Lord McKenzie speech at the Worker Involvement in Health and Safety Conference

14 October 2008, Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Good morning.

Thirty years ago this month the first set of regulations ever proposed to Ministers by the then Health and Safety Commission became law. These were of course the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977.

Well, for very many people workplaces are now safer and healthier. Since the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced, the number of serious but non-fatal injuries reported has fallen by 70%, workplace deaths have fallen by 76% and an estimated 5,000 deaths have been prevented. And although we have one of the best health and safety records in Europe, and possibly in the world, but still each year:

  • 220 deaths occur at work
  • There are 28,000 major injuries - not cuts and bruises but broken limbs, amputations, serious burns; and
  • 2 million people have an illness either caused or made worse by work - musculoskeletal disorders, asbestos-related disease, stress, asthma and many more.

and to paraphrase Harold Wilson, Prime Minister when the Health and Safety at Work Act became law, to the injured the injury rate is 100%.

So, we all want to see these measures of suffering even lower.

Then, what approaches do we have?

The key principles of the Health and Safety at Work Act - a proportionate and risk-based approach built on consultation and engagement - are still relevant today as it was some 30 years ago. And I see two key tenets here. Firstly, the importance of leadership from the top of every organisation starting with the Boards and individual Directors. And secondly, the real involvement of workers in managing health and safety. We are here today to promote and celebrate the latter.

Worker involvement in health and safety is very important to me. I consider this year as my "year of the health and safety representative" and I have taken every opportunity to go out and meet with employers, workers and their health and safety representatives to understand the health and safety issues facing people at work and to promote worker involvement as widely as possible.

Statistics from HSE's latest 2007 Fit3 survey show where we are with the task. Nine out of ten employers stated that their workers were involved in health and safety management through either formal or an informal system. However, when we asked for further information we learnt that only about four in ten employers have either regular meetings with workers, designated health and safety representatives or a health and safety committee. So, whilst the majority of employers report they involve their workers, only a much smaller number appear to have practices that approach those considered good practice by HSE.

There is still plenty of room for improvement, and in particular to improve the quality of worker involvement. We need to spread the message that good worker involvement is not only a legal duty but results in a range of relevant benefits.

I am therefore gratified to see so many of you here today, from all sides of work and industries, but all with a strong interest in worker involvement and a conviction that it is a real and tangible force to improve health and safety.

But the challenge is to take good worker involvement beyond you and I here today in this theatre. This is what today's event is about.

And this is not the only challenge, as Judith has mentioned earlier the way we work now is very different from when the Act was introduced. There are some emerging and growing sectors. There are changes in governance, processes, advanced technologies and automation. The workforce itself has also changed significantly - it is now more diverse and there are more different working patterns. There are now more migrant workers, home workers, people who work remotely from their employers. There are more people who are self-employed, particularly in construction. How do we ensure that employers fully involve these workers in the management of health and safety? 

We have to adapt our approaches to deal with these new challenges, based on the key principles of effective health and safety management.

The law clearly places duties on those who create the risks but we need to work in partnership, if we are to reduce this toll of harm in the workplace. I am aware that there are many employers, including some of you in this auditorium, who want to ensure that they are meeting their legal duties, but do welcome guidance and advice. As a regulator, as well as enforcing the law, it is important that HSE establishes a supportive environment to help and support employers.

Realising these changes in the modern world of work, HSE's launch today of Involving your workforce in health and safety, good practice for all workplaces, a revised and up-dated legal series publication covering both the 1977 and 1996 regulations, plus free leaflets and web based guidance is both timely and helpful. I thank stakeholders, many here today, who have contributed their time and expertise to commenting on drafts and provided case studies. Thereby ensuring the publications you have in your conference packs today are of the best quality and relevance.

The HSE good practice guidance acknowledges today's diverse workforce and reflects the range of arrangements and structures of workplaces today. It gives employers the essentials of how to consult and involve their workers effectively. It wisely recognises the importance of the established legislation that underpins worker involvement, but also that the law can only achieve so much. The real substance of good worker involvement is trust, respect, co-operation and joint problem solving between employers and employees. I hope that HSE's clear steer on this will improve the relationship between the two sides, and bring about collaborative and co-operative ways of working together to manage health and safety.

Earlier this morning you heard from three different organisations how worker involvement had improved their workplace and made them safer and healthier. There is an opportunity before lunch to share your own experiences and successes of worker involvement with one another in roundtable groups, and to draw on others experiences to find solutions for difficult issues that may arise. I look forward to joining you and then if parliamentary business allows speak with more of you over lunch.
But returning to the central issue of how do we ensure that good worker involvement is practiced in all workplaces?

Good worker involvement requires effective leadership from the directors and boards of organisations. There is clear evidence that organisations that have good worker involvement deliver better performance on health and safety. A management culture that genuinely values employees will result in a more committed and productive workforce, and high performing and successful organisation. Employees can provide valuable feedback on the effectiveness of the health and safety management systems. And while employers should tackle issues strategically at a corporate level, it is equally important to recognise that individuals provide insightful solutions to the problems.

Health and safety representatives and the trade unions have always been an invaluable resource in securing better workplace health and safety. There is evidence that workplaces with health and safety committees where some members are selected by trade unions have a significantly lower rate of injuries than those without cooperative health and safety management.

A report published by HSE last year also demonstrates how health and safety reps from the union Amicus (now Unite) were effective in improving the control of musculoskeletal disorders in their workplace. It is an impressive example, from which other workplaces could learn.

The importance of training

Clearly, well-trained and knowledgeable health and safety representatives do make a big difference. There is no doubt that the trade unions have long been the driving force behind the training of safety reps and have been very successful here. They have made sure their safety representatives have up to date knowledge enabling them to address the issues more effectively, and with confidence to deal with the more complex issues - particularly occupational health.

And the importance of training does not just apply to health and safety reps training managers along with health and safety reps helps all to see things from the shared perspective.

Nevertheless, there are now more workplaces without trade unions than with them, especially in the smaller end of businesses, how do we make sure we have knowledgeable health and safety representatives in these organisations? Indeed, is this the model that will work effectively in all workplaces? We need to make sure that practices fit the culture and the organisation.

And, what about self-employed workers? How do we ensure that they are properly consulted on health and safety matters?  We need to make sure that those who create risks have clear understanding of their responsibilities. They need to ensure that these workers are able to discuss issues affecting their health and safety and get the advice they need.

However, the construction industry is a bit different. There are a large number of people who are encouraged to declare themselves as self-employed - for whatever reasons. How do we ensure that the fragmented construction workforce is consulted adequately?

Well, the law recognises this. The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations specifically require principal contractors to consult their workers, regardless of whether they are employees, self-employed or so-called "bogus self-employed", but we need to make sure this is happening on all building sites, whether big or small.

Safety reps engagement with health, work and wellbeing

And with the changes in the society and the world of work, there are more new challenges on health issues. It is important that employers involve their employees more on the prevention of work-related ill-health and the wellbeing of workers, in addition to workplace safety. Health and safety representatives can play an expanded role in doing so.

I am pleased to note that trade unions, particularly the TUC have been very supportive in making this happen. The developments such as the TUC's new occupational health training course and the workbook for safety reps are another key step to help making workplaces healthier, and also giving ill or injured workers the support they need on recovery and returning to work.

I know that there was disappointment amongst trade unionists that the then HSC was not able to recommend the changes to the law on the rights to be consulted on risk assessment, and employers duty to respond, because there was no clear consensus among social partners. But this new good practice guidance will give us a chance to focus on what we can do together to improve worker involvement in all workplaces, to build a genuine partnership based on trust and respect - where employees are encouraged to share their ideas and solutions in the decision making process.
I will be very interested to hear of the good ideas that are made during the open discussion session - on how the health and safety system of Great Britain can increase the level and quality of worker involvement. At a time when HSE is moving toward launching its new strategy formally in December, this session offers an opportunity to give some fundamental and new thought to how all players in the health and safety system of Great Britain can work cooperatively to achieve a real change in practice and behaviour.

And not just for onshore, I'm pleased that there are continuous efforts between HSE and the oil industry to improve and increase worker involvement in offshore industry. The Worker Involvement Group, a sub-group of the Offshore Industry Advisory Committee is to be involved in worker involvement aspects of the installation integrity review. They have successfully organised an offshore workforce involvement event in May, and I understand that there will be two similar events next year, which I hope I would be able to attend.

There is a great deal still to do. Much more than can be achieved by HSE alone - that is why the new strategy will be for health and safety system of Great Britain rather than just for HSE or Local Authorities. We need joined up action between all of us here, employers, employees, trade unions, health & safety professionals and the government, to demonstrate that we are all clear about the role we play in making good health and safety performance a reality.

In the thirty years since regulations became law setting basic standards for worker consultation, constructive communications between employers, workers and the representatives has contributed significantly to creating safer and healthy workplaces. The challenge now is to not let this tried and proven approach stagnate, but to make it grow and mature in all aspects of industry, small and large organisations, unionised and non-unionised workplaces.

Is this page useful?