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ORGANISE! Hazards 74, centrepages, April - June 2001
You slip, trip, fall. You are exposed to toxic chemicals. You lift, you carry, you get strains. You are stressed to the eyeballs. All of this and the law says you should be safe and healthy at work. Mick Holder looks at how safety reps can organise to close the reality gap on workplace safety.
Unions have used techniques from strikes, to boycotts of dangerous substances and processes (Hazards 11), from refusing dangerous work, to national and local safety campaigns (Hazards 64), to canteen sit-down protests, to press for safety improvements.
But to effectively secure these improvements, a safety rep must have the support of an informed and involved membership.
Get trained Safety representatives need skills and need to be trained. Some of the skills needed are interviewing members, investigating accidents, researching information, taking notes, negotiating changes locally or meeting senior management, giving verbal reports, prioritising work, tackling problems systematically. Safety reps have a legal right to time off for routine and more specialised trade union safety courses (see page 22 this issue; Hazards 61).
Investigate Safety reps represent their members on health, safety, welfare and even environmental issues. Talk to members about the problems they have with the work they do, possibly using surveys, body mapping or risk mapping (see Hazards 71).
Network New reps need to be in touch with other union reps in the firm. This is to ensure they know what is going on within the union and what issues are being raised with the boss in the workplace as a whole. They also need to find out about the management of the organisation and how this links with the union and safety reps.
Communicate It is good practice to have a poster or a leaflet given out at work by the employer, telling all workers who their safety rep is and who is responsible on the management side. More creative forms of communication can pay dividends too... many unions communicate with safety reps via the internet. And some local unions run internal websites, telling members which rep is responsible for what in which area (Hazards 72).
Safety reps should know the:
* Local union structure at work, including any convenors,
deputies, reps with special responsibilities such as equal opportunities
or union training;
Represent all the members: Reps must treat all their members fairly and be sensitive to issues that may arise which affect any one group of workers - for example women, religious or racial groups, workers with a disability, young workers or those who work outside normal hours such as cleaners and security staff. Representing everyone fairly makes for a stronger union. Health and safety is one of the main reasons people join unions, so the higher the profile, the better. Safety reps must make sure they know exactly who they represent as they may not represent all workers, members of other unions or non-union workers. They should know how and when to raise issues with both the management and unions, when to expect action and any appeals or grievance procedures.
Safety committees Safety committees with full union involvement make the workplace much safer. However, safety committees are also notorious for being world class talking shops. Give yours a health check to make sure it is doing its job.
Safety policy All employers are require to have a safety policy stating their commitment to safety and setting out detail of the organisation and arrangements in the business to secure a safe and healthy workplace. Get hold of it; improve it.
Risk assessments The method that employers must use to ensure a safe and healthy workplace is called "risk assessment" - and it isn't rocket science. Employers must look at jobs done, identify any potential problems and who might be affected, review what they do to prevent injury and act to ensure that nothing goes wrong (Hazards 44). Safety reps must be consulted by employers when they are doing risk assessments.
Accident reporting Employers are required to have a system for employees to record any accidents, normally called the accident book. Accident and incident statistics give safety reps a good indication of what is going on in the workplace - as long as everyone is reporting them.
The law Lots of laws deal with health and safety at work, but don't let this put you off. Safety reps should never lose sight of what they think is wrong at the workplace and how they think it should be improved. The law should be considered a tool to help negotiate improvements, and not relied on exclusively to solve the problem. It is rarely enough on its own. Consultation Employers must consult with safety reps on all issues that may affect the health, safety and welfare of employees - and they must do it in good time. So telling a rep a new computer system has just arrived is not "consultation in good time". Reps and employees should be involved in any changes at the workplace from the planning stage onwards, through purchase and into implementation.
TUC Hazards at Work file. Details from TUC, Congress House, Great Russell St, London WC1B 3LS. Tel: 020 7636 4030. www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/
TUC safety e-zine, Risks
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