Union OHS Reps make a dramatic difference

27 May 2004 (updated February 2012)

The presence of union safety reps prevents thousands of major injuries at work every year. In the UK there are over 320,000 trade union safety reps have been trained by TUC Education and 10,000 more are trained each year.

Dangerous employers can face a safety double whammy - safety is a subject on which trade union reps spend more time than any other, and it is an issue, opinion polls indicate, that is considered one of the key areas people at work regard as a legitimate topic for trade union action.

The UK unions are able to cite research done by their OHS Authority, the Health and Safety Executive, to prove that greater and better-informed employee participation in health and safety makes workplaces safer: active workforce participation in managing safety leads to large reductions in accident rates.

According to the report, it's union safety reps (not non-union reps) that have by far the greatest positive impact on safety at work - and the more training they get, the more marked the "union safety effect". The UK 's alternative model of reps for workplaces without recognised unions (the "representatives of employee safety" [RES] system) has been a lamentable failure, because they don't have the training, resources and support to make bad employers "give a damn".

Efforts to harmonise the regulations covering the RES and union safety rep systems were abandoned by the UK safety regulator last year. The prospect of effective safety reps getting into non-union firms, together with a union call for a nationwide system of "roving" union reps, was a prospect too dangerous for some employers to stomach.

Training Works

Trade union trained health and safety reps give "added value," says the TUC. HSE-backed study found trained reps are more likely go back to work and do something - for example, calling for formation of safety committees, undertaking health surveys, recruiting more safety reps and organising training days.

The findings of the study provide powerful evidence of the extent to which trade union training supports workplace activities and achievements of health and safety representatives. However 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.

Elected OHS reps in the UK have the opportunity to attend on-going training, unlike most reps in Victoria who attend only the basic 5-day approved course. The VTHC and our affiliates submitted to the Review of the OHS Act that there had to be on-going training for reps. This is supported by the HSE study which found that the more training a rep underwent, the greater the impact.

Union training is different

The HSE evaluation of union training found that several factors make it extremely effective. These include: sharing experiences with others; knowing legal rights and standards; and knowing how to access information and tackle problems at work.

The union courses were also "an important stimulus for taking up 'new issues' in health and safety," for example: pursuing gender sensitive strategies in health and safety; designing surveys on stress; representing workers at other worksites; becoming involved in participatory risk assessment; dealing with health and safety issues of work organisation; and dealing with musculoskeletal disorders.

Unions provide a reality check on workplace safety, the report suggests, because "occupational health and safety policies at both national and company levels are often evaluated against simple indices, such as lost time injuries, workers compensation cases or sickness absence."

It adds: "Unless these approaches are compensated by influence of the workers, what is labelled occupational health and safety management may aim more to minimise the number and costs of claims than to improve the underlying conditions."

Union training is different in that it "considers the whole production system and takes account the interaction between technology and organisational factors."

This is important because "blame the worker" arguments, though discredited, are "tenacious" and can offer employers both a scapegoat and a cheap solution, it says.

The report adds: "There is no form of training for worker representatives other than trade union training in which this fundamentally worker-centred set of normative arguments on health and safety are so comprehensively adopted. Such approaches to achieving an active and worker centred participation in occupational health and safety management are basic to both the character, quality and success of training.

RESEARCH Commissioned by the UK's Health and Safety Executive: The role and effectiveness of Safety Representatives in influencing workplace health and safety [pdf David Walters, Theo Nichols, Judith Connor, Ali C Taseran and Surhan Cam. Work Environment Research Group, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University

January 2012 - New Report 

The presence of unions in workplaces could be saving employers in the private and public sectors as much £701m (A$1.036billion) a year or £2m (A$3) a day, according to a report published in January 2012 by the Trade Union Congress (TUC). 

The report Facility Time for Union Reps: Separating fact from fiction [pdf], written by Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire, has found that in workplaces where there are union reps negotiating with employers on behalf of their colleagues, there are significant cost savings to be had. These come in the form of more productive, and better trained, workforces, safer workplaces, fewer cases taken to employment tribunal - so as staff tend to stay in post for longer, less is spent on recruitment and retention.

The report demonstrates the value of union reps to the UK economy, not only helping improve workplace conditions but also enabling private and public sector employers to keep costs down, and so deliver huge savings to the taxpayer.  The report notes that the government is coming under pressure from right-wing backbench MPs and associated groups who want ministers to limit the amount of time reps can spend improving workplace conditions and negotiating with employers.

Furthermore, the report found that much of the work of union reps is done in their own time - 16 per cent of union reps said that less than a quarter of the time they spent on union work was paid for by their employer. And it calculates that for every £1 spent on union facility time in the public sector, between £3 and £9 is returned in accrued benefits.

TUC Media Release: The Value of Unions to the UK economy 

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