All too often, bosses and the government have not provided enough protection - and it’s only down to our collective organising that conditions at work are improved.
From winning sick pay to improving PPE, unions have fought to reduce the risk of workers being exposed to coronavirus, with our health and safety reps leading the fight.
Safety reps are not like other reps: they have special rights.
They are by law entitled to investigate hazards and complaints, carry out inspections and attend committee meetings.
Since March 2020, reps have gone above and beyond to improve workplace safety, dedicating hundreds of thousands of hours to their roles.
In many sectors, safety reps and their members have been working at risk, with transmissions and outbreaks of Covid a common occurrence.
Their collective effort is a testimony to the movement and demonstrates the benefits of being in a union.
It isn't one that should go unrecognised.
We asked union safety reps to share with us the actions they are proud of, whether large or small, where they’ve stepped in to help keep workers safe during the Covid crisis.
In supporting the risk assessment process, unions secured advanced safety measures, often long before those workplaces without a union presence:
"I'm proud that we forced the employer to update the risk assessment after members had tried for weeks. Only when the union got involved did a meeting take place." – Unison safety rep.
"Thanks to the union pushing for ventilation improvements, all the windows in our 150-year-old building are now able to open and close." – UCU safety rep.
"Working with local management, we implemented the on-train Covid cleans over a month before the rest of the network." – ASLEF safety rep.
"Our branch has rigorously reviewed every risk assessment at external locations staff are due to visit. The employer did not want even to consider these risk assessments before we insisted they must be sought out and reviewed." – PCS safety rep.
"As a safety rep I’m proud that we’ve been able to ensure regimes have been restricted as necessary and this has resulted in no positive cases"- POA safety rep.
"We fought tooth and nail to have the workplace put certain things into practice, such as requiring masks before the government said so." – PCS safety rep.
"I got screens fitted to protect staff, and secured regular 'walk arounds' with the store manager to make sure everything was in place" – USDAW safety rep.
As well as securing safety controls in the workplace, unions have forced employers to recognise the need to protect workers most vulnerable to the virus:
"We got the employer to class BAME workers as vulnerable and to carry out individual risk assessments." – GMB safety rep.
"I’m proud to have assisted vulnerable staff in arguing to be allowed to stay at home on full pay.” – RMT safety rep.
Safety reps have adapted the way they represent and communicate with members:
“I give positive messages to colleagues via Yammer, reinforcing the message that they can remove themselves from risky situations and that no one came make them do something that puts them in harm's way” – Unite safety rep.
“Proudest moment was taking a stand and forcing training and briefing days to move online. This wasn’t wanted by management but it has been working extremely well.” – TSSA safety rep.
Many union branches have seen their numbers grow, and new safety reps stepping forward:
“I’m proud of getting additional safety reps full time release to police Covid concerns“ - CWU safety rep.
“We had no union health and safety reps until this year, and now we have 6.” – UCU safety rep.
“I am proud that we have expanded the number of health and safety reps in our workplace from 1 to 5, this has helped to make sure members are being fully involved.” – PCS safety rep.
The interventions unions have won in response to the pandemic have secured benefits for members in the future, too:
“The union has delivered on multi-training so if key workers in the company have to isolate there is a second who can step in and cover, so more training for staff and opportunities to learn more skills.” – safety Community rep.
“Proudest for getting home working agreed. We're hoping that we can use this in future where members have post-operative recovery and can't physically get into the office to reduce the number being pushed into disciplinary procedures due to ill-health absence.” – CWU safety rep.
“The union negotiated for staff to carry over unlimited annual leave, so they did not need to take it when locked in a house. We also secured unlimited special leave for anyone with caring responsibilities, and union’s call for free equipment for working at home, including desks, chairs and monitors was also agreed” – PCS safety rep.
“I have been involved in negotiating a toilet for remote staff in the face of a hostile manager” – SoR safety rep.
This #HeartUnions week, encourage a friend or family member who is not in a union to join one.
But don’t stop there – if you know someone who would make an excellent health and safety rep, tell them to step forward.
You’ll both be saving lives.
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