The European Week for Safety and Health at Work (22–28 October) is a good time to look at the results from the TUC’s survey of health and safety reps.
The research provides the TUC and affiliated unions with valuable information to shape campaigning and organisation activities.
The aggregated data for Prospect reps provides a snapshot of the state of play across our branches. It reveals that stress is of particular concern and, despite the considerable expertise of our health and safety reps, many employers fail to effectively engage with them when making decisions about health and safety.
The largest cohort of Prospect respondents worked in the energy and water sector (the survey used standard industrial classifications).
Other respondents came from a range of industries. Reps working in transport and communications; central government; construction; leisure services; manufacturing; education; health services; “other” services; and agriculture and fishing submitted responses. We’re grateful to all of them for taking the time to share their experiences.
Managing health and safety
The survey asked reps to identify their five main health and safety concerns. The most frequently cited issues for Prospect reps were stress, display screen equipment, bullying/harassment, overwork and slips, trips, falls on the level (as opposed to from height).
Stress was identified as a top-five concern by 91% of respondents.
These responses are broadly similar to those of health and safety reps in other unions. However, compared to Prospect reps, fewer respondents (69%) from other TUC-affiliated unions identify stress as a top-five issue.
The survey also asked reps about how well their employer manages health and safety.
Worryingly, almost one in 10 (9%) of Prospect respondents said their employer had not carried out a risk assessment to cover the workers they represent.
Of the 83% who said their employer had carried one out (the remaining 8% were unsure), just under a third were satisfied with the level of involvement either they or other health and safety reps had in the process.
When it came to enforcement, 38% of Prospect reps said their workplace had been visited by a HSE inspector, environmental health officer or other relevant safety inspectorate in the last 12 months. But nearly half (47%) said that, as far as they knew, an inspector had nevercalled at their workplace.
This is a similar figure to other unions: 52% of all respondents said they had never known an inspector visit their workplace. This is a higher proportion than the last time the survey was carried out. It shows, once again, the extent to which preventative health and safety inspections are diminishing as enforcement agencies are pared back after years of cuts.
Asked whether their employer had ever received an enforcement notice – a legal tool which inspectors can use to force employers to either stop dangerous work or make improvements to the way it is managed – one in three Prospect reps said they had.
A third seems high (the corresponding figure was one in five among all health and safety reps of TUC-affiliated unions). While Prospect represents people in some particularly hazardous industries, this does not explain why the management of dangerous activities might be lacking.
Of those Prospect reps whose employer had received an enforcement notice, 50% said that neither they nor other health and safety representatives were involved the improvements that were implemented to comply with the notice.
Health and safety reps’ rights
Representatives were asked about the extent to which their employer supported them in carrying out their functions.
Nearly half of Prospect respondents said that at some point they had been unable to attend health and safety rep training for various reasons. Worryingly, 25% of these people said that this was because management had refused time-off. This is despite health and safety reps being entitled to as much time off with pay as is necessary to fulfil their functions.
A further 56% said could not attend a course because they were too busy, yet employers need to take account of a health and safety reps’ functions when considering their usual workload.
The fact that only 43% respondents said that management frequently consults them, or the union, in anticipation of health and safety issues arising, as the law requires, will have a familiar ring to health and safety reps across the union.
Joint health and safety committees are a key factor in making representatives’ work effective and a vital forum for consultation. Nevertheless, only seven in 10 said there was one where they work which meets regularly. Around one in 10 said there was no joint committee covering their workplace.
The good news is that Prospect’s health and safety reps are active in their workplaces. Some 85% said they had carried out an inspection of their workplace at least once in the preceding 12 months, with one in five saying they had done this five times or more.
And most respondents said they have been health and safety reps for more than five years. They will have built up significant expertise in that time, and will play a crucial role representing members and making their workplaces safer and healthier.