A work environment champion

As a young man, when Mats Bohgard was working at a chemical factory during a leave from studies, he was urged to “Come back and fix the work environment to make it fit for human beings!”.

Mats Bohgard LITEN

Mats Bohgard.

“Even though they said it half-jokingly, the truth is that they were experiencing every conceivable work environment problem: chemical exposure, noticeable alcohol abuse, extreme noise levels and major safety hazards. One man had lost his arm in an accident a few years back, and while I was there, they had a serious accident with a forklift”, he says.

Mats Bohgard embraced the call to fix the work environment. He is currently a professor of work environment technology at the Division of Ergonomics and Aerosol Technology at LTH, working on developing methods, guidelines and tools for a healthy work environment and a sustainable working life. Initially, his focus was on the potential health hazards of particles in the air produced by us through various processes: wood burning, use of studded tyres, combustion, welding, cooking and use of cleaning sprays.

“Every year, many people die prematurely due to elevated levels of particles in the air. The exhaust particles from cars alone have killed more people than all traffic accidents combined”, says Mats Bohgard.

Lately, his research has been focused more on work environment issues in a wider sense, by studying work places that are not industrially or chemically hazardous but pose major organisational and psychosocial risks. Work places where employees do not receive support or recognition, where the stress levels are often far too high with no opportunity for recovery, and where the work is not perceived as meaningful.

However, research was not in Mats Bohgard’s initial plans. He was interested in science and technology as well environmental issues and politics. And then he studied to become an engineer, to learn how to build houses, roads, aircrafts and other useful things. To him, doctors were men in white coats working in hospitals and school clinics.

“I wasn’t planning on becoming a doctor back then. I don’t come from an academic environment and I didn’t know what it entailed”, says Mats Bohgard who, despite his hesitant disposition, first became a doctoral student in nuclear physics and later a lecturer and researcher in work environment technology. However, he never gave up on his political involvement.

“When I grew up, people were part of the labour movement. Somehow this was a given. For me, it meant a striving for an egalitarian and just society – one that I would prefer to live in. This is something that I have continued to pursue in various ways, including through my involvement in municipal politics”, he says.

Some of his work in the City of Lund has been as member on the Board of Sanitation, Environmental Services Committee, Technical Services Committee, assessment committees and currently as a substitute for the Social Democratic Party on the board of the municipal energy holding company Kraftringen. According to Mats Bohgard, dedication is what has given him a greater understanding of the motives that drive his political opponents.

The political arena has been part of his research activities as well. For the past two years, he has moderated panel discussions on work environment issues during the annual political week in Almedalen.

“For me, speaking in Almedalen has been a way to link the research to the present day and needs of society. Research is not there to serve its own interests – it must be introduced in the public sphere in order to have an effect”, he says.

During his weeks in Almedalen, Mats Bohgard and other work environment researchers, industry stakeholders and government authorities have discussed societal challenges, such as the impact of digitisation on working life in the future, the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology, the working life of the elderly.

“Our panel discussion on elderly people in the work place was called ‘Am I to work until I die?’. I have asked myself that same question and my hope is that I will be able to – but in a different way”, he says.

Mats Bohgard is 66 and will retire this spring. However, when looking back on his professional life, there is one thing he did not manage to accomplish:

“I never went back to fix the work environment at the chemical factory that by now has been closed for many years. But there are still other similar environments in Sweden and, to an even greater extent, in other parts of the world where there is plenty of work to be done”, says Mats Bohgard.

Text: Jessika Sellergren

Photo: Erik Andersson

Mats Bohgard on:

  • blaming himself:
    “In the vicinity of where I grew up there was a printing house. Several of the young men who worked there had missing fingers or parts of their fingers. It came with the job, and basically you had only yourself to blame if your fingers got caught in the printing rollers.”
  • how the research profession has changed during his 40 years at Lund University:
    “It wasn’t so much about money when I started. Resources were distributed through services, benefits, facilities, etc. Today a lot of it has to do with money, and it has probably gone a bit too far. Money is the means and not the end in itself. Sometimes it seems as if the very goal of academic activities is to attract funding for research and education, get promoted and win prizes and awards.”
  • his research activities in general:
    At the Division of Ergonomics and Aerosol Technology at the Department of Design Sciences, work environment research and teaching is conducted and some 50 researchers, lecturers and administrators are working together on national and international projects. Mats Bogardh has participated in research groups that have built world-leading laboratories in aerosol technology at LTH, had many projects with occupational and environmental medicine and, together with others, initiated the establishment of a national centre of excellence in work environment research.