One of the main strengths of union safety reps is that in the workplace we are the genuine voice of the workers we represent. Whether through regular inspections, investigations after accidents or raising concerns at safety committees, union safety reps are a reality check, bringing issues that affect workers directly to the attention of the employers.
The system works because we are part of the workforce and responsibility for the problems with health and safety at work lies with the employer. If a company boss reduces staffing to dangerous levels or refuses to provide adequate welfare facilities, organising workers to collectively apply pressure on their boss can result in immediate tangible improvements.
But in many situations, the underlying reason for the safety problem does not only lie with a particular employer. If laws need to change, we need to influence Westminster, not a manager in our own firm. That means union safety reps need to link together with others across an entire industry, exerting pressure and organising meetings to build a network of activists able to mobilise both inside their own workplace but also collectively across multiple employers.
This is nothing new. In 1988 following the Piper Alpha tragedy in which 167 offshore workers were killed due to Occidental Petroleum cutting corners to boost profits, safety reps across the North Sea organised the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) to demand proper safety on oil rigs. In the same year, rank and file building workers set up the Construction Safety Campaign (CSC) as a response to the three deaths a week taking place in the industry.
There are many other examples in the docks, railways, amongst postal workers and in the campaign to get asbestos banned. All these campaigns started with a small group of safety reps talking to each other about organising some kind of joint protest, which developed into bigger collective mobilisations.
So, whether at conferences or training courses, on the phone or via social media, I’m challenging safety reps to start talking to each other again and set up new initiatives for this generation. I’m looking forward to seeing direct action over safety back in the news.