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       Hazards special online report, March 2016
TUC’s big push on health and safety and organising 
There are about 100,000 union safety reps countrywide. And there are many thousands of workers alive today because of the work they do. The TUC’s Hugh Robertson says the union body is launching a new organising drive with this life-saving union effect at its core.


The Trade Union Bill could seriously hamper the ability of unions to organise and protect their members. Health and safety could be a casualty if, as the government wants, union membership falls or union representatives are unable to get the time off they need.

However, this erosion of union power is not inevitable. Over the past 150 years trade unions have faced a barrage of attacks from governments and employers. And that’s because we have continued to organise and support workers. So over the next few years one of our top priorities must be to ensure that workplaces are organised and that we use every opportunity we have to recruit members.


STRIKE ONE  Unions make workplaces safer because they have the collective power to get things done. The government’s determination to make the union role more difficult is an attack on fundamental rights and safety.

For a union to be effective takes two things. The first is a strong membership within the workplace. The second is high membership involvement. By encouraging members to participate, much more can be achieved than if members expect the union to ‘sort things out’.

Health and safety can play a major role. The TUC has produced new resources aimed at supporting unions to gain members and a more active membership, with more health and safety representatives. It will make the union more effective on the ground – where real gains can be made.

You can do this by:

We know that union health and safety representatives make a difference. Workplaces with union representatives and joint safety committees have half the major injury rate of those without. At the same time, health and safety is one of the main reasons that people join a trade union.

There is a lot to be done. Over two million people have an injury or illness that was caused or made worse from work and over 28 million working days are lost every year as a result of work-related injuries and ill-health. The HSE estimates the cost of injuries and ill-health from current working conditions alone to be £14.2 billion, but of course the human cost is much greater.


Unions in action
1. Put yourself in their shoes
A new food factory employing 500 workers, from a variety of nationalities, opened on a greenfield site in the Midlands. By talking to the workers one-to-one, the Unite organising team found that the main grumble was having to share wellies. The incoming shift had to take over the boots of the outgoing shift. The boots leaked and no personal lockers were provided. This was an issue that was widely and deeply felt.

What did Unite do?
Newsletters covering these issues were circulated in “all the languages we had knowledge of.”
The leaders then took around a petition calling on the employer to meet its duty to provide effective personal protective equipment (PPE) and to provide lockers.
When the employer did not respond to this or to requests from organisers for access to workers on the site, Unite organised a mass sign-up of members and over 200 individual grievances were lodged.
The employer was given the choice of dealing with these grievances on an individual basis, which would have taken weeks, or collectively on the basis that they would grant recognition. The employer opted for recognition.
The employer agreed to remedy the issue of the boots but then bought inferior boots. This was soon picked up the newly elected representatives who took up the issue. Eventually the employer had to replace the boots.
Unite followed up with another survey to monitor progress.


Why health and safety?

Workplace safety and health is no different from the other issues unions fight for, like better wages, benefits and respect. An ultimate measure of dignity and respect on the job is the degree to which workers are provided with a work environment that will not rob them of their health, their limbs or their lives.

BUILDING UNIONS  Site workers are among an increasing band of union campaigners using civil disobedience to boost their campaigns. A fired Unite safety rep was quickly reinstated after a hastily summoned group of Blacklist Support Group members crossed Bond Street in London… very, very slowly. They creating a high profile public spectacle that quickly trended on social media and had bosses on the phone to the union rescinding the sacking before the protest had ended. [see: Road Block]

In an organising campaign, it all comes down to whether this is an issue around which you can involve the workers. That means picking issues that are relevant, and winnable.

In addition, many employers are more interested in engaging with unions on issues such as health and safety than on many other issues, and areas such as well-being can also give us a way to involve the workforce, and engage with the employer. And there is a legal requirement on employers to consult with the workforce on health and safety, so we should use that where we can.

It is not just about the traditional work hazards, such as chemical exposure, work at heights or unsafe equipment. Most of the health problems that people are likely to experience come from factors like how their work or workload is managed and how their workplace is designed. Over 70 per cent of work-related sickness absence is caused not by injuries, but by the problems of back pain, repetitive strain injuries and stress (Hazards 132). These should never be accepted as ‘just part of the job’ – something can be done about them, and it is the role of the union to see that something is.

There are six very strong reasons why unions should be using health and safety issues as a way of developing trade unionism in the workplace:


Unions in action
2. From squeezing balls to touching nerves

A UNISON branch issued “stress balls” to workers in one office where there was a low union membership. A week later they put round an email to all the staff and said that if they felt they needed to use a stress ball then they probably had a problem with stress. Squeezing a ball was not going to make it go away, but joining a union might.

The teaching union NASUWT issued cheap plastic thermometers to teachers in schools where there was a problem with high temperature, along with advice that, if the temperature got over a certain level, to get in touch with the union.

Retail union Usdaw targeted workers in a large supermarket chain where there was a problem with violence and abuse from customers. The union’s ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign, which called on the employer to take action against anyone who abused staff, touched a nerve with many non-members who then joined the union.


Whatever the workplace, the key to organising is teamwork. You must work with other representatives in your union and with other activists. There is a need for a ‘one-team’ approach with everyone working together and maintaining clear communications. In unionised workplaces it will be stewards, health and safety representatives, green or equality representatives and union learning representatives. In non-unionised workplaces, it will be anyone interested, perhaps with support from someone at the union.

You should look to use electronic communications – email and texts - to keep in touch with other representatives or activists, especially for the lone reps who are geographically isolated. Use social media – workers could be kept up-to-date on what the union is doing through Twitter or Facebook messaging.  

Most union activists already work in unionised workplaces where there are other members and the union is recognised by the employer. Unionised workplaces, though, can present their own set of problems such as large numbers of non-union members, or too few activists and inactive or ineffective union branches. The one clear benefit that a union can demonstrate to current and potential members is the presence of a trained and union supported trade union health and safety rep.


PAULINE’S STORY Pauline is a paramedic and a rep for the Ambulance Service. With the help of her union, Pauline was able to redesign the ambulances that were being used, creating a safer environment where staff can now care for their patients better.


In a unionised workplace, one of the first things that you can do is to map your assets. Find out who works where, who is a member, and where your activists are and whether they are trained.

Mapping, which I will cover in detail in the next issue of Hazards, is just an audit of the current situation. It is a simple process to establish where to prioritise recruitment and other organising efforts. It may reveal any changes necessary to help promote health and safety in areas without effective representation or an active membership and to encourage activists to come forward and become safety representatives.

Where there are a number of existing union activists, it is best to do the mapping exercise as a group. Remember the aim is to get workers to become active themselves and not to leave it to “the union”. After all, a union is its members.


Starting from scratch

Organising in new workplaces is different. If you want to start recruiting members in a workplace where there is no union, first speak to a full-time officer of the union. You can check there is not an existing union or union members you may not know about. The union may also be able to provide advice and support.

BANK ON UNIONS  Prevention of workplace injuries and work-related ill-health as a result of the ‘union safety effect’ saves the economy the equivalent of £219m- £725m a year at 2014 prices. The contribution of the under-threat union safety role in the public sector alone is £130m-£360m [more]

If you do go ahead, the first step is making contact. Any organising campaign needs to be assisted by people who know the workplace and the problems. It may be there are one or two people you know, or who have approached the union asking to join. These contacts are your major asset in using health and safety as an organising tool. Like any asset, these people need an investment of resources, so they receive the appropriate support and where necessary training. Top of the list, though, is one-to-one contact with someone representing the union.

Remember that even where there is no union, the employer is required under the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations to establish a means of informing and consulting with employees on health and safety issues. The employer should be asked how they are doing that. If there is no recognised union, it has to be either with every worker individually or through “representatives of employee safety”.

If there is any form of safety representative system in place, or safety committee, this could give you the opportunity to influence the discussions staff have with the employer. Try to ensure those selected or elected as worker representatives are potential union activists. Having people working on the inside is always best.

If there is a safety committee established by the employer, and possibly controlled by the employer, the aim would be to turn it into a committee on which union members, or union supported activists, can be involved and can influence workplace policy.  This could be a key element in building the union presence in the workplace prior to negotiations for recognition.


Unions in action
3. The business of organising

Survey Talk to workers, identify hazards and make an action list.
Campaign priorities: Pick the top concerns and do your homework. Check your union website or the TUC health and safety pages for information on the topic and some ideas.

Probe Find out if there have been inspections by safety enforcers and any citations – HSE puts enforcement details online www.hse.gov.uk/enforce/

Get committeed Establish a cross-union safety and health committee so that all the union health and safety representatives come together regularly.

Get training Train workers on their safety and health legal rights and how to identify hazards. A short lunchtime meeting might be enough.

Communicate Use newsletters, noticeboards or social media to keep members informed and to show non-members that the union is active on issues that concern them.

Research Analyse injuries and illnesses - the organising committee or union safety and health committee can request regular breakdowns from the employer.

Investigate Find out what chemicals workers use and how much they're exposed to. Request a list of hazardous chemicals, Safety Data Sheets, and worker exposure measurements.

Involve Initiate group activities among workers to assert their rights by filing complaints on hazards, wearing badges highlighting workplace hazards, or asking the HSE or local authority to inspect the workplace.

Remember Union safety reps in organised workplaces can demand ‘all the information in the employer’s knowledge’ on health and safety issues. Some, where for example injured workers are named, may have to be anonymised, but can’t be withheld.


Building the union

Union activists can use workplace safety and health issues to win the support of workers and to recruit new members to the union. The way that you try to recruit will depend on whether the union is recognised or not. It is much easier where the union is recognised and there are union health and safety representatives than in a place where there is no existing organisation and, often, a hostile management.

However, one thing to bear in mind is, of all the activities you can undertake, routine inspection is the most fundamental function that a union health and safety representative can carry out in terms of establishing and maintaining a union presence. It must always be a priority, however difficult it is.

When negotiating improvements, remember the legal requirements are only a minimum. Your union or sources like TUC Risks and Hazards may have examples of much better workplace agreements on issues from stress to the elimination of hazardous chemicals.

And the union safety rep role can be bigger than the basic – extensive – legal rights. In some workplaces unions have negotiated roving safety representatives and Union Inspection Notices (UINs).

Roving health and safety representatives come into their own where a branch has a lot of diverse employers, small workplaces, low union density, or a significant number of contractors on site. UINs – served on employers and identifying problems to be remedied - are most useful where there is an active, trained, and effective safety representative structure, but where management often ignores complaints.


Unions in action
4. Going by the book

A few years ago Unite was involved in an organising campaign at the book distribution company, Gardners Book. The company employed around 1,000 people in Eastbourne and had a relatively high staff turnover, low pay and poor conditions. Its main competitor was Amazon.

One organising issue revolved around heat in the warehouse on hot days. The warehouse had no air-conditioning system and a lot of the fans were broken.

Rather than the union bringing an individual or collective grievance against the firm the union purchased 10 thermometers.  Members were responsible for taking these into the warehouse, placing them in the hot spots and keeping a log of the temperature every two hours, night and day – the firm was a 24 hour operation.

To do this they had to find people on other shifts to help. The non-members involved or identified for this activity quickly joined the union, because they were actively involved in something to help themselves. They were all very easily developed into activists.

The monitoring was linked to a reporting system, establishing regular contact to a large group of members and activists. Previously there had always been poor attendance at union meetings but this issue and the method of addressing it not only boosted membership and the activist base, it also gave members a purpose and reason to attend union meetings.

In terms of success it boosted membership by around 200 and doubled the activist base from around 7 to 14.


Putting plans into action

Many of the proposals in this guide may seem like good ideas but you cannot do everything at once. Neither can you just do nothing. You are going to need to put these proposals into action. You will achieve nothing if they just remain ideas in your head or notes on a piece of paper.

To prevent this happening you should:

Hopefully the activities you have taken part in will have produced enough good ideas to allow you to make a real difference to the health and safety of your members.



Double your money with union reps

Allowing union reps time off to represent their members improves staff retention, reduces illness and boosts industrial relations, a Bradford University analysis of official figures has shown. The February 2016 report for the TUC concludes every £1 spent on paid time off for public sector union reps to represent their members, taxpayers get at least £2.31 back in savings.

The government’s Trade Union Bill seeks to cut the “excessive” number of union representatives - and therefore the amount of facility time available - in the public sector. However, The benefits of paid time off for trade union representatives calculates the savings delivered by unions across the economy could exceed £1 billion every year, falling in a range between £476m and £1,250m.

Prevention of workplace injuries and work-related ill-health is the biggest single contributor to the savings, at 2014 prices the equivalent of £219m-£725m a year. The contribution of the under-threat union safety role in the public sector alone is £130m-£360m.

The TUC argues that the time available to union safety reps to do this work – not classed as facilities time and protected by law – would nevertheless be hit by the government plans, despite assurances to the contrary. The union body says the Trade Union Bill cap on all time for union activities would inevitably leave unions choosing between safety and other union functions. It said this could undermine the well established ‘union safety effect’.

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Strength in numbers

From stopping work to stopping traffic, mapping the workplace to mapping the places it hurts. Unions have shown remarkably creativity on workplace health and safety. The result? A dramatic cut in work-related injuries and ill-health and, a new TUC analysis shows, a saving to the economy of up to £725 million every year.

Why health and safety?
Starting from scratch
Building the union
Putting plans into action

Unions in action
1 Put yourself in their shoes
2 From squeezing balls to touching nerves
3 The business of organising
Going by the book

See Pauline's story


Health and safety and organising - A guide for reps, TUC, March 2016, pdf and e-book versions.
The Union Effect: How unions make a difference on health and safety, TUC, 2016.
• TUC Risks weekly e-zine.
TUC health and safety webpages.

Hazards website
The union effect
Union Inspection Notices

Road block From doctors, to firefighters to construction workers – stopping the traffic can be an effective way to make bad employers change direction. more