Owen Tudor - Unions and OHS

06 June 2003

Owen Tudor, then the director of the Occupational Health and Safety Unit at the UK Trade Union Congress was in Australia in May 2003. Owen spoke at a number of OHS related forums, including the ceremony at VTHC for International Workers Memorial Day, at the ACTU and at WorkSafe Victoria. SafetyNet asked Owen a few questions on OHS generally, and the role of reps and unions in particular.

What do you think the place of unions is in OHS?
This question often gets asked. For some of us, the answer is blindingly obvious. As one employer once said to me, "If a worker comes in with an OHS issue and says 'we' then that's evidence that they are in a union."

Unions develop and encourage consultation, meetings and so on in workplaces and create a collective. Union OHS reps know it's not about being a health and safety expert, but about representing all workers. It's important to know too, that as unionists, we want to find solutions - it's not just about 'yelping with outrage'.

Trade unions provide OHS reps with:

  1. independence (in comparison with reps who are not union members);
  2. training - not only in OHS, but also in representation skills, and more; and
  3. external benchmarks - that is the transfer of information from one workplace to another. Employers don't often share information: they are in competition with each other.

The other thing we do is defend worker reps when management tries to sack them - an unfortunate occurrence in some workplaces.

What about the Government OHS organisations?
Well, the Government OHS Authority is FOR workers - for example, inspectors do things FOR working people. Whereas unions are organisations OF working people.

All Government OHS organisations must develop a range of strategies in order to provide different answers and have different approaches to different types of employers.

In our view, there are the four categories of employers:

The Criminals - hopefully a very small minority;
The Clueless - those too busy, don't know what to do, and so on;
The Compliant - but "tick the box" types; and
The Committed - which is what unions want all employers to be.

How important is consultation?
I believe that theoretically it is possible to improve OHS by working out what is safe and then imposing this on everyone. But really, it doesn't work without consultation.

For example, in the UK we have a very poor record of fatalities in the non-unionised construction sector. Research undertaken by academics in Ireland in 2002 looked at construction sites with good and bad safety records, and assessed the impact on that record of a whole range of factors. The authors concluded: 'the variable with the strongest relationship with safety compliance is the presence or absence of a safety representative.'

It isn't just that safety reps are the best way to improve safety. The research actually found that virtually nothing else had much effect. Safety reps are the best and the only way to really revitalise construction safety, for example. The evidence is clear and unequivocal - wherever you look, safety reps have a positive impact on health and safety.

Consultation is a means of:

  1. identifying problems; and
  2. working out what to do about them.

Consultation imputes the possibility of change.

The UK Health and Safety Commission (HSC) recently completed a year long experiment into the effectiveness of roving safety reps (Worker Safety Advisers) in a range of industries. The results confirm the importance of consultation.

What are "roving safety reps"?
Well, for us unions in the UK, we have found them to be a solution to a problem. Very often, small firms that have lower levels of union organisation and higher levels of injury have no consultative mechanisms. Once a firm is "too small", it is hard to find any internal structures. While many large firms would "do" OHS themselves, even without legislation in some cases, this is not the case with smaller firms, which need external structures like laws, the inspectorate, and UNIONS.

The trade union movement in the UK therefore wanted to the government to introduce roving safety reps like they have in Sweden. After a compromise with the employers, a tripartite pilot was launched.

Four sectors were chosen for the pilot; the TUC appointed 9 "Worker Safety Advisors", experienced reps trained by trade unions. 108 workplaces were visited, each of them 3 times over about a nine month period. The first visit was one of familiarisation, the second to look at any issues arising out of the first, and the final visit was to assess the "wash up".

The role of these advisors was to provide advice to foster the relationship between employers and employees to set up systems for consultation. They did not represent workers in OHS in individual workplaces - this is not possible if they visit workplaces once per year or even 3 times per year. In some workplaces, they did provide some specific advice, but for consultation to be really effective, you need someone in the workplace to provide proper representation.

The evaluation of the pilot showed that every employer who got involved in the pilot thought it was great. 75% of these employers could point to major changes in the OHS system at their workplaces. 90% reported an increased worker involvement in OHS issues. The pilot was such a success that the HSE will be rolling out the pilot to 100 reps in the first instance and providing £2.3 million.

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