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Health and safety reps

The role of the health and safety rep

The key to good health and safety at work is having trade union safety representatives, safety committees and good workplace organisation. Workplaces with trade union recognition have 50 per cent fewer accidents and better occupational health records than those without.

Health and safety representatives have a wide range of legal rights and functions. They are (s)elected by the NUJ not the employer.

The union nationally also has a health and safety officer and health and safety committee.

The importance of health and safety reps

Having health and safety reps in every workplace is especially important when employers cut jobs but not workloads.

Media employers, especially those in the newspaper industry and broadcasting, have culled jobs while expecting fewer people to do more while working longer hours (probably without extra pay).

Consequently, the likelihood of physical strain injuries or stress-related conditions that could lead to short or long-term absence or even permanent disability for those doing journalistic tasks has increased dramatically – so those affected could leave or lose their jobs with decreasing prospects of being properly compensated.

Having union health and safety representatives at every workplace is essential when resisting job cuts and increased workloads. Their actions can prevent others being injured and help keep anyone who is injured in work while also helping to get them the compensation to which they are entitled. Health and safety reps can even protect jobs – by making sure that employers carry out risk assessments to calculate the number of workers necessary for the workload to be sustained without endangering health.

Health and safety reps have more rights in law than any other union reps. As NUJ members, we need to do more to look after ourselves, our interests and those around us by having more health and safety reps. We need to put ourselves forward to take up those rights to defend jobs and our health and our safety.

Those who are active in chapels, branches or the committees that help run the union should encourage more people to volunteer to become NUJ health and safety reps. The work we do to look after one another can be vital in attracting new members to the NUJ and keeping them in the union.

No one claims health and safety reps will conquer cut-throat employers – but as NUJ members, we will be better placed to defend our jobs and make them healthier and safer if we have active health and safety reps at all workplaces who know how to use their rights.

Under the law in England, Scotland and Wales and under similar provisions in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and other EU jurisdictions, employers are required to manage all health and safety issues that arise from their work – and that includes issues arising from any changes they plan to make.

They are also legally obliged to go through a process called risk assessment (RA) on all these factors, reviewing them occasionally and repeating the assessments before and after implementing any changes. Employers are legally required to consult any health and safety reps “in good time” on any health and safety issues or changes being risk assessed at any workplace.

So when managers propose job cuts, health and safety reps can legally require the employer to present risk assessments that cover issues such as: “How is the level of work going to be reduced or managed in such a way as to ensure the health, safety and welfare of those still employed?” The law requires any such employer to allow a reasonable amount of time for meaningful consultation with health and safety representatives and for reasons to be given for decisions taken after consultation.

Other reps do not have these rights. They only get them by agreement. However, the NUJ health and safety committee would argue any collective bargaining agreement should imply that any rep gets to see any risk assessments. But that is the key point: safety reps have the legal right so this contest is half won.

Also, while the law says “consult” rather than “negotiate”, it clearly does require a proper debate about issues that some managers may wish to avoid talking about or which others may not even realise that they need to cover.

This is all underpinned legally in the Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations (SRSCR) and in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations. The law says:

“Where there is a recognition agreement between an employer and a union the union can appoint/elect health and safety representatives, the union informs the employer of the election in writing and then the reps have all of the legal rights under SRSCR.”

The regulations also say that where two health and safety reps write to an employer requesting they set up a health and safety committee then the employer must comply within three months.

So, where recognition agreements exist, get someone to be the safety rep. This could be an existing mother or father of chapel (M/FoC) or anyone (s)elected by the chapel (committee). Better still get two. Then write to the employer to say they are the safety reps and request a safety committee meeting.

Whatever branch or chapel procedure, the law says that the union has to inform the employer (or local managers) of this. Then they can write to the employer requesting risk assessments and to be consulted on any new ones or revisions – as this is the law.

If the employer or local manager refuses, use local grievance or disputes procedures to complain.

The law expects reasonableness from everyone, so be reasonable in any request. Asking for a new RA within a day or two is reasonable on simple assessments. More complex ones will take longer and existing documents should be readily available (for regular consultation). Reps should never let an employer try to delay responding to any reasonable request.

Send copies of any correspondence and e-mails to the relevant NUJ organisers and email the NUJ health and safety committee. If the issue isn’t resolved satisfactorily, involve the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or the local authority (LA) environmental health officer (EHO) as they have enforcement powers.

Health and safety is a matter for everyone, so encouraging all members to be involved and keeping them informed about what is being done, reminds us all that, together, the NUJ is working in our interests.

Resolving such matters industrially will always be best. However, following agreed procedures improves the union’s chances of HSE/EHO involvement and potentially greater success at an employment tribunal (ET) if matters go that far.

The quality of support from enforcement authorities does vary, but some can be very helpful in “encouraging” employers to fulfil their legal and moral obligations. Any HSE inspector/LA EHO should respond to a request from a union rep as they know that safety reps making complaints have some understanding of what should be happening.

Where chapels do not have (elected) health and safety reps, M/FoCs should write to managers requesting risk assessments, copied to the relevant NUJ organiser.

An initial request can take the following form. It can be amended to meet local circumstances.

Dear (manager),

I/We write formally to request copies of the risk assessments regarding workplace stress and workloads regarding all editorial staff following any redundancies. We also request copies of the risk assessments with regard to repetitive stress injury and muscular-skeletal disorders associated with the “new” editorial/content management system. Risk assessments are required under Regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations.

The Health and Safety Executive emphasises all companies should have “management standards” for work-related stress and HSE expects stress risk assessments to take into organisational change account, as should any assessment on strain injuries.

I/we request you provide copies of existing risk assessments on the above matters within two working days with detail of any on-going or planned reviews.

Thank you.

Guidance

Wherever possible, elect two health and safety reps, covering different functions or shift times, so that no one individual can be potentially targeted as being awkward. Similarly, setting up a chapel health and safety email address that is not the media company you work for and using it for all these communications can prevent any one being singled out. Similarly, each message should carry two “signature” names – either both H&S reps or a rep plus the M/FoC for the same reason.

Further information

TUC guide: Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations

HSE guide to employers for managing health and safety

The TUC's workSMART website details the role, rights and responsibilities of health and safety union reps.