Blues' Tommi Huhtala on the ice after being tackled during the Ice Hockey League quarterfinal match Blues vs Lukko on 29 March.The Finnish Ice Hockey Players' Association demands that the remit of the Act on Occupational Safety and Health be extended to also encompass ice hockey players. Professional athletes are at present the only occupational group in addition to soldiers not allowed protection under the act, introduced in early 2000.

Concerns over the incidence of head injuries have in particular been raised within the sport recently.

The act proved an obstacle for the players' association already a few years ago when it asked the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health to draw up a report on the necessity of flexible ice rinks. The report was never drawn up on grounds that the authority of the institute does not extend to sports.

The association and its chairman, Sinuhe Wallinheimo, is currently drafting a proposal to revise the act. "The groundwork is already under-way," Wallinheimo reveals.

"The goal is to define athletes as people, we're working achieve that."

Wallinheimo, a representative of the National Coalition in the Finnish Parliament, is unsure why athletes were not extended the protection 15 years ago. "Maybe it was a cost issue," he estimates.

Harri Vainio, the director general at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, has voiced his support for the proposal, having already tabled a similar one himself. "Athletes today lack the support and safety net allowed under occupational safety laws," he highlights.

Leagues and clubs, Vainio adds, should take better care of the well-being of athletes. "By the law, employers would be made responsible also in sports. The efforts would be organised according to rules, and it would be impossible to walk away from negligence."

Athletes in team disciplines have for 20 years been defined in the Finnish legislation as employees under an employment contract. "There is clear career-thinking also in sports. First, you acquire your professional skills through hobbies and training, with the objective of a professional contract," Vainio points out.

Seeking more effective measures

Jarmo Saarela, the executive director of the Ice Hockey Players' Association, says that while clubs already take care of the treatment of injuries, the law would also oblige them to seek more effective measures to prevent injuries.

"To my knowledge, it would not create insurmountable costs for the employer," adds Saarela.

Under the proposal, the physical examinations of professional athletes would become compulsory and the monitoring of the work environment could be improved.

The proposed revisions are not, however, without their problems even from a sporting viewpoint. Petri Heikkinen, a lawyer at the Finnish Sports Confederation (Valo), calls attention to the special characteristics of sports as a profession.

"In team sports, cause and effect relations are vague. Many injuries are sustained by accident or it may be difficult to determine their cause exactly," he says, referring to checking and collisions on ice.

Individual athletes, in turn, are essentially entrepreneurs, Heikkinen adds.

Regardless, the Ministry of Education and Culture has expressed its support for the proposal. "Professional sports should be included," states Harri Sysäsalmi, the director of the ministry's sports division.

"Previously, the emphasis of the sports movement was on voluntary work and grass-roots sports, while professional athletes were not as visible," he speculates on the rationale behind the current legislation.

Kalervo Kummola, the president of the Finnish Ice Hockey Association, is more lukewarm about the proposed revisions. "I'm not familiar with the contents of the occupational safety law, but at a glance [the revisions] seem unnecessary. Each sports has its own rules. It's enough to apply them," he argues.

Tero Hakola – HS
Aleksi Teivainen – HT
Image: Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva