The importance of health and safety representatives in the workplace has become obvious as businesses have attempted to rise to the challenges of coronavirus this year. Reps play an important role in building and maintaining trust and confidence that a business is a caring and safe place to work.
Appointing Safety Representatives
Although the first Act of the Parliament in the UK intended to protect the welfare of people at work was the Factory Act of 1802, regulations for safety representatives did not come into operation until 1978.
A trade union can appoint a health and safety representative, or employees can elect the rep. This means a large business may have different representatives from the same union for different parts of the business, different representatives from different unions, union representatives representing employees belonging to another union by agreement with the other union, and union representatives representing employees who are not union members. This can become unnecessarily complex, so recognised unions and employers need to agree on how many health and safety representatives to appoint. This will depend on different factors depending on the nature of the business.
Safety representatives are usually employees of the business. However, members of the British Actors’ Equity Association or the Musicians’ Union can have safety representatives who are not employees of those bodies.
Not all employers must have a health and safety representative. In workplaces where health and safety issues arise infrequently, the employer can consult on health and safety issues directly with the workforce.
Functions Of Safety Representatives
The functions of a trade union-appointed health and safety representative are given in the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977. The Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 describes the functions of a representative of employee safety not represented under the 1977 Regulations.
However they are appointed, safety representatives have broadly the same rights and protections. These are to:
- be informed and consulted regarding health and safety matters in the workplace;
- actively take part in workplace risk assessments;
- investigate potential hazards and ‘dangerous occurrences’, and examine the accident book;
- investigate health and safety-related complaints made by colleagues;
- carry out workplace inspections during work time, at least every three months;
- require their employer to set up and attend a safety committee;
- be consulted when new working practices and technology are being introduced;
- receive safety information from employers;
- attend training courses without loss of pay; and
- not suffer detriment or dismissal for performing their duties.
Health and safety representatives do not have a right to receive payment for their additional duties, however they do have the right to paid time off to carry out their duties, and for training.
Inspections By Safety Representatives
Safety representatives can undertake inspections in different ways. It is down to the employer and the representatives to agree on the best methods for their workplace.
The most common forms of inspection are:
- Safety tours involving general inspections of the workplace
- Safety sampling, which comprises systematically sampling particular dangerous activities, processes or areas in the workplace
- Safety surveys, which are general inspections of particular dangerous activities, processes or areas
- Incident inspections. A safety representative can carry these out after an accident has led to a fatality, injury, or a near miss which could have resulted in an injury or case of ill health, and has been reported to the health and safety enforcing authority.
The frequency of inspections will depend on the nature of the work. Inspections may be less frequent if the work environment is low risk, as in an administrative office, for example. But if certain areas of a workplace or specific activities are high risk or changing rapidly, it may justify more frequent inspections.
Health and safety representatives have to give reasonable notice in writing when they intend to carry out a formal workplace inspection and have not performed an inspection in the previous three months. However, representatives may carry out inspections before three months have elapsed if there is a substantial change in working conditions or the HSE publishes new relevant information on hazards.
More information on good practice and resources for inspections is available from the HSE.
Inspection Of Documents And Provision Of Information
If a safety representative has given an employer reasonable notice, it entitles them to inspect and take copies of any document relevant to the workplace or to the employees they represent.
There are several exceptions to this. The employer does not have to disclose information relating to any health record of an identifiable individual, unless they have consented to its being disclosed, or information which would be against the interests of national security, or any information obtained by an employer to bring, prosecute or defend any legal proceedings.
Regulations do not require the employer to produce or allow inspection of any document or part of a document not related to health, safety or welfare.
The HSE has plenty of information on consulting and involving workers, including new and revised guidance. They also have useful information to help Safety Reps do their work, and materials they can use in their workplace.
Employers should encourage, support, and protect the role of the health and safety representative. The role has been a key factor in improving, and increasing employee confidence in, health and safety in many workplaces.