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Trade unions and the training of health and safety representatives.

Challenges of the 1990s

Keywords Health and safety, Trade unions, Training

Examines the provision of trade union training for health and safety representatives in the UK. Bases research on a 1995 European survey of provisions for education and training in health and safety offered by trade unions in eight European countries and allows for some inter-country comparisons. Focuses on some of the influences that have helped to shape provision including the introduction of new legislative provisions for employee representation. Describes developments in Britain with reference to the TUC Regional Education Programme, sources of funding and the likely impact of new legislation extending representative rights in health and safety to all employees. Shows that trade unions make an important contribution to health and safety training, particularly through the TUC Regional Education Programme. In Britain as in other European countries, training is identified as an important supportive factor in promoting the effectiveness of employee health and safety representatives. It is possible to identify a common pedagogy of trade union education in health and safety whose characteristics are applicable internationally and which may be linked to effective actions by health and safety representatives in their workplaces.


The role of health and safety representatives and the importance of training in supporting their activities is relatively neglected in both the academic and professional literature. In studies that have considered the detailed operation of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 in the UK, training has been shown to make an important supportive contribution to the effectiveness of representatives[1,2]. The most significant providers of this training are the TUC and its affiliated trade unions.

In October 1996 new legislation on consultation of employees and their representatives in health and safety came into force. There has already been some discussion concerning the likely impact of the new provisions on workplace health and safety representation in general[3-7], but the specific relevance of training to the future implementation and operation of the new provisions has not been discussed in depth.

This article focuses on some of the influences that have helped to shape the content and provision of trade union training during recent years and those that will influence its future development, including the introduction of the new legislative provisions for employee representation. The paper is based on research sponsored by the Trade Union Technical Bureau for Health and Safety and undertaken in 1995 in Britain and several other countries during a European survey of provisions for education and training in health and safety offered by trade unions. The research examined the provision of mainstream trade union education in health and safety through interviews with trade union educators and health and safety officials in eight countries including Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the UK, as well as through the examination of documentary material. The full report of the survey fully describes its extent and methodology[8], and a recent article based on the survey has discussed the role of training in health and safety in relation to the changing pattern of industrial relations in Europe in the 1990s[9].

Drawing on the same material, the present article focuses on:

* organization of trade union training in the UK with particular reference to the contribution of the TUC Regional Education Programme;

* comparison of the content and approach of the TUC's provision with that of mainstream trade union training provision in other European countries;

* recent influences on trade union training in Britain, including resourcing, certification and accreditation;

* the role of supportive factors, including training, in effective health and safety representation.

The study emphasizes the importance of trade unions in training provision in health and safety and the implications for training of new regulations for nonunion consultation in health and safety are discussed in this context. It is observed that the proposed new regulations will present a challenge to trade unions but evidence from other countries suggests that such a challenge could also present opportunities. Indeed, the article concludes that it is difficult to see from where else support for representation will come if unions are unable to respond to these opportunities.

The organization of trade union training in health and safety in Britain

According to the Trade Union Congress (TUC)[10], there are 150,000 safety representatives and a further 100,000 shop stewards who are also safety representatives. Survey information indicates that in the years following the introduction of the SRSC regulations there was a rapid rise in the numbers of workplaces and employees covered by safety representatives and joint safety committees. By the end of the 1980s the spread had stopped and representation was declining in some sectors and particularly in the small and medium-sized workplaces, which was where the growth in their numbers had been most marked. Nevertheless, towards the end of the 1980s safety representatives were found in workplaces that accounted for approximately 75 per cent of employees and joint safety committees in workplaces accounting for about 70 per cent of employees[2].

Information from more recent industrial relations surveys shows the decline to be continuing, with safety representatives maintaining their position best in larger workplaces[11]. The TUC estimates that about 60 per cent of workers have access to a safety representative, although this estimate appears to be based on the number of workplaces where trade unions are recognized, rather than on actual surveys of safety representatives[10]. In this respect the extent of trade union safety representatives follows broadly the same pattern of decline experienced by trade unions in general during the last decade.

The basic training provision for safety representatives is through a programme of courses organized by the TUC and run in public education institutions throughout the country and courses organized separately by affiliated trade unions. The TUC courses and those of affiliated unions are ideally complementary but there has been a tendency for the individual trade union training provision to evolve separately. In addition, some trade unions also organize joint courses with large enterprises. Since 1977 the TUC courses have trained around 125,000 safety representatives through the provision of Stage 1 and Stage 2 ten-day courses and specialist courses of one or two days' duration.

The TUC trains around 7,000 safety representatives a year and affiliated trade unions between them train around the same number although their courses are not normally of the same duration[10]. In addition, the short course provision for health and safety organized by the TUC contributes significantly to this programme. For example, in 1993, an additional 4,222 representatives participated in short courses on health and safety (Figure 1).


Reductions in the funding for TUC courses (Table I) in recent years has encouraged a tendency for their provision to be concentrated in Colleges of Further Education, with fewer higher education establishments remaining involved and a reduction in Workers Education Association (WEA) provision. The 84 centres that currently provide training represent a considerable reduction and concentration of resources from, for example, the 150 centres in public education employing 350 tutors that were teaching courses as part of the Regional Education Programme in 1987.

Table I. Government grant for TUC education service at 1992 prices
Year      Grant (millions [pounds sterling])

1982/83                  2.72
1983/84                  2.43
1984/85                  2.64
1985/86                  2.49
1986/87                  2.42
1987/88                  2.38
1988/89                  2.17
1989/90                  2.07
1990/91                  1.92
1991/92                  1.80
1992/93                  1.69

Source: [12, p. 19]

The concentration of resources is, in part, a deliberate strategy taken by the TUC to concentrate trade union training in larger centres that are well resourced but it is also a consequence of changes in the funding of further and higher education which have made it more difficult for some colleges to justify resource allocation to trade union education. Since the 1970s trade union education as a discipline in its own right is something that the TUC and practitioners have been determined to promote.

The content and approach of training

The TUC approved courses in health and safety consist of the Stage 1 and Stage 2 ten-day courses and a programme of short courses that are related to specific needs ranging from induction courses through to courses on particular issues for experienced representatives. Courses run by individual trade unions, although different in time and location, are mostly similar to the TUC courses in overall content. The two ten-day courses are essentially two overlapping parts of the same programme of study. The material covered during the courses includes:

* trade union approach to health and safety;

* role of the safety representative;

* workplace health and safety information;

* the legal framework of health and safety;

* workplace health and safety inspection;

* risk assessment;

* specific health and safety topics such as, manual handling, visual display screen equipment, personal protective equipment, physical, chemical and biological hazards and workplace equipment;

* bargaining for health and safety.

The training is practical. It aims to increase representatives' self-confidence, increase their motivation and provide them with the necessary basic knowledge needed to carry out their official duties. A student-centred approach is adopted where representatives are encouraged to participate fully in course planning. Special emphasis is placed on the particular experience and needs of participants. Techniques such as problem solving; role play; membership surveys to identify specific problems and assess members' views as well as the analysis of improvement projects -- issues that need improving that representatives have identified in their own workplaces -- are used on both Stage 1 and Stage 2 courses.

Parallels in the approaches to training in health and safety in Britain and other countries in Northern Europe

Although trade union training in other European countries is not organized though public education institutions in the way that it is in Britain, in most respects the content of the TUC provision was typical of the approaches to trade union education in health and safety in other northern European countries[8]. The main starting point for trade union educators in each country examined was the observation that the health and safety education offered by trade unions is anchored in basic principles and approaches that are common to all labour education. Labour education in Europe has a long association with the political aims of the left and with the policies and organization of trade unions in most European countries. At the same time it also has roots in the development of liberal adult education and, more recently, it has come to include elements that overlap significantly with definitions of vocational training[13]. This approach to health and safety education is reflected in the observation that:

* Most courses were about achieving changes at the workplace. For trade union educators, achieving such changes meant course participants learning how to operate effectively as trade union representatives, whatever the technical or legal content of the change in question.

* The educational methods used in trade union health and safety training often reproduced the milieu of the workplace organizational environment. Trade union educators used course committees, course meetings, participative and experience-based learning techniques to encourage representatives to listen and communicate with colleagues and to build collective support for their proposals rather than to behave as isolated technical specialists.

It was striking that these observations applied in all of the countries in the survey. While it was possible to find a range of more didactic methods still in use and great variation in the extent and uniformity of methodology, especially between northern and southern Europe, there was universal agreement among trade union educators in all countries concerning the preference for the above approach and the appropriateness of the methodology. When research on effectiveness of workplace representation in health and safety is considered it is apparent that the integration of the health and safety function into the structures and procedures of trade union workplace bargaining has been an important factor in promoting the effectiveness of employee representatives in health and safety. It is precisely this integration that is promoted by the focus on trade union representation skills in the pedagogy of trade union education.

The themes and methods shared by trade union courses in all the countries studied led to the conclusion that a common pedagogy of health and safety education and training exists. Its characteristics include the development and use of curricula that have room for participants' experience of their workplace health and safety issues and which in many cases are designed around these experiences, sometimes by negotiation during the delivery of the course. An orientation towards collective understanding and action rather than the acquisition of individual knowledge is normally the direction in which the course develops. The curriculum emphasizes the importance of shared knowledge, collective definition of problems and effective workplace action as well as the

development of a deeper and broader understanding of the location of participants' workplace problems within a conceptual framework that is relevant to the experience of workers. This framework reflects not only the technical issues of health and safety but also the social and economic context of work and health. It is apparent from the brief outline of the TUC courses that they fit closely into this wider European pattern, both in terms of their content and the methods used for its delivery.

Developments in delivery of trade union health and safety training by public institutions in Britain

Much of the development of trade union education and training in health and safety has taken place since the mid-1970s when, a unique feature of the British provision, partial state funding and the major involvement of public education institutions began. Although its provision has declined since its peak at the end of the 1970s it is remarkable that its scale has remained significant despite the unsupportive economic and political climate that has prevailed since 1979.

When the SRSC regulations were introduced in 1978, the majority of the workforce was employed by employers who recognized trade unions for collective bargaining purposes. In 1995, mainly through the changes in the patterns of employment, only 48 per cent of employees worked in workplaces where trade unions were recognized. At the time of the introduction of the SRSC regulations trade union members accounted for 55 per cent of employees but by 1995 it had fallen to 35 per cent[10].

The decision to use public education institutions to deliver trade union education on a large scale was taken in the mid-1970s when, as part of its Social Contract with the trade unions, the Labour Government made public funds available for trade union education. The decision was controversial and subject to considerable dissent among trade union educators and officials, largely over concerns about the ability of trade unions to maintain an independent political approach to the content of educational provision[14,15].

In December 1992, the British Government announced plans to phase out state funding for trade union education, on the grounds that:
   ... since fewer than 50 per cent of employees have their pay determined,
   directly or indirectly, by negotiations between employers and trade unions
   ... there is now no justification for continuing to support this training
   from public funds (Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, December 1992).

At the same time, the organization of further and higher education in Britain underwent a major upheaval as the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (FHE Act) made provisions for colleges to become independent of local authority control and in the case of further education, funded through the new Further Education Funding Councils (FEFC). One positive aspect of this development was that trade union education in FE colleges, instead of being regarded as non-vocational adult education (and therefore subject to full cost fees paid by students or their sponsors), as was widely expected, was instead defined by the Secretary of State for Education as being covered by Schedule 2 of the FILE Act 1992. This meant that trade union education courses qualified for financial support from the FEFC. While welcome news indeed for the TUC and those FE colleges involved in the provision of trade union education, this decision contributed to the further concentration of provision in a smaller number of centres and hastened its decline in higher education and in adult education. It also meant that trade union education was now more subject to meeting criteria on quality set by the funding councils for continued financial support.

Criticism from within trade unions and from trade union educators claims that since the acceptance of public funding, the TUC provision for the education of trade unionists has compromised the tradition of political labour education.

They argue that it has substituted training for education and has focused on skills needed to maintain stable industrial relations at the expense of the content necessary to raise participants' awareness of the broader socioeconomic and political issues in which industrial relations are located[16,17]. On the other hand, the supporters of the decision to accept state funding point to the enormous increase in the scale of provision of courses for workplace representatives, numbers of whom would never have received any trade union education or training without the increase in provision. They also argue that the distinction between education and training is simplistic[18]. The TUC's own surveys point to the general level of satisfaction with the orientation of the courses[19].

With the demise of financial support from the Department of Employment and the introduction of support from the FEFC, the focus of the debate on the content and quality of trade union education has altered. In essence, the concerns revolve around the question of the degree of compromise it may be necessary to make in trade union education in order to satisfy the demands of interests that are outside the trade unions but which have a controlling influence on the allocation of resources for trade union education. The current discussion focuses on issues of validation of the main provision of day release courses. The TUC's views about its provision seem to have prevailed despite the reservations raised during the 1980s and the basic approach of its training has continued. However, with the need to qualify for FEFC funding the question of external validation has become a more important issue.

According to the TUC[20], there was a growing demand for recognition of health and safety representative training through the certification of courses from representatives themselves who argued that a certificate of training would help managers and employers take them more seriously. HM inspectors' reports urged the TUC to consider ways of recognizing student achievement through a system of accreditation. As a result, the TUC introduced Certificates of Participation for course participants who completed Stage 1 worker representative courses in 1991 and extended the practice to Stage 2 and Health and Safety Stage 1 and 2 courses in 1993, to widespread enthusiasm from participants. The TUC, as well as many trade union educators, was initially opposed to the recognition of individual student achievement by means of certification because of the danger of misrepresentation of the essential message of trade union education that this suggested. This was particularly so in the case of health and safety representatives, where it was feared that certification of individual safety representatives' training would imply the kind of official recognition of their individual expertise in safety that the TUC maintained was not what the concept of trade union safety representation was about.

Perhaps even more influential was the growing general recognition of the importance of continuing education and training while in employment. Moving into the 1990s, with the face of trade unions and Labour politics changing rapidly, the TUC appears to have decided that trade union education should be perceived as a part of general continuing education and kept abreast with wider developments in this field. Certification and accreditation of quality were two such developments that were progressing rapidly in continuing vocational education.

In the mid-1980s a Government White Paper entitled Employment for the 1990s introduced a new system of national vocational qualifications (NVQ) to increase the competitiveness of British industry. The initiative was intended to create a comprehensive system of vocational qualifications based on standards of competence agreed by appropriate employment sectors. In addition, the thinking about standards and accreditation has had important consequences for the debate about quality and its achievement and measurement in trade union education.

There is concern that trade union control over the election or appointment of workplace representatives is not undermined by the establishment of standards that lead to qualifications, or that such standards and qualifications themselves weaken the trade union role in training provision. There are also concerns that the introduction of accreditation does not alter the basic principles of trade union pedagogy that stress the participative and collective nature of the education that representatives receive, rather than notions of individual achievement and its assessment through conventional means and concepts of passing and failing. Set against these concerns are the opportunities that accreditation offers for representatives to acquire nationally recognized educational qualifications for undertaking trade union courses and for the TUC and trade unions to be the gateway to such qualifications. Most of all, it allows the TUC to secure resources for trade union education in the new FE environment, where, from September 1996, only courses leading to externally and nationally recognized qualifications will be funded. As a result both the Stage 1 and Stage 2 Health and Safety Courses have been proposed for recognition.

The accreditation system most favoured by the TUC is run by the National Open College Network and it is recognized by the FEFC. This system is attractive to the TUC because the Open College has considerable experience with adult learners, does not distinguish between vocational and non-vocational education and already has some experience with individual trade unions. The Open College Networks offer a flexible, locally responsive system of accreditation that offers the TUC the possibility for accrediting its whole programme of courses, while retaining trade union control. It offers the advantage of external quality control linked to achievement targets identified by the TUC and a student award with currency in Further and Higher Education.

The role of trade union training in supporting health and safety representative action

The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1997 authorize workers' representatives to follow the training necessary for the exercise of their functions provided that such training is approved by the TUC or by an independent trade union. An Approved Code of Practice made under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations gave added guidance on training leave. Although subsequently shown to have only persuasive authority in law[21], it stipulates that as soon as possible after their election, workers' representatives should be given the opportunity to follow basic training approved by the TUC or by an independent trade union. Continuing training is subject to the same approval criteria. Representatives should have an opportunity to follow a further training to fit them to assume particular responsibilities or when such training is judged necessary having regard to changes in circumstances or legislation. In practical terms, the number of hours available for continuing training varies with the terms of individual collective agreements and with the relative willingness of employers to honour the representatives' legal rights. It is not always easy for workers' representatives to assert their rights to training leave[22].

Nichols[23], writing about trends in occupational accidents in Britain during the 1980s, argues that the knowledge and ability of labour to protect itself should figure prominently in attempts to explain either the improvement in safety or its decline. He suggests that analysis of accident statistics from the late 1970s and early 1980s indicates that trade union training was one positive contribution to objective health and safety standards measured by the decline in the injury rates in this period. The decline in this training provision, which was linked to a worsening economic climate and a political climate antipathetic towards trade unions, was related to the increases in the injury rates observed subsequently. Most of the research on the activities of worker health and safety representatives in the UK and other countries has attempted to identify factors that support or limit their activities and determine their effectiveness in terms of representatives' and managers' perceptions of effectiveness rather than through objective measures. Nevertheless, the few studies that have tried to address objective measures generally concur with the more subjective studies in their identification of determinants of effectiveness[24-29].

The research indicates that a supportive culture is an important influence on effective action by health and safety representatives and that the provision of information and training by trade unions is an important element of this support. Studies that have focused in detail on the activities of health and safety representatives reviewed by Walters[6,7], indicate that key elements of this supportive culture include:

* management commitment to employee participation in health and safety;

* regulatory agency support;

* the integration of health and safety representation into strong trade union organization.

Support from trade union national and regional organization in the provision of information and training has been shown to be a significant influence on the latter.

From the limited number of British and other European studies referred to in this article, as well as those from other countries such as the USA and Canada[30-34], it seems that the greater the level of training provided for representatives, the greater their activity. However, evaluative research that specifically considers the relationship between training and effectiveness is rare. Swedish studies carried out for the Work Environment Fund show some positive links[35,36]. These studies followed the work of representatives at their place of employment some time after they were trained and conclude that training has had a positive effect on their activities. Since the training in question in these studies was trade union training carried out along broadly similar lines to that in Britain, it is likely that their findings would also relate to the effectiveness of British trade union training.

There is a degree of external scrutiny of trade union education in Britain, which is linked to its provision by public education institutions, with the use of public funds, that is not common in other countries. The role of the former Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools (HMI) and current developments on accreditation and its moderation, contribute to the overall evaluation of trade union educational provision, but especially that provided through the TUC. In general, such evaluation has been positive about the success of trade union educational methods in the classroom. At the same time, most trade union health and safety courses, whether run through the TUC scheme or by individual trade unions, include an opportunity for participants to evaluate the course they have followed, through the completion of questionnaires and other means of assessment at the end of the course. Follow-up evaluation is not carried out by systematic or formal means; however, the progression from the TUC Stage 1 to Stage 2 Health and Safety course is itself a follow-up and the content and methods of the Stage 2 courses focus on the participants' workplace experiences since attending the Stage 1 course. In this sense they provide important information on the effectiveness of the Stage 1 training in terms of the representatives' perceptions of their effectiveness in achieving action at the workplace following training. The Stage 2 course also provides the opportunity for further training support for directing continuing workplace health and safety actions.

In Britain there are few examples of studies that evaluate trade union education in general and even fewer that have looked specifically at health and safety courses. The TUC conducted a review of its overall provision in 1987 but the published results of the review focus on trade union education overall and are not specifically concerned with health and safety courses. However, since over half the respondents were health and safety representatives it is probable that it was their experiences of TUC health and safety training courses that informed their responses. Overall, respondents who had attended Stage 1 courses valued the experience of attending a course with participants representing a mixture of different trade unions and found that the training increased their confidence to function as trade union representatives. Negotiating skills and information about rights, standards and health and safety were by far the most important things that these respondents suggested should be included in Stage 2 courses[19].

The studies that have been carried out by researchers outside the trade unions have generally been of small samples of shop stewards who have followed TUC courses, although safety representatives or shop stewards who were also safety representatives were included among the respondents in some of these studies[13,37-39]. They all report findings that indicate positive responses to training, where respondents claim training has improved their ability to represent trade union members, they have found the courses they have attended "useful" and some change in the relationship of the participants with their workplace constituencies having resulted. The Workplace Industrial Relations Surveys[11] also asked some limited questions about shop stewards' training and received a large response from managers (84 per cent) that training helped the shop stewards in their jobs as representatives. Some of these managers would have been referring to shop stewards who were also safety representatives.

These findings are further supported by studies on the activities of health and safety representatives. In a national survey of safety representatives undertaken for the HSE in 1987, two-thirds of the sample had received some kind of formal training, with the proportion of trained safety representatives increasing with workplace size and length of experience; 80 per cent of those trained had received their training from trade union sources[2]. Representatives who had received training from their employers had experienced considerably less time in training than those who had undertaken trade union training. The same survey contains a detailed discussion of a number of previous studies. In agreement with the findings of the HSE study itself, many of these studies also note the importance of trade union training in enhancing the effectiveness of safety representatives, leading the authors of the HSE study to conclude that the trade union training of safety representatives was one of the most important factors contributing to improvement of their role in joint arrangements for health and safety.

On a wider scale, in two studies on worker representation on health and safety which reviewed the situation in a total of seven European Union (EU) member states, the significance of trade union training emerged as crucial to both the development and integration of health and safety representation at the workplace level[40,41].

Changes in legislation on worker representation on health and safety

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977, contain the legislative requirements for worker representation in health and safety at the workplace level in Britain. Until 1996 Britain was exceptional in the EU in so far as its legislation gave recognized trade unions the right to appoint safety representatives. "Recognized" means in law, recognized by the employer for collective bargaining purposes, although some employers who have derecognized unions for collective bargaining have continued to recognize them for safety, such as is common in printing and journalism. The offshore oil industry has its own set of regulations implemented in 1992 in the aftermath of the Piper Alpha disaster -- The Offshore Installations (Safety Representatives and Safety Committees) Regulations 1992. Trade unions are not mentioned in these regulations bemuse of problems with trade union recognition in the industry. This meant that in Britain up to 1996, with the exception of the off-shore oil industry, there was no general right of representation on health and safety matters for employees as there was in other EU countries. On this issue Britain was quite clearly out of step with the EU Framework Directive 89/391. However, between 1989 and 1995 the government took the view that the British on-shore regulations provisions for appointment of safety representatives by recognized trade unions broadly complied with the requirements of the directive in so far as they represented "balanced participation in accordance with national laws". The Health and Safety Commission (HSC), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the TUC shared this view.

Early in 1995, in the light of the decisions on employee consultation in cases re heard at the European Court of Justice[42], the government changed its views and the Secretary of State for Employment announced new legislation on consultation and representation in health and safety to bring Britain in line with the rest of the EU. The TUC, in policy documents published in 1995, also significantly shifted its position, accepting that workers in workplaces where trade unions are not recognized also need statutory rights to representation, consultation and information[10]. The Health and Safety Commission set up a group involving TUC and CBI representatives to produce draft regulations to implement the directive. In October 1995 a consultative document[43] containing these proposed regulations was released with a view to them coming into force by the autumn of 1996. Subsequently, the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 were laid before Parliament on 1 July 1996 and became law from 1 October 1996.

A key feature of the regulations is that they will not affect the continued implementation of the existing provisions in those workplaces where the older provisions are relevant. For this reason they have been referred to as "top up" provisions by the HSC, implying that they are additional to existing regulations, extending rights to non-union employees, not covered by the 1977 regulations. However, this interpretation is somewhat misleading for two reasons:

(1) The proposed regulations do not necessarily require any representative arrangements to be established. Employers are required to engage in consultations with employees not covered by representatives appointed in accordance with the 1977 regulations, but employers have discretion as to whether they do this through consultation with elected representatives or directly with employees themselves.

(2) Where employers choose to consult with representatives, the new proposals provide much less in the way of statutory rights to employees than the 1977 regulations. The proposed regulations do not make any provisions for how the election of representatives is to take place, other than to require employers to allow candidates standing for election reasonable time off with pay to perform their functions as candidates. There is no approved code of practice with the regulations and the Guidance merely suggests that employers may wish to give all employees the right to stand as candidates, make sure that those eligible to vote are not subject to intimidation and take steps to ensure that ballots are not tampered with. No rights are provided with regard to carrying out workplace inspections, the inspection of statutory health and safety documents and the investigation of employee complaints, notifiable accidents or dangerous occurrences. Elected representatives will not be entitled to require the establishment of safety committees.

With regard to training, employers are obliged to provide representatives with such training as is reasonable in the circumstances, to pay for it and representatives will be entitled to paid time off to receive training. However, the guidance accompanying the draft regulations states that training will not have to be provided where those elected are already "sufficiently competent in respect of both representational skills and health and safety knowledge". It is left to employers to determine the content and style of the training required.

Implications of the new regulations for training of employee representatives and some lessons from other European countries

The question of the provision of training and its extent is an important one for the effectiveness of the new regulations, if training plays such a key role in promoting effectiveness as is suggested by the present study. The Guidance for Employers that accompanies the proposed regulations is somewhat jejune in its suggestions for training. It identifies three possibilities:

(1) trade union training;

(2) courses offered by trade associations, specialist personnel organizations, the TUC, local chambers of commerce, TEC colleges and other similar institutions;

(3) distance learning materials including the HSE's booklet and audio package "You Can Do It".

It is left to employers to decide which might be the most appropriate for employee representatives to follow. Based on current experience there are only likely to be three possible sources of such training that are of any significance:

(1) training provided by employers;

(2) training provided by state or public education institutions;

(3) trade union training.

British experience of training for employee representatives provided by or on behalf of employers is limited, but its quantitative and qualitative limitations is illustrated by the experience of non-trade union representatives in the British off-shore oil industry. Researchers found that participants in a survey of the effectiveness of the legislation on safety representation off-shore expressed concern about the quality and quantity of training provided, with the main providers of training to on-shore representatives -- the trade unions -- being virtually excluded from its provision to off-shore representatives[44].

Although it was found in the European survey that the recipients of trade union training in health and safety are primarily trade union officials and representatives, in some countries it is possible for non-trade union employees to attend courses provided by trade unions. For example, in Germany, members of the works councils who do not belong to trade unions or employees with no representative function may attend trade union courses. It was also noted in the survey that in a number of northern European countries, such as Germany, Norway and Sweden, trade unions are increasingly selling their training services to employers in open competition with other training providers. Comments from trade union educators in these countries indicate that they compete successfully in the employment training market in this respect. The HSC clearly thinks that such an approach might be considered relevant to the introduction of the proposed new regulations for non-union representatives in Britain. Preliminary consultation has taken place between the TUC and employers' organizations on the length and content of such training and it is quite likely that a shortened adaptation of the existing TUC Stage 1 course may be offered. However, in Germany, the numbers of non-union participants on trade union courses are insignificant compared with the numbers of trade union representatives, and, according to German trade union educators interviewed in the European study, economic constraints increasingly limit the attendance of these participants.

Although the provision of training by trade unions in Europe is extensive, in most countries it is not reaching all eligible representatives[8]. This is true of the situation in the UK where the rate of turnover among safety representatives is relatively high. Many surveys point to the majority of safety representatives holding the office for two to three years[45]. To what extent training provision can keep up with this turnover is difficult to determine, but in their 1987 survey for the HSE at a time when the overall numbers being trained was greater than at present, Walters and Gourlay[2] indicated a widening gap between the uptake of places on TUC courses and the numbers of new representatives being appointed. Evidence suggests that representatives least likely to receive trade union training are those in small and medium-sized workplaces where trade unions are not a strong presence. Based on these observations, it is unlikely that mainstream trade union training will be a main source of training provision for non-union representatives even if the TUC and unions themselves were persuaded that it was appropriate to offer such training to non-union representatives.

However, the involvement of FE colleges in health and safety training in Britain creates a further possibility for training of non-union employee representatives through the same system as trade union training which is not possible in other northern European countries. The move towards certification and accreditation of trade union courses run in public education institutions has been a major development in British trade union education in recent years and is likely to provide, among other things, the means by which such provision will be resourced following the withdrawal of direct government funding for trade union training. An extension of this system to non-union employee health and safety representative training would seem to offer a viable option for both the resourcing of this training and the sustaining of its quality. It would not necessarily involve opening up trade union courses to non-trade unionists, but could be run in parallel, with only the criteria for accreditation and the maintenance of quality being the common factor.

Nevertheless, the mere provision of courses does not guarantee uptake. The evidence on trade union training suggests that support from trade unions provides a powerful stimulus for representatives to attend courses and for obtaining time off from employers. The small and medium-sized workplaces which are least well served by trade union training are also likely to be the places where many non-union employee representatives are elected, since these workplaces are weakly unionized. There is no obvious external support for employee representatives from such workplaces who seek time off for health and safety representative training whatever its means of provision. Even if they do manage to be trained there is no clear means of continued support and follow-up for such employee representatives when they return to their workplaces, in contrast to that available to trade union representatives. This is particularly so with regard to the continued provision of information from trade unions which is an important source of support that is identified by trade union representatives in the studies of effectiveness discussed previously.


Trade unions in Britain make an important qualitative and quantitative contribution to health and safety training by the organization and delivery of courses for health and safety representatives, particularly through the TUC Regional Education Programme. The quantitative and qualitative importance of trade union education in preventive health and safety is not widely recognized. Trade unions in all countries in Europe commit very substantial resources to education and training in general and a significant proportion of these are used in health and safety training.

In this article the extent of British trade union provision has been outlined. The scale of this provision since the 1970s has been influenced by government funding of trade union education, which has been discontinued in recent years. Both in Britain and in other European countries, training has been shown to be an important supportive factor in promoting the effectiveness of employee health and safety representatives. It is clear that the approach adopted by trade union educators to health and safety education and training in Britain is broadly similar to that advocated in other countries and that overall it is possible to identify a common pedagogy of trade union education in health and safety whose characteristics are applicable internationally. Whether this common approach is the result of the learning theory being international, or whether it is the result of a convergence of thinking on the role of worker representatives in the present industrial relations climate, is an interesting issue that would benefit from further study.

An important observation that emerges from the present review is that there may be a relationship between the particular approach to training that has been developed by trade union education internationally and the effectiveness of health and safety representatives. If there is such a relationship, it is a significant consideration with regard to the new regulations extending representation to non-unionized employees. There are obviously training implications for those affected by such new provisions, but what kind of training and how its effectiveness can be enhanced are important issues for policy makers and training providers alike.

In an unfavourable economic climate in the 1990s, changes in standards and organization of vocational training have been combined with changes in the funding arrangements for trade union education. The main provision of trade union education has been opened to external scrutiny and validation. Although controversial, these developments have been accepted by the TUC and the future of training provision in trade union education including health and safety training will be subject to external validation and accreditation in a way not previously experienced in trade union education in Britain and which is not the practice in other European countries. At the same time, legislative changes in 1996 allow the election of non-union employee representatives. The new regulations give employee representatives rights to receive training and oblige employers to make arrangements to provide it. Present experience of training provision for employee representatives outside trade union training both in Britain and in other European countries suggests that it is unlikely that employer-led training for such representatives would be either quantitatively or qualitatively significant. A model of provision by further education institutions along similar lines to trade union training in these institutions and subject to the same kind of scrutiny, validation and accreditation is possible. However, without support and follow-up equivalent to that received by trade union representatives from their trade unions it is difficult to see how such a provision could be either effective or sustained.

The new regulations present a challenge for the organization and development of future training provision in health and safety. Trade union training may be well placed to make a significant contribution to meeting such a challenge. Despite the economic recession and a political and legislative climate that has been unfavourable towards trade unions in the 1990s, trade union provisions for health and safety training in the UK have been shown to be remarkably resilient. This is also true in other European countries. There are indications from these countries, that trade unions can use their training role positively and effectively in situations where legislation does not restrict health and safety representation to trade unions. There are also well-documented examples of trade unions seeking new identities and strategic positions in the 1990s[46,47]. A wider servicing role in health and safety training could be one such example. The opportunities presented to trade unions by the new British legislative proposals are considerable and there is enormous potential for unions to use their well-established role in health and safety training to great effect in improving their image and reversing trends in declining membership. However, if trade unions are unable to rise to this, the prospects for training for non-union representatives and the likelihood of their general effectiveness look bleak. It is difficult to see where such representatives might turn for support. There has not been any significant movement in this respect from other participants in the regulation of health and safety at work, such as employers and regulatory agencies. This is true for Britain, where the challenge of legislation for non-union representation in health and safety is new, but it is equally true for other European countries where it has been a reality for decades.


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David Walters

David Walters is principal lecturer and head of the Centre for Industrial and Environmental Safety and Health at South Bank University, London. He is a graduate in Biological Sciences with an M.Med.Sc. in Community Medicine and a PhD in Labour Relations and Health and Safety. His main research interest concern the social relations of occupational health and safety management, particularly the role of employee participation. Additional interests include regulatory policy and strategy, training needs, and occupational health and safety systems in developing countries. In recent years funded research has focused on comparative European aspects of participation in health and safety organization. David Walters is the author of a number of research reports, books and articles on these subjects.
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Author:Walters, David L.
Publication:Personnel Review
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Date:Dec 1, 1997
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