It could, for example, be that a business supplies goods or services that are in particular demand due to the contagion, or that some businesses need to be shut down in an organised manner, or that the business needs to continue to operate despite unusually high absence due to sickness.

Do the rules on rest apply when working overtime?

Yes. Working overtime does not cancel out the other provisions in the Working Hours Act. On the contrary, it is especially important that employees have rest and recovery through a daily rest period and a weekly rest period, unless the exemption rules apply. Breaks and pauses are necessary under all circumstances, and especially important when working overtime.

Are you never allowed to order more overtime per employee than 350 hours per year, or a total of 48 hours during a period of 4 weeks or 50 hours per calendar month?

Overtime that is not included in general or extra overtime can be ordered under very special circumstances, so-called emergency overtime. Such overtime for emergency work may be ordered when unforeseen events have caused disruption to a business or threaten to cause such disruption or damage to life, health, or property. Emergency overtime may be ordered to the extent required by the circumstances. This provision can be found in Section 9 of the Working Hours Act.

The emergency work does not need to be performed by employees in the affected business. However, one should be restrictive with respect to emergency work outside of one’s own business.

As soon as circumstances allow, the employer shall notify the local union that overtime emergency work shall be performed. If the obligation to notify is disregarded, the ordered overtime will be considered as general or extra overtime, when conditions for this exist, or otherwise as unlawful overtime. If there is no local union, the obligation to notify does not apply. In such cases, the rules on overtime report and the supervisory provisions and the provisions on penalty for unlawful overtime shall be considered.

Ordering emergency overtime does not cancel out the other provisions in the Working Hours Act. On the contrary, it is especially important that employees have rest and recovery through a daily rest period and a weekly rest period, unless the exemption rules apply. Breaks and pauses are necessary under all circumstances, and especially important when working overtime.

Are you allowed to work without breaks if the business is under great pressure due to a major infectious outbreak?

No, breaks, pauses, and meal breaks are necessary under all circumstances, and especially important if you are making exemptions from the rules on rest or working overtime.

Usually, every employee is entitled to a break after a maximum of 5 hours work. A break means you are entitled to leave the workplace. There are no rules on how long a break shall last, but, according to case law, at least 30 minutes. Breaks are not included in the working hours. During an event that could not have been foreseen by the employer, breaks may be substituted by meal breaks. In that case, the employee may not leave the workplace and the time is included in the working time. Meal breaks may become relevant in case of a major infectious outbreak. These provisions can be found in Sections 15 and 16 of the Working Hours Act.

Every employer is also entitled to pauses from work as necessary. Pauses may be scheduled if the working conditions so require. Pauses are included in the working time. This provision can be found in Section 17 of the Working Hours Act.

The assessment of pauses necessary should be integrated into the systematic work environment management in order to ensure that employees have the rest and recovery needed to execute their duties in a sustainable manner.

Are you allowed to work incessantly during a major infectious outbreak – if you use extra overtime, emergency overtime, and is exempted from the rules on daily and weekly rest period?

No. There is a limit to how many hours each person may work in total. The total working time during a period of 7 days may not exceed 48 hours during a reference period of 4 months. However, the reference period means that you can work significantly more than 48 hours certain weeks, so the provision allows great flexibility from a shorter perspective. This provision can be found in Section 10b of the Working Hours Act.

Breaks and pauses are necessary under all circumstances, and especially important if making exemptions from the daily rest period or working overtime.

In a situation where exemptions are applied, it is of utmost importance that the employer works systematically with the working environment in accordance with the Work Environment Act and the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s provisions, with particular focus on employees having the rest and recovery they need to execute their duties in a sustainable manner.

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Last updated 2020-04-16