12. Unreasonable behaviour

As trade unionists, we don’t want any workers to finish their shift any less healthy than when they started it. Regrettably when employers think about health and safety, they’re largely concerned with what they need to do to comply with legal minimums and how much it will cost.

We are clearly coming at it from different angles. We want to save lives; they want to save money. It’s hardly surprising that safety reps and managers regularly disagree. It’s at this point that reps often resort to quoting the law. Unfortunately, much of health and safety law is riddled with the words ‘suitable’, ‘sufficient’ and ‘reasonable’. What workers consider reasonable is often completely at odds with what their manager thinks.

The Health and Safety at Work Act doesn’t require an employer to make the workplace as safe as possible. Instead employers only have to make it as safe as ‘reasonably practicable’. They weigh up how much a safety measure will cost them against how much they consider it will improve the safety of their staff. Workplace safety is effectively a cost/benefit analysis for employers. It always comes down to money.

A few years ago, workers toiled on the new Wembley Stadium through a really hot summer. Without any shade down at pitch level, temperatures rocketed and the construction workers on site were suffering in the heat. The union asked for additional breaks and clean drinking water points to be set up around the site, even calling in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) at one point.

But as some water taps already existed on the site and there is no legal maximum working temperature, there was nothing in the law that explicitly required the contractors to put any new measures in place, so they didn’t. The workers’ response was to down tools and refuse to leave the site canteen until the safety issue was resolved.

The cost/benefit analysis calculations had suddenly changed. Compared to the loss in production, the cost of clean drinking water was now considered to be extremely reasonable by the employers. Workers acting together got results that relying on the law couldn’t. It’s something we should all remember.