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Hazards special report, Summer 2009
  Enemy to ally – the story of a safety rep
Is it possible to take a dysfunctional workplace with high levels of assaults, sickness and poor morale and in less than a year make it a haven of safety and worker contentment, with managers respecting and valuing the union role? Union rep Mark White explains how they achieved just that in his workplace.

Safety respect
Hazards 107, July-September 2009

“You are the top performing department in health and safety”. Words that wouldn’t have been uttered or even associated with a department, that 12 months ago was in  turmoil, under the cloud of an internal improvement notice, visited and admonished by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and on the brink of privatisation.

Bristol City Council’s Parking Services section was in trouble. Violent incidents were high and rising, verbal abuse was higher still. Sickness and injuries were above the council’s average. And there was open warfare between the trade unions and the management. I played a part in this. As a four year safety rep veteran, along with three other safety reps, I accused and threatened our management with the same vigour I was accused and threatened. We had invited in the HSE. Everyone was losing.

Team safety
TEAM SAFETY Mark White (second left) flanked by safety reps Duncan Waller and Tony Jones, accompanied by branch safety officer Pete Fryer.

In desperation, human resources (HR) called in a mediator. The decision was laughed at. How was this man going to solve years of health and safety neglect and dissolve the distrust that was now entrenched between us? In truth, the mediator didn’t solve the problem, but he did point out that one manager and one safety rep felt the situation could be salvaged.

I sat in the mediation meeting with my group manager Bob Fowler, and talked with him about how we could put things right. Not arguing or accusing, but bouncing ideas and sharing aspirations, long after the other groups had finished. Bob had a radical idea. He asked me: “Can you fix this?” I answered that with trust and support I felt I had a good chance, but I needed him to have total faith.

A meeting was set up, without anyone else knowing, and we tentatively addressed the issues of the HSE visit, the lack of trust and the internal improvement notice. I took a plan to Pete Fryer, our branch officer for health and safety, and with his approval change began. Bob wanted a full-time trade union safety rep!

A sequence of events on the management side helped. One manager was dismissed and two retired. Two new managers were appointed at workplace level, Paul Watts and Wayne Dewfall. These two new managers had six months to prove their worth, and quickly set about looking for big wins.

My first job was to sort out the trade union side. Most of our health and safety reps were also shop stewards, and this had blurred the lines and created division. It was quickly apparent that the first fix was to establish definite boundaries and responsibilities. I convened a meeting, where I explained my idea to the three joint reps and the remaining shop steward. Understandably, there was suspicion of motive and accusations of capitulation. I explained that if we were going to resolve anything this would have to happen.

Two of the three safety reps dropped the shop steward part of their role and we began actively recruiting dedicated shop stewards. With clear boundaries established we could concentrate on filtering the issues.

Suspicion of our facility time was a major sticking point with our management. As we were away from the workplace, the issue was used as propaganda tool as in “your union reps are having a jolly and a laugh, while you are all working”, and used to stir anti-union feeling amongst senior managers, who already had been sold the story that we were militant troublemakers. I addressed this by establishing that any facility time taken would be taken in the workplace right under the noses of both management and members. We would maintain confidentiality and independence, but would be transparent in our movement and work schedule, removing the suspicion and propaganda in one swoop.

Next on the list was the HSE visit, and how we worked to resolve it, and ensure that everyone still had a workplace to work in. I had taken my health and safety 1 and 2 and was taking my occupational health diploma, and this served me well in addressing some of the issues raised by the HSE. Our parking attendants, turned up for work, had no regular direct supervisor and were in shifts of up to 20 people, some who barely knew each other.

The attendants were subjected to violent verbal and physical abuse by the public, and felt devalued and demoralised. More time was taken off sick than the rest of the council, and stress was listed in a survey as the number one problem. This had to be addressed. I had to think of how all the things I had picked up on my courses could be applied. Firstly we had to study feasibility, and I had several meetings with Paul Watts, the new manager to find out whether we could realistically implement change. Paul was like a breath of fresh air. As a new manager, he also wanted change, and in consultation - a new experience for the trade union side - we set about sorting the issues.

Mark White safety rep

Hazards Questionnaire

Who are you? Mark White, UNISON corporate health and safety rep, Parking Services, Bristol City Council.

What made you become a safety rep?  I was pressganged by the members for my “outgoing nature”.

What training have you received? TUC health and safety stages 1 and 2, Occupational Health and Safety Diploma and various TUC short courses.

How much time do you spend on repping? I spend 37 hours a week in work, and many more unpaid hours.

Where do you get your support?  I have been fortunate in being mentored by two outstanding veteran safety reps, Pete Fryer of UNISON and Mike Turner of Unite, along with support from the corporate health and safety trade union side and my two workplace reps, Tony Jones and Duncan Waller.

What are the major hazards at work?  Violence and aggression, stress.

Why be a safety rep?  In my workplace, no-one would stand up for what is right. I also realised that managers needed managing.

What is your most satisfying accomplishment?  Seeing people treated fairly in the workplace, and inspiring others to become safety reps.

What is your worst experience?  At times, union reps were threatened with suspension and treated with disdain by management and other members of the council. If it hadn’t been for the faith and support of my wife, Nicola, I would have thrown it all in.

What advice would you give to other reps? Stay true to your principles and beliefs. Take all the training courses you can. And never forget you do this for free, managers are paid.

* Would you like to be our featured safety rep? Contact Hazards, email editor@hazards.org, telephone 0114 201 4265.

Hazards website www.hazards.org/safetyreps

I wrote a document called ‘Project carousel’. It set out the issues and proposed change. I recognised that people felt isolated and unsupported, they felt powerless and undervalued. The proposal was to change from 20 person shifts into small teams of six, consisting of five and a supervisor.

The teams would be of permanent membership and the supervisor would also be permanent. Members would now know who they were working with every day, and who would supervise them. Relationships could be built, and the supervisors would start to understand strengths and weaknesses in their ranks, and allocate duties accordingly.

Paul established a training matrix, to not only document training that had taken place, but to show future training requirements based around personal devel-opment plans.

It took off almost imme-diately. After incidents, staff had support from their team mates and supervisors finally felt they were being allowed to manage rather than baby sit.

As part of my TUC course, I was tasked with creating a project, and I looked at the relationship between lone working and incidents, with some surprising results. About 90 per cent of all incidents were directly attributed to the same small group of people. Personal protective equipment (PPE) wasn’t being used and risk assessments were being ignored.

It was very apparent that the training on conflict management and lone working, delivered to the staff by people who had no understanding of the job, needed an overhaul. I got together with our safety manager Clive Tilling. Over a fortnight, we wrote a new training package encompassing the best trade union teachings with the experience of the safety manager’s time in the police, to tailor a package that showed an understanding of the hazards faced and real, practical solutions to avoid conflict. We then set about retraining all the staff, training them in dynamic risk assessments and, through management, enforcing the use of PPE and adherence to the risk assessments.

Incidents began to drop and sickness started to improve, but there were still many outstanding issues that were preventing us moving forward.

We had an established safety committee, but this was over heavy with trade union reps and managers and was ineffective. This had to change. I spoke to Bob Fowler. He agreed to cut the number of managers attending the meeting if we would do the same. Safety reps would meet independently once a week and I would take the issues raised to the safety committee. We still reserved the right to attend on mass should the situation require it, however I felt that if we could focus a small amount of people on debating the issues we could push forward.

Bob called in all the trade union representation and all relevant managers and outlined the plan.

I was to remain in my substantive role as a civil enforcement officer – the new name for parking attendants - but with full-time responsibility for health and safety. For the sake of the managers, Bob explained that this was not a management position and he expected me to bring the full ethos of the trade union, coupled with my trade union safety rep experience, to the role. I would meet daily with managers at a local level and advise and consult with them on planned changes, and be able to carry out the role of a trade union safety rep in reacting to issues as the arose.

I now had all the time I needed to push the health and safety agenda, and a streamlined team of myself and two workplace safety reps to monitor and promote best practice. The two new workplace managers embraced this and we set about resolving the outstanding issues. In 12 months, we have resolved over 140 issues. We have not only trained everyone in lone working, but also cultural diversity and safer driving. We have driven the TUC campaigns and carried out regular joint inspections and initiatives with the police and other council departments.

The long term results have been outstanding. The HSE warning was lifted, as was the internal improvement notice. Sickness is at its lowest level since Parking Services was formed and incidents have reduced by 80 per cent. Workplace injuries are at an all time low, and we are now seen as one of the top performing departments on health and safety, with the director putting on a lunch for the staff to say thank you. The icing on the cake was a recent staff survey, where 100 per cent of all surveyed staff stated they now enjoyed coming to work, and 94 per cent stating that the changes have improved the workplace for the better.

We have shown that when safety reps are given faith, trust, time and resources, they not only make workplaces safer, but benefit the employer economically and reduce staff turnover. Bristol City Council is now looking at our story as a template, with the possibility of similar arrangements being put in place for other departments. I hope this serves as a lesson to all employers. When you think of your safety rep as an ally rather than enemy, everybody benefits.


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