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February 5, 2013

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Worker involvement – Full esteem ahead

The Government’s depiction of over-burdensome health and safety and a growing compensation culture flies in the face of broader evidence that the more an organisation involves its workforce on business issues, the more efficient it becomes, says Nigel Bryson.

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” I first came across this quote – crafted by William James – in Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. An international best-seller written in the mid-1930s, the book provides plentiful points for discussion and myriad examples of how to motivate yourself and inspire those around you. Yet, looking at many workplaces today, it appears the book a lot of managers have read is the mirror alternative, How to Make Enemies and Alienate People!

Over the following pages, I aim to highlight the evidence in support of worker involvement, and why greater engagement of the workforce in managerial decision-making improves health, safety and business performance. But, first, let’s consider the following: if ‘appreciation’ is our greatest desire, why is it that the overriding experience of many workers is the exact opposite – alienation – for example, finding oneself placed on a construction industry blacklist?1

Worker involvement – the current law

Last year, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work launched its two-year initiative, ‘Working Together for Risk Prevention’,2 which focuses on leadership and worker involvement. Duties relating to this latter principle have been enshrined in law for many years. Indeed, the EU Framework Directive – which, incidentally, enjoyed its 20th anniversary since implementation in the year just gone – included a requirement for employers to consult with their workforce on a number of specific issues.

In the UK, workers’ rights on consultation were initially implemented through the Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations 1977 (as amended). But, for some, these Regulations fell short, and their arguments that all workers, not just those in unionised organised workforces, should enjoy equal consultation rights led to the implementation of additional regulations to this effect – the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996. Today, in unionised workplaces, the duty to consult on health and safety matters applies to safety representatives, while in non-union organisations, under the 1996 Regulations, the employer can either consult representatives of employee safety, or the whole workforce. In both sets of Regulations, the requirement is for the employer to consult “in good time” on the following matters:

  • the introduction of any measure at the workplace that may substantially affect the health and safety of the employees covered;
  • the arrangements for appointing or nominating competent persons, as required by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations;
  • any health and safety information the employer is required to provide for the employees as a result of the ‘relevant statutory provisions’;
  • the planning and organisation of any health and safety training the employer is required to provide for the employees under ‘relevant statutory provisions’; and
  • the health and safety consequences for the employees in relation to the planning and introduction of new technologies in the workplace.

Although the above requirements are quite extensive and have been in place for all workplaces since 1996, the HSE estimated in 2004 that 60 per cent of workers in Britain were not being effectively consulted by their employer.3 Faced with such a situation, one might expect the HSE to prioritise enforcement of the Regulations. But an indication that the regulator favoured a policy of encouraging compliance with the law rather than enforcing it was evident when it published a ‘Topic Pack’ for inspectors in 2007.4

The document set out that worker involvement would be over and above legal requirements, but stressed that consultation was an existing legal obligation. For example, although the following was noted: “There is strong evidence to suggest that involving the workforce in health and safety matters has a positive effect on health and safety performance,” the document simultaneously highlighted a distinct lack of urgency on enforcing a legal duty brought into law in the early 1990s. Consider, for example, the following statements featured in the document: “This pack is different from other topic inspection packs. There is no requirement to measure worker involvement, or to record findings on inspection report forms”; and: “Both the SRSC and HSCE Regulations are principally administrative, as they do not directly involve risk.”

No substantive move to enforce these regulations was expressed, although there was the following example of where enforcement action might be justified: “Where there is no system for consultation, the employer is uncooperative and/or unwilling to address the issue, and there are identifiable adverse effects for health and safety, enforcement action may be appropriate.”

Breeding trust – but not through compulsion?

So, simply breaching the regulations would not appear to be sufficient cause to enforce the law. At the heart of the issue, according to the HSE, lies the following statement: “The development of effective worker consultation and involvement relies on trust building between workers and the employer. This trust cannot be stimulated by compulsion from a third party through enforcement action.”

In the HSE’s current strategy, published in 2009, worker involvement featured as one of ten strategic aims, committing the Executive to “reinforce the promotion of worker involvement and consultation in health and safety matters throughout unionised and non-unionised workplaces of all sizes”.

Launching the strategy, HSE chair Judith Hackitt identified worker involvement as one of the top three priorities, along with leadership and competence. This gave impetus to worker-involvement activities, and the small HSE team under whose remit these matters fell developed the ‘Do Your Bit’ initiative – which not only has a separate website5 but was backed by funds to the tune of £2.5 million to make available two pilot training courses.6 The first was aimed at non-union safety representatives, while the second involved joint training between safety representatives and managers. Both were over-subscribed and an initial evaluation by the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) indicated the training was well-received.7 A more detailed evaluation by the HSE and IES on the impact of the training is imminent. 

One of the most recent academic endorsements of the value of worker involvement featured in the Government-commissioned review of health and safety regulation, led by Professor Löfstedt.8 Asked to produce an ‘evidence-based’ study, his report came up with the following ‘evidence-based’ conclusion: “Boosting the responsibility and involvement of employees has the potential to bring about significant improvements in health and safety in the workplace.”

It might be presumed that with such a “potential” for “significant” workplace improvements, this might have brought some recommendations as to how this potential could be reached. Unfortunately, such proposals were never forthcoming, as the Professor’s remit was solely concerned with the apparent ‘burden’ of health and safety regulation in the UK and not about putting forward any suggestions as to how either health and safety standards, or compliance with the law could be improved.

A final example of the importance of worker involvement on health and safety can be seen in the Olympic Development Authority’s approach to what was one of the largest civil-engineering projects ever to take place in Europe. With a huge, complex building site, which peaked at about 20,000 workers, the construction of the Olympic Park was a major health and safety challenge. For the first time on an Olympic Games construction project, no one was killed. The injury rate was half that of the construction sector generally, and the occupational-health service was evaluated as a major success. Both leadership and worker involvement are regarded as central to the success of the project, underlined by several detailed research reports.9

It is beyond doubt, therefore, that greater worker involvement improves health and safety performance. The HSE acknowledges this concept, but appears reluctant to enforce the law to its fullest extent. It has, however, made resource materials available10 and shown that application of its pilot training improves standards. So, what other benefits can be gained through effective consultation with workers on health and safety matters?

In pursuit of productivity 

In 2001, the significance of stress in affecting productivity was noted in the findings of a survey commissioned by Investors in People UK.11 The survey, which questioned around 1500 employers and 1200 employees in the services sector, found that while training was seen as a key measure for improving productivity, stress was identified as a key obstacle to achieving this outcome.

From a business perspective alone, HSE statistics on stress are quite significant, showing that 1.07 million work-related illnesses were recorded in 2011/12, of which 428,000 – 40 per cent – were stress-related. According to the Executive, the occupations that reported the highest rates of work-related stress (over a three-year average) were health professionals (in particular, nurses), teaching and educational professionals, and caring personal services. The main work activities attributed by respondents as causing their work-related stress, or making it worse, were work pressure, lack of managerial support, and work-related violence and bullying.

The underlying reasons for increased stress among workers are fairly obvious – the financial crisis is putting pressure on many businesses to cut costs and improve efficiency. However, there is an ironic and misplaced obsession with hours worked as a measure of productivity. Indeed, ministers frequently fly to Brussels in order to maintain an ‘inefficiency opt-in’ to the Working Time Directive. Presented as the individual worker’s right to opt out of a maximum 48-hour working week, ministers ignore the fact that the longer people work, the less efficient they become. More mistakes are then made as people get tired and, ultimately, efficiency suffers.

In a lecture on productivity given in March 2004,12 Dominic Casserley, of McKinsey management consultants, gave the following insight: “Government tends to get excited by innovation, research and development and new inventions, but the first McKinsey insight is that these do not have a great deal to do with improving productivity.

“It is not an area, where with one giant leap, the world will be changed. Rather, it is about doing the everyday simple things better and making small incremental improvements. Doing so on a continuing basis is what delivers real benefits.”

He continued: “Unfortunately, not enough of this routine but essential activity happens in this country because the hardest thing in business is getting people to work differently – and that is something British management is not good at, in spite of evidence that British workers do respond if properly motivated to do so. Foreign-owned business in the UK can get 80 per cent more out of the average British worker than a domestic firm can – using the same workforce with the same, allegedly poor, qualifications.”
People over technology

The implication is that, for most organisations, increases in productivity are rarely the result of revolutionary new devices. In the main, improvements are achieved over time by making better use of what organisations already have at their disposal. I would argue that this includes people, as well as equipment.

In his book, Business Exposed,13 associate professor of strategic and international management Freek Vermeulen describes the approach of a company experiencing difficulties. He notes that it first went through the “usual cost-cutting and rounds of layoffs”, before the company’s CEO then did something different: “He initiated some processes for all employees to start generating ideas for potential new sources of revenue, in which they enthusiastically participated (it was not like they had anything better to do). Most ideas were rubbish; some ideas were so-so; but a few ideas were really good! One of these ideas has now brought them a substantial new source of revenue.”

Would you believe it?! No management consultants were involved – the company simply asked its workers. And this is not unique. Twenty engineering companies took part in an 18-month worker-involvement project conducted by the HSE and EEF on the issues of noise and vibration.14 All reported that the project had been worthwhile, and the following was noted: “The pilot companies involved have also provided many personal anecdotes and testimonies to the success of the project. For example, a firm in south Wales offered workers a reduced working week, with no effect on pay, in response to increased productivity arising out of workers’ suggestions.”

Such anecdotal evidence is starting to align with more scientific research. Indeed, an article last year in the Harvard Business Review15 had this to say on worker engagement: “More than 100 studies have now found that the most engaged employees. . . are significantly more productive, drive higher customer satisfaction and outperform those who are less engaged.”

For those who prefer their evidence closer to home, the UK Government published a definitive piece of research in 2009 on employee engagement,16 encompassing analysis of a large range of studies, along with the publication of nearly 50 case studies from different companies. The case studies detailed how individual companies applied measures to improve worker involvement.

The study concluded: “We deal with the different definitions of engagement in the report. But at its core is a blindingly obvious but, nevertheless, often overlooked truth. If it is how the workforce performs that determines, to a large extent, whether companies or organisations succeed, then whether or not the workforce is positively encouraged to perform at its best should be a prime consideration for every leader and manager, and be placed at the heart of business strategy.”


So, if health and safety and worker involvement were considered more widely, they could make a major contribution to improving the economic performance of the UK. This could be achieved not only by reducing injury and ill health, as has been traditionally recognised, but by improving the efficiency of organisations. By applying the management standards to stress, for example, the organisational causes of stress can be addressed, which, in turn, should lead to a more efficient business.

There is now a wealth of evidence that the greater the worker involvement in an organisation, the greater its health, safety and business performance. And yet, in its various reviews, not only has the Government focused narrowly on the ‘burden’ of health and safety regulation but it publicly derides workers for being ‘compensation trigger-happy’; seeks ways to make it easier for employers to sack them; and raises the costs for workers making claims at industrial tribunals. These are hardly measures that will inspire workers to go the extra mile in rising to the many challenges that employers currently face. The Government position is completely illogical and flies in the face of the evidence that ministers themselves have seen and, in some cases – such as with the Löfstedt Report – commissioned!

With no lead coming from the Government, and the HSE’s enforcement policy in this area based largely on ‘encouragement’, should worker involvement be parked until the economic climate improves? In short, it can’t be. The research in relation to the improved efficiency of ‘engaged’ workers is overwhelming. There is no doubt that the benefits of worker involvement result in more efficient organisations, and it is exactly these types of businesses that are best equipped to weather the economic storm currently buffeting the UK.

It is about time businesses became focused on worker involvement and started to see workers as the solution to this country’s health, safety and economic challenges, instead of perceiving them as problem children in need of some behavioural fix.   

3     HSC (2005): Plans for the Worker Involvement Programme, HSC 246/SASD/1025/2004 –
4     HSE (2007): Topic Pack: Worker Consultation and Involvement, version 2
6     Worker Involvement Workshop: HSE Redgrave House, Bootle, Liverpool, 24 March 2011
7     Broughton, A (2011): Worker involvement training courses: early evaluation findings, Institute of Employment Studies
8     Löfstedt, RE (2011): Reclaiming health and safety for all, Department for Work and Pensions
11 NOP Business, United Business Media (2001): People and Productivity, Investors in People UK
12 Hilton, A (2004): ‘Why productivity is a problem’, in London Evening Standard, 16 March 2004, p33
13 Vermeulen, F (2010): Business Exposed: The naked truth about what really goes on in the world of business, Pearson, ISBN 978-0-273-73292-1
14 Vaughan, R and Coles, B (2008): Report on the Noise and Vibration Worker Involvement Project, HSC Commission Paper MISC/08/05 2008
15 Schwartz, T (2011): ‘The Twelve Attributes of a Truly Great Place to Work’, in Harvard Business Review, 19 September 2011
16 MacLeod, D and Clarke, N (2009): Engaging for Success, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills BIS/Pub8859/07/09NP URN09/1075

Nigel Bryson is an OSHCR-registered consultant, who specialises in worker involvement.

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