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September 21, 2008

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Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations explained

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations Nigel Bryson looks back on the myriad improvements they have engendered in Britain’s workplaces, and laments the fact that so many employers continue to ignore — with impunity — their legal duty to consult their workers on health and safety issues.

Thirty years ago this month, the Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations (SRSC Regs) 1977 were enacted. Born in controversial circumstances, the Regs were out of line with the health and safety approach of those times.

Following the Robens Report in 1972, the emphasis was on legislation providing a framework for ‘self-regulation’, and organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) were particularly keen on ‘voluntary’ measures in relation to safety representatives and safety committees.1,2

Yet, since their introduction, the SRSC Regs have led to major improvements in health and safety standards in the UK. In 2000, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimated that the SRSC Regs had saved thousands of lives, and prevented more than 250,000 serious injuries and illnesses.3 And the HSE has estimated that, using an average accident reduction of 25 per cent from existing evidence of the impact of safety representatives, “extrapolating this to universal coverage by safety representatives would imply 1500 fewer fatal or major injuries in unionised workplaces, and about 800 fewer in non-unionised workplaces each year”.4

The Revitalising Health and Safety Strategy Statement,5 published in June 2000, stated the following at the beginning of the section on worker involvement: “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.”

This success is, of course, the result of a joint effort. The employer has a duty to protect the workforce. What the SRSC Regs did was give the workforce an effective legal mechanism to be involved in influencing management decisions over health and safety. However, the Health and Safety Commission at the time was keen to ensure that “inspectors should not consider enforcement action until all voluntary means of resolving disputes had been tried”.6

As only trades unions could appoint safety representatives, it was their legal rights, combined with trades-union organisation, that allowed them to be effective. This meant that the unions in the 1970s needed to train, support, and direct the new safety reps. The TUC and its affiliated unions made a huge effort to support the new workplace representatives and, by 1980, tens of thousands of trades-union safety reps had been trained. All the large unions had either a specific national officer, or person at their national office, responsible for health and safety. The GMB union had a national health and safety officer and a regional equivalent in each of the 10 regions, for example. From 1981, the TUC coordinated the efforts of these health and safety specialists, and continues to do so today.

Of course, the TUC was represented on the Health and Safety Commission itself, and on the various industrial advisory committees. Trades-union officers and safety reps started working more closely with HSE inspectors at local and national level, so those working nationally were well informed about a range of health and safety issues. The results of this work were fed into the union structure so that safety reps could apply the knowledge at workplace level.

The secret of their success

Firstly, the fact that safety representatives are supported by trades unions is central to their success, a fact confirmed by HSE-commissioned research on the role and effectiveness of safety reps carried out by Cardiff University.7 The researchers concluded that of six prerequisites necessary for the “effective operation of worker representation and consultation on health and safety”, the most essential were: a strong legislative steer; effective autonomous worker representation at the workplace and external trade union support; and consultation and communication between worker representatives and their constituents.

So, anyone who thinks that the aforementioned ‘voluntary’ measures favoured by the employers’ organisations would have been just as successful is, frankly, delusional.

Secondly, trades-union safety representatives have a clear role: to represent their members’ interests on health and safety to managers. In practice, this can be defined as: assisting managers to develop safe systems of work, procedures, etc; and auditing such systems to ensure they are actually effective. All the defined functions of the safety rep can be grouped into either aspect of the role. This means that he or she is directed to deal with the root causes of health and safety problems through evaluating the way health and safety is managed in their organisation.

Thirdly, in promoting this role, the trades-union training provides a student-centred learning approach that is effective in giving safety representatives the tools they need to analyse and influence managerial decision-making on health and safety. A research project commissioned by the HSE on trades-union training8 confirmed that it is “a powerful support for the workplace effectiveness of health and safety representatives” — in other words, such training is key to the safety rep’s effectiveness.

Fourthly, the greatest success in the long run is when safety reps are respected, valued, and supported by supervisors, managers, etc. — and vice versa — and all parties work jointly to apply effective risk controls.

Finally, while supporting safety reps at workplace level, trades unions have also been involved in driving improvements at various other levels.

In the last 30 years, the following have been particularly relevant.

European level

In a highly successful lobbying exercise over several years, the UK unions were successful in amending more than 20 European health and safety directives while working with MEP Steve Hughes, who was the ‘secretary’ for the European Parliament in dealing with such directives during this period. The trades-union specialists had realised early on that by working on and amending the directives, they were making UK law in advance. Of the 20 or so directives amended, two achievements were of particular significance:

* securing legal right for safety representatives to be consulted ‘in good time’ about a range of health and safety issues, before managers decide on the course of action; and

* risk assessment requirements meant that control measures had to be considered, starting with the most effective first — avoiding the risk.

Both these requirements were in the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC. Following action from the European Union, the UK government implemented the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 to provide consultation rights for workers in organisations that did not recognise trades unions. These were implemented 12 years ago this month.

National level

The TUC has three seats on — what was — the HSC. Over the years, the unions have lobbied for controls over such issues as violence at work, lone working, stress, and working time, and thus have continually contributed to developments that cover all workers in the UK.

Sector level

The unions have also been involved with sector initiatives that usually involve employer/trade representatives and the HSE. Some of these, such as the Recipe for Safety initiative in food manufacturing,9 have been operating for more than 18 years. In that time, fatal injuries have dropped 75 per cent, total injuries by 57 per cent, and the all-injury incidence rate by 46 per cent.

Another piece of research commissioned by the HSE evaluated 11 of these ‘targeted’ sector initiatives, concluding that: “Targeted initiatives can, when designed and operated effectively, contribute to significant improvements in health and safety performance.”10 Such initiatives involve collaboration among the various parties at sector level, providing leadership, support, and information to assist managers and safety representatives in tackling key health and safety issues.

What next for worker involvement?

Following the launch of the Revitalising strategy in 2000, the HSC/E gave greater attention to worker involvement. As the strategy was backed by the deputy prime minister, it was assumed that worker involvement would have a much higher political profile. Four years later — no rush then! — workforce involvement was also emphasised in the HSC’s strategy to 2010 and beyond.11 In it, the Commission identified workforce involvement as a supporting feature to one of their strategic themes. Identifying the workforce as an organisation’s ‘greatest asset’ indicated that the base of employee involvement needed to be expanded.

Highlighting the important role of trades-union safety reps — working in partnership with management — the HSC recognised their “valuable contribution” to “realising health and safety benefits”. To maximise the potential of these ‘great assets’ the HSC committed itself to promoting greater worker involvement in health and safety in the workplace (particularly in the form of the ‘Challenge Fund’ to extend advice to small businesses), and encouraging a ‘voluntary’ expansion of workplace health and safety representatives across all sectors of business and public services.

The Challenge Fund was used to support a three-year initiative to develop the concept of ‘Worker Safety Advisors’: people who could promote worker involvement, particularly in small businesses. A HSE evaluation of its first two years of operation found it to have been successful;12 nevertheless, during this year’s Select Committee examination of the role of the HSC/HSE,13 Safety minister Lord McKenzie indicated that scaling the project up was too costly, so the initiative was scrapped. Thus, the key strategic element left was ‘encouraging’ employers to get more health and safety representatives.

But progress continued to be made. The HSE did set up a Workforce Involvement Programme and, in a statement published in April 2004,14 the HSC highlighted the importance of workforce involvement [again] to the future development of its health and safety strategy, stressing that “more and better worker involvement in health and safety is essential to deliver the strategy”. It also considered ‘Plans for the Worker Involvement Programme’ in January 2005.4 In this document, the HSE estimated that 60 per cent of the workers in Great Britain were not consulted over health and safety matters. In response to this staggering level of — essentially — criminal activity on behalf of employers, the HSE emphasised the initial successes of the Programme, which were:

* producing generic guidance for employers on improving worker involvement;

* establishing a dedicated section of the HSE website containing information relevant to workers and safety reps;

* initiating research into improving worker involvement; and

* providing more comprehensive advice for HSE and local-authority inspectors.

A key part of the initial work of the Workforce Involvement Programme was the publication in 2006 of the HSC Consultation Document 207: ‘Improving worker involvement — Improving health and safety’. The document identified three ‘strategic pillars’ on which to develop the HSC’s worker involvement approach: legislation, guidance, and encouragement. In the legislation pillar, two proposed legal changes were suggested: a new duty to consult with safety reps on risk assessments, and a duty on employers to respond to safety reps and the issues they raise. In the HSE summary of the responses, 91 per cent of the respondents agreed with the risk assessment proposal, and 96 per cent agreed with the duty to respond.15

Intriguingly, the HSE was quick to point out that some employer organisations were opposed to the legal change. To try to resolve the differences, the HSE met the TUC and employer representatives. Because the CBI and EEF said their memberships were “strongly and firmly opposed to any changes to the ACoPs”, the legislation pillar collapsed.

The improved guidance pillar received ‘near-universal support’, while the encouragement pillar had ‘lukewarm’ support. Again in the HSE’s summary, it was noted that the trades unions believed that regulation is of most importance, and “they further argued that there was a missing fourth pillar — enforcement”. This last point was disregarded.

Ignoring the opinions of the overwhelming majority of respondents on the legislation pillar, brushing aside the TUC’s views, and disregarding the non-union organisations that supported legislative changes, the HSE concluded that: “The consultation has not given us a basis for recommending significant change in our approach.”

And what was that approach? Improve guidance; build on existing work, particularly in construction and the public sector; help HSE and local-authority inspectors ‘look at’ worker involvement as part of their activities; and work with others to ‘encourage worker involvement’, promote more health and safety representatives, and strengthen worker involvement with health initiatives.

Is the regulator ignoring the evidence?

So, the voluntary approach prevails, and it would appear that, as far as legislation is concerned, only a few employer organisations’ opinions count in the HSE’s eyes. Despite the fine rhetoric on worker involvement, it would appear that the HSE does not have the will to drive major changes in this area. Giving evidence to the aforementioned Select Committee reviewing the Executive, an ex-HSE employee who used to work on the Worker Involvement Programme stated: “There was a very strong statement, a collective declaration of worker involvement, by the Commission […] which made some very clear, positive directions in trying to involve the workforce in the management of health and safety. The trades unions have followed that up with a number of requests […] and while some of these things have been piloted, there has been very little, to no appetite for actually bringing these into play.”

The approach of the HSE is perhaps best reflected in the comments made by chief executive Geoffrey Podger in his address to the Select Committee. On the subject of worker involvement, he said: “One of the things that we are actually doing at the moment under the Commission’s direction is […] to clarify the guidance for employers, both those who have unionised workforces […] and those who have non-unionised workforces […] to point out to them what their obligations still are, and also suggest to them things which, in their own interests, they might wish to do, even if they are not legally obliged to do so.”

How nice! Some 60 per cent of the workforce are not consulted by their (thus law-breaking) employers, but all the HSE is doing is suggesting things the employers might wish to do! Thirty years after the introduction of the SRSC Regs, and 12 years into the 1996 Regs, and the HSE is merely pointing out to the employers what their obligations are. Hardly a revolutionary approach!

Food for thought

But there is another way. The strategy might have an additional strand, divided in two parts. In the first, the HSE could set up a ‘Partnership Agreement’ with the TUC. The Safety minister should be involved, so that a 10-year strategy, in which things like ensuring all safety reps are trained, could be agreed and resourced; a programme of funded, ‘targeted’ sector initiatives could be developed; a legal procedure could be agreed with ACAS to enforce failures to comply with consultation rights; best-practice case studies could be circulated in scheduled workshops; and sufficient resources could be provided so that the H
E can effectively promote initiatives on safety-rep training courses each year.

As all of these measures build on evidence from the HSE’s own research, there is no need to waste time with further studies. The evidence already shows that this would create a significant improvement in health and safety performance in the unionised sector.

The second strand would involve the HSE addressing itself to the non-union workforce, many of whom will be among the 60 per cent not currently being consulted. As the employers are so keen to develop ‘voluntary’ initiatives, they should be willing to help the HSE in this endeavour. Additionally, whatever is learned by action in the trades-union strand of the strategy, and can be applied to the non-union situation, should be.

Or the HSE could be quite radical — it could simply enforce the current law!


The SRSC Regulations have led to a significant and verified improvement in safety standards, and are likely to have made a major contribution to controlling occupational health risks. Worker involvement is a proven, essential aspect of managing health and safety.

The HSE has identified that there are considerable benefits to be gained by having a much more radical approach to the issue than the one they have actually adopted. But the regulator and the government have to be the major driving forces; they should be leading from the front, not ‘encouraging’ from the back.


1 Safety and Health at Work: Report of the Robens Committee 1970-1972: Cmnd 5034: July 1972

2 File EF 7/203: Consultative document on safety representatives and safety committees: replies from those formally consulted: National Archives, Kew, London

3 TUC (March 2000): ‘Employee consultation on health and safety: doing good and getting better’

4 HSC (2005): ‘Plans for the Worker Involvement Programme’, HSC 246/SASD/1025/2004

5 DETR/HSC (2000): Revitalising Health and Safety Strategy Statement

6 HSC (1978): ‘Enforcement of the Safety Representatives Regulations’, HSC C38:78

7 HSE (2005): The role and effectiveness of safety representatives in influencing workplace health and safety, Research Report 363

8 TUC (2002): Training and action in health and safety, ISBN 1 8 5006 628 0


10 HSE (2008): Review of targeted initiatives in the manufacturing sector, Research Report 620

11 HSC (2004): A strategy for workplace health and safety in Great Britain to 2010 and beyond, HSC MISC643

12 Workers’ Safety Advisor (WSA) Challenge Fund Evaluation: HSE Research Report: 2007

13 ‘The role of the Health and Safety Commission and Health and Safety Executive in regulating workplace health and safety: Third Report of Session 2007-08: House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee: HC 246-1: 2 April 2008

14 HSC (2004): ‘A collective declaration on worker involvement’

15 HSC (2007): ‘Worker Involvement: Results of the consultation exercise and a proposed approach to current and future work’

Nigel Bryson worked at national and international levels on trades-union health and safety issues for more than 20 years before setting up his own consultancy in 2002.


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