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Case study – Scotland – Sarah Jones and Ian Tasker former Assistant Secretary of the STUC

Trade unions were at the forefront of the campaign to set up a specific group to consider the health and safety needs of Scotland.

Arguing that a unionised workforce is a safer one, trade unions claimed their rightful place at the table of the Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland (PHASS), chaired by HSE and still going strong.

Trade union membership density is relatively higher in Scotland than across GB but even where there is no union, trade unions are seeking to improve worker engagement in health and safety using the principles of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations (SRSCR). 

Trade unions in Scotland as well as elsewhere across GB had been enthusiastic participants in the Workers' Safety Adviser projects in the early 2000's.  That experience and the lessons from it were keenly remembered and advocated by one of the original PHASS members from the union for construction workers.  It was a frequent discussion topic for PHASS in the early days - developing ideas to spread the benefits of SRSCR beyond large unionised workforces to smaller companies in the construction supply chain.  

Projects under the PHASS banner – which now has its own Scottish Plan for Action on Safety and Health (SPlASH!) - are aimed at spreading the benefits of The Union Effect.   In some of the most hazardous sectors of the economy such as offshore oil and gas and waste and recycling, trade union safety representatives are supporting workers who may never have been active before to raise their voices for better control of risks.

So the original regulatory concept for safety representation when the SRSCR were introduced has had a much wider impact beyond traditional workplaces and established trade union structures. 

In Scotland the benefits of worker engagement on health and safety are regularly acknowledged within a close-knit tripartite partnership with employers, government and professional bodies. Trade union safety representatives in Scotland are some of the most highly qualified and trained (some are Chartered Members of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health) – so can contribute competent leadership as well as providing employees with a voice.   

Several studies have found, as well as rights afforded by the SRCSR, effective representation requires the confidence to act as an equal partner with the employer. Where this relationship is effective  employers  benefit from their contribution – not just to improved health and safety but also to better overall management and staff satisfaction.

Ian Tasker, former Assistant Secretary of the STUC who managed the project said "Our aim from the outset was to work with voluntary sector organisations, a small number of whom had some trade union presence and others who had none. In the trade unionised workplaces the objective was to cooperate with relevant trade unions to review existing practices and the role of the collective voice in encouraging worker involvement in health and safety.

In the non-unionised workplaces, starting with a blank sheet of paper, the Worker Safety Representative (WSA), employee, an experienced trade union health and safety representative, worked with management, workers and occasionally service users of the voluntary organisation to bench mark health and safety performance, put in place effective voice mechanisms and take forward health and safety action plans in partnership.

Regardless of whether an organisation was trade unionised or not, the process followed was the same; the WSA asked management and workers to identify their top five health and safety concerns, the findings in the vast majority showed most of the issues identified were shared concerns. The barrier to identifying these issues previously had been lack of opportunity for positive dialogue, little awareness of how to manage health and safety, as well as financial constraints within the sector that prevented organisations engaging health and safety consultants.

The WSA provided assistance with developing activity to address specific issues, carried out a six monthly review of progress with a final meeting with management and workers after one year.  This workplace intervention was supplemented with online and face to face training events delivered jointly to workers and management. In addition the WSA helped organisations set up health and safety committees and carry out a review of health and safety policies.

The evaluation of year one and year two projects showed that the one led by the STUC rated highly on both worker engagement and capacity building, scoring 4 and 4.5 respectively out of a possible 5. This would not have been possible without the engagement of a highly trained and competent trade union health and safety rep with the ability to quickly gain an understanding and knowledge of the voluntary sector and the challenges it faced which had previously prevented it engaging workers on health and safety.

Updated 2017-12-01