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Union workplaces are safer, healthier places for a reason – because union organisation keeps them that way. TUC’s new organising guide recognises it’s not that union know more – although they usually do – it is because they have the numbers, the support and the skills to get their safety message across.
TUC’s new guide, ‘Organising for health and safety’, spells out how to organise more and organise better. It is urging union branch safety officers, full time officers, and groups of safety representatives to use the new online guide to help improve the organisation of health and safety in the workplace, recruit new safety representatives, and make safety committees more effective.
“This is the first time a resource has been produced that actually lets safety reps, or other activists review their level of organisation and develop a plan that fits their individual circumstances, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson told Hazards. “This is not about giving safety reps a model and saying go and do this, it is saying instead "find out what the issues are and lets see if we can find a way to confront the challenges.
“What is key to the organising approach is that health and safety is not about rules and regulations, it is about good old-fashioned trade union activism. A safety rep who listens and represents is of far more use than one who can quote every section of the COSHH regulations.”
There is strong evidence that when unions get active, they not only win improvements, they win new members.
During a national safety dispute three years ago, when civil service union PCS won safety improvements in Jobcentre Plus offices, the union also recruited 6,000 new members (Hazards 78).
RMT general secretary Bob Crow said this year standing up for the pay and conditions of Chubb security guards on the Channel Tunnel route had led to a 25 per cent membership increase. The union said replacement workers used in place of striking Chubb security guards were presenting a safety and security risk.
A “dirty tricks” campaign this year by parcels company DHL, attempting to derecognise the company, drew attention to serious safety shortcomings at the firm. A survey of GMB members revealed working time, welfare, vehicle ergonomics and personal protective equipment concerns. Union reps became active around these safety issues, leading to an increase in rep numbers and increased confidence. GMB reports “a consolidation and growth in the membership.”
GMB acting general secretary Paul Kenny told Hazards that health and safety is “an area where working people trust trade unions to deliver at both a national and a local level.” He added that the union saw health and safety as a key organising and recruitment issue. “By demonstrating their rights to investigate, inspect and discuss health and safety concerns, GMB safety reps can show the effectiveness of trade union membership and the benefits which arise from it.”
Basic union safety organisation can benefit the wider community. In September, UNISON reps discovered the entire Welsh ambulance trust's new fleet of 46 ambulances were dangerously overweight in normal use, placing patients at staff at risk. After UNISON raised the alarm, safety measures where introduced and the Trust agreed to review ambulance design with the union.
TUC’s Hugh Robertson said the new organising pack is intended to help unions maximise their safety organising and recruitment potential. “It is a resource for mapping the workplace and finding out what the barriers to recruiting safety reps and involving members are and seeking practical solutions,” he said.
“The pack also seeks to get activists to look at their relationship with their employer and ask "does it work effectively?" if not - how can it be changed? The TUC is not aiming to tell people what the answers are, instead we want them to find the answer.”
TUC is not restricting its scope to business-as-usual safety reps – it wants unions to negotiate new rights, in particular roving safety reps and union improvement notices. “These have been very successful where tried previously and the TUC believes that, until we get new regulations, these are a model that can be adapted for many workplaces,” said Robertson.
Banking union Amicus-Unifi’s pilot roving reps scheme at Barclays proved so successful it was quickly extended, to create an effective regional safety reps’ scheme, all with the active support of the company (Hazards 83).
Union improvement notices have now become a routine part of the armoury for some safety reps. PCS reps at the revenue and customs office in Leicester, concerned at poor air quality in their workplace, exhausted formal negotiating procedures and final resorted to issuing a UIN on management, copied with supporting evidence to the Health and Safety Executive.
PCS health and safety rep Eamon Furey said: “Management was persuaded to spend “75,000 on an upgrade of the ventilation system. We cannot claim that had a direct effect on union recruitment as we already had over 90 per cent membership, but the improved ventilation did reduce the incidence of reported headaches and sickness caused by poor ventilation. PCS union members appreciate the improvement in air quality.”
It’s not just local action that can consolidate union power. Train drivers’ union ASLEF encourages union members nationwide to become active on International Rail Safety Day each year. “Working on projects like this bonds members,” ASLEF general secretary Keith Norman told Hazards. “Doing something practical together with a shared objective is a great way of encouraging friendships and activity.
“When the union is proactive on issues like this, it strengthens the relationship between member and union. It shows ASLEF is concerned directly with its members’ working day.”
ITF, the global transport workers’ federation that coordinates the massively successful rail safety day worldwide, is also behind International Road Transport Action Week, which this year made “organising the unorganised” a key focus.
Hugh Robertson hopes unions will both use the organising pack and adapt it to their own particular needs. “From the trials that we have already run using the materials we know that it can make a big difference to workplace organisation.
“This approach was developed within an affiliated union a couple of years ago. Those branches that used it all found it useful. In fact all but one found it ‘very useful’.
“Of those branches that went through the exercises there was an average of 4 new safety representatives, and over 70 per cent found that the safety culture of the employer was also improved through the activities they carried out. So yes, it does work, and every workplace can gain from using the approach within the pack.”
TUC’s wants unions to use its new online ‘Organising for health and safety’ guide to review their safety performance – finding out who does what and where and how effective they are - then get a plan to get more or more effective safety rep cover at work.
The resource includes exercises to help the union branch or groups of safety reps develop practical proposals for improving workplace safety organisation. TUC says the approach is most effective when the exercises in the guide are undertaken by a group from the same workplace, or similar workplaces.
Key questions How many safety reps are there, are they trained, has the employer been notified about new reps, does each rep have a clear constituency, have they adequate support and time off, does the union branch communicate with safety reps and vice versa, are health and safety issues considered when bargaining issues such as reorganisations are discussed?
Map it out Map the workplace to build a picture of where there are union members and safety reps. Note where health and safety issues have arisen recently, and how effective the union is on safety, including the degree of member involvement. Set priorities – recruitment of new safety reps, increasing member participation etc.
Recruiting reps Identify the obstacles to recruiting new safety reps. Consider how the branch/group can support safety reps, how the role of safety reps relates to stewards, and the expectations placed on safety reps. Identify safety concerns that could be a focus for safety rep recruitment and activity. Agree priorities for safety rep recruitment and development.
Who’s the boss? Does the union have influence at work? Are safety committees properly constituted and effective? Are health and safety concerns dealt with on a day-to-day basis? Is the union involved in negotiation of safety policies and strategies? Are there agreed targets for workplace safety improvements? Are all unions working collaboratively? Are line managers involved in improving health and safety? Are consultative arrangements effective?
New rights Could roving safety reps improve union effectiveness? Could you introduce a Union Improvement Notices system? What preparation, training and support would be required to ensure negotiated extra safety reps’ roles were used to best effect?
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