More people would be killed and injured at work without them. Welfare facilities would be attacked and the health of millions of workers would suffer. Elected union safety representatives play a vital role in trying to ensure working conditions are safe, especially in a period where employers might be tempted to reduce safety spending in an attempt to cut costs and boost profits.
Production operative Martin Foster became a Unite safety rep at the Scunthorpe Tata Steel [ex-Corus] plant six years ago. Having witnessed workplace injuries elsewhere he was keen to prevent similar occurrences at Scunthorpe. He’s devoted thousands of hours of his spare time to the cause and had a high degree of success. It’s still not enough to make him happy though, especially as there have been two deaths this year.
“There are some serious site hazards. Molten metal is dangerous and gases from the coke and blast furnace are highly toxic and explosive. As a safety rep I wanted to ensure management fulfilled their legal obligations under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act [HASAWA]” said Martin, elected as the Unite senior safety rep four years ago, and one of sixty reps covering every department at the North Lincolnshire site.
Getting management to act isn’t easy. Martin believes “we must remember it was the struggle of earlier trade unionists against hostile employers that established the laws which now offer some protection. However, despite the legal framework, management won’t act on our concerns unless we prove our case by rigorously collecting information highlighting them. ”
“We do this in a number of ways at the Bounds Green maintenance depot of the East Coast Main Line railway company” said engineer Alan Bayliss, a Unite safety rep there for five years “including through quarterly inspections and examining the record of safety incidents and accidents to see if there are patterns emerging that need addressing. We obtain safety advice from the union and specialist publications such as the Hazards magazine. By advertising our role on union notice boards members can also approach us direct with their safety issues. “
Both men raise their concerns in writing. Martin says this is to “ensure there is a paper trail so no manager can deny being informed. In most instances management will act. For example after we raised noise problems soundproofing was improved and on welfare we negotiated improvements in shower and kitchen facilities.
If it’s clear our requests are being ignored we raise the problem at a departmental health and safety committee meeting and, if necessary, when we meet with senior management at the site safety meeting when all unions and department managers are present.”
When that doesn’t work the Health and Safety Executive [HSE] may be informed. Martin is pleased “about getting an HSE improvement notice at Tata over the lack of control of asbestos. This doesn’t immediately kill you, but could later as 4,000 workers are annually finding out by going to an early grave after working with the product 25-30 years ago. It’s better to negotiate improvements with management but it’s not always possible.”
When problems are not rectified the consequences can be fateful. In April Martin represented Unite at the funeral of his union colleague, 26-year-old Tom Standerline. The electrician was carrying out maintenance duties when was crushed by an overhead crane.
Ongoing HSE investigations mean Martin can’t say anything specific. He wasn’t though totally surprised there’d been a death as “the union had regularly raised with management over the last few years the need for constant vigilance. We were aware of some near misses, and felt it was partly luck that no one had been killed. Going to the funeral demonstrated why we must improve our organisation. The pain amongst Tom’s family and friends was terrible.” It’s one now being felt by Barry Shaw’s, the contractor being killed in September after becoming trapped between a lorry tractor unit and a trailer.
Four years ago Corus were fined £1.3 million, with £1.7 million costs, for killing three workers at Port Talbot. As the deaths have continued Martin feels campaigns for new laws on Corporate Manslaughter, whereby senior directors would be held accountable for workplace deaths “should be backed.” With the Tories in power, and already attacking existing health and safety laws, it may be sometime before this is put into effect.
Meanwhile Martin is determined to up the fight for improved safety. He wants Tata to improve its management safety training, has helped establish a joint safety site committee with the GMB union and wants no safety rep to be left isolated and without support.
“We have lost a battle with the two lads deaths, but we can only really mark their passing by ensuring we organise to protect the living. That means getting more members to come forward as safety reps. This is most definitely not a time to throw in the towel.”
Established in 1977, under section 15 of the 1974 HASAWA, safety reps appointed from recognised unions have a right to investigate potential hazards, dangerous occurrences and accidents, carry out workplace inspections, make representations to the employer on health and safety matters and to receive information and represent employees at workplace consultation meetings with heath and safety inspectors.
Where at least two safety reps request a safety committee be established the employer must do so within three months. They have a legal right to paid time off for performing their functions and to undergo relevant training.
“The training the union provides is a big help” says Alan “as it varies from basic safety right through to more specialist industry based courses. As well as learning how to do inspections you find out about hidden hazards and begin understanding the need for procedures to ensure no one is injured at work or suffer from using a dangerous substance. The courses give you confidence about how to approach management with a problem. Safety reps protect people. Figures show that workplaces where there is one are safer.”
A point proved by researchers in 1995 who discovered manufacturing establishments with trade union health and safety committees had half the injury rate of non-union workplaces. Findings that were supported by a 2007 government paper on the “union safety effect” estimating safety reps annually prevent between 8,000 and 13,000 workplace accidents.
“Anyone who gets the chance to become a safety rep should take it. The union will get you started and you will be doing yourself and your work colleagues a favour,” said Alan Bayliss.