I recently worked with a group of union safety reps at a large distribution depot who ran a campaign for cheaper tampons in the women’s toilets. Night shift workers were not allowed to leave the premises and even if they could, there were no shops open for miles, leaving women needing to shell out £1 for a single tampon from a workplace vending machine. Workers had moaned about it for ages but nothing was done until the election of a female safety rep.
Different groups of workers have different health and safety priorities, that’s pretty obvious. So for unions to genuinely articulate staff’s safety concerns, we need to ensure that we represent the full diversity of the workforce. Yet the 2018 TUC survey of safety reps found that they were overwhelmingly white men over the age of 35 who have worked for the same employer for a number of years.
There are a number of issues that specifically affect women such as the menopause or lactation breaks for breastfeeding mothers. Last minute changes to shift patterns can be a nightmare for anyone with caring responsibilities. Sexual harassment of young female staff was one of the key complaints of the McStrikers (Hazards 143). All of these are safety issues that unions should be raising with employers.
Safety is improved by working together collectively, which means recognising that union safety structures need input from the full range of workers voices. We can all identify certain groups of workers who are underrepresented.
Be honest, does your safety committee reflect the make up of the workforce? Not just in terms of gender or racial balance – are young people, shiftworkers, migrants workers or temps represented? What about workers who have English as a second language?
Ideally unions would like a safety rep for different groups of under-represented staff in a workplace, or at least a network of ‘contacts’ that could feed into our safety procedures. But nothing happens spontaneously, safety reps need to make a deliberate effort to talk to our co-workers, especially those whose voices are not often heard. The process starts by being conscious that equality and diversity have safety implications for trade unions.