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Who would vote for health and safety?

January 2018
Bud Hudspith, National Health and Safety Advisor at the union Unite

We often hear that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but in these times of Brexit referendums and General Elections, who would vote for health and safety? Before an accident – very few, the day after an accident – most people.

The problem for health and safety is that most workers see it as something that is done to them, not with them. Far too many employers are keen to talk to their workforce and tell them what management has decided to do, rather than listen to their workforce and act on what they hear.

Workers are the solution, not the problem

The best companies consult their workforce and involve worker reps in making decisions about health and safety. They recognise that workers and their reps are the solution and not the problem. Too often I hear employers saying that if only their workers would behave properly there would not be any health and safety problems. These are the companies that need to listen more and dictate less.

If companies have no other reason to do it, consulting the workforce is a legal duty!

Work as imagined versus work as done

Unfortunately, many employers fall all too easily into the trap of pursuing health and safety procedures based on what someone imagines happens at work, rather than what actually happens.

They should listen to the people doing the job and find out what actually happens and what actually works in practice. There is an old joke about a Tory minister who was said to be “all transmit and no receive”. The same could be said of a few managers!

There is a good reason to inspect the workplace, and see what actually happens. Managers used to talk about “the right to manage”. What about the need to manage health and safety?

The campaigning organisation that dare not speak its name?

Meanwhile back in the dizzy heights of Regulation and Enforcement (if only!) the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has launched a new workplace health campaign called “Go Home Healthy”. Great! This is an important and long overdue advance in terms of health at work. The number of people dying each year from work related ill-health is about 100 times greater than the numbers dying from safety failures at work.

So is it enough to ask employers to “do the right thing”? What about inspection and enforcement? And why does it appear that the HSE is reluctant to use its logo to push this campaign, but instead insist on a separate logo and strap line? Sadly the idea of asking employers to do the right thing falls a long way short of something that is likely to achieve an effective response (even an additional “or else” might have helped!).

At the recent Healthy Lung summit meeting, organised by the HSE, Phil Hydes, the Sheffield welder who now has debilitating asthma was very clear on the need for inspection, enforcement and prosecution to address work related health issues.

So, it is very strange that HSE badging on “Go Home Healthy” is minimal, even though we all know that use of the HSE logo is one of the most effective ways of getting employers to meet their legal requirements.

What is behind this messaging from the HSE. Is this the product of the much vaunted HSE Insights Team? Maybe this team is behind the tired and mostly ineffective message which references x million days lost due to work related ill health. Unfortunately such figures mean nothing to most people. I would have preferred to see some more pointed messages aimed directly at employers.

Recent events from HSE like “Help Great Britain Work Well” and the HSE Annual Conference look more like PR exercises than substantial health and safety events. There is a phrase that is sometimes used, the more PC version of which might be “Smart suit and no underwear”!

Unite, and no doubt other trade unions, will be doing all it can to support the HSE and its campaigns, in spite of the failings and our doubts about the prospects of success.

The impression seems to be that HSE is seeking to be a communicator, rather than a regulator. Good communications are vital, but when it relates to work related ill-health, surely communications need to be backed up by effective enforcement and action, rather than more research, or another logo and another strap line.

Unite is Britain’s biggest union with 1.42 million members across every type of workplace.

Unite, www.unitetheunion.org is the union for the 21st century meeting the great challenges facing working people today. It is a democratic and campaigning union which fights back for employees in the workplace, protecting workers’ rights and taking trade unionism out to millions of unorganised workers. It is a union that stands up for equality for all and advances the interests of its members on a political and national level.

Unite is also active on a global scale, building ever stronger links with trade unions around the world to confront the challenges of our globalised economy.