Become a Health and Safety Steward

A health and safety representative has the right to training and to raise issues which affect the health and safety of members.

UNISON aims to have at least one health and safety representative in every workplace where we have members.

In some cases, the safety representative and steward are the same person but they have two separate roles.

Safety representatives have specific duties and responsibilities and also have important legal rights.

The Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations of 1977 spell out in detail the rights and functions of safety representatives.

These include making representations to the employer on behalf of members on any health, safety and welfare matter.

A health and safety rep can represent members in consultation with Health and Safety Executive inspectors or other enforcing authorities.

They can inspect designated workplace areas at least every three months, investigate potential hazards, complaints by members and causes of accidents, dangerous occurrences and diseases.

They have facilities and support from the employer to carry out inspections and receive legal and technical information, and paid time off to carry out the role and undergo either TUC or union-approved training.

Click here for details about training to help undertake this role.

Health & safety and the cuts

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the main enforcing authority for health and safety legislation in Britain.

Its functions include inspecting certain workplaces, investigating work-related accidents and incidents, and prosecutions where breaches of legislation takes place, with a primary role of protecting workers.

Its enforcement role is shared with local authority environment health officers.

The HSE currently employs about 3,600 staff: roughly 1,300 perform inspections. There are around 884,000 workplaces that are eligible for HSE inspections, covering about 15 million workers in the public sector and other industries.

How are the spending cuts going to affect the HSE?

In the comprehensive spending review, the government announced it was cutting the HSE’s funding by at least 35% over three years – around £80m per year by 2014/15, compared to 2010.

What does that mean, practically?

The budget cut could see 750 jobs go. Even if all inspection jobs were protected, this would still mean less time inspecting because of increased admin duties, and it would also mean no protection for the people who write guidance, perform research, develop and run campaigns etc.

What are the biggest dangers with these cuts?

Studies show that an increase in inspections or fines leads to a reduction in injuries. About 90% of employers improve their health and safety immediately before or after an HSE inspection.

A decrease in enforcement is likely to mean that employers relax their health and safety activities, leading to more ill-health, more accidents and increases in sickness absence.

What about making the cuts in low-risk workplaces?

‘Low risk’ means little. It may be easier to identify someone who has lost a limb from using faulty equipment rather than someone suffering from work-related stress, but both are devastating.

Musculoskeletal disorders and work-related stress are the most common types of ill-health in so-called ‘low-risk’ workplaces, accounting for more than three quarters of all work-related injuries and illness currently suffered in the UK.

What’s the current state of UK health and safety?

HSE figures indicate that 2.1 million people in the UK have a work-related health problem. The two conditions mentioned above make up 77% of that figure.

The HSE estimates that 12,000 people died from work-related cancers and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2009 and the TUC notes that, if heart conditions and road-side accidents while at work are added to that, then over 20,000 people died from their work in 2009.

Why is health and safety good for business?

While health and safety sometimes gets a bad press, following regulations actually saves businesses money.

In 2009/10, organisations found guilty of health and safety offences were fined a total of £11.6m. That averages £15,817 per breach: the cost of ensuring a safe workplace is negligible.

What can safety reps do to help?

Organise, organise, organise. When times are tough, employers may try to cut costs by putting off maintenance, reducing standards or limiting training. Workers may fear losing their job if they speak up.

When safety reps are actively involved, members will always know that UNISON is there to support them. Assess your workplace against the following questions:

  • is a change management process in place?
  • has management fully explored the impact of the changes to staffing and service delivery levels?
  • what services/procedures are available to staff facing redundancy?
  • does your employer have a mental health at work policy amd are there regular surveys on staff welfare, including stress, bullying and occupational health?
  • does UNISON contribute to the surveys’ creation?
  • do safety reps have regular contact with someone on senior management?

Try the following activities in your workplace:

  • make sure health and safety is a standing item for all meetings that cover proposals to make changes;
  • use the opportunity to campaign to raise the profile of the importance of health and safety issues;
  • organise a risk assessment with other UNISON and/or trade union reps, before and after the change;
  • remind management of health and safety duties;
  • remind management of guidance issued specific to the risks faced in your sector or area;
  • make sure there is a UNISON rep on the safety committee;
  • recruit more safety reps.

InFocus February 2011

Health & Safety Newsletters

Useful links

Shattered Lives

Launch of HSE’s strategy

First aid at work – Issue 5

Leadership Action for Directors and Board

Selecting protective gloves

Managing skin exposure risks at work – new priced publication


Do you know what you can speak to your Health and Safety Representative about?

A Guide for UNISON Members click here

Click here for UNISON’s response to Lord Youngs’ Health & Safety Review – “Health and safety myths put workers’ lives at risk”


Your Health & Safety “Burden”

Be aware of the attacks being made on working people by the current administration. Their catch phrase is “we are all in it together” when the reality is that we are in it whilst they are laughing at us from the sidelines!! A good example of this is the review being undertaken into health and safety regulation by Lord Young of Graffham, someone who, you would have thought would have been a good candidate to undertake a task like this, after all her was in a previous life Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. However, lets not be fooled by this past, he has made it quite clear that he, like his Boss, the Prime Minister, and the Business Community (so we are told) believe that these regulations are a huge burden on business. So for all of you who work in offices, Lord Young states that you face no risks, and if you work for emergency services you should not have any protection under Health and Safety legislation, your job is to protect the public beggar the cost to you!!

It seems interesting that a code of practise that has been developed over the last 25 years can be reviewed in a matter of days. The public consultation on this review was only open for 20 days.

We await with interest what eventually emerges from this exercise – but don’t hold your breath!!

Nick Green

Chair of Regional Health and Safety Committee