Health and safety: the union effect

The union effect

HSE recognises that "workplaces where workers are involved in taking decisions about health and safety are safer and healthier workplaces"

safety montageUnion H&S representatives make a difference because they:

  • help reduce injuries at work
  • help reduce the levels of ill-health caused by work
  • encourage greater reporting of injuries and near-misses
  • help develop a more positive safety culture in the organisation.

Top tip! HSE has published a summary of the facts and figures that you can use to make the business case so your employer can appreciate the business benefits of properly involving and supporting you. Speak their language - eg increased productivity, a reduction in lost time accidents, etc.

Where is the proof?

There is a wealth of evidence over the past few decades, both in the UK and abroad.

Most recently (2017) Professor David Walters from Cardiff University found strong evidence in the mining sector that health and safety representatives supported by a trade union were more effective in getting important safety matters addressed and resolved than health and safety representatives acting on their own. The comparative research project was based on the experiences of worker health and safety representatives in five countries: Australia, Canada, India, Indonesia and South Africa. The research involved interviews with trade unions nationally and regionally, miners, and government inspectors, as well as other key parties.

The research also showed that management is not playing its facilitation role, and as a result health and safety representatives are denied the benefits of that support.

In 1995, researchers analysed the relationship between worker representation and industrial injuries in British Manufacturing. It found that employers with trade union health and safety committees had half the injury rate of those employers who managed safety without unions or joint arrangements [1]. Several other analyses of the same figures  concluded that the highest injury rates occur where management deals with occupational health and safety without consultation [2].

In 2004 a further analysis of the data confirmed that 'the general conclusion that health and safety should not be left to management should be supported' [3]. Where there is a union presence the workplace injury rate is 24% lower than where there is no union presence [4].

Trade unions also help reduce ill-health. A study in 2000 found that 'the proportion of employees who are trade union members has a positive and significant association on both injury and illness rates.' The arrangements associated with trade unions ... lower the odds of injury and illness when compared with arrangements that merely inform employees of OHS issues' [5].

In 2003 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) ran a number of pilots where union-appointed 'worker safety advisors' went in to non-unionised organisations. Findings showed that over 75% of employers said they had made changes as a result and almost 70% of workers had seen an increase in the awareness of health & safety [6].

In Ireland a group of academics looked at the construction industry in both Northern Ireland and the Irish republic. It concluded that 'the strongest relationship with safety compliance is the presence of a safety representative.' [7]

Throughout Europe there is evidence of the effect that unions can have, which is why the European Commission introduced a directive requiring all EU countries to introduce regulations to ensure that employers consult on health and safety.

In Canada a study by the Canadian Ministries of Labour found that union-supported health and safety committees have 'a significant impact on reducing injury rates', [8] while a report by the Ontario Workplace Health and Safety Agency found '78-79% of unionised workplaces reported high compliance with health and safety legislation with only 54-61% of non-unionised workplaces reporting such compliance.' [9]

In the USA, a 1991 study found that unions dramatically increased enforcement of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in the manufacturing sector. A more recent study in New Jersey found that the greater the level of worker involvement in safety committees the fewer the injuries and illnesses reported. [10]

H&S reps have also been shown to have a major effect in changing the safety culture in Australia, [11]; unionised workplaces in Australia are three times more likely to have a safety committee, and twice as likely to have undergone a management safety audit in the previous year than non-unionised workplaces.

The Health and Safety Commission produced a declaration on worker involvement stating that ‘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 than in non trade union systems. We recognise this and support the invaluable contribution they continue to make to health and safety' [12].

So how does this happen?

One of the reasons unions make such a difference is that they ensure that their H&S representatives are trained.

In 1997, a survey for the HSE into the chemical regulations (COSHH) [13] found that H&S representatives were generally more knowledgeable than their managers. Ninety per cent of H&S reps were aware of the main principles of the main chemical safety regulations whilst over a third of managers had not heard of the regulations. The survey also found that over 80% of H&S reps had received training in health and safety in the last two years, compared with 44% of managers.

Every year the TUC trains around 10,000 H&S reps, and many more are trained through their unions. H&S reps know the workplace as well or often better than management as they are aware of what really goes on. They act as a channel for individual workers to raise their concerns.

An 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' [14]. It is also recognised that consultation with the workforce can have a considerable effect in changing the safety culture in a workplace.

A research paper by the Health and Safety Laboratory [15] gives a number of case studies that showed that involving the workforce lead to real benefits. In one case there was a drop in accidents from 1.2 to 0.1 per 100,000 work hours.

Where staff have H&S reps and safety committees, they know they have a voice. That makes them more willing to raise issues. Unions also help raise awareness of health and safety in the workplace.

Making a difference

We also know that union involvement makes a real difference in the workplace. Case studies show the benefits of union involvement in health and safety.

  • In a Somerfield distribution centre in Scotland, the union safety representatives did a survey of MusculoSkeletal Disorders. This was raised at the joint safety committee who developed an action plan that led to a 50% reduction in manual handling injuries over 2 years.
  • In the paper industry, a joint union/management initiative which increased the involvement of H&S reps led to a 25% reduction in major and fatal injuries in the industry over three years.
  • In Nestlé the union was concerned over the large number of injuries caused by slips (a third of the total injuries). They worked out a joint plan with management which cut slipping injuries by 60% over three years. They then looked at manual handling injuries and reduced them by 40%. Because unions share information far more effectively than management the approach used in Nestlé was used in other companies such as KP Foods Ashby and Cavaghan and Gray, with similar reductions in injury rates achieved.
  • Union involvement also helped reduce reportable accidents by 38% in a division of GKN by providing joint union training to managers, supervisors and safety representatives.
  • In the wake of three prosecutions, food company Heinz reorganised its safety management system and involved H&S reps in all aspects of risk assessment and accident investigation. Reportable accidents have decreased by over 50%.
  • Unions in the NHS have slashed the number of needlestick injuries by getting management to change to safer needles; they have also greatly reduced the number of staff getting latex allergies by ensuring that workers were provided with safer gloves.
  • After a fire in a Yorkshire plant, chemical company Hickson and Welch set up local safety committees, involved H&S reps in all safety procedures on site and asked the union to provide joint training. Injuries have fallen by 70% and the company and union won a European safety award.
  • Within Tesco, union H&S reps raised concern about the width of one type of checkout which was causing health problems. This led to the belt being narrowed. A totally new type of checkout has been designed from scratch with union involvement; it is being used in new stores and helps to greatly reduce injuries among checkout staff.


[1] Reilly, Paci & Holl 'unions, safety committees & workplace injuries' BJIR Vol.33, 1995
[2] Beaumont and Harris, Occupational health & Safety, 23, 1993, Millward et al, Workplace Industrial relations in Transition, 1992.
[3] Nichols, Walters and Tasiran, Working Paper Series No 48, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff, 2004.
[4] Litwin, Trade Unions and Industrial Injury in GB, LSE, 2000
[5] Robinson and Smallman, The Healthy Workplace? Judge Institute of Management Studies, 2000
[8] Canadian Ministries of Labour 1993 - quoted in Hazards magazine
[9] Ontario Workplace Health and Safety Agency studies 1994 and 1996
[10] Eaton and Nocerino. Industrial relations, 2000
[11] Beaumont and Harris, Occupational Health and Safety 23, 1993