Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the University and College Union (UCU)

  UCU supports the memorandum of evidence submitted to the Select Committee by the TUC, which refers to evidence from HSE-commissioned research showing that where safety representatives are active, and there is good co-operation between them and the employer, the level of injuries was reduced by half. We wish to submit further information related to worker involvement, safety representatives functions, and duties imposed on employers by the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 (SRSCR).

  Our concerns are:

    (i)  that previous consultations on safety representative functions drew large responses with a majority for more and stronger functions, yet no action resulted—on both occasions the HSC decided there was no consensus for further improvements; and

    (ii)  that we would wish to see the HSE take a much more positive approach to the enforcement of both safety rep functions and employer duties in the SRSCR.

  We are concerned that, despite the many statements and exhortations to employers by the HSC/HSE on the importance of involving workers and their representatives, these remain pious statements which neither the HSE nor Government sufficiently enforces.

  We note, however, that following the recent Construction Safety Forum meeting, Peter Hain expressed the view that "there should be a safety rep on every site." UCU believes that the HSC/E needs to adopt a much more direct approach to enforcing safety rep functions and employer duties, and move on from simply encouraging employers to co-operate.


  Safety Reps statutory functions establish a framework for safety representative activity. A 1993 amendment to the SRSCR imposed an additional duty on employers to consult with safety reps in a number of specified cases; apart from this they have remained unchanged, despite substantial changes in both industrial structure and working practices. Safety reps functions are often, wrongly in our opinion, called rights. UCU believes that it is better to emphasise that these are functions given to reps by statute, and consequently need to be vigorously enforced.

  Grouped under a number of main headings, these functions include:

    —    investigation of complaints, hazards and incidents;

    —    regular and formal inspections of the workplace and incidents;

    —    represent specific issues and general matters to the employer;

    —    make contacts with inspectors of the enforcing authorities;

    —    request a safety committee be established; and

    —    to be consulted prior to employer action.

  To facilitate these functions, the SRSCR impose a number of statutory duties on employers, all of which are absolute. We comment on employer duties below.


  UCU supports an extension of safety representatives' functions to better meet the changed and changing circumstances of the UK economy, including within the further & higher education sectors. Large manufacturing workplaces with strong traditions of trade union organisation have been replaced by small and medium-sized service sector workplaces, with less tradition of union organisation, but where echoes of traditional work relationships remain—boring and repetitive work, lack of control over the work process; system-determined speeds and outputs; hierarchical management structures, with a range of newer "built-in" hazards such as stress-related illness, repetitive strain injuries, aggressive and hostile management techniques, long hours and extended workloads; all of the latter reflected in our experience in further and higher education.

  There has also been a huge increase in sub-contracting services, where traditional employer-employee relationships are significantly undermined. This can mean workplaces having a multiplicity of employers on site; problematic where legislation refers to "employees"—we believe this should be amended to references to "workers"—a wider definition that encompasses all people on site performing some economic function for the employer, but not necessarily employed by them. There has also been a huge increase of temporary working in further and higher education with health and safety consequences.

  Previous consultations explored developments including roving safety representatives, provisional improvement notices; the ability to recommend employees leave the workplace and increased protection against victimisation. The 2006 consultation, more limited in scope, sought opinion on two relatively minor changes—a duty on employers to respond to safety rep reports, and to involve them formally in the broad approach to risk assessments. UCU believes these are still valid extensions to safety representative functions

Roving Safety Reps

  The current SRSCR Regulation 8 make provision for roving safety representatives in theatres and music venues; these specific provisions should be extended to other sectors where trade union organisation is difficult, union membership density low, or where there are many small and medium sized employers. This could include colleges and universities, agriculture, small retail sector, construction, hotel and catering and home-working. There are already some voluntary examples in finance, local authority education and past projects in agriculture.

Provisional Improvement Notices (PIN's)

  Closer partnership links between safety representatives and inspectors could be forged by an additional function to issue PIN's—where representatives can more formally indicate a failure by the employer to meet legal standards, and where the employer has ignored representations and failed to take action. Copies of PIN's are forwarded to the Inspectorate, and this enables the HSE to come-in and arbitrate and enforce if the employer continues to refuse to comply. PIN's operate successfully in some Australian states. On one occasion, the erstwhile Chair of the HSC stated, in public, that trade unions would get PIN's "over my dead body".

To advise workers to refuse dangerous work

  Enshrined in the Employment Rights Act 1996 this is currently an individual worker right difficult to exercise in practice, as there are often fears of victimisation. We would prefer a system where the representative can make the recommendation to withdraw from potentially dangerous work to protect individual workers from action by their employer.

Recognition and protection for safety representatives

  UCU also believes that trade union safety representatives should be automatically recognised (there is no provision in the SRSCR for "non-recognition" by the employer), and need stronger protection against victimisation by employers. UCU representatives have been summarily dismissed, made unfairly redundant or otherwise victimised simply because they have been effective in representing their members and improving conditions at work. Management attitudes often imply that it would not be in a rep's best interests to continue to be an effective rep.


  To enable safety representatives to perform their functions effectively, the Regulations impose a number of absolute duties on employers. These are:

    —    to permit a safety representative to take necessary time off to perform their functions and undergo training;

    —    to provide such facilities and assistance as safety representatives require for the purpose of carrying out their functions;

    —    to inspect and take copies of any document the employer is required by law to keep;

    —    to make available any information within their knowledge to enable reps to fulfil their statutory functions; and

    —    to establish a safety committee when requested.

  There is some evidence that employers often see the SRSCR as relevant only to safety representatives; the HSE need to make a sustained effort to impress on employers the relevance of the SRSCR to them.

Enforcement of employer duties

  Until December 2006, questions relating to a breach of these employer's duties, or actions that obstruct safety representatives in their functions were not considered appropriate breaches for HSE Inspectors to enforce, and unions were encouraged to use the established industrial relations machinery to resolve disputes, using ACAS help.

  In 2006 the HSE produced a draft Topic Inspection Pack—guidance for inspectors on worker involvement, consolidated in July 2007. This outlines the HSE's view, and importantly provides guidance to inspectors on enforcement action to ensure effective worker involvement. One part gives inspectors guidance on enforcing the employer duties contained in the SRSCR; Paragraphs 43—47 apply. The guidance says immediate action may be appropriate where employers are in breach of the statutory duties. Although this guidance does not advocate special enforcement visits, it recommends a system of encouragement towards more involvement as part of a normal inspection visit. UCU welcomes this approach, and considers this a step forward for the HSE, but more needs to be done.

  We accept to some degree the argument that you cannot compel employers to co-operate and consult meaningfully, and that effective partnership between unions and employers often requires a cultural shift on the part of employers, and requires them to trust trade unions, but we believe this can only be forged within a framework of strong and rigorously enforced legislation to support it.

  The HSC/E argument that consensus is necessary to achieve change in the statutory regulation of safety reps is entirely unconvincing given the track record of most employers and runs the risk of the continuing failure to have effective enforcement in place.


  A more sustained to approach to regulation requires resources. The Government must as a minimum maintain, but preferably increase, the resource allocation to the HSE to ensure sufficient resources for this important work.


November 2007

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