Health and Safety Representatives are an important consideration for businesses small and large, but they’re still widely underused, and in many cases people don’t understand who they are, what they do, and why they’re a benefit. In this article, we’re going to take a look at their major responsibilities, the benefits these can bring, as well as explaining how these representatives are appointed.
A health and safety representative is a member of the workforce who is ultimately there to help ensure that employees are safe in whatever they do while they’re at work. Being a representative is generally not a full-time job - it’s an additional responsibility in a similar way to how many businesses will have a designated first aider or fire marshall. Crucially, health and safety representatives are not be connected with management. The idea is that they are there to represent the best interests of the average worker and his or her safety, regardless of the business aims of management. It is unfortunately the case that business leaders do not always have the safety interests of workers fully in mind, which is why reps are needed in this area, but there are also benefits for management, which we’ll cover shortly.
Health and Safety Reps have all manner of tasks, responsibilities and functions, depending on their authority.
There are generally two ways in which a Health and Safety Representative is appointed, and this is an important distinction.
If members of the workforce are represented by a trade union, then that trade union may appoint representatives for health and safety (usually simply known as safety representatives). This is fairly flexible in that different unions may appoint different representatives, there may be different representatives for different areas of the business, and there may even be multiple representatives if there are special requirements, such as non-standard working patterns, a large workforce, or a particularly dangerous environment. In any scenario, the recommendation is that unions should thoroughly discuss the matter with employees to determine the best system. As a general rule, representatives should have around two years experience with the business, and it’s worth noting that those appointed by trade unions can also represent employees who are not a member of that particular - or any - trade union.
Trade unions are however not the only way of appointing safety representatives. A workforce is entirely entitled to designate someone of its own accord, without the involvement of a trade union. The laws surrounding this are slightly different, which we’ll look at in the next section. Elections can be carried out in a number of ways, but the HSE does have some guidelines to help workers fairly decide who should be their voice when it comes to health and safety. Generally, voting needs to be free and accurate, and individuals should be able to cast their vote anonymously. You should also think carefully about how many representatives you might need, how often elections should take place, and how to encourage participation.
Note: It’s very important for employers to be aware however that they do not have to insist upon health and safety representatives. If employees are happy with the arrangement, business leaders may talk directly with individuals and work out matters of health and safety this way instead. Furthermore, this may be better carried out in a committee or round table manner. The law is fairly flexible on how this happens, but the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the body responsible, does make it clear that employees have the right to make their issues clear to employers, and employers must act in accordance with general health and safety law.
While the broad aims of health and safety reps are the same however they’re appointed, it’s very important to note that there are different rules for those elected by a workforce and those appointed by a trade union. Let’s take a look.
Representatives appointed by a workforce must follow the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996. These are the regulations that specifically deal with non-union reps. The major responsibilities of these people include the following:
Representatives appointed by a trade union must follow the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977. This is different to workplace elected representatives.
Trade union representatives have the same responsibilities as those we looked at in the previous section, but they also have additional remit conferred upon them by law. Crucially, they are also able to conduct investigations into accidents, hazards, near misses and any other health and safety related issues. They also have the right to inspect the workplace. This means that union-appointed representatives have a stronger control of how health and safety is dealt with in the workplace, and ultimately they have more influence on business management.
It should also be noted however that these additional powers can be given to non-union representatives by the business if it so wishes. The difference is that union representatives have these by default, by law.
Because reps are specifically non-managerial, there can sometimes be a belief that they are an unwanted part of business operations. However, this should not, and does not need to be the case. There are plenty of reasons that business leaders should encourage workers or unions to appoint a health and safety representative.
Safety in the workplace has a number of benefits, ranging from increased job satisfaction and happiness, to reduced risk of injury, which in turn reduces the risk of lost working hours, lower productivity and even lawsuits and legal punishments. By having a designated health and safety representative, businesses will have a straightforward point of contact to ensure that the risks of health and safety issues are mitigated.
Naturally, training is a hugely important part of a safety rep’s responsibilities, and they do need to have a good understanding of general health and safety to be successful in their role. It’s generally recommended that they have all of the basic knowledge on everyday workplace safety, as well as more specific training in areas that are important to the role or industry.
Here at Virtual College, we’re very pleased to be able to offer a number of health and safety courses, many of which will be useful for those designated as Health and Safety Representatives. Our health and safety at work bundle is an excellent start, and you can find out what it includes here.