11. How to stress-test your workplace

A management preoccupation with budgets, deadlines, targets and profit margins means every safety rep will sometimes come into conflict with their managers. Highlighting safety issues that bosses would prefer to overlook is what being a conscientious safety rep is all about.

Our ability to improve conditions in the workplace is not reliant on the support of a benevolent employer but the backing of our co-workers. So, it is vital that safety reps continually spend time talking to the members. It is too easy to over estimate how much support we really have. It is one thing for workers to agree with their safety rep, it is quite another for them to stand up to management when it counts. It is worth periodically checking our level of support.

Following the financial crash of 2008, the big banks that have operated for decades and remain profitable are now required to undergo periodic ‘stress tests’ to check the viability of what they were doing. Union safety reps wishing to find out to what extent their fellow workers are prepared to stick together should carry out stress tests of their own, especially when you think that management are refusing to deal with a serious safety issue.

One of the most basic tests is an open letter. First, set yourself a target to test how much backing you can muster: 75 per cent of the workers in a particular department within a two-week period is a useful benchmark. Then come up with a simple, easily understood demand. I’ve seen safety reps call for the reinstatement of a kettle and microwave in the staff restroom. Keep it simple.

Once you hit your target number of signatures, the next step is to publicly deliver the message. My preferred option is to ask all the workers to join the safety rep in handing the open letter to a senior manager. The mere act of walking together as a group to the manager’s office and standing alongside the safety rep when presenting the letter helps to cement that sense of collective cohesion. It also sends a big message to the management about the strength of feeling on the issue.