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Hazards issue 110, April-June 2010
Worker involvement – the way forward or a step backwards?
Graphic: Andy Vine Graphic Andy: Vine
Worker involvement is currently the biggest thing in health and safety, says the TUC. But Hugh Robertson, the union body’s head of safety, warns the positive chatter from enforcers and employers is not always translating into meaningful consultation at the workplace.

Better talk?
Hazards issue 110, April-June 2010



Companies are falling over themselves to ensure they engage the workforce on
safety issues. It is one of the planks of the new Health and Safety Executive (HSE) strategy. [1] This HSE work plan, published in 2009, notes: “Workplace research provides evidence to suggest that involving workers has a positive effect on health and safety performance. Equally, there is strong evidence that unionised workplaces and those with health and safety representatives are safer and healthier as a result.”

And the opening statement on HSE’s recently revised worker involvement webpages notes: “The best way to protect your employees and visitors from harm or illness is to involve your workers.” [2] The purpose-designed webpages contain some very good material advising employers how to get the workforce involved, including guidance on how to ensure they are obeying the law.

Major companies are now trumpeting their commitment to worker involvement - or worker engagement as it is increasingly called - and a small industry is growing up that says it can assist those companies endeavouring to attain it.

You would have thought that unions would welcome this newfound commitment by employers to involve their workforce. We have, after all, argued for years that the three planks of health and safety are risk assessment, competent management and worker engagement. But things are not always what they seem, and perhaps we should be a bit more critical before we applaud this new commitment to involving the workforce. I guess the problem is that “worker involvement” means different things to different people.

For unions it is about using consultative processes to empower people to have a genuine say in safety issues – but recognising too that the relationship between the employer and employee is an unequal one and that the responsibility to create a safe workplace lies with the employer. Not all employer worker involvement initiatives are entirely virtuous, however. Many of these initiatives are about trying to shift responsibility away from management. Some are intended to undermine the role of unions.

So, it’s the law...

Worker involvement is not new. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 introduced a requirement to consult with safety representatives in unionised workplaces, firmed up in 1978 in the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977. Since 1996, in workplaces not represented by trade unions, employers have been required to consult workers directly or through elected representatives, the ‘Representatives of Employee Safety’.

UNISON poster

Safety is a union recruitment tool

Public sector union UNISON says health and safety is one of the main reasons people join unions – and has made safety a key plank of a recruitment and organising drive. UNISON notes on its safety webpages: “Your union has some of the best health and safety guidance in the UK. It also has specific recruitment materials which focus on health and safety. Use our health and safety recruitment leaflet to sign up new members.”

UNISON news briefing, health and safety member sign up form [pdf], recruitment leaflet [pdf] and poster [pdf].

There are very few representatives of employee safety and most employers in non-unionised workplaces simply do not consult in any way, either through representatives or directly with their employees. This of course is illegal but no employer has ever been prosecuted for refusing to consult, although in recent years HSE has issued improvement notices on a number of employers that did not consult with their workforce.

In unionised workplaces the situation is pretty clear. We know that safety representatives can make a huge difference. The evidence was outlined in the TUC publication ‘The union effect’ [3] which cited research that established those workplaces with union safety representatives and joint safety committees had half the serious injury rates of those without and where there is a union presence the workplace injury rate is 24 per cent lower than where there is no union presence. [4

It showed that unions gravitate towards accident prone workplaces and react by reducing injury rates. We also know that, in most workplaces, union safety representatives are better trained than line managers.

Less union, more danger

There is no evidence that just consulting the workforce, or introducing non-union representatives, has any similar impact to the marked “union effect” on health and safety. And it is unlikely that it will. Any representative that is not appointed through their union will not have access to independent support and will be totally dependent on their employer for training and information.

Trade union safety representatives are trained by the TUC or their union, have access to full-time professional advice and are given a range of materials. [5]

Those appointed by an employer to represent the workers will, at best, get training provided by them. However, even if this is delivered by an outside body, it is very unlikely to be as objective or challenging as training provided by the TUC. Training arranged by management on a type of safety system that the employer uses may be informative, but it is not going to have information on other systems or information on any problems that the system may have created elsewhere.

Training alone is never enough

Health and safety training at work is a good thing - but will only result in safer, healthier workplaces if there is management commitment and worker involvement. This is the conclusion of a detailed review by the US government’s occupational health research body NIOSH and researchers from Canada’s Institute for Work and Health (IWH). [6]

The January 2010 report found investment in training results in positive changes in worker knowledge and skills, attitudes, and behaviour. “However, this research revealed that training as a lone intervention has not been demonstrated to have an impact on reducing injuries or symptoms,” Carol Merry Stephenson, chief of the NIOSH training research and evaluation branch, notes.

“For training to be effective in preventing occupational injuries and illness, it also requires management commitment and investment and worker involvement in a comprehensive hazard identification and risk management programme.” She recommends: “Researchers, training providers, labour [unions], and management should continue to work together to advance the knowledge of effective practices in education and training.”

Health and Safety Executive-backed research in the UK concluded trade union safety rep training is an effective approach. “The findings provide powerful evidence of the extent to which trade union training supports workplace activities and achievements of health and safety representatives,” it noted, adding “it is likely that training does not simply support the continued existence of such achievement, but acts as a stimulus for their initiation and development.” [7]

If an employer decides to “consult” with their workforce on an issue such as a new method of risk assessment, the individual workers are not going to be in a position to challenge anything the employer says. Without access to independent advice the “consultation” is not only meaningless, it can be dangerous. It allows the employer to say that they have consulted their staff while in reality they have simply informed the staff.

When consultations do take place in workplaces without safety representatives it can be on very important issues such as the best type of hearing protection, however without independent advice on ear defenders workers have to accept at face value any assurances that the choice they are being given is all that is available, rather than just the cheapest. They also will have no idea how to assess their effectiveness against the different pitches of noise. The ear defenders discussion anyway might be a red herring, deflecting attention from the possibilities for reducing noise at source.

In a unionised workplace a safety representative would have been trained on noise exposure, would be able to seek support from their union and, often would have contacts with other representatives in similar workplaces who they could ask for advice.

Work safety is a top whistleblower concern

The number of employees claiming to have been sacked, mistreated or bullied for exposing corrupt practices at work has increased tenfold over the last decade, according to official figures – and raising health and safety issues remains one of the top concerns. A March 2010 report, ‘Where's whistleblowing now - 10 years of legal protection for whistleblowers’,[8] published by the whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work (PCAW), cites employment tribunal statistics that show the total number of people using the PIDA whistleblowing legislation increased from 157 cases in 1999 to 1,791 ten years later.

Workplace safety is the second most common reason individuals contact the PCAW helpline, accounting for 17 per cent of all calls, topped only by financial malpractice at 26 per cent. A PCAW breakdown of “types of wrongdoing in PIDA judgments” says 12 per cent of these tribunal decisions relate to work safety, behind only financial malpractice (19 per cent) and “consumer/competition and regulation (13 per cent).

Another problem encountered in non-unionised workplaces is fear of raising issues. I am a great believer that workers know what is going on in the workplace more than managers, and can often spot problems long before they come to the attention of management. Where there is a union safety representative they know they can go to them and get an issue taken up without having to be identified to management. At the same time, union safety representatives know that they have the support of their union if management attempts to prevent them raising an issue, or puts pressure on them to accept a management view.

No union, no protection

In non-unionised workplaces, safety whistleblowers do not enjoy the same collective protection provided to union safety reps who speak out. While some will say there is no evidence of employers bullying non-unionised representatives, the fact that many non-unionised workers perceive that possibility will be enough of a disincentive to speaking out. This is starkly demonstrated by US government research which showed that two-thirds of injured or sick workers fear employer discipline or even losing their jobs if their workplace injuries are reported. [9]

In the UK, there’s a marked difference between the legal rights and protection of union and non-union safety representatives. Where the law states specifically that union representatives can inspect their workplace and investigate incidents, the non-union equivalent has no such rights and is dependent on the goodwill of their employer simply to do something as basic as a workplace inspection. And if a non-union safety representative finds that their employer is not consulting them, or ignoring what they say, their options are far more limited.

Unionised workers are happier workers

Unions can help prevent staff feeling stressed and de-motivated by new working practices and reduce the number of staff quitting their jobs, according to a TUC report. It comes in the wake of international scandals linking the recession, job insecurity and company restructuring to a deterioriation in staff health and well-being and to an increased suicide risk.

‘The road to recovery’ says that as well as giving staff an opportunity to raise concerns at work, unions are better at resolving conflicts, with the level of employment tribunal claims in unionised workplaces (1.3 claims per thousand staff) less than half that of non-unionised workplaces (2.9 claims per thousand staff). TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “By giving staff a voice at work they can help to resolve conflict and reduce the number of people quitting work.”

The road to recovery, Touchstone Pamphlet, TUC, March 2010 [pdf].

In essence, consultation without independent information and support provides little more than a thin veneer to employers and increases complacency. Many employers view employee involvement simply as an extension of behavioural safety, which sees the solution to health and safety issues as being to change the behaviour of workers rather than address the actual hazards. [10] That is not to say that consulting non-unionised workers is inherently wrong - any consultation is better than no consultation - but we should not be fooled into believing that it is either an alternative to the union safety representative system, or something that is going to make a significant difference in the workplace. 

For the TUC, worker involvement is not a bureaucratic exercise where the employer asks workers their view; it is about empowering workers to have the knowledge and confidence to ensure that they can raise issues and challenge employers when necessary.  That is why the union-model is so phenomenally successful. It does just that, with people who are elected by their peers, provided with both legal and practical protection, fully trained, and who have access to a huge pool of experience and knowledge that their union and other safety representatives can give. There is no substitute for that.

Where there’s no union

There are things that can be done in non-unionised areas and, despite reservations, unions have actually campaigned for greater rights in non-unionised workplaces, including the right to elect safety representatives - at present it is the employer who decides - and the right to have a safety committee. 

HSE has recognised that non-unionised workers are unsupported and have launched a programme of training courses for non-unionised representatives. This is a positive development, but we will have to wait to see how successful these courses are. However, even if non-unionised representatives do get independent training, that does not address the issue of how they will be supported in the workplace.

The TUC is also concerned about the problems faced by workers in smaller non-unionised workplaces. This is why TUC has long called for a new kind of safety adviser for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). In 2002, trade unions supported a one-year pilot of union-appointed safety representatives 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 the employers’ approach to health and safety. [11] 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.

Unfortunately, this Worker Safety Adviser pilot was followed by a three year “Challenge Fund” where the link with unions was broken and much of the advice was linked to private consultants. It is generally accepted that the challenge fund was far less successful than the original pilots with the exception of construction and food manufacturing and distribution, the sectors where the union link was retained.

The TUC believes that the appointment of union-appointed and supported safety representatives who have a roving remit to support employers and workers in non-unionised areas where there is currently no consultation would have real and lasting benefits to the health and safety culture of SMEs. A similar system in Sweden is considered by both employers and the government to be a success. [12]

We believe that these changes would have a significant effect on the safety culture within both the non-unionised and SME sectors and would lead to a significant reduction in ill-health and injury. They do however depend on one thing. That is employers and decision-makers facing the facts and recognising that unions are a positive force that can transform a workforce in so many ways.

Instead of treating us like (at best) a necessary evil, employers and the government must change their attitude to unions and start seeing unions as an asset that can help make real reductions in both injury and ill-health in the workplace.


1. The health and safety of Great Britain: Be part of the solution, HSE strategy, June 2009.

2. Introduction to the HSE worker involvement webpages, accessed 24 April 2010.

3. The union effect, TUC, 2004. Hazards “union effect” webpages.

4. Theo Nichols, David Walters, Ali C Tasiran. Trade unions, institutional mediation and industrial safety: Evidence from the UK, Journal of Industrial Relations, volume 49, Number 2, pages 211-225, 2007 [abstract].

5. Souped up safety reps, Hazards, Number 104, October-December 2008.
Don't be a safety nerd, Hazards, Number 102, April-June 2008.

6. A systematic review of the effectiveness of training & education for the protection of workers, NIOSH/IWH, January 2010. NIOSH Science Blog.

7. The impact of trade union education and training in health and safety on the workplace activity of health and safety representatives.  D Walters, P Kirby and F Daly, HSE Contract Research Report 321/2001, HSE, 2001 [pdf].
Safety reps at work, Hazards, Number 86, April-June 2004.

8. Where's whistleblowing now - 10 years of legal protection for whistleblowers, PCAW, March 2010 [pdf]. PCAW news release [pdf].

9. Workplace safety and health: Enhancing OSHA's records audit process could improve the accuracy of worker injury and illness data, US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, October 2009 (published online 16 November 2009) [pdf].

10. It's the hazards, stupid, Hazards, Number 79, July-September 2002 [pdf]. Hazards behaviour safety webpages.

11. The Worker Safety Advisers (WSA) pilot, research report RR144, HSE, 2003 [pdf]. Hazards WSA online resources.

12. The safety delegates' work and experiences 2006, LO Sweden/Statistics Sweden, April 2007. LO Sweden news release.

Online resources

Hazards union effect webpages.
Hazards organising webpages.
TUC worker involvement webpages.
TUC health and safety training webpages.
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) worker involvement webpages.




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Better talk?


So it's the law
Safety is a recruitment tool
Less union, more danger
Training alone is never enough
Safety is a whistleblower issue
No union, no protection
Unionised workers are happier

Hazards webpages
Union effect

Cartoon Andy Vine


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