A Health & Safety conference organised by Swindon Trades Union Council took place on February 5th. It was something of an experiment, since we have not organised such an event before. The general idea was to bring together workplace H&S reps from different unions and workplaces across the town, to share experience and discuss trade union H&S organisation. Once H&S reps have been on the TUC Stage 1 and 2 Course (or their own union’s equivalent) they do not necessarily have the opportunity to meet with other H&S reps. So we thought it would be useful to bring reps together and examine what the state of organisation was across a range of workplaces and unions.
Sixteen delegates from seven unions (Amicus, GMB, PCS, RMT, TGWU, UCU and UNISON) attended. We hoped for a higher attendance, but some delegates expected could not attend for one reason or another. Some were refused release for the day by their management. However, for a first attempt the event was a success, with delegates present from major workplaces, including BMW (ex-Rover), Civil Service departments (HMRI and Department of Constitutional Affairs), the Health Service, Homebase, Honda, Network Rail, New College, and Swindon Borough Council. There was also a delegate from Cereal Partners UK (Nestle) in Trowbridge.
Two informative speakers gave talks. John Foley from Rowley-Ashworth spoke about the crisis of the Health & Safety Executive and the forthcoming cuts which will make even less likely that we will see safety inspectors in out workplaces. He also gave a briefing about the weaknesses of the new Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Bill (see http://www.corporateaccountability.org/manslaughter/reformprops/main.htm ).
Hilda Palmer from Manchester Hazards Centre, gave a wide-ranging speech about the national Hazards movement and H&S campaigning around the country. She talked about the National Hazards conference which takes place annually and usually has over 500 delegates (the next one is on July 27th-29th at the University of Manchester).
Delegates broke up into groups to discuss H&S in their workplaces and future activities which we might organise.
The level of organisation obviously varies from workplace to workplace. In Honda we learned that management has been refusing to allow Amicus H&S reps to carry out their statutory right to 4 workplace inspections per year. This is the source of an ongoing dispute, which Amicus has taken through the various procedures. They hope the situation will soon be resolved, or else it will be taken to an Employment Tribunal. However, the fact that a company like this has been so obstructive says much about the fact that legal rights for H&S reps are not automatically conceded by some managements. We have to continue to fight for what should be ours by right.
In other workplaces there is most often acceptance of the legal rights of H&S reps, though remedying problems which they have recorded is sometimes slower than should be the case. The intensification of work which has become common in both the public and private sectors often means that reps struggle for the time to carry out their H&S duties, despite their statutory rights.
We sent out a H&S questionnaire to all the reps invited to the conference. We will produce a detailed report of the responses. However, first indications are that nearly half the reps who responded were denied the full facilities to do their job properly.
From the discussion the general impression that we had was that H&S reps, whilst receiving information from their unions, are often left to their own devices in their workplace. There appear to be few area meetings between H&S reps within the same unions. That was one of the reasons why those present were grateful for the opportunity to meet with other reps.
Whilst there are many weaknesses in health and safety union organisation, the fact remains that accidents are 50% more likely to take place in a non-union workplace. Being an H&S rep can be a frustrating business, but it does improve safety in the workplace (see the evidence of this at http://www.hazards.org/unioneffect/index.htm ).
One of the weaknesses of union organisation appears to be that H&S is often not integrated into trade union activity and strategy within the workplace. H&S is often seen as solely the responsibility of the H&S rep rather than that of union organisation as a whole. But health and safety problems are not separate from ‘industrial’ issues. Problems are rarely just related to individual workers. If we can use the law to push through changes against management resistance this can show that unions can have clout in the workplace, and show the practical benefits of union membership.
The general consensus of delegates was that the day had been interesting, informative, and they were keen that this should not be a one-off event.
After discussion it was agreed that:
We would hold an annual health and safety conference, which we would try to build into a much bigger event over a number of years;
Swindon TUC would devote one of its monthly meetings to H&S (possibly in September or October), with a speaker on a specific issue, and H&S reps invited;
We would discuss with the TU Studies Centre at the New College the possibility of organising a couple of H&S seminars each year;
We should look at organising activities for Workers Memorial Day, on April 28 see http://www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/index.cfm?mins=293&minors=293 ;
We would develop a H&S reps email list for circulation of information.
We would look to develop over the long-term a network of H&S reps, and seek to build up the conference and other activities over a number of years.
We have set up a website dedicated to Health & Safety - http://swindontuchealthandsafety.blogspot.com .
You can add comments on articles or news posted on it. If you have any H&S news which you think other people will be interested in, or questions which others might be able to answer, please email to firstname.lastname@example.org or post it to:
Martin Wicks, c/o 19 Fleming Way, Swindon SN1 2NG
Hazards magazine web site
Hazards Magazine is an indispensable source of information for H&S reps and its website has a wealth of information on it. An annual subscription costs £15.
The TUC’s Health & Safety site
The TUC produces a weekly Risks newsletter (10,000 reps receive it). You can sign up and have it sent to you or just read it on the site.
Centre for Corporate Accountability – promoting worker and public safety
Families Against Corporate Killing
Martin Wicks, Secretary Swindon TUC