Lilli Vuorela: On the frontlines of occupational safety and wellbeing

30 November 2017
Lilli Vuorela

Sometimes one person can make great changes in their working environment. Lilli Vuorela started as the first social welfare inspector for United Paper Mills and AB Walkiakoski in 1929, and she can be accredited for many developments in social responsibility in the history of our company.

In those days, the Finnish forest industry was only just starting to pay attention to social activities and the prevention of workplace accidents. There had already been a few women working as factory inspectors in Finland, but Lilli was the first woman to have the title of social welfare inspector.

Lilli’s work was both demanding and groundbreaking – she was in charge of occupational health and safety at four different mills. She was respected and trusted, and she improved workplace wellbeing in many ways. She considered accident prevention to be her most important task.

Lilli didn’t have time to be idle: she gave lectures and fostered dialogue, sent out circular letters, made suggestions about safety procedures and followed up on their implementation. She organised first aid courses and regularly inspected the condition of the protective gear. She advised engineers and foremen which in those days was not an easy job for a woman. Lilli also compiled statistics about accidents and ordered signs to improve safety. Thanks to her, there wasn’t only money in the workers’ pay packets, but also instructions about what to do in case of emergency.

In addition to her safety work, Lilli also made sure that the social welfare was taken care of at all work sites. In practice this meant negotiations about ventilation, lighting, dressing rooms and canteens, the equipment for drinking water and washing, and medical examinations.

In the 1920s and 1930s, people began to understand the importance of employee wellbeing and health, also outside working hours. Lilli checked that the apartments, wells, cellars, and outbuildings were all in adequate shape. She raised awareness about the importance of sanitation and cleanliness. She also organised sewing classes and after work activities, gave lectures to women about housekeeping and health, and founded a library in her hometown Myllykoski. She was in charge of the personnel services office and edited the Työn Äärestä employee newsletter.

This is how Saimi Ahlstén, who took over Lilli’s job when she retired in 1933, described her:

As a social welfare inspector, Mrs. Vuorela walked with experienced, confident and determined steps. In her work she was even-tempered but unwavering. Many days continued well into night as she untangled her complex set of tasks. Everyone who worked at the mill, both men and women, knew Mrs. Vuorela and would confide in her, but Mrs. Vuorela also knew her flock well and tirelessly advised and instructed them.

Lilli Vuorela is a great example of a strong Finnish woman who tirelessly fought for change on many fronts. People like Lilli have been important catalysts in leading us towards a safer, healthier, and more equal society.

Saara Pakarinen

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