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Effective Worker Involvement

The missing link in health and safety management?

By Helen Turner, HSE

Worker involvement is the term the HSE uses to describe the ways in which workers are encouraged to take part in making decisions about managing health and safety at work. Workers are often best placed to identify workplace risks and bring about real improvements, and involving workers is, therefore, a key theme of the national strategy for health and safety in Great Britain.

Effective worker involvement includes, but is more than, giving workers information or consulting with them (though good consultation will help develop involved cultures). It aims to create a genuine partnership between managers and workers, either directly or through their representatives, for managing health and safety risks.

In most workplaces worker involvement will form part of wider health and safety risk management, and health and safety is just one application of a broader involvement of the workforce in organizational decision-making. Where wider involvement exists it can be usefully extended to include health and safety. Where it is not yet developed across the organization, health and safety can be a good area to start involving the workforce.

Employers have a legal duty to consult with their workers. In most cases, consultation and involvement will use representative mechanisms. Where trade unions are recognized they appoint safety representatives; where they are not staff can elect their representatives. It is a legal requirement that non-union health and safety representatives are chosen by their colleagues; they must not be appointed by managers. Although employers can choose to consult with every employee on an individual basis, in all but the smallest businesses this is not likely to be effective and efficient.

In 2004 the HSC/E published a ‘Collective declaration on worker involvement’, which can be found at http://www.hse.gov.uk/involvement/hscdeclaration.pdf. It includes recognition of the ‘positive impact trade unions have on health and safety performance’ and that ‘trade union safety representatives, through their empowered role in consultation, show the strongest relationship with safety compliance’.

The Declaration also recognizes the challenge of encouraging active worker involvement in health and safety in non-unionized workplaces (such as the majority of quarries), and the need for innovative ways to promote and support such involvement.

With this in mind, in October 2005 the Quarries National Joint Advisory Committee QNJAC adopted a statement of principle on engaging the workforce (see box).

The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) has recently consulted on strategies to improve the quality and quantity of worker involvement in health and safety risk management. There has been a strong response from employers and employer organizations, workers and trade unions, as well as health and safety representatives. The HSC will consider the results of its consultation this month [March], looking at how the HSC and HSE can best support businesses to involve their workers and those workers to get involved. The HSC/E recognize that this is a challenge, particularly in industries such as quarrying where there is not a widespread system of trade union representatives, but there are many reasons why the challenge should be addressed.

Why involve workers?

There is a large body of evidence that points to the advantages of involving workers in health and safety risk management. The introduction of worker involvement will make a significant contribution to:

  • developing a positive health and safety culture
  • reducing accidents and ill health and their associated costs
  • meeting customer demands and maintaining credibility
  • complying with legal requirements.

In short, workplaces where workers are involved in taking decisions about health and safety are safer and healthier workplaces.
For line managers, involving staff in health and safety management is likely to have a number of advantages, including:

  • better intelligence on which to base decision-making
  • increased team commitment to health and safety
  • proactive risk assessment and development of action plans
  • improved communication with staff
  • better staff satisfaction and retention.

Workers not only have the knowledge to help shape health and safety procedures, they are keen to do so. The HSE’s recent consultation certainly found no evidence of a lack of enthusiasm for representation.

How can I involve workers in the management of health and safety?

Every organization is different and there is no single model of worker involvement that can be applied in all circumstances. However, there are methods that organizations have used successfully to engage their workforce, which can act as guides.

The ‘Worker Involvement’ webpages on the HSE website (http://www.hse.gov.uk/involvement/index.htm) suggest a process and include a number of practical examples and case studies.

The decision to involve workers will need a long-term and genuine commitment, but this investment is likely to be more than borne out by the benefits. One-off initiatives with an expectation of short-term gains are unlikely to succeed and may damage relationships between senior management and the workforce. Leadership, management commitment and sustained action will help to maintain the trust of the workforce and help to embed effective worker involvement as part of the culture of the organization.

Every company and workplace is different, and different approaches will be necessary. The HSE website describes some types of arrangements that can help maintain successful worker involvement:

  • safety committees
  • workgroups
  • reporting schemes
  • risk assessments
  • toolbox talks
  • away-days and social events.

In practice, it is likely that a combination of systems adapted to the particular needs of a specific workplace will improve results. The aim is to ensure that worker involvement becomes an ongoing feature of health and safety management in that workplace. Any flaws in the planning, which come to light as the system is implemented, provide opportunities for fine-tuning and improvement.

Management commitment

Managers must continually demonstrate their commitment to health and safety and involving workers. They can do this best by getting actively involved: attending meetings, taking part in committees and workgroups, attending training, having worker involvement objectives in their own performance appraisals and responding promptly to suggestions.

Getting the most out of worker involvement depends on establishing a real partnership across the company. Where managers are not seen to be committed, worker involvement is likely to fail.

Worker commitment

When arrangements are set up for involving workers it is important to think about how committed and able to be involved they are likely to be. Involving workers in specific health and safety issues is likely to work best when those who work directly with the risks are asked to get involved. Trade union safety reps and elected representatives can help get wider support. Ultimately, workers will become increasingly involved and committed as they see genuine results of worker involvement and the enthusiasm of managers and colleagues.

The commitment to, and effectiveness of, worker involvement should be regularly reviewed and changes made where systems are found to be losing support or failing to involve workers. Organizations need to gain maximum benefit from the successful outcomes and learn from what went wrong. Workers and their representatives should be involved in the review process, from measuring performance through to making recommendations for improvement.

The review should:

  • check that management is being supportive; for example, are staff being given time and encouragement to get involved, and are meetings or events arranged at times and locations suitable for all the intended participants?
  • check whether organizational arrangements are changing to allow worker involvement; changes should take account of staff appraisal and training-needs analysis data
  • monitor problems and act on them; collect data and ideas for improvement
  • record any unplanned benefits that have become apparent as worker involvement has developed
  • measure other areas as well as health and safety; for example, check business indicators such as productivity.

The HSE has published an assessment tool to help managers gauge how well they are doing in involving the workforce. It can be found at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/involvement/assesstool.htm.

Training for effective involvement

The central role of training is a consistent theme in research into the effectiveness of workplace health and safety representatives, and the law requires employers to provide training to non-union representatives, and to provide union safety representatives (who are trained by the TUC and unions) with time off and facilities to train.

The quarrying industry does not have a high level of union recognition. Since 2001 there has been a specific training programme available for both union and non-union representatives, delivered through the National Open College Network. The training course was developed by the QNJAC and has been very successful among those employers who have embraced it. A recent review of its content and fitness for purpose gathered very positive feedback. Further details are available from TUC education officer Jackie Williams (tel: 020 7636 4030). Some changes to course availability, delivery and updated course materials are being developed by the QNJAC Subcommittee on Workforce Involvement, to improve the course further.
More recently, a course for managers to train and enthuse them in working effectively with, and getting the most from, representatives of employee safety has also been developed.

Conclusions

The world of work has changed considerably in recent years. As methods of working develop in the future, workplace representatives will continue to play an important role in giving voice to workers on health and safety matters and, in so doing, contribute to the health and safety of Britain’s workplaces. The active involvement of workers and their representatives in health and safety decision-making, not only where trade unions are recognized and appoint safety representatives, but also in non-unionized workplaces, can help reduce accidents and ill health.

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