Your health and safety at work
USING HEALTH AND SAFETY COMMITTEES AT WORK
Goal of the module
This module provides trainees with background information on the role and function of workplace health and safety committees. Topics discussed include: the key functions of a local union health and safety committee and of a joint labour-management health and safety committee; the importance of committee meetings, reports, training and education for committee members; collective bargaining; and principles for conducting hazard investigations at the workplace.
At the end of this module, trainees will be able to:
(1) state several key functions of local union health and safety committees and of joint labour-management committees;
(2) explain some of the strengths and weaknesses of a joint labour-management health and safety committee;
(3) state several key principles of collective bargaining;
(4) state several key points about conducting workplace hazard investigations.
What is in this module?
See separate booklet in this collection for Appendices, entitled Using health and safety committees at work. Appendices.
Appendix I. ILO Recommendation No. 164 concerning
occupational safety and health and the working environment
(Note: In this module the terms committee and health and safety committee are used with the same meaning.)
This module is designed to provide basic information on how to build and maintain a workplace health and safety committee that will be an effective mechanism for resolving health problems in the workplace. However, besides establishing a health and safety committee, trade unions must also organize, educate and take action if they are going to solve their health and safety problems.
There are no universal rules that describe exactly how a health and safety committee should be established or how it should operate. The structures, powers, operating procedures, and even number of committees will vary from workplace to workplace. Differences will reflect many factors including: workers' needs, the variety and extent of the hazards, management attitudes to health and safety, etc.
In a number of countries, national legislation exists requiring joint labour-management health and safety committees. Even if a joint committee is established by law or by collective agreement, a local union health and safety committee should also be examined. A local committee is particularly necessary if a joint committee does not exist.
Health and safety at work is essentially an issue of working conditions. Winning the improvements that are needed and protecting the workers against changes that may have a negative impact on them requires organization within the union. The local union committee is a vital part of the mechanism for resolving workplace health and safety concerns and can be an effective organizational tool. An educated membership should always be the base from which health and safety problems are addressed. It is the job of the local union committee to represent rank and file workers on these issues. It is the job of the joint committee to raise the various issues with management. Figure 1 outlines a structure for resolving health and safety concerns where both a local committee and a joint committee are in place.
Outline of a structure for resolving health and safety concerns where both a local committee and a joint committee are in place.
Points to remember
II. Local union health and safety committee
Establishing a local union health and safety committee is the first step in a union's health and safety programme. Doing this does not require either government action or the involvement of the employer. The role of the local committee is to:
If no joint labour-management health and safety committee exists in your workplace, then the local committee will have to negotiate directly with management. If a joint committee exists, the local committee must assign representatives (sometimes referred to as reps) to the joint committee. The local committee can be the training ground for joint committee members, and can do the background work needed to document hazards and to counter management arguments. (See Figure 1).
A. Who should be on the committee?
Members of the local union committee should represent all work areas, including areas that are separated from the main workplace. In workplaces with more than one union, such as hospitals or construction sites, the unions should attempt to work together to form a single union committee. There should be committee members on every shift. If the local union committee is represented widely throughout the workplace, it becomes the logical first step for resolving any particular issue.
Local union committee members should be selected because they are concerned about health and safety and should be prepared to learn more about the subject. In the early stages of establishing the committee there may be few obvious candidates, but experienced workers, especially those who have done a variety of jobs, are often extremely knowledgeable about health and safety matters.
The local union committee should meet as often as necessary, but at least once a month. The committee should discuss:
Local committee meetings should precede any joint committee meetings. The agenda of the joint committee should be discussed and a position should be established on the various issues that it covers. It may not always be possible to schedule a local committee meeting before a joint committee meeting. For example, an emergency joint committee meeting might be called to discuss a refusal to work. The local union committee should try to develop general policies to deal with such situations.
The local union committee should prepare a report on its activities before each local meeting. This report should cover:
The committee's report serves as a regular reminder that the committee exists and is working. The local union committee should also make sure that every worker who raises a health and safety concern receives regular progress reports. This is a very important duty of the committee, since lack of feedback is one of the main reasons for lack of progress or support for the committee and a major cause of apathy in the workforce.
D. Training and education
Developing health and safety training and educational programmes for the union rank and file is one of the local committee's most important duties. Such programmes should be developed together with the union's education officer/committee. The existence of the committee, its presence in the workplace, and its regular reports to the union local will have an impact on the workforce. The committee can work with the local union executive, the national or international union office, central labour bodies, or centres for labour studies to establish programmes specific to a workplace. The general health and safety education of workers is the union's responsibility it should not be left to either management or government. Experience in a number of countries has shown that educational programmes run by unions for union members are more effective than joint labour-management educational programmes.
The local union committee can perform the very important job of background research on specific health and safety issues. Just as research is necessary for an arbitration, it is necessary to make sure that joint committee members have the knowledge they need to discuss health and safety issues with management. This is necessary for concerns that come from the rank and file or from the committee, as well as for management concerns. In many situations, management may try to bury union representatives with technical data and technical terminology. Union representatives must be prepared to deal competently and confidently with such management strategies. In other situations, union representatives will find themselves much better informed about particular issues than management. There are large numbers of employers who know little, if anything, about the growing number of occupational health hazards.
The right to refuse hazardous work
All workers should have the right to refuse to do any job that would endanger their health or safety. This right can exist under either specific legislation or under the common law. Committee members have an important role to play in supporting workers who refuse hazardous work in any way they can, including direct representation and the provision of advice and information on technical matters and the laws that support them.
F. Government inspections
A government inspector should be accompanied in the workplace by a representative from both union and management.
In some countries, the law states that the employer must allow a worker designated by the union to accompany a government inspector inside the workplace. Members of the local committee should all be designated individuals. The union may want to designate a single committee member to accompany the inspector for an entire tour of the workplace, or it may prefer to assign different members to different work areas. If the law does not have such a provision, then the union may wish to include such representation in the collective agreement.
Points to remember
III. Joint labour-management health
and safety committee
One of the tasks of a joint health and safety committee may be to develop a collective agreement.
For many unions, collective agreements have already established joint labour-management health and safety committees and more of these committees are being created all the time. Many unions have found that joint committees have been used as a means to control health and safety issues rather than solve them. However, the joint labour-management model has the most potential to improve working conditions because it involves both management and workers in the process of identifying, eliminating, and controlling hazards. This is important because ultimately, it is management who must implement the necessary changes in the workplace with the agreement of the workers. (See Figure 1).
It is not possible to describe the wide variety of structures, operating procedures, powers, and duties of joint committees that are negotiated and those established through legislation. Therefore this module will raise some general considerations concerning the establishment of any specific committee and, at the same time, look at ways in which workers and unions can get the most benefit out of a joint committee. In some countries the law will influence how these suggestions can be implemented. In other situations, these suggestions may only serve as a guide for negotiating stronger committees.
The effectiveness of a joint committee is primarily determined by the support that the union rank and file and the local union committee give to the worker members who are on the committee. Without strong support, worker representatives will be in a position of isolation and therefore weakness no matter how strong, militant, or well-prepared they are individually. Management will know whether the issue is of concern to only a few individuals or to the union as a whole, and their reaction is likely to vary accordingly. Wherever a joint committee is established, the union must have a strong local committee to provide back-up and to make sure there is strong representation.
The following issues should be considered when drafting bargaining proposals relating to joint committees. The way a local union chooses to pursue each of these issues will be based on the conditions of work and the extent of the union's power. The experience of many unions has shown that in all situations, unions will have to fight hard for every word of the health and safety language in the collective agreement.
A. Size of the committee
The number of committee members needed will depend on the size of the workplace and the various locations of work. The size of a committee should be given careful thought. Too many members make committees ineffective and too few make them unrepresentative. There should never be fewer than two worker representatives, who should be selected with the union's agreement.
B. Who should be on the committee?
Joint committee members should be assigned from the local union committee. All committee members should have a genuine interest in health and safety, be able to work cooperatively with others, and be willing to become actively involved in maintaining and enforcing healthy and safe working conditions. The method of selecting committee members can vary. Depending on the by-laws and practices of the union, the local president may be authorized to appoint members, with the approval of the executive or the membership at large, or members may be elected by a local or shop ballot. The term of office should be long enough for members to gain some experience in health and safety while allowing other workers an opportunity to learn how the committee functions. A good practice might be to arrange rotating terms of office, so that a committee would never be completely made up of inexperienced members.
C. Operating procedures and recommendations
If the union decides that a joint committee is useful despite the possible limitations, then it is recommended that the union negotiate the joint committee structure and responsibilities, rather than set up a union-management committee without contract language. Listed below are some operating procedures and a number of recommendations which can help the committee function effectively:
Attempting to solve too many items at once is a common cause of committee failure. Genuine sharing of responsibility for health and safety between management and union will exist only if the majority of these principles are established.
D. Functions and duties of the joint committee
The powers and duties of legislated joint committees vary from one place to another. The provisions laid down in legislation can be used as a starting point for collective bargaining.
Building blocks for a health and safety agreement.
Appendices II, III and IV are examples of collective agreements that some unions have developed and legislation requiring the establishment of health and safety committees. You may want to adapt parts of these when developing your own language.
Appendix I is a copy of the International Labour Organization Recommendation No. 164 concerning occupational safety and health and the working environment. Section IV of the Recommendation, entitled Action at the Level of the Undertaking, outlines in para. 12(2) the recommended role of a health and safety committee. Some countries have developed legislation on health and safety committees. If your country does not have such legislation, you may want to use Recommendation No. 164 as a guideline for developing contract language.
Appendix II provides an extract from Bermuda's Health and Safety at Work Act of 1982 concerning the establishment of health and safety committees.
Appendix II also includes Bermuda's 1984 Regulations for the Guidance on Health and Safety Committees. Although these guidelines are not legislation, they could be used as a model, since they are very specific in outlining the desired functions of a health and safety committee. Included in these guidelines are the recommended functions of a health and safety committee where special problems may arise with the use of subcontractors, and the role of a committee when dealing with multiple worksites for a single employer.
Appendix III is the joint labour-management contract language of the New South Wales Amalgamated Metal Workers' Union in Australia. This contract specifies in detail the rights and functions of a health and safety committee. It also states clearly how the joint involvement of labour and management will be achieved.
Finally, Appendix IV includes some sample contract clauses for establishing health and safety committees from several different unions in the United States which outline several different methods of handling health and safety issues.
Listed below are some of the recommended major duties and functions of a joint committee. As you define the responsibilities of your committee, you may want to make a list and post it where the committee meets so all members know the committee's duties and functions in your workplace. Each member should receive a copy. Some of these functions will be agreed to by management while you may have to fight for others.
Remember: List problems in order of priority and publicize the resolutions. These are two important strategies of an effective health and safety committee.
Involve all workers in health and safety
Although the committee may work primarily with a regular team of worker representatives, it is important that all workers in the workplace also be informed about and involved in health and safety efforts. One way of involving other workers is by rotating the job of monitoring the workplace regularly so that more workers can participate in health and safety efforts. Suggestions for keeping workers informed about the committee's work include using regular newsletters, shop meetings, published minutes of meetings, and personal contact. Try to come up with other methods of conveying information that will work in your area.
Representatives of the workers' health and safety committee (health reps) are rank-and-file workers. There should be at least one health and safety representative for every 20 workers, and at least one in each department or production line. The job can rotate every week or month so that more workers can participate in monitoring the workplace.
E. Training for committee members
Members of the committee should be provided with adequate health and safety training. Members who are trained in the issues can contribute more fully which means the committee can work more effectively. It is preferable if health and safety training is organized by the union and the employer jointly, but it can also be organized by the employer or by the union separately. Training for committee members ideally should include, but not be limited to:
F. Meetings and minutes
The following page lists a number of general principles that can help make joint committee meetings more effective and interesting and therefore encourage committee members to participate. It is important for the committee to decide early on how priorities will be established for dealing with health and safety issues. Several points to consider when deciding on priority problems are accident reports for particular issues, inspection reports, and whether new equipment or work processes have been introduced. What other factors will your committee consider when determining priorities?
Maintaining complete and accurate minutes is one of the most important record-keeping duties of joint committees and this job should never be left to management alone. The format of the minutes should help in identifying problems and in correcting them and should guarantee an accurate record of the committee's discussions. Keep an accurate record of the union's position on each issue that has been discussed. This is important because government inspectors may look at the minutes to see if a particular problem has been discussed by the committee and if corrective actions were proposed.
Joint labour-management committee do's and don'ts
Source: Health and safety
manual, Service Employees' International Union, AFL/CIO,
Washington, DC, 1987.
Don't look for immediate results.
Continue to Section E: Negotiation