The Health, Safety and Welfare of Members Must Remain a Top Priority For NIPSA

This was the clear message from delegates at the 6th Annual Health and Safety Conference which took place on 19 October 2015 in the City Hotel, Derry/Londonderry.

Brian Campfield

Hugh Robertson

Tommy Wright

Hilda Palmer

The theme of this year’s Conference was “Austerity and its impact on the Health, Safety and Welfare of Workers”. Opening the Conference, NIPSA General Secretary Brian Campfield, said:

“Our health and safety will not survive another five years if we don’t fight back, reclaim the health and safety agenda, educate, organise and agitate to make work safe. If we don’t there will be no health, no safety, and no justice at work, for us, our children and their children. Another five years of draconian cuts risks setting in stone the rowing back of all that was hard won by generations of workers and their unions fighting together for the good of all workers.”

Commenting on the scale of job cuts in the public sector, he stated: “These job losses are not only damaging public services and our economy, but are putting untold pressure on the staff left behind. Clearly it is not possible to continue to deliver the same level of quality of service with less staff.” He said: “It is essential that the remaining staff are not put in a position of having to assume unacceptable workloads and we will be insisting that the fullest consultation takes place about how Management Sides in each employment area are going to ensure that staff are not placed in an intolerable situation. There are potentially significant threats to the health and safety of staff who remain in the service. The prospect of increased levels of stress is self-evident. It is probable that the incidence of sick absence, a matter which is already giving Management cause for concern, will increase and this in turn could have a negative impact on morale and the delivery of services.”

He called on NIPSA Health and Safety representatives to ensure they monitor developments with a view to making sure that the health and safety of members is not jeopardised.

Keynote speaker, TUC’s Hugh Robertson, gave a brief overview of the situation in Britain in relation to health and safety since the May election.

He stated: “The Conservative Manifesto said that they would cut further £10 billion of ‘red tape’. What does this mean in practice? It is unclear where else they can actually cut. Certainly there have already been a series of deregulatory measures such as removing some self-employed from the health and Safety at Work Act. Were more changes proposed or would they instead continue to remove Approved Codes of Practice and cut back on guidance?”

Hugh dealt with HSE and Local Authority funding. He advised that all government departments had been asked to make plans for up to 40% cuts. There was no way that the HSE could continue to function in its present form if it had that type of funding reduction on top of the cuts already made. He outlined what some of the scenarios were if further cuts were forced on the HSE. Particular concern was expressed over inspections, with local authority inspections already having fallen by over 95% in the past five years.

Concern was expressed over the lack of an occupational health agenda on issues such as stress and musculoskeletal disorders, while this was partly because of the cuts, there was much that the HSE could still do if they wished, but were not. The level of interaction with unions and employers bodies had also fallen drastically with many joint bodies being wound down.

He said the issue of Europe was crucial to any discussion of health and safety given the attempts by the UK to change the current treaty and plans for a referendum in 2016 or 17. A review of all directives starts 2016 and some proposed directives had already been scrapped. However an evaluation of the current directives had just been completed and it had been very positive.

He was also concerned over how the proposed £12 billion cut from the welfare budget would affect workers who were sick. Industrial Injuries Benefits were already being reviewed and there was a fear the SSP could also be looked at. There was already increasing pressure on occupational health schemes run by employers.

Finally, he covered the Trade Union Bill which would not only seek to make it more difficult to strike over safety issues, but would also make it much more difficult for unions to recruit, retain and support members. It also proposed restricting the time available to health and safety representatives to do their job. He said fighting this Bill was a top priority for the TUC and they would defend the right of health and safety representatives at every stage. In addition they planned to build and support workplace organisation as the most important weapon in the battle to protect members’ health and safety at work.

The workshops addressed some of the threats to the health and safety of members as a result of the cuts. These were increase incidents of bullying and harassment, increase levels of sickness absence, poverty and poor health.

Tommy Wright from the Labour Relations Agency delivered the workshop session on Sickness Absence and Employee Rights.

This was very much presented from a representational perspective with identification of the main issues that union representatives could hope to influence.

The session explained the various forms of absence which were allowable under legislation and contractual provision before considering the areas through which sickness absence would be managed.

The first of those areas was sickness absence managed as a conduct issue. It was explained that this tended to relate to frequent short term absence and was the element most usually targeted by employers. It was explained the member representation here would probably emphasise successful advocacy for members facing disciplinary problems and would be focused on separating the idea of short term absence from a disciplinary context to a corrective context.

The second main area was the management of sickness absence as a capability issue which was more likely to be in a long term medical context. It was explained that union representatives have multiple opportunities to influence members interests in this context including at the points of employee consultation, medical opinion, access to medical records, alternative employment options, reasonable adjustments, and rehabilitation arrangements.

All of these issues where indicated as areas through which union representatives could influence members’ best interests and each one was explained as an opportunity to defend or protect a member.

The sessions produced multiple questions around the various themes and each session over-ran due to the degree of group participation.

Patricia Coulter from the Labour Relations Agency delivered the workshop session covering Bullying & Harassment in the Workplace.

The session examined this sensitive and complex issue in the context of the impact of austerity measures on employment relationships. The presentation began with the definitions of Bullying and Harassment, acknowledging their similarities and differences, from a practical and legal perspective.

Motivation for poor behaviours in the workplace was highlighted, with a particular emphasis on how reductions in staff and increased volumes of work can create a pressurised environment where poor behaviours can manifest.

The session concluded with a focus on Policy and Procedure and the key role the trade union can play in influencing Policy and supporting members. Internal resolution of issues, where possible, was recommended as best practice.

Reference was made throughout the session to the NIPSA booklet ‘A Guide to Dignity at Work’ which provides valuable advice to union representatives on how to manage these issues within the workplace.

The delegates participated actively in the session sharing examples of real issues they were dealing with within their own workplaces and seeking practical advice on how to best support their members.

The workshop session on Poverty and Health was presented by Hilda Palmer from Greater Manchester Hazards.

Hilda started by reading the motions passed at NIPSA conference on poverty and health and then discussed the issues to sharpen our focus on what causes poverty, its effects 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. We 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 SRSC 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.

We 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.

Below is a list of Workshop presentations which are available to download:

Session A: Bullying and Harassment NIPSA

Session B: Absence Management – What are your rights?

Session C: Poverty and Poor Health