Souped-up safety reps
Hazards 104, October - December 2008
Trade union safety reps mean fewer accidents and less sickness at work. That’s why TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson says this is no time for timidity and is calling for more reps with more rights – and a clampdown on the dangerous employers who try to get in their way.
This year sees the 30th anniversary of the implementation of the 1977 safety reps’ regulations that in 1978 gave unions the right to appoint safety reps in workplaces where the union is recognised. The regulations also impose a duty on employers to consult with these reps. But when it comes to safety reps, not all employers are law-abiding corporate citizens.
For years we have been told that unions are old-fashioned and irrelevant to the modern workplace. It is claimed that as only around 30 per cent of workers are in a union, new methods of consultation and bargaining must be found.
But the reality is very different. Within large employers and in the public sector unions still represent a considerable majority of workers. It is in the smaller workforces that the union presence is low - that has always been the case. The main change is that the number of small businesses and of self-employed has increased considerably, as large scale manufacturing and major industries have declined.
Safety reps: A charter for change
When it comes to health and safety, unions are still a major force. There are around 150,000 safety reps appointed and supported by trade unions, covering around 10 million workers.
They make a huge difference – the “union safety effect.” A government paper published in January 2007, Workplace reps: A review of their facilities and facility time, estimated that safety reps save society between £181 million and £578 million each year (Hazards 97).
This is as a result of an annual lost time reduction from occupational injuries and work-related illnesses of between 286,000 and 616,000 days. The government paper estimated safety reps prevent between 8,000 and 13,000 workplace accidents and between 3,000 and 8,000 work-related illnesses each year.
The lack of enforcement activity is not because all employers are consulting with their workforce. Far from it.
An Employment Review survey of 71 organisations in 2008 showed the numbers of employers consulting their workforce on health and safety has started to decline. Less than half (44 per cent) now consult on health and safety, compared with 68 per cent in 2006. This is despite it being a legal requirement.
This mirrors estimates made by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the 2005 paper ‘Plans for the worker involvement programme’ which stated “approximately six out of ten workers in Great Britain are not consulted (whether directly or indirectly through safety reps) on health and safety matters that affect them.”
Safety reps are unpaid volunteers. They are entitled to time-off with pay for their activities and for training, but many choose to do much of the work in their own time.
Most of their work involves dealing with queries and raising issues with their employer, however in addition they inspect the workplace, support members, (including sometimes visiting them at home), investigate injuries, check risk assessments and safety data sheets, keep their members informed and liaise with other union reps.
Safety reps take their responsibilities seriously, with TUC figures suggesting over half inspected their workplace at least three times in the past year.
Trained and able
One of the reasons unions make such a difference is that they ensure that their safety reps are trained. In 1997, a survey for the HSE into the chemical regulations (COSHH) found that safety reps were far more knowledgeable than their managers (Hazards 60). Ninety per cent of safety reps were aware of the main principles of these main chemical safety regulations. Over a third of managers had not even heard of the regulations. The survey also found that over 80 per cent of safety reps had received training in health and safety in the last two years, compared to 44 per cent of managers.
Every year the TUC trains over 10,000 safety reps. Many more are trained through their unions (Hazards 102). The high quality of training provided is one of the major reasons that safety reps have such a positive impact.
One example of this is a joint initiative between the trade union Unite and Balfour Kilpatrick to encourage new trade union safety reps to come forward, and to give them quality health and safety training relating to their sector. Training included giving the reps knowledge of their rights and the scope of their role. The programme included generic training surrounding the construction industry, risk assessment, accident investigation and site inspections. The initiative was supported by union and company officials at the highest level. A paper to HSE’s construction advisory committee CONIAC noted injury rates fell “significantly” as a result of the initiative.
A second example involved Unite trained and supported safety reps who tackled musculoskeletal disorders as part of a joint initiative with HSE (Hazards 100). Results in the report suggest that since receiving the training, 59 per cent of safety reps increased the frequency with which they raised back safety issues with their colleagues, and 29 per cent increased the number of times they raised back safety issues with senior management. Three months after the training course, of the 24 per cent of reps who put forward buying new handling aids to their safety committee or senior management, all of them had seen new handling aids bought, and of the 29 per cent who put forward new or updated training programmes on manual handling techniques, 93 per cent had seen this implemented.
Making them listen
Unfortunately having trade union safety reps in a workplace is not a guarantee that the safety record will improve if employers do not fully engage with them. Because most employers who have trade union safety reps in their workplace recognise their value, new TUC figures suggest about two-thirds (65 per cent) of safety reps feel that if they raise a concern, the employer will normally try to address the issue raised, but a minority report that their employer either does nothing, or does not even respond.
The TUC’s 2008 survey of safety reps found that only 27 per cent of safety reps report that their employer automatically consults with them “frequently”, with 24 per cent saying that their employer never consults without prompting. Similarly, a survey by Unite showed that just 46 per cent of employers always involved their safety representative in risk assessments.
Employers must change their attitude towards consultation, unions, and safety reps. The 150,000 trade union-appointed safety reps represent a major resource for improving the safety culture in the workplace and reducing and levels of injury and ill-health. They could also be a valuable tool in warning regulators about “rogue” or dangerous employers.
The TUC report, ‘The union effect’, outlined the benefits of trade union organisation and safety reps (Hazards 88). In 1995 a group of researchers analysed the relationship between worker representation and industrial injuries in British manufacturing. It found that those employers who had trade union health and safety committees had half the injury rate of those employers who managed safety without unions or joint arrangements.
Organising for health and safety
Other analyses of the same figures have all concluded that the arrangements that lead to the highest injury rates are where management deals with occupational health and safety without consultation. In 2004, a further analysis of the data confirmed that “the general conclusion that health and safety should not be left to management should be supported.”
Consultation should not be seen as a useful “add-on”. It is one of the two pillars that hold up a good safety system, along with risk assessment and management. Given the enormous difference that both consultation and trade union safety reps make the fact that the majority of UK workplaces have absolutely no mechanism for consultation is appalling.
There are some things that could be done immediately to begin to change this. For instance all inspectors, from both HSE and local authorities should automatically ask employers how they consult. Although a growing number of HSE inspectors now do this, reports from safety reps indicate it is still patchy, in particular in the local authority enforced sector.
The TUC would also wish to see sanctions available against employers who refuse to give their safety reps paid release for training. At present a safety representative can take a case to an Employment Tribunal, and some do, however that is little deterrent and employers who do consistently refuse to allow their safety reps paid release for training should be prosecuted.
That is why the TUC wants new sanctions to be available against employers who deny safety reps paid release for training.
Failure to respond
There is also a problem getting line managers to engage with safety reps, even when, at corporate level, there are good structures. Safety reps often report that line managers either ignore representations or fail to address concerns raised. At the moment safety reps can raise any safety matter they want with their employer – but there is no legal duty to respond.
What do we want?
To get round that, many unions have managed to get their employer to agree to a system of “improvement notices” (also called Union Inspection Notices) whereby the employer agrees to respond to items raised by a safety representative (Hazards 76). These however have no legal status, unlike in some states in Australia where safety reps can issue a form of improvement notice called a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN). This system has led to increased compliance and is broadly supported by both sides of industry and the regulatory authorities.
If there was a legal requirement on employers to respond, and a duty on the enforcing authorities to react to any complaint from a safety representative that the employer has not responded, or failed to respond adequately, this would go some considerable way towards improving the dialogue between safety reps and line managers. When the HSE consulted on the issue in 2006, 72 per cent of employers and their representative organisations who offered an opinion answered that there should be a new duty to respond to representations (Hazards 98).
The issue of trade union involvement in risk assessments has also been raised on a number of occasions. While many employers do consult on risk assessments, and discuss the risk management controls that arise from them, a large number do not. Given that safety reps generally know what actually happens in the workplace far better than management, this is a major failing which should be rectified as soon as possible.
There are also restrictions on those workers on whose behalf a safety representative can act. Since the current consultation regulations came into effect in 1978 there have been great changes in the world of work with more small employers, more contracted out staff, more agency workers. If you have employees working in the same workplace, but with different employers, then the safety representative can only represent the workers employed by his or her own employer. This is clearly at odds with the reality of working life in the 21st century and need addressing.
The TUC also believes that, where a workplace is clearly unsafe and a serious injury is likely to take place a safety representative should be able to stop that work taking place. At the moment individuals do have the right to stop work if there is “serious and imminent” danger, but this almost never happens as, individually, they fear the repercussions from the employer. If safety reps had the right to do it, with full protection against victimisation, dangerous practices could be stopped immediately.
There is also the issue of non-unionised workplaces. Management in these workplaces can decide to consult through “Representatives of employee safety”. Any reps appointed through management will not have access to independent support and will be dependent on their employer for training. The number of these reps appointed under the 1996 regulations covering non-unionised areas is extremely low.
At present most employers that do not recognise trade unions have no form of consultation, despite it being a legal requirement. While the regulations allow employers without trade union recognition to determine how they consult either through representatives of employee safety or individually most choose to do neither. There are no easy solutions to this problem, although the government could be more vocal in saying that the union model works best in protecting the health and safety of workers.
There is also a case for a new kind of safety adviser for smaller non-unionised workplaces. In 2002 trade unions supported a one-year pilot of union-appointed safety reps who would go into small workplaces to act as safety advisers. It concentrated on six sectors that were notoriously hard to reach and which needed particular support in encouraging the partnerships and joint working fundamental for improving health and safety. Some 88 employers participated. Surveys before and after the pilot showed that the involvement of these union supported advisers led to improvements in small, non-unionised, workplaces’ approach to health and safety.
Nearly 73 per cent of employers said awareness of health and safety matters had increased and a third said communications had improved. Over 75 per cent of employers said they had changed their approach to health and safety and nearly 70 per cent of workers observed an increase in the amount of discussion on health and safety. The pilot facilitated the creation of safety committees in some workplaces and joint working on risk assessments and training.
Building on the success of the Worker Safety Adviser pilot scheme, the construction union UCATT set up its own network of health and safety advisers. These advisers now offer practical advice, safety training, toolbox talks and information to workers and firms in the construction sector, with the aim to improve consultation, worker engagement and health and safety in an industry that year on year suffers from abysmal safety records.
Safety is a crucial part of the trade union organising approach. The key to effective workplace safety reps is strong union organisation. If there is a strong union, with high membership and well-used structures for internal discussion and negotiating with management, then safety reps will feel much more confident. That is why the TUC has produced a range of new resources aimed at helping unions develop strong organisation in the workplace, including on health and safety.
No time for timidity
Cultural change will not be achieved through timidity. The scale of the problem is immense with 650,000 new cases of occupational ill-health and over a quarter of a million reportable injuries every year. Given the effect full consultation and the presence of union safety reps can have on organisations’ serious injury rates a major extension of these would be the most significant and effective development in occupational health and safety since the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.
Safety reps are not something to be feared. They should be allowed to fulfil their full potential as an invaluable resource that can help employers improve the safety culture and win the confidence and “buy in” of their workforce. They can also complement and support the work of the HSE and local authorities in ensuring compliance with health and safety regulations.
Trade unions do not want safety reps to take over the role of HSE inspectors. They recognise the limitations of their role. However the TUC believes that the ability of safety reps to function is severely hampered by the shortcomings of the current regulations.
That is why the TUC has launched a new charter for safety reps which calls for a recognition that the union model is the most effective one in protecting the health and safety of workers and for the rights and resources to maximise this lifesaving union safety effect.
TUC charter for safety reps
Safety reps in action
Here are a small number of examples of safety reps in practice to illustrate the range and value of interventions. These show that safety reps are positively engaged in finding solutions to real problems that face the workforce of today.
• When safety representative Gwen Cherry was studying for the TUC Certificate in Occupational Health she recognised that the checkout layouts of the supermarket she worked in breached the Manual Handling Regulations. He came up with the idea of a “plank” that reduced the need to scan goods at the checkout. The company accepted the idea and Gwen worked with the company’s design team to introduce the system which is now in operation in the company’s stores.
• Safety reps from the EIS union working in newly built schools in Glasgow raised problems with humidity and temperature. The council conducted a survey which said there was no problem. The union eventually commissioned its own study which showed the schools did not meet Scottish building standards and asked the HSE to investigate. The HSE upheld the unions complaint and is working with the council to bring the schools up to standard.
• In one workplace, safety reps from the union Prospect raised their concerns over the chemical hydrazine being decanted in the open leading to vapour escaping. Management agreed to contact the supplier who worked with them to develop a system with a stainless steel locking device attached to the storage drum which clamped on to the ejector suction pipe work thus reducing the exposure to vapour considerably. Monitoring of has confirmed the exposure has been considerably reduced.
• In South Lanarkshire a safety representative was concerned that gravediggers could be trapped by a cave-in with no way of getting help. As a result the Council agreed to provide all employees in the graveyards with mobile phones.
• In neighbouring North Lanarkshire safety representative Jim Cowan found that caretakers in tower blocks were finding discarded needles and being expected to deal with them despite having had no training or special equipment. After the union intervened specialist disposal was arranged by the council.
• At Tower Hamlets, safety representative and union safety officer Adrian Grieves noticed high levels of sickness absence in two new buildings, he raised it with management and asked the HSE to investigate. This led to an improvement notice being served and a major refurbishment, including a new ventilation system which has dramatically decreased the level of sickness.
When things go wrong
Here are some examples of what happens when safety reps are not involved. This failure to consult, or even to respond can have devastating consequences.
• One of the most tragic cases is that Ian Dicker who fell to his death at the West London Mail Centre, Paddington in July 2003. At the time of the accident Ian Dicker was working on the main roof of the West London Mail Centre, installing a new lighting system and was supervising an apprentice. The two men were working next to fragile skylights which were not boarded or marked as being dangerous and there was no safety guard rails to prevent someone falling. After the work had commenced, the apprentice had fixed an infra-red light unit in position on the roof when Mr Dicker stepped forward to inspect his work and fell 30 feet to his death, through one of the fragile skylights and into a corridor below. He died of multiple injuries. CWU Safety Representative Stephen Howlett had on a number of occasions raised concerns and questions of the need to take action in regards to roof working safety, pointing out the dangers and need to undertake suitable risk assessments. His calls were ignored as there is no legal duty to respond to him or involve him in any risk assessments or reviews. All the correspondence, minutes and inspection reports he had were handed over to Westminster Council who prosecuted both the contractor Romec and Royal Mail.
• Another safety representative from Unite reported that after an incident whilst working alone on a mobile elevating work platform (mewp), the platform got jammed in the raised position and he had to summon the assistance of a passing operative from another company, who fortunately knew how to operate the emergency lowering mechanism. He raised the issue at the following morning’s daily briefing as to whether the company was adhering to the method statement/risk assessment with regard to working with mewps whilst working alone. The supervisor neither acted upon it nor raised it at a higher level. Unfortunately a few months later an operative was crushed between the mewp handrail and electrical containment. The safety representative found that the method statement which the operative was working to at the time of the incident was a year out of date
• A safety representative at West Midland Police reported that a failure to consult with him led to several broken ankles and a broken shoulder after the force stopped using wooden batons as missiles in public order training exercises and started using spent baton rounds instead. This meant that officers slipped on the Baton rounds. Had the safety representative been consulted he would have been able to share the experience from other forces and also insist a risk assessment had been done at the time of the changeover.
Minister backs union safety reps
Trade union safety reps have been crucial to securing improvements in Britain’s safety record, the government’s health and safety minister has said. Lord McKenzie of Luton, speaking at the launch this week of new guidance on worker involvement in health and safety, said: “Thirty years ago this month the Safety Reps and Safety Committees Regulations (1977) became law. For many people workplaces are safer, the number of serious but non-fatal injuries reportedly falling by 70 per cent, workplace deaths have fallen by 76 per cent and an estimated 5,000 deaths have been prevented.”
He said the two key safety tenets are “the importance of leadership from the top of every organisation and secondly the real involvement of workers in managing health and safety. We are here today to promote and celebrate the latter.” The minister added: “Worker involvement in health and safety is one of my priorities for this year. I see it as one of my tasks to take every opportunity to go out and meet with employers, workers and their health and safety reps to understand the health and safety issues facing people at work and to promote worker involvement as widely as possible.”
HSE chair Judith Hackitt said: “This guidance will help all organisations to decide how to implement a culture in their organisation which genuinely values employees’ contributions leading to higher commitment and productivity.” TUC general secretary Brendan Barber commented: “The TUC welcomes the production of new guidance in an updated and more accessible form. We also welcomed the recognition from the minister for health and safety, at the launch, of the pivotal role that safety reps play in transforming workplace culture.”
Mr Barber said TUC “hoped the new guidance will help encourage those employers not engaging with trade unions on health and safety to do so, and that more will be done to ensure that those employers who do not consult with their workforce fulfil their legal requirements.” The TUC will be publishing a free version of the 1977 safety reps’ regulations and accompanying guidance to use in training.
HSE launches updated guidance for worker involvement, HSE news release, 14 October 2008