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July 4, 2011

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Worker involvement – Grass-roots appeal

Employers frequently declare their people to be their most valued asset, yet a huge proportion fail in their legal duty to consult their workforce on health and safety matters. Nigel Bryson explores the HSE’s current body of work in this area.

Despite the HSE spending more than a decade promoting the notion that worker involvement improves health, safety and business performance, it appears that many employers still haven’t got the message.

Indeed, the Executive estimates that 60 per cent of employees are not consulted by their employer: “While many employers involve their workers in decisions about health and safety, HSE estimates that approximately six out of ten workers in Great Britain are not consulted (whether directly or indirectly through safety representatives) on health and safety matters that affect them.”1

A large number of employers is therefore breaking the law by failing to comply with the legal duty to consult workers, as enshrined in the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996, or in the Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations 1977.

Encouraging engagement

Back in 2000, the former Health and Safety Commission highlighted the benefits of worker involvement as part of its ‘Revitalising Health and Safety’ strategy,2 stating: “Workplaces with trades-union safety representatives and joint health and safety committees have significantly better accident records – over 50 per cent fewer injuries – than those with no consultation mechanism.”3

While there was some debate about the true level of accident reduction that could be achieved through union safety reps, the HSC nevertheless felt the evidence was sufficient to publish a ‘Collective Declaration on Worker Involvement’,4 in April 2004.

This document did not simply highlight the value of worker involvement and the need to extend it across all workplaces, but underlined what the HSC felt was the most effective method: “Evidence outlined in. . . makes clear that trades-union safety representatives, through their empowered role for purposes of consultation, often lead to higher levels of compliance and better health and safety performance than in non trade-union systems.”

However, the HSC also reflected on how there were fewer union members in the British workforce: “. . . many workers, particularly those working in small and medium-sized organisations, may not belong to trade unions and do not have access to trade-union safety representatives. So, we need to encourage workers to want to get involved and we encourage various methods of involvement appropriate to different circumstances.”

To address this issue, the HSE established a Worker Involvement Programme, which continues to function today as the Workforce and Leadership Team. Worker involvement, across both unionised and non-unionised workplaces, was also identified by the HSE as one of ten strategic goals in its current strategy, ‘The Health and Safety of Great Britain: Be part of the solution’.5

Moreover, far from falling by the wayside in the recession, worker involvement continues to be a key focus for the HSE, which recognises the added importance of getting the best out of the workforce when times are tough. To assist employers in this regard, the Executive launched the ‘Do Your Bit’ initiative in April last year.

Doing your bit

The initiative, which implemented proposals put forward in a paper6 to the HSE Board, aims to:

  • promote the benefits of employee engagement and a cooperative approach between management and the workforce via a communications drive, as part of a wider leadership campaign;
  • support action to assist health and safety representatives develop the skills necessary to underpin joint problem-solving;
  • establish a scheme for part-funding of health and safety rep training, particularly in non-union organisations; and
  • pilot joint line-manager/health and safety rep training courses.

The key elements of the initiative are:

  • The brand: The HSE should retain the ‘brand’ logo under which future worker-involvement activities should be identified. There are plans to extend it to cover leadership in health and safety. 
  • Health and safety representative training: The past year has seen around 2400 health and safety representatives attend HSE-funded training courses, run on its behalf by Premier Partnership. Given its resource restrictions, the HSE is currently considering an arrangement where accredited training providers could run the courses under licence from the HSE. The current accredited qualification arrangements through IOSH are thought to provide an effective method of quality control.
  • Joint training: Over the past year, more than 130 organisations made use of this training (also run for the HSE by Premier Partnership) – far in excess of the original target of 80 organisations.

The HSE decided not to set a ‘standard’ course because it felt that such training needed to evolve from the participants and not be ‘imposed’ on them. However, it did identify that a “skilled facilitator is key to the delivery of this flexible non-scripted training”.7

While flexibility is critical to the successful delivery of such training, it does mean, however, that a “robust quality assurance system will be required”7 to ensure the quality of the training delivered. Again, the HSE is recommending that such training is delivered under licence, and sits under the ‘Do Your Bit’ brand.

Evaluation and feedback

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) was commissioned to carry out an initial evaluation of the non-union health and safety rep course, and presented its findings, based on nearly 700 telephone interviews, at a workshop held in March at the HSE’s Bootle headquarters.8

Its findings revealed that:

  • many of the participants attended because they were reviewing their health and safety practices;
  • there were high levels of satisfaction with the course overall, with some saying it was the best course they had ever been on;
  • the most popular aspects of the course were communication and soft skills, the interactive elements, and the practical information delegates received.

Participants were also surveyed six months after completing the course. Having questioned more than 200 people at the time of the workshop, the research revealed that:

  • 54 per cent indicated that worker involvement in their health and safety systems had increased;
  • 59 per cent indicated that their worker-involvement arrangements had become more effective;
  • 75 per cent said their communication skills had improved
  • 58 per cent said their negotiation skills had improved;
  • 72 per cent said the quality of their health and safety suggestions had improved; and
  • 80 per cent said their overall contribution to health and safety had improved.

These results support the findings of previous evaluations of trade-union health and safety representative training. A government consultation document on worker representatives’ facilities and time9 – for example – highlighted:

“Trained representatives are able to offer a better service to their constituents and can carry out their work more quickly and with greater confidence. TUC research on health and safety training showed that 96 per cent of representatives found training helpful in enabling them to undertake their duties when they returned to the workplace.”

Unsurprisingly, safety reps appreciate courses specific to their functions. It is worth noting that while initial feedback has been positive, the HSE/Premier Partnership course comprises a mere two or three days of learning compared with the trade-union basic training, which is based on a 10-day Stage 1 health and safety course, followed at an appropriate interval by a 10-day Stage 2 course. Therefore, trade-union health and safety reps benefit from significantly more training – and more specific training – than those who attended the course being developed by the HSE.

The aforementioned IES survey also looked at what impact the training had in the workplace, and asked course delegates what changes to policies and practices had occurred six months after they had undertaken the course. The results read as follows:

  • New procedures    39.3 per cent;
  • New arrangements for consultation    20.4 per cent;
  • Review of risk assessments    18.4 per cent;
  • New policies (e.g. forklift-truck policy)    17.5 per cent;
  • New method of risk assessment    9.7 per cent;
  • New equipment purchased    4.9 per cent;
  • New personal protective equipment    4.9 per cent.

A third tranche of follow-up research should start in September – a year after the participants attended the course.
The joint training will also be evaluated by interviews with course facilitators, three waves of telephone surveys, and six case studies. An interim report is expected at the end of November, with the final evaluation complete by the end of May next year.

If the final evaluation supports the findings of the initial analysis, it will re-underline the potential for improving health and safety performance by unleashing and channelling workers’ knowledge to assist managers in developing more effective health and safety systems. In this way, the HSE is trying to replicate the success of the trade-union health and safety representative system in a non-union environment. However, there are other business benefits, in addition to improvements in health and safety performance, that can be gained by such an approach.

Business efficiency

As part of a major study for the last government,10 researchers reviewed worker engagement and the importance it has in running a profitable business. After reviewing the available literature and numerous case studies, the researchers 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.”

However, while the report contains many examples of how effective worker-involvement systems improved the business performance of organisations, its findings and conclusions do not seem to have penetrated very far into the health and safety world.

One impressive business success story, highlighted in a book published last year,11 is that of the Indian firm, HCL Technologies (HCLT). In 2005, its chief executive officer, Vineet Nayar, devised a five-year transition plan, in which worker involvement sat at the centre of the firm’s business strategy. In 2005, HCLT had 30,000 employees in 18 countries, with annual revenues of about US$700 million. By 2010, following its restructure to position worker involvement at the heart of the organisation, HCLT had grown to 55,000 employees with annual revenues of about US$2.5 billion. HCLT’s experience highlights the need to reorganise a business so that workers in the ‘value zone’ – i.e. those adding value to the organisation – should receive the most support.


The efforts of the trade-union movement have shown that joint working improves health and safety performance. The evidence is so convincing that the HSE not only made worker involvement one of its 10 current strategic goals but also one of its three key priority areas. Adopting the trade-union approach, the HSE has completed the first stage in developing, implementing and evaluating training to improve worker involvement – supporting both non-union health and safety representatives and union-based joint manager/health and safety representative training. The first indications are that it is off to a flying start.

For many, the economic climate is expected to continue to be challenging for the foreseeable future. It has been shown, however, that increased worker involvement is associated with more efficient, more profitable, and more effective organisations.

While many employers describe their workforce as their ‘greatest asset’, the HSE has identified that the majority of employees are not consulted by their employer on health and safety matters. This represents a huge waste of an organisation’s ‘greatest asset’, and these employers are not simply breaking the law but also missing out on the opportunity to improve their health, safety – and business – performance. A universal truth is that people tend to support what they help create; but they still need to be given a proper opportunity to get involved.


1      HSC (2005): Plans for the Worker Involvement Programme, HSC 246/SASD/1025/2004 –
2      DETR/HSC (2000): Revitalising Health and Safety: Strategy Statement –
3      This statement was based on the following research: Reilly, B, Paci, P and Holl, P (1995): ‘Unions, Safety Committees and Workplace Injuries’, in British Journal of Industrial Relations 33.2, June 1995, 0007-1080
5      HSE (2009): The Health and Safety Strategy of Great Britain. Be part of the solution –
6      HSE (2009): Reinforcing the Promotion of Worker Involvement and Improving the Competence of the Key Players (HSE/09/43) –
7    HSE (2011): Progress report on worker involvement ‘Do Your Bit’ initiative and future plans –
8    Broughton, A: ‘Worker involvement training courses: early evaluation findings’, IES, 24 March 2011
9      DTI (2007): Workplace representatives – a review of their facilities and facility time –
10  MacLeod, D and Clarke, N (2009): Engaging for success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement, BIS/Pub8859/07/09NP, URN 09/1075 –
11     Nayar, V (2010): Employees first, customers second, Harvard Business Press, ISBN 978-4221-3906-6

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

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