Employees are not the problem

Bud Hudspith is Unite national health and safety officer

Many employers appear to see their workers as the prime cause of health and safety problems. They sometimes say their staff are careless, accident prone, lack concentration or are unwilling to follow safety rules. Yet I see workers as people who want to work, be paid and go home safe and healthy.

It is well established that active safety reps make for safer and healthier workplaces. Surveys show that organised workplaces are safer workplaces and many reps put in far more hours on health and safety than they are paid for. They tend to be highly committed to improving health and safety in their workplaces. The best employers take advantage of this and encourage and support them.

But too many of the employers I deal with have a much less positive attitude to their workers and their reps or, indeed, trade unions. They see them as people to be controlled, whose behaviour needs to be changed or influenced. It is not the behaviour of workers that is the problem; more often it is the behaviour of organisations that leads to poor health and safety. The recurring theme of union surveys and the common view of many of the Unite safety reps I deal with is “My employer does not listen to me”.

This is why Unite is committed to improving the working conditions of all of its members through its Looking for Trouble campaign aimed at safety reps. I want these reps to look for trouble on safety and health so that they can find problems and have them fixed. I want employers to look for them too, and after they uncover any potential concerns they should ensure they are addressed.

I firmly believe that workers are not the problem – they are the solution

Good safety and health management involves the workforce and its representatives. This means risk assessments, audits, accident and near-miss investigations that include safety reps, policies agreed with the workforce, jobs, machines and processes designed to fit the workers’ needs.

I want employers to talk to reps and, above all, to listen to them. Reps should be able to raise concerns, discuss safety and health issues with their employers and arrive at decisions together. They should be able to raise issues without fear of victimisation, and employers should encourage that dialogue. Good employers want to know what is going wrong so that they can put it right.

Good workplace safety and health comes about through the activities of union-appointed health and safety representatives exercising their basic rights. Those rights are firmly rooted in enabling them to play a part in developing and promoting good safety and health. That is why safety reps’ functions include the right to be consulted on safety and health issues, the right to information, and the right to inspect their workplace and investigate problems raised by their members.

Alongside these come the right to be paid while performing their functions and to be paid to be trained, both at and away from work. Trade unions and their reps are a force for good in safety and health.

I firmly believe that workers are not the problem – they are the solution. The more employers recognise this, the safer our workplaces will be.


Bud Hudspith is Unite national health and safety officer

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