Image: Mary Schrider

Union Protection
- Better organised

Role recognition

- References
- TUC backs super safety reps


Main union effect pages



Union protection
[Hazards 88 October-December 2004]

A new TUC report confirms what Hazards has said all along - union safety reps are your best defence against work-related accidents and ill-health. Report author, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, spells out why trade union organised workplaces are safer and healthier workplaces.

The most effective tool that we have in ensuring good health and safety at work is trade unions, because organised workplaces are safer workplaces. That is one of the main reasons that people join and stay in a union. When asked, 70 per cent of new trade union members considered health and safety a "very important" union issue - more even than for pay.

And a substantial body of evidence shows the UK's 200,000 trade union safety representatives make a difference. [1]

A London School of Economics analysis concluded that "unions gravitate towards accident prone workplaces and react by reducing injury rates." [2] The 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.

A 2001 research paper by HSE's Health and Safety Laboratory presents case studies showing the dramatic impact of workforce involvement. In one case there was a drop in accidents from 1.2 to 0.1 per 100,000 hours worked. [3]

Better organised

The protective effect works for ill-health too. A 2000 study by Cambridge University's Judge Institute of Management found: "The proportion of employees who are trade union members has a positive and significant association on both injury and illness rates." It added: "The arrangements associated with trade unions - formal OHS [occupational health and safety] arrangements of committees and representatives - shows these lower the odds of injury and illness when compared with arrangements that merely inform employees of OHS issues." [4]

In 2003 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) ran a number of pilots where trade union appointed "Worker Safety Advisers" went in to non-unionised organisations. An HSE evaluation of the pilot reported that over 75 per cent of employers said they had made changes as a result and almost 70 per cent of workers had seen an increase in awareness of health and safety (Hazards 84).

A study of construction industry accident patterns in both Northern Ireland and the Irish republic concluded "the strongest relationship with safety compliance is the presence of a safety representative" (Hazards 79).

Throughout Europe there is evidence of the effect that unions can have, which is why the European Commission introduced a directive which says that all European Union countries must introduce regulations to ensure employers consult on health and safety. And the evidence holds worldwide, spelled out in reports from academics, unions, governments and the World Bank (Hazards 78).

In the UK, the Health and Safety Commission's 2004 declaration on worker involvement recognises "trade union safety representatives, through their empowered role for purposes of consultation, often lead to higher levels of compliance and better health and safety performance that in non trade union systems.

"We recognise this, support the invaluable contribution they continue to make to health and safety and want dialogue between us to continue and where possible expand into new areas."

Role recognition

One of the reasons unions make such a difference is that they ensure that their safety representatives are trained (Hazards 86). And 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.

A 1999 HSE research paper concluded that "Health and safety committee representatives provide a diverse channel for reporting events and hazards." It added "union backing, even if it is just knowledge that additional support is available if required, is invaluable." [5]

Many risks were first identified by unions, sometimes after management ignored or hid early warnings. It was unions that highlighted the dangers of asbestos, carbon disulphide and vinyl chloride monomer. 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 affects around half a million people. Even today it is unions and groups of safety representatives that are highlighting the potential risks within the semiconductor industry (Hazards 76) or from nanotechnology (Hazards 87).


1. The union effect: How unions make a difference to health and safety, TUC, August 2004.

2. Adam Litwin. Trade unions and industrial injury in Great Britain, LSE discussion paper DP0468, August 2000.

3. Employee involvement in health and safety: Some examples of good practice, HSL, July 2001.

4. A Robinson and Clive Smallman. The healthy workplace? Judge Institute of Management, Working paper 2000/05, 2000.

5. Safety cultures: Giving staff a clear role, HSE, CRR214, 1999.

TUC backs super safety reps

Despite overwhelming evidence that consultation saves lives and prevents injuries, many employers do not consult with their workforce. "Yet we do not know of one case where an employer has been prosecuted for failing to consult," says TUC's Hugh Robertson.

He says even the current frequently ignored and unenforced rights are not enough. "At the moment safety representatives can raise any safety matter they want with their employer - but there is no legal duty to respond. An employer can legally ignore any question a safety representative raises."

TUC says UK reps should have the right to issue Australian-style Provisional Improvement Notices (PINs). A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report said they could be used effectively in the UK (Hazards 80).

TUC wants to see some simple changes to the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations to make them more effective, including:

• Roving safety representatives who can cover a group of small workplaces, or the workers of contractors or agencies in the same workplace;

• The right to issue improvement notices to employers who are not complying with health and safety regulations, and to call in an enforcement officer if the employer does not put things right; and

• A requirement on employers to respond to issues raised by safety representatives.

"Unions make a difference," Hugh Robertson says. "We reduce injuries, improve ill-health and help change the safety culture within an organisation.

"Good employers are already working with unions. We need the rest to start recognising the benefits that unions can bring. We also need the HSE to do more to ensure that employers are consulting with their staff so that everyone can benefit from the union effect."

Safety reps at work:

Provisional improvement notices: