PO BOX 199 SHEFFIELD S1 4YL ENGLAND WWW.HAZARDS.ORG
tells the government
On 24 April 2006, the government kicked
off another employee consultation consultation. This time, says TUC’s
Hugh Robertson, it should introduce meaningful changes to recognise
the lifesaving role of union safety reps.
Back in 1999, the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) published a consultation document on employee consultation and involvement (Hazards 68). At that time it was agreed that there would also be a separate consultation on specific proposals for improving the legal rights of safety representatives. In 2003, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) considered merging the two main sets of safety representative regulations into one set of regulations while, at the same time, increasing the rights of all safety reps. Unfortunately HSE, at that time, took the view that this package was too complicated and bureaucratic and the proposal was dropped.
Now, after pressure from the TUC, HSC/E is once again proposing to consult on more changes to the safety representatives’ regulations.
The current Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations, made in 1977, are quite unique and provide the framework under which trade union health and safety representatives work. They give trade union safety reps considerable rights. As a result safety reps make a major difference to the safety culture within an organisation. Most crucially, it has been shown that involving trade union safety representatives in the workforce reduces serious injuries and fatalities considerably (Hazards 88).
Where employees have union safety representatives and safety committees they know that they have a voice. That makes them more willing to raise issues. At the same time, unions make their members more aware of safety issues. Yet despite overwhelming evidence that consultation saves lives and prevents injuries, many employers do not consult with their workforce and, despite this being a legal requirement, I do not know one case where an employer has been prosecuted for this.
For many years the TUC has been calling for changes to the current regulations. At the moment safety representatives can raise any safety matter they want with their employer – but there is no legal duty on the employer to respond. To get round this, many unions have managed to get their employer to agree to a system of “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 Australia where safety representatives can issue a form of provisional improvement notice, or PIN (Hazards 80). These have led to increased compliance and are broadly supported by both sides of industry and the government.
In the UK, there are also restrictions on the workers a safety rep can represent. If you have employees working in the same workplace, but with different employers, then the safety rep can only represent the workers employed by his or her own employer.
Many unions have negotiated roving safety representatives as a way to get round this. This can either mean that the safety rep covers workers employed by other employers within the same workplace, or the safety representatives cover a range of workplaces. These have been most effective in areas like the NHS and education. However the status of these safety reps can be unclear, given the wording of the current regulations.
In 2003 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) ran a number of pilots where trade union appointed “Worker Safety Advisers” went in to non-unionised organisations. An HSE evaluation of the pilot reported that over 75 per cent of employers said they had made changes as a result and almost 70 per cent of workers had seen an increase in awareness of health and safety (Hazards 78). Pilots of roving safety representatives have also been tried in construction and agriculture.
The HSC consultation, which will run until 8 September 2006, will not offer either provisional improvement notices (PINs) or roving safety representatives. What it proposes is extremely modest and limited. The proposals within the consultation would however make two major, and significant, changes to the regulations. The first of those would place a legal requirement on employers to consult safety reps on risk assessments. We know that in many cases this just does not happen. The second would place a requirement on employers to respond to representations made by safety reps.
Both these proposals will be useful tools in a safety rep’s armoury and the TUC would welcome these changes. This is not only because they will help safety reps, but because they will also lead to HSE revising its current guidance for safety reps – something that is woefully overdue.
The current guidance is outdated and does not reflect the world of work in 2006. It is particularly inadequate in areas like training, which is the only area where safety reps can actually enforce the current regulations (Hazards 86) - in all other cases it is up to HSE or the local authority to enforce. The guidance is also severely lacking in practical advice for the modern workplace. Changes in the regulations will mean HSE will have to revise the guidance, something every safety rep will welcome.
The proposed changes may also give an impetus to the other work HSE is doing on safety reps and worker involvement. Over the past two years, through HSE’s worker involvement programme, there has been a considerable sea change in the attitude of some sections of HSE towards trade unions and safety reps. However there is still a very long way to go.
Safety representatives continue to find that inspectors will just not enforce the current consultation regulations. Many inspectors still do not automatically try to speak to the safety rep when they visit a site. And most HSE materials on current issues are still aimed at employers, with little regard to the role that safety reps play in developing a safety culture within organisations. If safety reps are genuinely going to be seen as partners then these shortcomings have to be addressed.
However at the same time, safety reps have to use their existing rights. Far too many safety reps do not do a basic inspection of their workplace four times a year. Often safety reps do not even ask for copies of their employers’ sickness and absence records. Nor do they automatically ask for copies of risk assessments. This is mainly because safety reps are volunteers. Often they are just overwhelmed by pressures of work. Many are also faced by an antagonistic employer.
The TUC has over the past year been running a campaign aimed at improving the organisation of safety reps and making them more effective. It has produced an organising pack for use by branches, available free on the TUC website (Hazards 92), and the definitive TUC safety guide “Hazards at Work” has been totally re-written to make it even more usable for union activists. HSE is currently looking at ways of trying to encourage the level of worker involvement and safety representative involvement. The biggest thing they could do would be quite simply to ensure that inspectors enforce the current regulations.
This summer’s HSE consultation, while asking for views on changes to the regulations, also deals with a number of other issues. It asks specifically about new guidance or a framework for using voluntary standards. The reality is that, while we would welcome stronger guidance, only legal changes, with proper enforcement, will have any real effect. The voluntary approach has been demonstrated to be totally useless whenever it has been tried (Hazards 92).
As part of the workers’ involvement consultation, HSE will be holding “road shows” up and down the country. I hope that safety reps will attend these and make it clear to HSE that, while we welcome increased rights for safety reps, this is only part of the package. We need proper enforcement, and we need HSE to genuinely promote the principles of the trade union model of worker involvement. We also need far more supportive material for safety reps. In addition the TUC will still be calling for roving safety reps and the right to issue legally binding improvement notices.
If HSE genuinely wants to make a significant dent in the annual injury and illness figures then it is going to have to stop being so timid when it comes to promoting safety representatives. We know safety reps work. Both the TUC and HSE websites are full of case studies of the difference that they make. Unions, and safety reps, are key to creating a long term and positive change in the workplace. Let’s give them the support they need.
The Health and Safety Executive has published the dates of its regional
“discussion meetings”, to road test opinion on new workers’
consultation rights. HSE issued a consultative document in April 2006,
after lengthy pressure from the TUC, and now wants “to seek views
on how to encourage, improve and increase worker involvement in health
and safety risk management.” TUC is urging union reps to attend
the eight consultative meetings, to be held in May and June in Wales,
Scotland and England, to put the case for extended union safety rep and
other safety rights, including the right to issue Provisional Improvement
Notices (PINs), the right to stop the job and the right to a response
from the employer.
Improving worker involvement – Improving health and safety, Consultative Document CD207, full consultative document, summary document, print-off-and-use feedback form and online feedback form. Single printed copies of the Consultative Document and summary can be obtained from HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2WA. Tel: 01787 881165, Fax: 01787 313 995. Comments should be sent to arrive by 8 September 2006 to: Zoe Woodrow, Worker Involvement Programme, HSE, 5th Floor, North Wing, Rose Court, 2 Southwark Bridge, London SE1 9HS.
HAZARDS MAGAZINE WORKERS' HEALTH INTERNATIONAL NEWS