Case study: UCATT North-West
The Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) has a long-standing policy of partnership and co-operation with employers and employees on health and safety matters. Although the union firmly believes in the value of health and safety committees, it warns that many organisations jump too quickly when putting together such committees without the appropriate preparation.
Billy Baldwin, North-West (Regional) Safety Adviser for UCATT, advised joint health and safety committees on two major construction projects with Bovis/Manchester Joint Hospitals Project and Media City in Salford, to ensure they were well put together and ran as effectively as possible.
Where to start?
Health and safety committees are important but they are not sufficient on their own. Their members must be equipped with the knowledge, training and experience that will allow them to be truly effective.
It was important to start the process as a forum for operatives before it evolved into a full health and safety committee because many participants needed to gain certain skills.
The key is to lay solid foundations for an effective committee. Participants will be from all backgrounds and levels. The meeting can easily descend into chaos if it is not kept in focus.
Potential members of the forum were identified through various channels, eg operatives who had raised issues on site, union health and safety representatives, and health and safety advisers. Non-union members were also invited to join, as all employees have a role to play in joint problem solving.
Towards joint working
Steered by Billy Baldwin, they initially agreed a constitution for the forum with clear objectives, membership requirements, general functions and frequency of meetings.
In my experience, operatives do not generally have the knowledge and training needed to identify site-wide issues and usually want to concentrate on issues directly affecting them, such as the cleanliness of welfare facilities etc.
An effective committee member will usually need training in the procedures of a meeting. They also need experience and this can be provided by the initial forum.
A common mistake is for organisations to form a health and safety committee and then invite workers to join it and turn up with a list of problems for the employer to solve. But it doesn't work that way - you should never say to an employer You've got a problem. It should be We've got a problem and here are some potential solutions we can look at
Key tips for an effective joint health and safety committee
- Don't just duplicate another organisation's health and safety structure. It won't work.
- Properly training health and safety representatives (whether they are union members or not) is vital. Make sure they are properly empowered by full training and support.
- When people bring issues to the health and safety committee, it is vital they are given a fair hearing and none should be dismissed outright. If something is unsuitable, a full explanation should be given. If there are any actions resulting from a meeting, names should be clearly assigned.
- To raise their profile, health and safety representatives can be issued with different coloured high-visibility vests or other clearly defined work clothes.
- It is vital to develop the mindset that every worker is valued and has the chance to contribute to health and safety.
A key role for a health and safety committee is to allow time for a "good practice session" in which any issue health and safety representatives have helped resolve are discussed and noted.
Examples of this, from one meeting at Manchester's Royal Infirmary, include:
- a health and safety representative who removed the risk to welders using equipment which caused exhaust fumes by arranging for the equipment to be moved to an area with suitable ventilation;
- a health and safety representative saw some operatives working on a platform without proper edge protection. He pointed out to them that it was a dangerous situation but was ignored. He then told the site safety adviser, who immediately suspended the work.
Another example of the committee's work during the Bovis/Manchester Joint Hospitals project is the formalising of the procedure for stopping work due to imminent danger.
The stop work procedure, which was put onto a pocket card and issued to all workers, contains the simple reminder that if any operative feels they are in imminent danger, they must stop work immediately and report the circumstances to their supervisor, who must then assess the situation. If the operative is still concerned, they have the right to refer the matter to a project manager or safety adviser.
There was some concern that operatives may use this procedure unnecessarily but what actually happened was that it encouraged supervisors to resolve issues after the first contact rather than having to follow the procedure to its final outcome.
Real benefits and continuous improvement
The Bovis project has an above-average safety record and other north-west projects are recognising this success and following their example.