Finding out information about the Workplace

Getting information on the health issues that affect members can be one of the most important things a representative does. It can help identify patterns of ill health that may not have been recognised, show what areas management should be prioritising, help identify campaigning issues, and show your members that you are taking up issues on their behalf.

If management complied with their legal responsibility and undertook full and proper health surveillance of all workers, there would be no need to survey members since all the information would be readily available to you. However very few employers go looking for information on members' health, and even fewer use the information when they do have it.

Doing a survey can vary from simply going around talking to members, to conducting detailed analysis of statistics. This information sheet covers a number of different techniques you may find useful in your workplace.

Reviewing Data

Before doing any survey check out what information is already available. As a safety representative, you have the right to information from your employers on any accidents, dangerous occurrences, and diseases in your workplace. This includes the information they have to provide, by law, to WorkCover on accidents and work-related absences.  WorkSafe produces a number of Injury Hotspots which provide statistics and other information based on industries and occupations. The Hotspots also provide suggested solutions to specific hazards Go to this WorkSafe webpage.

You can also ask to see all accident reports and records, even where there has been no absence from work, and sickness records. If you are an elected health and safety representative then your employer must give you this information, at least in aggregate form. The employer does not have to release any information that would identify specific individuals (unless they have given their permission).

You can also ask to see any report produced by the employer's health and safety officer, occupational medical staff, or consultants. If there have been any visits by WorkSafe Inspectors, you are entitled to information (eg a copy of their report) from them.

This information can often reveal trends or clusters that have not been noticed before. There may be a number of people reporting wrist and arm problems who are all word processing operators. Or perhaps there have been a lot of back injuries among the cleaners.

Where there are a number of similar injuries, types of sickness, or other health problems among any group doing the same type of work, then it is likely that it is related to their job and that some kind of hazard is causing the problem. In such a case, management has a legal duty to attempt to eliminate the hazard, and if this is not practicable, control the risk.

Getting your own information

However, don't forget that the picture you get from looking at the employer's records is very incomplete. Many accidents, near misses, and illnesses will not be recorded in accident records. Nor are sickness records always a good indication as even when someone is off work sick they may not identify their work as the cause and end up using their sick leave. The certificate from their doctor might not give any useful information.

Looking at existing records is only a first step in getting a picture of health problems in a workplace.

Surveys

A simple questionnaire is probably the easiest way to try to get information from members on either the general state of ill health in an organisation, or on specific issues, such as occupational overuse syndrome, lifting, or bullying/violence. Not only will you build up a picture of what health problems your members have, but by asking members to fill in a form you involve them directly and show that you are doing something on their behalf.

Questionnaires can be used to find out whether anyone has particular symptoms of a work-related health problem. For example on stress: 'Have you ever experienced any of the following symptoms:...'.

They can also be used to survey members to find out whether causes of a potential health problem exist. For example: 'Do you feel overloaded at work?' in an attempt to identify factors that could lead to, in this case, stress.

In developing a health survey, there are a few points to remember:

  • Keep it simple. This makes it easier for the members to complete, and easier for you to analyse.
  • Keep it anonymous. Members are more likely to be honest and open, if they know that the replies cannot be traced back to them.
  • Make sure you get enough information so that you can identify any problems among a particular group or workplace. This means you should always ask questions about the type of job the member does and where they work. Often it is also useful to know whether they are full or part-time.
  • In big organizations, work together with other health and safety reps to cover the whole workforce.
  • Always give members feedback on what you have found.

See:  Develop a survey for your workplace.

Risk Mapping

Once you have done a questionnaire or survey, a useful way of working out what it means is by using a method known as "risk mapping". This is an approach that has been carried out very successfully in many organisations. It basically involves drawing a rough map of the workplace and highlighting where problems are found.

The first step is to draw a map of the workplace. It doesn't have to be an accurate plan, but it does need to be quite big if it is to be used properly. A sheet of paper from a flip chart, or a large piece of butcher's paper is often about right for most workplaces.

You then transfer all the hazards that have been identified onto the map. Use a coloured felt tip pen to put a tick on every place a hazard has been identified, with a different colour for each type of hazard. You might want to divide them into groups such as: infection hazards, physical hazards, environmental hazards, chemical hazards, stress hazards, and ergonomic hazards.

Next, mark every place where someone has reported an accident or near miss - putting a cross with a biro is one way to do this.

Finally use coloured stickers or stars to mark the different kind of illnesses that have been reported. The sticker goes on the main work location or the person. You may want to group the illnesses into stress/psychological, musculo-skeletal (wrist, arm and back), colds and flu, and "others". If there are quire a few cases of any one type of illnesses in the "other" group, such as skin problems or asthma, you may want to create a separate category for them.

The result will be a visual display of where the main problems are. A lot of marks or stickers of the same colour will show that there is likely to be a problem that needs to be tackled. You can then go through the survey forms again and concentrate on that work area or issue.

The great advantage of risk mapping is that it cuts out the need for complicated statistical analysis of figures and gives a much more visual picture than you get from looking at tables of numbers. It can also be a way of involving a group of safety representatives together.

Body Mapping

This is a very simple way of finding out what health problems a group of workers have and then trying to see if they are related to their job. Body mapping works best when the group of workers involved do the same type of work.

It can be done as part of a training course, individually, or at a workplace meeting with a group of members, for example those in the same Designated Work Group. It is similar to risk mapping, but instead of using a map of the workplace, you use a big outline of a body.

Everyone is supplied with coloured dots, with different colours representing different problems, for example:

  • red - aches and pains
  • blue - cuts and bruises
  • green - illnesses
  • black - anything else

With everyone placing stickers on the body, you can get a good idea of any common problems. An example of this is at the top of the page. This can then be discussed with the group.

Alternatively, "post-it" notes or sticky labels can be handed out. The members are then asked to write down any health problems and stick the labels on the body map at the place they think that their job is making them ill or causing pain. If the health problem is a general one, such as overall tiredness, then the sticker is placed above the body. If the problem is stress-related anxiety or depression, the sticker is put on the forehead. Another method is to give members thick coloured textas.

Blank 'Body Maps' can be downloaded on the top right hand side of this page - enlarge them on the photocopier so they are large enough to use.

Inspections

Although these are not strictly surveys of members, they are an invaluable way of getting information of what hazards are likely to be causing health problems in your workplace.

As a health and safety rep, you have the legal right to inspect your DWG as long as you give your employer reasonable notice, or immediately following a dangerous occurrence. You should inspect your workplace regularly and whenever work practices have changed or if there are any "high risk" activities. You should make arrangements with your employer for regular inspections, including when they should take place. Following the inspection, you should complete an inspection report recording the time, date and details of the inspection. (An general inspection checklist is available on this site, and there are also more specific inspection checklists on a range of issues. Alternatively, check with your union.)

More Detailed Research

Once you have identified a problem, you should negotiate with management to ensure that a solution is found. If they feel more work needs to be done, they should get someone from an outside organisation, such as a university, to conduct research.

OHS reps should not need to prepare detailed scientific studies to show there is a problem. However, if you do want to conduct a more thorough analysis of information, or want to check the conclusions that management have reached from a study that they have done, you may require a bit of basic knowledge about statistics.

For those safety representatives who want to go down this route, there is free computer software available to help analyse the data from health studies to see what evidence there is that a certain illness such as a cancer, is being caused by work. The main software packages are "Epi-info" (Public domain microcomputer programs for handling public health data) and "Epi-map" (which displays data using geographic or other maps). This software can be down loaded from the site of the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at: www.cdc.gov/publications.htm

See Also:

  • Information on Body Mapping on this site
  • Hazards tools New online tools from the UK Hazards site to help you work out what hurts at work - and what you can do about it. These include:
    • The Hazards Detective: your body talks - many workplace diseases and symptoms can be caused by your work, from bright green urine to curling fingers and floppy ankles. This online guide helps you make the links the doctors and the safety officers miss.
    • Worked over an online guide which helps you examine the hazards that can come with the job - and that can lead to problems outside of work.
    • Checklists - go to the Checklist section of this site to download a number of checklists which you can amend and save 
    • "Get Mapping" - a new article by Hugh Robertson, TUC head of safety, in Hazards, number 134, June 2016. Health and safety and organising - A guide for reps, TUC, 2016, available in pdf and e-book versions. Also see Strength in numbers, Hugh Robertson, Hazards, number 133, March 2016.
    • 'Barefoot research: A workers' manual for organising on work security' a do-it-yourself guide to help workers increase their level of control over their work and contains information on 'barefoot' research tools, including body and risk mapping and workplace surveys. The manual was developed by the International Labour Office, but is now hosted by the UK's TUC. TUC Barefoot research and Hazards feature on Do-it-yourself safety research .

This is based on a publication produced by the UK Union Unison - 'Surveys Information Sheet'. Extra thanks of course also to the UK TUC's Hazards Magazine.

Last amended October 2016

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