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       Hazards, number 139, 2017
Safety reps@40 – four decades of making work safe and healthy
The government is axing safety controls and a cut back and commercialised Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is a stranger in most workplaces. Who’s picking up the slack? Trade union safety reps of course, who in October 2017 celebrate the 40th anniversary of their lifesaving role.


Hugh Robertson pulls no punches. “The most effective tool that we have in ensuring good health and safety at work is trade unions, because organised workplaces are safer workplaces,” the TUC head of safety says.

“Union health and safety representatives and joint safety committees have now been around for 40 years and in that time have made a huge difference.”

To mark four decades of safety reps at work – they were introduced by the 1977 Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations – the TUC is running a year-long campaign promoting the lifesaving union effect.  The celebration is being kicked off with a bumper TUC book of 40 case histories showcasing safety reps at work.



Health and Safety Executive (HSE) lung disease and stress seminars this year were priced at a budget-busting £425 a pop. The sick and dying can’t afford hundreds of pounds to get advice on their occupational diseases. They are being priced out of existence. The Hazards cover photo features Simon Pickvance, a globally feted workers’ health campaigner, long-time Hazards contributor and lung disease expert, who succumbed to an asbestos-related occupational cancer.

Making a difference

Robertson says there are around 100,000 trade union safety reps nationwide, and they are delivering impressive and sometimes lifesaving benefits. He says these include:

Reducing injuries at work;
Reducing the levels of ill-health caused by work;
Encouraging greater reporting of injuries and near-misses;
Making workers more confident;
Helping develop a more positive safety culture in the organisation; and
Saving the economy many millions of pounds

“There is a wealth of evidence of the benefits of trade unions to health and safety. Those employers who have trade union health and safety committees have half the injury rate of those employers who managed safety without unions or joint arrangements” he says. “Another study showed that where there is a union presence the workplace injury rate is 24 per cent lower than where there is no union presence. Fatalities are also lower in unionised workplaces.”

And they also protect your health. Robertson cites a London School of Economics study that concluded: “The proportion of employees who are trade union members has a positive and significant association on both injury and illness rates.”

It is something that the Health and Safety Executive has recognised. “There is strong evidence that unionised workplaces and those with health and safety representatives are safer and healthier as a result,” the regulator noted.

In 2016, a Bradford University study for the TUC, based on government statistics, calculated the savings delivered by unions across the economy. It showed that the prevention of workplace injuries and work-related ill-health due to unions delivered savings of £219m-£725m a year at 2014 prices.



Unite safety rep Bob Grant says his work with shipyard apprentices stands out. The coppersmith recognised the risks new starts frequently faced and helped set up an apprentice safety forum so they could get ‘hands on’ experience. With his assistance, the apprentices developed a successful “I can” safety poster campaign - for example “I can play football because I am safe at work”. Yellow safety helmets were also introduced to identify new starts. The work all made a real difference. For example, after it was noticed that the apprentices were reluctant to wear the cheap safety glasses provided, he helped convince management to buy more stylish pairs. All sites reported a reduction in eye injuries, one by 93 per cent in one month.

Catriona Goldhammer is a GMB safety rep in a high street supermarket. She first became a representative when she witnessed young workers being pressured by management into operating equipment they were not trained to use. A bullying culture meant they did not feel they could say ‘no’ to management. She says the impact of her safety rep role has been ‘immense’, with workers no longer bullied into doing things they think are unsafe, or feeling they can't go home when they are ill. Among a string of other wins, Catriona got management to review risk assessments to reduce the amount of heavy lifting up and down stairs, leading to a reduction in musculoskeletal disorders. Her good work led to three other union members signing up as safety reps in the store.

How do you do that?

Training  “One of the reasons unions make such a difference is that they ensure that their safety representatives are trained,” says Robertson. “Every year the TUC trains around 10,000 safety representatives, and many more are trained through their unions. One survey for the HSE into the chemical regulations (COSHH) found that safety representatives were far more knowledgeable than their managers.

“Ninety per cent of safety representatives were aware of the main principles of the main chemical safety regulations.  Over a third of managers had not even heard of the regulations. The survey also found that over 80 per cent of safety representatives had received training in health and safety in the last two years, compared to 44 per cent of managers.”

Workplace knowledge  “Safety representatives know the workplace far better than management as they are aware of what really goes on. They also act as a channel for individual workers to raise their concerns,” says Robertson.

He points to an HSE research paper that concluded: “Health and safety committee representatives provide a diverse channel for reporting events and hazards.” The HSE paper added “union backing, even if it is just knowledge that additional support is available if required, is invaluable.”

Safety reps can be a workplace early warning system. “Unions often realise the risks long before management,” Robertson says. “Many risks were first identified by unions, sometimes after management ignored or hid early warnings. It was unions that highlighted the dangers of asbestos which we now know kills over 5,000 people a year and campaigned for a ban many years before the government introduced one.

“Unions were the first to raise major concerns over levels of violence in the workplace, and RSI, and the effects of passive smoking. When unions first raised the issue of stress, employers and the media argued it was nonsense. It is now recognised that workplace stress effects around half a million people.”

A voice for workers  “Where staff have safety representatives, and safety committees they know that they have a voice,” the TUC safety specialist says. “That makes them more willing to raise issues. Unions also help make their members more aware of safety issues in the workplace.”

But he says “involving workers directly, without union representation, is far less likely to be successful.”

And it is not just unions that are saying this. “Research conducted in 2010 for both RoSPA and the HSE found that where worker involvement happened in non-unionised workplaces it was more likely to follow the employer’s agenda, while unionised safety representatives were more likely to be empowered to set an agenda and be challenging,” notes Robertson.



Malcolm ‘Mal’ Woods is a CWU safety representative in a parcel delivery company. Safe working in the vicinity of vehicles was a top concern, so Mal successfully negotiated the fitting of reversing cameras in vans. However, the company only installed the cameras in vans that were driven by their own drivers. About a quarter of the vehicles were driven by “owner-drivers”. Mal was able to demonstrate that most accidents were caused by these owner-drivers, possibly because the more parcels they delivered, the more they earned. Mal persevered and finally got the company to insist that all the owner-driver vans were fitted with reversing cameras. The company also had to revise its safe system of work, which has led to a significant reduction in injuries to the public.

Janise Corfield, a safety rep with the retail union Usdaw, works in a supermarket in an out-of-town retail park. One of her proudest achievements was making sure lighting in all warehouses was at the correct wattage and time switches were corrected locally so there is enough light for members to work safely. This is because there were parts of the warehouse where members had difficulty reading labels, leading to eye-strain and headaches. There was also an increased risk of tripping. To save energy, lighting and heating was centrally controlled by the employer but is now adjusted to suit local needs.

Future reps at work

Robertson says union safety reps have never been more necessary. “At a time when health and safety is under attack by politicians who see good regulation as ‘red tape’, employers who ride rough-shod over the laws, and a big fall in inspections and enforcement, we need trade unions like never before.”

He says the case has been proven that safety reps are good for workers, good for the economy and good for business, adding the “only people who have to fear us are the employers who want to cut corners and take risks with our lives.

“Good employers are already working with unions. We need the rest to start recognising the benefits that unions can bring. We also need the government to stop attacking unions and instead do more to ensure that employers are consulting with unions so that everyone can get the benefits that unions bring.”



Ambulance driver Angie Roberts became a UNISON safety rep when she saw many of her colleagues were suffering long term health conditions such as back pain. When the local ambulance service decided to buy a new fleet of patient care ambulances, a partnership agreement meant Angie was consulted by management. She in turn consulted with members, who said the existing practice of pushing patients up a ramp and in to the ambulance manually could be quite dangerous. Angie successfully made the case for tail lifts to be included on the vehicles, something that management had not considered previously. She says feedback from staff has been ‘brilliant.’

Members represented by Steven Owens, a PCS safety rep at a government office in North Wales, can breathe more easily thanks to his support. The office was next to a railway line and members complained that they were being exposed to fumes. Management had failed to act on complaints, until Steven demanded management conduct a risk assessment as required under the chemicals regulations COSHH. The assessment established the fumes were a real problem and recommended action to improve office ventilation and sort out problems with the heating. Steven also insisted management undertake a deep clean of dust-ingrained carpets and furniture.


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It's down to you

The government is axing safety controls and a cut back and commercialised Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is a stranger in most workplaces. Who’s picking up the slack? Trade union safety reps of course, who in October 2017 celebrate the 40th anniversary of their lifesaving role.

Making a difference
How do you do that?
Future reps at work

Safety rep case histories
Bob Grant, Unite
Catriona Goldhammer, GMB
Malcolm 'Mal' Woods, CWU
Janise Corfield, USDAW
Steven Owens, PCS
Angie Roberts, Unison

Web resources
Union effect
Safety reps
DIY research