‘We’re here to protect lives’

The pandemic focused the world’s attention on health and safety. But for UNISON’s health and safety reps, protecting everyone in the workplace was already a way of life

Branch chair and senior safety rep Bill Hassan ©Jess Hurd

Estimations of how many people are killed at work in the UK each year are highly contested – ranging from 111 in 2019/20 (the Health and Safety Executive) to an estimated 50,000 in 2017/18 (The Hazards Campaign).

The number of people made ill while at work is also difficult to gauge, though quite likely in the hundreds of thousands. Whatever the actual numbers, both UNISON and the TUC support the fact that the formal HSE reporting of work-related deaths and injuries is grossly under-reported.

Work itself does not have to make people ill. Bad working practices and poor safety are the cause. That’s why UNISON aims to have at least one safety rep in every single workplace where we have members.

UNISON’s national officer for health & safety, Kim Sunley, says: “Our health and safety activists are invaluable, not only in getting problems raised and dealt with, but in ensuring that employers take a proactive, worker-focused approach to tackling work-related hazards.

“In the context of the COVID pandemic, I’d go as far as saying that their actions in the workplace may have saved lives.”

UNISON has caught up with four safety reps – two old hands, and two newcomers who recently responded to the union’s Be on the Safe Side recruitment campaign.

                                                                           Pam Sian ©Steve Forrest/Workers’ Photos

Pam Sian has worked with the transport authority in West Yorkshire for 31 years. The UNISON branch secretary, she’s also been a health and safety rep for around 15 years and chair of the national health and safety committee for more than six.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Pam believes the safety rep to be one of the most important roles in the union. “We are here to protect lives,” she says passionately. “That’s what we do.”

Pam first considered being a safety rep when her job at the time involved overseeing the installation of street furniture, such as bus shelters and bus stops, with an eye on the safety of both the public and the workers involved. “I thought, hold on, if I’m looking at safety here, what else I can do? There are definitely unsafe work practices whatever the work environment.”

Even offices can be surprisingly problematic. One example she gives involves the representation of a member who was being threatened with an attendance procedure, because he’d been off work with a bad back. When talking with a safety rep, it became apparent that his illness was being caused by a poorly designed workstation. Instead of being disciplined, the member received a pay-out.

Despite the challenging circumstances, more health and safety reps were trained in 2020 than in either 2019 or 2018

Working from home during the pandemic is a more recent issue, Pam says. “How many people have actually done an assessment to see if their equipment is set up correctly?  We’ve got a case where a member is using an ironing board as a table, because their flat’s not big enough to have a dedicated table. And we’re all typing away at laptops – how many people have got repetitive strain injury?”

A lot of members are unaware of the sheer range of issues that come under health and safety, she says. “Unfortunately the government doesn’t help, when they say, ‘Oh, it’s health and safety gone mad…. It’s all red tape.’ But common sense alone often tells you how unsafe certain working practices are.”

While she’s heartened by the success of the Be on the Safe Side campaign, Pam feels that the union needs still more safety reps.

“My personal view is that every steward should also be a health and safety rep. I don’t think you can represent somebody and not look at the health and safety aspects. In my own branch every steward is health and safety trained.”

                                                                                                          Bill Hassan ©Jess Hurd

Bill Hassan does the same with his new stewards. The University of Leicester branch secretary and chair of the East Midlands regional health and safety committee, his aim “is to have a health and safety rep in every single university building.”

You might say that Bill’s day job – he’s a porter – puts him in a unique position to deal with health and safety.

“Yeah, I’m well known on the campus,” he says. “Whether it’s the student village or the main campus, the porters tend to go everywhere. So we see any issues that arise. And anyone can come to a porter and say look, there’s an issue.”

In a university, health and safety covers the gamut: for the porters themselves, issues tend to be muscular and skeletal, because they’re doing a lot of lifting and moving; for cleaners it could involve chemicals; for office workers, the ergonomics of workstations; for maintenance staff, around electrical and plumbing, perhaps asbestos.

Over the years Bill has continually expanded his training to ensure he’s got all the bases covered. And as the senior branch safety officer, he has a close relationship with the university’s safety department. He’s even been able to persuade them to fund particular training for his reps. “For me, knowledge is key.”

                                                            Caroline Nicholson ©Steve Forrest/Workers’ Photos

The pandemic has definitely informed the arrival of some of UNISON’s newest safety reps.

One of these is Caroline Nicholson, an operating department practitioner (ODP) working in recovery at Rochdale Infirmary. Among the many hospital reorganisations due to COVID, her department became a cancer hub for Greater Manchester, performing over 5,000 surgeries over the past year – while always with the worry about the virus in their midst.

When a colleague at the Pennine Acute Health branch told her about Be on the Safe Side, in September, she decided it was time to become active.

“So many things were happening at work, in such quick succession. So when I realised there was a role where I could potentially learn a lot more about how things should be done from a health and safety perspective, how to get a little bit of control back, ways that I could potentially help my colleagues, I thought ‘I want to do that’.”

The proportion of women being trained as safety reps has increased from 48% in 2019 to 54% in 2020. The Be on the Safe Side campaign may have helped to dismantle the stereotype of the safety rep as a ‘man’s job’

Caroline lists a scary shortlist of considerations related to the pandemic. “All the rules around PPE, whether the new patients needed swabbing [for the virus], whether the staff needed swabbing, how we were testing, how we were isolating people, the fact we were doing aerosol generating procedures. It was literally changing on a daily basis.

“It was really tough on the managers, but on the staff as well, because you’ve always got that element of worry. Are we doing the right thing? Are we following the legislation? And we had our own ideas of what we felt was a risk to us.”

There was another, more personal reason why the role appealed to her. Caroline is classed as disabled, diagnosed with OCD and anxiety, and potentially on the spectrum; and yet she works in a skilled and responsible role, managing her condition, largely because of her branch’s help in arranging reasonable adjustments.

“I had support from the union in a really positive way, so I thought I want to provide that support for other people. What the pandemic is reminding us is that our health is everything. Without it you can’t be happy, you can’t thrive, you can’t do as well at work, you’re not as happy at home.”

She’s done the first stage of her training and is enthusiastically looking ahead to more, describing the “mind-blowing” resources available. At the core, “It’s about making relationships with people, having the confidence to go and ask questions, realising you can make a change.”

Deborah Newton (above), who works in customer services for EDF Energy in Sunderland, joined UNISON last year because she saw how much the UNISON reps were supporting their members, especially during the pandemic. And it wasn’t long before she decided she wanted to do the same.

A Be on the Safe Side webinar revealed just how much the safety role covered, including something that was of particular interest to her – mental health – because she’s once been a sufferer herself and she could see how mental health was becoming a serious issue during the pandemic.

“Knowing that the safety reps look out for everything, it’s not just tripping over wires, it’s health and wellbeing too, that’s when I realised it was something I wanted to do – to be there for other people,” she says.

“I find I’m a good go-to person. A lot of people can come to me when they’ve got worries, who feel comfortable with me. And I’ve been here for 12 years. I’ve got a lot of friends in the business.”

Deborah is about to start her training, but already has some relevant experience – as a steward for her beloved Sunderland FC. “I did it for about 14 years. We were trained in health and safety, in first aid, in evacuating people, checking for hazards. I absolutely loved the role.

“I’ve never been shy to approach someone who I believe is doing something dangerous at work, or to point out something I think is a hazard,” she adds. Being a UNISON safety rep would be a natural fit.

What a safety rep does

  • talk to members about their health and safety issues
  • work with management to resolve these issues
  • investigate potential hazards
  • exercise their legal rights in the workplace, including the right to investigate health and safety concerns raised by members and to carry out workplace inspections
  • promote better health and safety in the workplace and encourage everyone to get involved in the union

More information on how to become a UNISON health and safety rep.

One thought on “‘We’re here to protect lives’

  1. roland willows says:

    While most of us become a representative to support colleagues within the workplace my reasons were simply to be able to represent, to have a union say on the shop floor due to not having a representative for a number of years within our project, and be able to interact on my colleagues behalf with management both middle and senior levels.
    I believe this helped me with expressing mine and others ideas, to be able to communicate with colleagues in a way not shown before and to feel I had or was achieving results for others to make the workplace a safer place, so far so good, knowing you have experienced union members supporting you is a major plus.

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