Stressed out workers don’t want to hear the management buzz word ‘resilience’, they want the stress taken out of their working lives.

This was the clear message from delegates at the 7th Annual NIPSA Health and Safety Conference on 17 October 2016 in the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast. The theme of this year’s Conference was “Healthy Workplaces for All Ages”.

Opening the Conference, NIPSA General Secretary Alison Millar thanked the Health and Safety Committee and Health and Safety Reps for all their hard work over the year in protecting the health, safety and welfare of NIPSA members and advancing the health and safety agenda within their own workplaces. Commenting on the number of staff leaving under the voluntary exit scheme, she said:

“When the Conference took place in the City Hotel, Derry/Londonderry this time last year we were entering into a period of major change across the Northern Ireland Civil Service with the first tranche of staff leaving under the voluntary exit scheme having just commenced as a result of the Stormont House Agreement. Unfortunately over the period of a few short months over 3,200 staff left the NICS and since the first tranche this has meant those members remaining have been, not unexpectedly, put under additional pressure to ‘deliver more with less’. What our political masters fail to seem to realise is, that it is impossible to deliver the same level of service with that number of experienced staff no longer available to deliver the service. NIPSA have been challenging and will continue to challenge Ministers and MLAs at every opportunity and today will be an opportunity to do that with Conor Murphy MLA, Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy in the Q&A session later this morning.”

Turning to address the recent media coverage on sickness absence, she said:

“What we have witnessed in the last number of weeks is the media fanning shock and horror at increasing levels of sick absence. I don’t think anyone in this room is surprised by this alleged phenomenon as health and safety representatives you face the challenges of more and more staff reporting increased stress and mental health issues arising because of increased work pressures – so why would anyone be surprised by this – 15% decrease of the workforce with no corresponding decrease in the workload equals increased pressure on those left in the system.”

She congratulated the work of the Health and Safety Committee in its recent publication “The Perfect Storm – Stress at Work: A NIPSA Guide” and commended it as an excellent tool in assisting in representing both individual members who are experiencing work related stress.

She talked about the TUC publication published on World Mental Health Day (10 October 2016) on the level of workplace stress being at record levels and the major victory NIPSA played in ensuring that our local Assembly did not proceed with proposed changes to our occupational accident, dangerous occurrences and disease reporting requirements under RIDDOR. To read more of the General Secretary’s address click here.

We were delighted to welcome Conor Murphy MLA, Chairperson of the Assembly Committee for the Economy, to deliver the keynote address. In his address he said:

“It is the Committee’s view that the trade union movement is a key stakeholder and Members believe that it is important that the views of the movement are well represented in government. He, and the Committee, values what NIPSA and its membership have to say.” He went on to say “NIPSA works hard to ensure that workers’ interests and needs are presented at any and every opportunity and the Committee is listening and our door is open.” To read Conor Murphy’s full speech click here.

Our second speaker was Hilda Palmer from Greater Manchester Hazards.

Hilda said we must reject neoliberalism, ‘austerity cuts’, privatisation, outsourcing, deregulation and enforcement cuts which have created a war on working class. This perfect storm of attacks on us, from cradle to grave, in and out of work have created a working environment which that for many is now brutish, harsh, insecure, unjust and underpaid. The disgusting employment practices of Sports Direct, BHS, Bryon Hamburgers and Workfare are just the tip of the iceberg and are the direct legacy of Cameron, Osborne and May.

She went on to demand that our Governments put an end to the harmful Better Regulation Agenda which has allowed business/employers to capture the regulatory enforcement system for their own purposes of profit maximisation and control to the detriment of workers health and lives.

Delegates were asked to sign a ‘Stop it you’re killing us’ postcard, to send one by email, share it on Twitter and Facebook and take it to workplaces and branches. She remembered all those workers – over 50,000 – who have died at, and by, work over the last year and especially Linda Whelan a founder member of FACK, Families Against Corporate Killers, and those killed in multi-fatality incidents such as the five migrant workers killed at Hawkeswood Metals in Birmingham, the four killed at Bosley Wood Flour Mill and the four killed at Didcot power station, of whom three were still buried under the rubble.

She said we must insist that our Governments invest in strong health and safety law, strict enforcement and supports strong active trade unions to prevent deaths, injuries and illness caused by work. We must put good health and safety at the heart of decent jobs and decent lives for all. Click here to access Hilda’s presentation.

Workshop Sessions

The workshop sessions addressed some of the key issues our health and safety reps have to deal with in the workplace.

Managing Alcohol and Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Tommy Wright from the Labour Relations Agency delivered the workshop session on Managing Alcohol and Substance Abuse in the Workplace.

The session provided essential guidance on the range of representative issues arising from substance misuse in the world of work. It dealt with issues related to risk and assistance and balanced the need for remaining aware of the interests of members who were suffering from misuse and addiction with those who found themselves involved in the collateral problems arising from the behaviour of colleagues. It suggested a path to travel when dealing with members needing assistance but facing discipline, and provided checklists for drug and alcohol policies. Click here for a copy of the workshop presentation.

Workplace Organisation

This workshop was delivered by Clare Moore from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

This session considered how health and safety is organised in the workplace and covered:

The key legislative framework;

The role and duties of the health and safety representative;

The key duties placed on employers;

The role of the enforcement agencies and the inspection process; and

Ensuring that there are good structures in place via workplace reps, workplace safety committees feeding into union structures and into the ICTU

Click here for a copy of the workshop presentation.

Poverty and Poor Health

Hilda Palmer from Greater Manchester Hazards delivered this workshop session.

Hilda focused on what causes poverty, its effect on health and then looking at what we can do inside and outside work, in our union branch, what the union nationally should be doing and what we can do in the community. Each workshop came up with a slightly different perspective on the issues but overall agreed on the political construction of poverty through wages were too low to meet living cost, and under neoliberal austerity, the dismantling of the social security safety net and welfare state, and assault on public services, creating poverty for many and wealth for the few. Emphasis was placed on challenging the ideas that the poor are responsible for their own poverty and ill-health and that austerity kills and makes us sick.

Looking at the effects of poverty on health produced an alarming list of damaging effects from prenatal to old age caused by poor diet, poor housing, air and other environmental pollution, unequal work exposures, effects on education and prospects. The impact of the toxic soup of chemicals in which we live and work on our current and future health falls most heavily on the poor and via its effects conspires to keep us poor.

Work is a source of inequality in health via levels of wages and quality of working conditions and there we can do a lot in our unions at work to prevent causes of ill-health at source, keep workers as safe and healthy as possible and to bargain for higher wages and lower hours. The workshop discussed the major work causes of ill-health, such as dust, chemicals, stress due to long hours, excessive workloads, bullying and harassment and punitive sickness absence schemes, musculoskeletal disorders and the relevant laws and Safety Rep and Safety Committee Regulation rights to identify hazards to health and remove them and to remember the perinatal effects on sperm, eggs and on a developing foetus at work all of which can have long term consequences for the health of the future child.

It was agreed we want our union to campaign loudly and effectively against low pay, for living wages, against austerity and other neoliberal policies such as deregulation of health and safety law and its enforcement, that make us, and keep us, poor, unhealthy and to use our stories and evidence to win the argument with the public that we need better protection at work, not less. Wellbeing and resilience programmes should be rejected in favour of legally required collective preventative actions. We need to make the links between good jobs and decent lives, good health in our communities and work with other unions, other organisations and campaigns, make common cause and act in solidarity for the better world we want and know is possible.

Resisting Resilience

The following are the key messages delivered by John Bamford from Greater Manchester Hazards on the new management buzz word “Resilience”.

Resilience means that an individual has capacity to continue to operate effectively even when subject to the most adverse conditions; so for instance, to be able to cope with a grossly excessive workload or the predatory attentions of the bullying manager who tries to force them to complete such excessive amounts of work. It is common that the mental and physical health of many workers is adversely affected by such workplace conditions.

Employers are always looking for ways to motivate and control workers to ensure their compliance with employer-determined objectives such as improved productivity, even though the conditions at work may not be conducive to such motivation. Such workers control techniques that go back to the mid 19th century, and the so-called "scientific management" ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor and later human relations concepts and approaches developed in 1930’s by Elton Mayo. Academic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs and Frederick Herzberg’s ideas about job enrichment and the two-factor theory based on job satisfaction and positive working conditions took such management techniques forward, into empowerment and Toyota-style quality circles and continuous improvement. Such management techniques have been called fads that rise and fall (See: How Management Fads Rise (and Fall): Chartered Management Institute website 19th May 2016)

Employers are persuaded that by training workers in so-called resilience techniques they will be able to deal effectively with adverse conditions without consequent illness, reduced performance and absence. Resilience links to other fads like the ill-defined "wellbeing", and "engagement" where the focus is to hold individual employees personally responsible for their responses to poor working conditions. Consultants are now promoting "mindfulness", and ideas of "happiness", based on work published by Professor Richard Layard at LSE. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the professional body of human resource practitioners promotes these ideas, and provides training courses for employers and managers; with a growing body of academics, occupational psychologists and consultants underpinning the approach.

None of these approaches satisfy the duties imposed on employers by The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulation (Northern Ireland) 2000. There is little evidence that they work and protect people from risk. The Regulations require employers to undertake suitable and sufficient risk assessments to identify hazards and risks, and put effective control measures in place to eliminate the risks or manage them to a level where they cannot cause harm. Employers are required to adopt a set of principles of prevention that require them to combat risks at source; adapt work to the individual; develop a coherent overall prevention policy that covers technology, the organisation of work, working conditions, social relationships, and giving priority to collective protective measures over individual protective measures. Resilience training and other techniques, with their focus on the individual do none of these.

Having identified risks employers must inform the workers to whom the assessment relates, and review the assessments when there is reason to believe it is no longer valid. Individual workers have a duty to tell the employer when they reasonably believe the measures in place to protect them from risks is not adequate, or when they are being exposed to serious and imminent danger.

Trade union safety representatives can challenge such managerial approaches. They have a range of investigative and inspection functions, and can make representations to the employer on anything to do with the health, safety and welfare of employees. Employers must consult in good time, (and before making decisions) with safety representatives on matters including the introduction of measures that have a significant impact of employees; the planning and organisation of training; the appointment of competent people that assist the employer to meet their statutory obligations under H&S law, and any information about health and safety the employer has to give employees.

Employers have a range of statutory duties to support and facilitate the safety representatives function by permitting reps to take such time-off as shall be necessary, and providing such facilities and assistance as the reps need, and giving reps a considerable range of information and documents related to health and safety in the workplace.

Work-related stress is just one of the factors that face people at work, and should be treated as any other collective bargaining issue. Trade union organisation in the workplace is the way to tackle these inadequate approaches to work-related stress, develop an effective body of safety representatives and involve employees in resisting the resilience approach.

Closing the Conference was NIPSA President Carmel Gates.

Carmel praised the work of the Health and Safety Committee for organising the conference which she said is getting better every year and, as the word spreads, more and more reps are keen to attend.

She thanked workplace health and safety reps for the very hard work they do and reminded them that they are becoming more appreciated by the general membership who recognise the growing importance of their work and the fact that the job of the health and safety rep is getting tougher every day because of staffing cuts and because of the policy in the NI Civil Service, for example, of squeezing staff into a smaller number of buildings.

She reminded them that whilst employers often pay lip service to health and safety issues, our reps can challenge the cuts and austerity agenda by forcing the employers to fulfil their legal obligations under health and safety legislation.

She referred back to the information in the presentations made by our guest speaker and, in particular, the information regarding poverty and health and the fact that the current economic system and the growing inequality between rich and poor is leading to a more sick society in more ways than one.

She reminded the conference of the progressive role that trade unionists and socialists have played throughout the history of our movement in making work safer and better for workers. She referred to the fact that those gains are under threat as employers take short-cuts and risk workers lives in the pursuit of profit.

Carmel finished by reminding our reps of the growing need for Trade Unions and their activists to continue to build on our collective strength in challenging the current social and economic system and the need to struggle for a socialist system in which workers were treated with respect, dignity and equality.