The union effect
Hazards shows why safety is better organised.
You know the answer
Companies that ask employees for their views on health and safety
issues can cut down on accidents, a study by the Health and Safety
Executive (HSE) has found.
The HSE report, Employee involvement in health and safety, concludes:
"By including workers' ideas and involving them in enforcing
health and safety rules, companies can create a positive attitude
towards maintaining good practice and make significant improvements."
One initiative featured in the report led to "a huge drop
in accidents from 1.2 to 0.1 per 100,000 man hours." HSE
says workforce involvement "is a vital component of the Revitalising
Health and Safety Strategy Statement produced by the government
and Health and Safety Commission."
TUC's Owen Tudor said: "This report shows bad employers
why good employers work in partnership with unions. And it shows
non-members why union members are safer. Unions are good for workers
and good for health and safety. What excuse has anyone got left
for not recognising unions or for not joining one?"
involvement in health and safety: Some examples of good practice,
Studies show Health and Safety Executive's
chemical strategy has failed HSE's chemicals calamity
The law that is supposed to protect workers from chemical hazards
is not working, an HSE investigation has found. Some observers
think it is because HSE is too concerned about protecting companies'
A third of companies using hazardous substances have no knowledge
of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations and
two-thirds are unaware of their legal obligations relating to
occupational exposure limits, HSE-backed research (1) has concluded.
The contract research report, published in August, found that
a quarter of firms that were "heavy users" of chemicals
and a third of "users" of chemicals did not have a "reasonable
unprompted response when asked what they understood to be the
principles of COSHH."
Over a third of heavy users (35 per cent) and users (38 per cent)
of chemicals were "not aware" of occupational exposure
limits (OELs), the official standards for the amount of chemicals
in the air breathed in by workers.
Most firms controlled chemicals through protection - the use
of masks, ventilation systems and staff training. Only a small
minority opted for prevention - elimination or substitution. This
again shows a lack of familiarity with or concern for the law
- COSHH prioritises the preventive approach over control.
Trade union safety reps were far more knowledgeable than their
bosses, the research found. Ninety per cent understood the principles
of COSHH and only 21 per cent were not aware of OELs.
Previous research has also shown COSHH to be a flop. A 1994 HSE
survey of 200 chrome plating shops - a very high risk industry
- found that only 30 per cent were using control measures. And
a 1995-96 Gallup survey of small firms of the Department of the
Environment found only six per cent awareness of COSHH.
Some observers are now saying the failure of COSHH can be explained
in part by HSE's approach to its enforcement.
In October, HSE was accused of protecting the profits of medium
density fibreboard (MDF) makers and not the health of workers
exposed to MDF's toxic dust.
The criticism, from the Transport and General Workers' Union,
followed an HSE press statement that "it is HSE's view that
any health risks arising from the use of MDF at work can and should
be effectively controlled by compliance with the requirements
of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations
1994 - there is no need for a ban on MDF."
HSE failed to refer to its own evidence showing few employers
observe or even know about their COSHH duties.
HSE's statement came after national TV and press stories linked
MDF's chemical constituents to lung cancer, allergies and other
HSE said that it is hardwood and not the softwood that is found
in MDF that is classified as cancer-causing in the UK. Formaldehyde
released by the bonding resin, MDF's other constituent, was an
irritant, it said.
However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC),
the World Health Organisation's expert institute for evaluating
cancer risks, does not distinguish between hardwoods and softwoods.
It classifies all "wood dust" as "carcinogenic
to humans". Formaldehyde is IARC classified as "possibly
carcinogenic to humans."
In a letter to HSE Director General Jenny Bacon TGWU health and
safety co-ordinator Alan Dalton said: "Do you feel that the
issuing of this HSE press release really adds anything to the
protection of MDF workers' health? Or does it, in fact, protect
the profit of the MDF manufacturers?"
1. Industry's perception and use of occupational exposure limits.
HSE Contract research report No.144. ISBN 0 7176 1407 7. £49.50.
HSE Books. Tel: 01787 881165.
2. Europe-wide check finds 40 per cent of new dyestuffs illegally
marketed, according to report on enforcement project. HSE news
release E191:96, 6 November 1996.
Dye, dye, die
It's not just the law that is not up to much. The instructions
provided by chemical suppliers might be of little use to
chemical users either.
A 1996 project by European Union health and safety enforcement
agencies on dyestuff safety found nearly 40 per cent of
new dyestuffs were on the market illegally "putting
workers and the environment at risk from exposure to them,"
said the Health and Safety Executive.(2)
HSE added: "Of particular concern was that half of
the suppliers of merchants dealing in hazardous dyes (eg
carcinogenic), had inadequately labelled substances, thus
increasing potential risk to users...
"150 substances, out of the 4,000 dyestuffs checked,
were found to be hazardous (eg sensitising or carcinogenic),
and around 50 per cent of these were imported without a
proper label indicating the hazardous properties."
HSE's 1997 contract research report (1) found that firms
relied heavily on information from suppliers in deciding
measures to control exposure.
Twenty years of life-saving work: Union safety
Standing up for safety
It is two decades since the first trade union safety reps appeared
in British workplaces. Caroline Bedale of the Hazards Campaign
finds reps have done a great job but that's a lot more they can
Safety reps, with the backing of their unions and members, have
played a major part in alerting employers, the public and governments
to workplace and community hazards.
Trade union reps and officials have exposed new or under-estimated
hazards and diseases, and have often been years ahead of medical
It was unions and health and safety campaigners, not "experts"
or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), that correctly predicted
the deadly epidemic of asbestos-related disease now affecting
construction and maintenance workers and the public.
It was UNISON legal action that established employers were liable
for the breakdowns, ill-health and even suicides caused by workplace
bullying, over-work and stress.
Safety campaigns have been a constant feature of union work.
T&G fought for and won national controls on the highly toxic
Vietnam defoliant and local authority herbicide 2,4,5-T.
ASTMS, now MSF, unearthed the high risk of heart faced by users
of the solvent carbon disulphide, leading to new controls.
In the early 1980s print union GPMU won bans on TDI, a chemical
still in industrial use today and which poses a serious asthma
risk. Textiles unions campaigned for and won controls on cancer
causing dyes. And construction union UCATT successfully campaigned
for safer paints, wood preservatives and building boards.
Most improvements did not come easy. Even now, health and safety
problems are at the root of about 10 per cent of official industrial
action, and about 15 per cent of unofficial action(1), more than
for "changes to bargaining" and "dismissals".
Safety reps have proven their worth. Organised workplaces are
safer workplaces (see page 2) and as that's what workers' want,
safety not only makes unions a safer bet, it makes the union stronger.
A 1994 report said 70 per cent of new trade union members considered
health and safety a "very important" union bargaining
issue, more than cited improved pay(2).
And a 1995 NOP poll for the TUC revealed 98 per cent of those
asked believed "people at work should have the right to be
represented by a trade union if they want to on health and safety."
It is clear that reps would be more effective still with more
rights, more tools and more protection. Delegates at the 1998
TUC unanimously passed an ambitious resolution seeking just that
(see summary below).
This included labour movement ideas now attracting official support,
among them prison sentences for the most dangerously negligent
employers, "roving safety reps" and "provisional
improvement notices" (PINs).
A T&G pilot roving safety reps' scheme in the agricultural
sector won praise from HSE, but roving reps would need new legal
rights for to enter workplaces for such an initiative to have
a serious impact (Hazards 61).
Sticking a "PIN" on an employer would give safety reps
the power of an HSE inspector, until the real thing arrived.
After two decades of campaigning, safety reps may be edging closer
to some of these goals. Minister Glenda Jackson recently said(3)
that a proposed review by the HSE of safety consultation regulations
would consider ways to enhance the role of safety representatives,
and that they should be given appropriate support by enforcing
authorities. The review will also cover roving safety reps and
1. Safety reps in action, Labour Research Department, March 1998
2. Research by Colin Whitston and Jeremy Waddington, cited in
New Statesman and Society, 18 November 1994.
3. Hansard, 479 CD175-PAG1/33
Effective partnerships are the key to
health and safety improvements, says HSC Chair [HSE news release,
20 July 2000]
HSC Chair Bill Callaghan today urged unions and employers to
work in partnership to improve safety standards in Britain's workplaces.
Speaking to union members and employer representatives at the
TUC's 'Partners in Prevention' conference in London, Mr Callaghan
said that unions should :
encourage more employers to accept the role of safety
representatives, so that more workplaces are covered by staff
with appropriate safety responsibilities and training;
encourage individual companies and sectors to set safety
improvement targets agreed by employers and workers;
establish - or in existing cases reinvigorate - joint health
and safety committees as a focus for closer working partnerships
to improve health and safety;
be a 'good neighbour' to workers not in trade unions and
those workplaces without union recognition by giving practical
advice and support on health and safety.
Mr Callaghan said:
"In June the Deputy Prime Minister and I announced the 'Revitalising
Health and Safety' initiative, which sets targets to reduce accidents
and ill-health in the workplace. The partnership approach is vital
to this initiative, while the role of safety reps is the clearest
example of how it can work in practice. This is not a point for
debate - workplaces with safety reps and effective safety committees
have up to 50 per cent fewer injuries than those that don't.
"I would like to see employee involvement in all workplaces
and the HSC will shortly be making recommendations to Ministers
on this vital issue. In order to make real progress, more employers
need to understand and value the shop floor 'reality check' that
safety reps provide. In turn, unions need to recognise the real
concerns that employers have over some of their proposals. This
is a time for consensus, not confrontation. All partners in the
health and safety equation must remain open to new ideas and approaches.
The status quo is not an option."
"I particularly welcome the examples in the TUC's report
which demonstrate that sector-wide initiatives can reap benefits
for unionised and non-unionised workers alike. But I also ask
whether we can take this approach further. Responses to our recent
consultation on worker involvement show that unions consider they
can play a key role in enforcing universal rights."