Safety representatives: know your rights

Union safety representatives have long been recognised in the workplace. Tony Lawton explains their role and rights.

Trade union safety reps received statutory recognition by the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977, otherwise known as the SRSC Regs or “Brown Book”.

Safety reps are elected by union members in the workplace and the employer is notified of the appointment in writing. The Regulations and Code of Practice provide a unique statutory framework for safety representatives to function within at a unionised workplace.

Safety representative functions

  • carry out inspections in the workplace
  • investigate potential hazards and dangerous incidents at the workplace and examine the causes of accidents
  • investigate concerns and complaints by represented employees about their health, safety or welfare
  • discuss individual complaints and general health and safety issues and concerns with the employer 
  • represent employees in consultations with HSE inspectors and receive information from inspectors
  • attend meetings of safety committees.

Employer duties

Under Regulation 4A, employers have to consult safety representatives on the introduction of any measure in the workplace that may substantially affect the health and safety of employees. These include

  • the appointment of employees with health and safety responsibilities
  • the information they must give employees on risks to health and safety and preventative measures
  • planning and organisation of health and safety training 
  • the health and safety consequences of the introduction of new technology.

The right to inspect the workplace

Regulation 5 gives safety representatives an entitle­ment to inspect the workplace, or a part of it, provided the employer has been given reasonable notice in writing of their intention to do so and the representative has not inspected it or that specific part of it in the previous three months.

They may carry out more frequent inspections by agreement with the employer who must provide the facilities and assistance that the safety representatives may reasonably require, though the employer is entitled to be present at the workplace during the inspection.

Inspections after accidents

Under Regulation 6, where there has been a notifiable accident or dangerous incident at a workplace, and provided it is safe for an inspection to be carried out, safety reps may inspect the relevant part of the workplace. They need to notify the employer, so long as it is reasonably practicable to do so.

The employer, in turn, is required to provide facilities and assistance as may reasonably be needed. The test of reasonable is what the safety representative needs, rather that what the employer can provide.

Obtaining documents

Safety representatives often do not appreciate their powers under Regulation 7 to inspect documents at work. The employer has, on reasonable notice, to make relevant documents that are required to be kept under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 available and allow safety reps to take copies.

There are of course exceptions:

  • information the disclosure of which would be against the interest of national security
  • information that cannot be disclosed without contravening a prohibition imposed by statute
  • any information relating specifically to an individual, unless the individual consents
  • any information the disclosure of which would by reason other than its effect on health, safety and welfare, cause substantial injury to the employers’ business
  • any information obtained by the employer for the purpose of bringing, prosecuting or defending any legal proceedings.

So the safety representative should be able to see copies of accident reports (provided that the injured employee agrees), copies of pre and post accident risk assessments and documents relating to complaints or previous problems about the workplace/work equipment.

Formation of safety committees

Regulation 9 requires an employer to establish a safety committee if requested to do so by at least two safety representatives in writing.

The employer has a duty to consult with the safety representatives who made the request and with the representatives of the recognised trade unions in the workplaces where the proposed committee will function.

The committee should be established no later than three months after the initial request and the employer is required to post a notice in the workplace stating the committee’s composition.

Right to time off

Along with the duty to consult with and provide safety reps with reasonable facilities and assistance, an employer has a duty to give a union safety representative paid time off to carry out their duties, including to undergo training.

An elected safety rep who is denied paid time off to carry out their duties may have an employment tribunal claim, provided that they lodge it within three months of the employer’s failure to grant the request.

Risk assessments

While it is the employer’s responsibility to carry out risk assessments, the safety representative can play an important part in ensuring that this is done properly by using the rights under the Regulations as set out above.

It is very important that safety representatives use these rights to check the employer’s risk assessments and plans for risk prevention. There is no doubt that the safest workplaces are those where there are well-organised and active safety representatives using their rights under the Regulations.

Helping members who have been injured at work

Safety representatives have a vital role not only in the prevention of injury but also in helping members to win a compensation claim for injury and to work in partnership with the union’s solicitors to help them through the process.

By using their rights under the Regulations they are able to obtain information and documents that would not be available to either the injured employee or their solicitor. A strong union safety representative can often make the difference between a successful claim and an unsuccessful one.