.Q My employer has told me that I have duties under health and safety law. What are my duties and what are the employer's duties?
An employer has both a moral and legal responsibility to look after an employee's health and safety at work.
There is a large body of health and safety law which relates to both you and your employer. The majority of this imposess duties on the employer, such as making the workplace safe and without risk to health, carrying out risk assessments, relaying information, instruction and training, providing supervision necessary for health and safety, and consulting with the workforce. Employees have a general duty to take reasonable care for both their own health and safety and that of others around them, and to co-operate with their employer.
.Q My boss at work has told us that he will be charging us through our pay slips for any safety equipment we are given. Is this right as some of the workers are going to refuse to use it if they have to pay for it?
No, you should not be charged for any personal protective equipment (PPE) you are given. Under Regulation 9 of the Health and Safety at Work etc 1974 it states: "Duty not to charge employees for things done or provided pursuant to certain specific requirements", which simply means that no employer shall levy or permit to be levied on any employee any charge in respect of anything done or provided in pursuance of any specific requirement of the relevant statutory provisions. So, for example, if a risk assessment shows a need for gloves and eye protection then they should be provided free of charge. It is a criminal offence to contravene this.
In any case PPE should only be used as a last resort to protect workers from workplace hazards: the employer must take preventative measures first. Where it has to be used it will only be effective if it is selected, used and maintained properly.
.Q Recently my back has been hurting after work and a few times I have been unable to carry out any lifting task. I thought it was due to my age but a friend said it may be due to my work. What can I do?
Aches and pains can be the symptoms of a range of conditions, which can be grouped under the main term of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Not all MSDs are work-related, but even if they are not, they may be linked to bad work practices or made worse by work. Remember, doing something once may not hurt but repetition could lead to injury
To try and solve your problem, work with your safety rep, officer and your employer to spot the problem and eliminate the hazard.
Safety representatives have rights to
ensure the employer has carried out a risk assessment of all activities in the workplace
help the employer identify the problems
arrange a workplace inspection
ensure the employer consults staff on measures to eliminate or reduce the risks, for example, by buying suitable and/or ergonomic equipment
inform the employer immediately of workers' symptoms - aches and pains or complaints
make suggestions and co-operate in testing and trying out solutions
report back on any problems with new practices
help others in the workplace to understand the hazards and how to tackle them.
Employers by law should:
identify the problems, that is, the hazards and the risk
provide health and safety training
establish the extent of the problem, for example, by using workplace surveys, and investigate all incidents whether they cause injury or not
identify high-risk groups such as young, pregnant or older workers
assess provisions for disabled workers
review risk assessments where problems have been identified
generate and evaluate solutions in consultation with the workforce
select appropriate action
identify necessary training and information on safe working practices
implement the improvements
monitor and review effectiveness.
If you already have possible symptoms you should go to your GP or Occupational Health Department for assessment. Tell them about the job and why it may have contributed to the condition. Report your symptoms to your safety rep, regional industrial officer and your employer, and record any incidents in the accident book. Also make sure you discuss any changes needed to the work environment with your safety rep and employer that would make your job safer and keep you in work.
If you have suffered a loss of earnings or serious injury, contact the T&G about applying for compensation from the employer and claiming state benefits. Beware delays, as there are strict time limits for pursuing claims. You should also contact the various associations for details of the nearest self-help group.
You may not be the only one at work suffering, so talk to your safety rep about carrying out some body mapping.
.Q I am very worried about my wife. She is a bus driver and some of her shifts require her to work late at night and early morning in areas that make her feel nervous, and when she pulls in to the depot at night it is often deserted.
Members are often required to work alone and there no legal reason for them not to work this way. However, the most important question to ask is "is it safe to do so?".
Many of the hazards that lone workers face are similar to those faced by other workers but the risks involved may be greater because the worker is on their own. The employer has a legal duty to provide a safe and healthy place of work. If a risk assessment shows that it is not possible for the work to be done safely by a lone worker, then other arrangements must be put into place.
Employers should identify situations where people work alone and ensure that they are at no greater risk than other workers. Establishing safe working for lone workers is no different from organising the safety of other employees. To ensure that lone workers are not put at more risk than other employees, extra risk control measures may be required. Control measures should take account of normal work and emergencies, for example, fire, equipment failure, illness and accidents.
Cost-cutting exercises that result in lone workers must be discouraged; workers should work in pairs or more if necessary when one cannot do it safely. For example, a buddy system should be set up for those working in difficult or remote sites, such as care workers and bus drivers.
Q I work with chemicals every day. How do I know if they are causing me harm?
Throughout the UK there are millions of different types of hazardous substances being used every day in homes and workplaces; they come in the form of fumes, dusts, vapours, gases, smoke and aerosols. Some of these may have no harmful effects, but others could cause serious illness such as asthma, dermatitis and cancer.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 require employers to assess the risks from hazardous substances before carrying out any work that is liable to expose employees to substances hazardous to health. These duties include the elimination of a hazard if possible, the reduction of the risks, and the provision of personal protective equipment as a last resort.
Work with your safety rep to investigate your workplace; you could use body mapping to find out whether any others are suffering similar symptoms. Ask the employer for the risk assessments on all the hazardous substances in the workplace and processes that involve hazardous substances. Ask for the safety data sheets of substances used at work - they are a great source of information. However, they are not a substitute for a COSHH assessmentas they only describe the hazardous substance and not the risks of using the hazard within the working environment.
Safety reps should be included in and be able to participate in discussions about introducing new hazardous substances, new ways of using them, or new protective measures. They should be involved in decisions about risk assessments, health surveillance and training for the workforce.
Q I work in a noisy factory and I'm worried that my hearing may be being affected.
Damage to hearing CAN be prevented by controlling noise exposure. There is probably a noise problem if you have to shout or raise your voice to be heard by someone else two metres away or/and you have ringing in your ears after work. It does not only have to be loud noise to be a problem; the frequency or pitch may be a hazard, for example, a high-pitched whine or a low-pitched hum.
The Noise at Work Regulations 1989 require the employer to reduce the risk of damage to employees' hearing by controlling their exposure to noise. Where the noise level is at least 85 dB(A), but not over 90 dB(A), a noise assessment must be carried out and reviewed at least once every two years or when there are significant work changes. If an employee asks for ear protectors, the employer must provide them. Where the noise level is above 90 dB(A), the employer is required to reduce the noise "so far as is reasonably practicable" by means other than ear protectors (for example, by machine modification or acoustic enclosure). If this is not possible, suitable ear protection must be provided. Employers must provide training, instruction and supervision on the wearing of ear protectors.
Areas where noise levels are above 90 dB(A) must be designated and marked as 'ear protection zones'. Employers must ensure that people entering such zones have suitable hearing protection.
Finally, there is a third 'peak' action level where employees are exposed to very loud, intermittent noises of 140 dB. Here the requirements for levels of noise over 90 dB(A) also apply.
There is concern that even these action levels may not provide protection from hearing loss and safety reps should always be trying to negotiate above the minimum standards to protect members' hearing in the workplace. It must be remembered that wearing ear protection is the last resort and the employer must first try to control noise exposure.
Q I work in an office that is freezing in the winter and stifling in the summer. Is this allowed?
During working hours the temperature in all workplace inside buildings shall be 'reasonable'. The method of heating or cooling should not give off dangerous gas or vapour. The workplace should also be supplied with sufficient thermometers to check the temperature.
What is a 'reasonable' temperature? The Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) to the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 indicates that this is a level that provides reasonable comfort without special clothing: this would be normally at least 16ºC or at least 13ºC where much of the work involves serious physical effort (16ºC may be too warm in this situation). There are no legal maximum temperatures; however, the TUC is campaigning for a legal maximum workplace temperature of 30ºC, or 27ºC where strenuous work is being done.
The ACOP recognises that this may be impractical where there are hot or cold processes, for example, in food production where particularly cool temperatures may need to be maintained to ensure food safety. In this situation, the employer should first consider taking steps to minimise the risk to employees, such as enclosing or insulating the product, keeping chilled areas as small as possible, or pre-chilling the product. If it is not possible to take such steps, then the employer should consider other measures such as providing local heating for employees, excluding draughts, and/or using duck boards or other cleanable floor covering to isolate workers from cold floors. If a reasonable temperature is still not achievable, then the employer should provide protective clothing and heated rest facilities, and set up systems of work to minimise the length of time of exposure to uncomfortable temperatures, for example, rotation of tasks to enable workers to go to heated areas.
Q I was just asked to be a safety rep. What do they do?
As a worker you have fundamental rights to a workplace that is free from hazard or harm. You have the same right as everyone else in any industry to good health and highest state of physical, mental and social well-being. With the support of the T&G, union training and the UK health and safety legal system, this is what you, as a safety rep, can achieve. But you don't have to do it on your own, as there is help at hand from your branch and the union.
The key role of the trade union safety rep is to check and follow up on management's actions or inactions over health, safety and environmental issues in the workplace and represent workers' views. Trade union safety reps are not part of the management team (although they may be managers or supervisors) nor are they unpaid company safety officers.
Two of the most fundamental trade union aims are improving members' terms and conditions and promoting their welfare: clearly these aims encompass health and safety. Furthermore, surveys of union members have identified health and safety issues as one of their main concerns and a significant reason for joining a trade union.
Workers have a legal right to representation by safety reps and, in turn, safety reps have greater legal rights than ordinary trade union shop stewards.
In all matters of health and safety, advice and guidance should be obtained from your regional industrial organiser before concluding any agreement with your employer, or taking any legal action, such as a complaint to an employment tribunal.
Q I am a new safety rep. When is the best time to carry out an inspection and what are my rights to do so?
Inspecting the workplace, and the employer's health and safety documents, is one of the most important functions of the safety rep. A visual inspection should be carried out every day or at the beginning of each shift.
Under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 (SRSCR) safety reps are entitled to:
inspect a workplace or part of it at least every three months, provided that they give the management reasonable written notice
carry out more frequent inspections by agreement
carry out further inspections where there has been a substantial change in the conditions of work or where the HSC or Health and Safety Executive has published new information on relevant hazards
carry out an inspection following a notifiable accident or dangerous occurrence
inspect and take copies of any document relevant to the workplace or to the employees that the safety rep represents (this can be withheld in some limited circumstances).
Q I work in a warehouse where one of our members had an accident. As a safety rep, what should I be doing to stop this happening again, and what can I do for our member who has been unable to return to work?
As a safety rep you have a legal right to carry out an inspection after notifiable incident/disease or dangerous occurrence (including a near miss). Quick and accurate investigation of accidents and near misses can ensure that they don't reoccur and that any injured person obtains the appropriate compensation. It is very important to keep a written record of what you observed.
Work with the employer to investigate the causes, ensure the employer carries out a risk assessment, implements the required control measures and reviews the methods to prevent it happening again.
Under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) 1995, employers are required to record and report the death of any person, all major and serious accidents and injuries, reportable work-related diseases and dangerous occurrences connected with work must be reported without delay. An incident, which meant a person couldn't do their work for three days or more after the incident, must be reported within 10 days.
If a compensation claim by an injured member is likely, ensure that the member contacts the union about applying for compensation from the employer and claiming state benefits. Beware delays, as there are strict time limits for pursuing claims. Ensure that a copy of the accident report goes to the union branch secretary and/or the solicitor dealing with the claim.
HSE Incident Contact Centre for reporting accidents and dangerous occurrences: telephone 0845 3009923, fax 0845 3009924, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Q At work our employer has told all the safety reps that they are required by law to carry out risk assessments. We are very nervous about this as if someone then has an accident we think it will be our fault.
Risk assessments are required under a number of health and safety regulations. It is the legal duty of the employers to examine what could cause harm to people in the workplace, so that they can decide on what needs to be done to prevent accidents and ill-health. That is, the employer must evaluate the risks - before, for example, introducing a new process or piece of equipment or a new substance to the workplace - record the findings, implement control measures and review their progress.
It is not a safety rep's duty to carry out a risk assessment, though safety reps do have the legal right to inspect their workplace for hazards and problems, and receive information. The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 specifically state that no function given to a safety rep "shall be construed as imposing any duty [on them]". However, it is important that safety reps are included and participate in the risk assessment process as they can play a vital role in ensuring that any procedures and improvements are working effectively and can alert the employer to problems by keeping in contact with other workers.