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22 October 2014
Following the suicide of an employee, two managers at a Swedish municipality were recently convicted for an environmental offence believed to have caused another's death. The ruling clarifies employers' statutory responsibility for the physical working environment of employees and the psychosocial work environment.
The case concerns an employee who for a long time felt that he had been subjected to abuse at his workplace. The employee had unsuccessfully asked to be relocated and as a result of his work situation he had suffered increasing depression. The employer gave notice of discharge, even though there was no legal basis for this. Shortly after notice was given, the employee committed suicide. Subsequently, the two top managers were prosecuted for an environmental offence.
The purpose of the Work Environment Act (1977/1160) is to prevent illness and accidents in the course of employment and otherwise to achieve a sound working environment. The work environment must be satisfactory, taking into account the nature of the work and social and technological developments in society. Working conditions must be adapted to people's different physical and mental capabilities. If anyone intentionally or negligently neglects his or her duties under the act to prevent illness or accidents, he or she may be held criminally responsible for an environmental offence. Consequently, there must be causality between the breach and what has occurred. Breach of the obligations under the act may take the form of an act or omission.
The act has so far been applied mainly to offences relating to workers' physical work environments. In this case(1) the court made it clear that an employer's responsibilities also include the psychosocial work environment. The court held that through delegation, the managers in this case had a responsibility to ensure that the workplace conducted systematic environmental work. The law imposes an obligation to systematically plan, direct and inspect activities in a manner which ensures that the prescribed requirements for a sound working environment are met and illness is prevented in accordance with the Work Environment Act and issued regulations. The employer – through the managers – was thus obliged to:
The court noted that the employee had been exposed to such violations as to be assessed as victimisation, and that the bullying investigation had been conducted in a substandard manner. The managers had not done anything to identify the risks that existed in the workplace and did not even address the risks actually identified. The court held that the employee's severe depression had a reasonable and highly probable causal connection with the conflict situation and work-related problems; hence, his death had been caused by a work injury. Further, it was found that it was obvious that the managers had not fulfilled their rehabilitation responsibilities or considered the possibility of relocation.
The court found that by carelessness and gross negligence, the employer had caused the employee's illness and subsequent death because, in accordance with the act, it had breached what was incumbent on it to prevent.
The decision has been appealed.
For further information on this topic please contact Jörgen Larsson at Wistrand Advokatbyrå by telephone (+46 31 771 21 00), fax (+46 31 771 21 50) or email (email@example.com).The Wistrand website can be accessed at www.wistrand.se.
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