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Hazards, number 164, 2023
Dave Smith’s guide to organising  |   No.23  |  Talking to strangers at a bus stop
Union safety reps don’t need to be superheroes nor to be experts in the law. Nor do they need awards, special qualifications, or years of experience. Something that is important, though, is an innate sense of common decency.


Safety reps are the kind of people who can’t turn a blind eye when we see an injustice – whether that is a young co-worker being bullied by a manager, or staff being expected to work excessive hours without breaks or adequate PPE. You can’t teach someone to be angry when they see people unfairly treated, but it’s a trait that most safety reps have in heaps.

Fire in your belly is one thing, but there are skills that are useful for a union safety rep’s role too. Are you the kind of person who can talk to a stranger at a bus stop? Or who can chat with a colleague about football or the latest Netflix box set?  If you are, then you’ve got an important skill that every safety rep needs: The ability to communicate with people using the kind of language that workers use themselves.

We all have life skills developed inside and outside of work. Lots of people have helped run a local youth club or community group. If you can organise a big family party, you’ve already got some of the essential organisational skills a union safety rep needs.

What new safety reps often need most is confidence. Confidence to challenge managers, yes. But even more importantly, the confidence to bring their co-workers together to tackle health and safety problems on a collective basis. This is not always easy, but the understanding that working people are more likely to be successful if we tackle issues collectively rather than on our own is a key lesson for all safety reps.

Collective action by workers does not need to be a mass walkout or huge protest organised by social media. The best kind of actions are when the workers just stick together, and in so doing begin to tilt the balance of power in the workplace in their direction.

A newly elected USDAW safety rep recently recalled an example from the supermarket where she worked. A young cashier needed to go to the toilet more often than usual because she was pregnant. On returning from a loo break, she was called over by her male supervisor who warned her not to spend too much time away from the tills.       

Immediately afterwards, the safety rep spoke to the young woman to check she was alright. She then spoke to the other cashiers to tell them what had gone on. Within a few minutes, around a dozen of the older women working on the tills, most of whom had worked there for years, all headed to the toilets at the same time. They stayed there for longer than was probably needed. The pregnant worker was never criticised by the supervisor again.

Not a grievance, a law book nor a safety committee in sight. Just workers sticking together to support their colleague: The true meaning of solidarity. But it wouldn’t have happened without the safety rep talking to people. 



FIRED UP  Whether it is a fire drill or a scrum getting on a bus, be open to starting a conversation when and wherever the opportunity arises. Workers may sometimes be reluctant to talk to their union rep while working, or when a manager could be in earshot.

SHIFT APPROACH Some workers, like those on irregular shifts, working from home, working remotely or on sick leave, may be out of view. An extra effort might be necessary to ensure safety reps are accessible to and remain in touch with all their members. From the union noticeboard to ring rounds and WhatsApp groups and social media, the union can find ways to remain visible to the entire membership.

BLUE SKY THINKING  Chasing workers around a work site has its place, but it is often easier to catch workers over lunch, on their break or at a toolbox union meeting. Make yourself available – but that doesn’t have to include getting up a crane or down a trench.

APPROACHABLE REPS  Safety reps have to be visible at work – your union members may be keen to nab you about a workplace worry. Make good use of your safety reps’ rights to consult with the members and undertake investigations and inspections. If the workplace reps overall reflect the membership – for example, have between them the relevant language skills and include women reps – they stand a better chance of being accessible and effective.

DRIVING FORCE  Lorry driver Simon Wilde (left) was recognised as the TUC Safety Rep of the Year 2023. The GMB safety rep said his aim is “helping my members to have a voice and to be heard and be seen in the workplace.” Through sheer perseverance and with the backing of members, he forced his employer Best Food to change unsafe working practices, including creating a standardised process for risk assessments for deliveries which has now gone nationwide.  

RIGHT RECIPE  Being a union rep isn’t all about rights, it is also about building relationships and collective support. A friendly word while working can build trust, and catch workers when problems are fresh in their minds.

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Union safety reps don’t need to be superheroes nor to be experts in the law. Nor do they need awards, special qualifications, or years of experience. Something that is important, though, is an innate sense of common decency.

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