The key to prevention is not sticking a plaster over the problem after it occurs, it is about taking action to ensure it does not happen in the first place.

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This was the clear message from delegates at the 10th Annual NIPSA Health and Safety Conference on 22 October 2019 in the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast.

Opening the Conference, NIPSA General Secretary, Alison Millar said:

“The theme for this year’s conference is ‘The Key to Prevention’. We must therefore ensure that the agenda moves away from fixing the issues after the damage has been done to preventing any injury, ill health or mental illness from occurring. This is a significant but vital shift in the agenda and we must continue to work diligently with employers across the civil and public sector to ensure that the issues of health and safety in the workplace is a day to day function of all – and not trying to fix it after the event.”

Robert Kidd, Chief Executive of the Health & Safety Executive for NI (HSENI) addressed conference delegates. In his address Robert commended the Health and Safety Reps for taking on the responsibility and seeking to ensure the continued health and wellbeing of their colleagues in the workplace. He reflected on the changes he had witnessed over his 30 year career in the NICS, including the banning of smoking in the workplace.

He highlighted the recent opportunity that he had to meet and discuss health and safety with shortlisted nominees from various unions including NIPSA as part of the Health and Safety Rep of the Year Award. He said the passion and enthusiasm to actively promote health, safety and wellbeing was very evident from each and every candidate nominated.

We were delighted to welcome Janet Newsham from Greater Manchester Hazards Centre to deliver a keynote address on ‘Violence in the World of Work’. In her address she said: “Workers are facing increasingly more violent situations and more workers are facing them.  Not just in jobs traditionally associated with violent situations such as security guards, prison officers.  Also people are working in more hostile workplaces.  The key to keeping us all safe at work is prevention and we have to hold our employers to account and challenge them.  ‘Prepare and prevent, don’t repair and repent!’

The statistics associated with violence are horrifying.  According to the HSENI 2017/2018 annual report 15% of the 1898 reported assaults and violent incidents resulted in more than 3 day injuries.  In England and Wales the HSE reported 330,000 assaults in 2017/2018 and 694,000 incidents of violence at work which resulted in 41% injury.

The definition of workplace violence should be much broader.  For the first time violence and harassment in the world of work is covered by a new international labour standard.  This is significant because it is the first new convention since 2011.  The process has taken 8 years to put the demands on the agenda, convince Governments to accept the necessity and to battle through amendments submitted by employers.  We now need to pressure our Government to ratify this convention which is a basic human right about dignity and respect at work.  Many workers face destructive working conditions subjecting them to violent situations, sexual assaults, bullying, unrelenting pressures and careless attitudes that make working conditions untenable and their lives unliveable.

The new ILO convention 190 - Violence and Harassment Convention 2019 provides a broader and more acceptable definition and provides a clear framework. The HSE ‘Violence at work statistics 2018’ claim that the risk of violence for working age people in employment is broadly similar over recent years, but there is also recognition by HSENI that there is a massive underreporting.  This is especially true for those vulnerable workers who are on precarious contracts and suffer and are subdued in to silence.  In 2018 a report on social workers in NI said that assault or violence is one of the top 3 causes of injury for the 115,000 workers in social care sector.  86% have experienced intimidations, 42% reported being physically assaulted at least once in their careers, 75% who experienced intimidation reported a detrimental impact on their mental health and 10% reported being assaulted more than 10 times.

In Scotland Unison who has been surveying the members in the Public Service since 2006 reported that in 2018 40,568 had been victims of violent assaults, in the Scottish Ambulance service 60% of all staff had experienced physical and/or verbal abuse at work.  Firefighters in England reported verbal abuse, objects thrown, physical abuse, harassment and other acts of aggression.  The Education trade union group in NI said that 1/3 education workers experienced physical abuse annually, 1/5 receive physical abuse once a week, 83% verbally abused in the classroom and 45% of the verbal abusers were parents.  In care homes care workers said ‘getting punched is just part of the job’ and 71% of care workers faced both verbal and physical aggression in their jobs.  USDAW trade union said 1/5 shop workers who have been assaulted don’t report it and there had been a 25% increase in assaults – 265 assaults daily.  Teachers in Wales reported 40% of teachers had experienced violence from pupils.

It is not just the usual jobs that subject workers to violent situations.  It has been reported by BFAWU union that more than 1000 female McDonalds workers had been sexually harassed and the scandal of the Presidents Club Dinner in 2018 which presented young women workers in black underwear as sexual objects for business, political and even Vice chancellors, all in the name of charity!  The McDonald workers and other fast food workers who are facing violent situations because of 24 hour opening when customers arrive full of drink and drugs and unwilling to wait patiently for their orders, and taking their impatience out on low paid, zero hour contract staff.  Other violent situations include passenger violence on Transport for London and hotel cleaners.

Behind the statistics are the faces of those who have been killed, which includes people like Lyra McKee a NI journalist shot in 2019, Belinda Rose a social workers stabbed in Birmingham, Jo Cox MP stabbed and shot in Leeds in 2016, Hilary Simmons a Tesco worker who died after an altercation with a thief from a heart attack.  Also Ravi Katharkamar who was stabbed in a London shop for £100, Spanish teacher Ann Maguire who was stabbed by a 15 year old pupil, Ladbrokes worker Andrew Lacovou who was battered to death in 2013 by a gambler and Mohammed Abu Sammour who was beaten unconscious and reversed over in Glasgow.

There is no magic answer why there has been an increase in violence.  We could all provide an answer as to why we are more vulnerable to violence in our work.  It includes increased lone working, being under resourced and understaffed at work, changes to the way we work including 24 hour working, increased workplace stress, cuts to security staff, zero hours precarious contracts.  Workers are in the frontline as teachers, care workers, retail workers, fast food and bar workers, social care providers, emergency workers, benefit advisers etc.  They are being subjected violence from outside and from the indignity of working conditions which micro manage them and even time their toilet breaks.  Women subjected to the indignity of holding up red cards to show they are on their periods and need more toilet breaks.

The law hasn’t changed, employers have a duty to assess the risks that workers face and control them.  These are foreseeable hazards that employers should control and there needs to be much greater enforcement.

NIPSA tackling violence at work document provides a great checklist of what reps can do to challenge the issue of violence faced by workers. Ensure all incidents are written down and recorded. We have to challenge toxic workplaces which are degrading, humiliating and bullying workplaces.  There needs to be a zero tolerance on violence both inside and outside the workplace.  Create violence at work charter.  Monitor and take action on all incidents.  Share information about prosecutions of employers who fail to keep their employees safe. HSE v NHS Oxleas Trust (2018) Central Criminal Court – 20 December No-one should be driven to suicide because of violence faced by workers and support the campaign by Hazards to get the HSE to investigate all work related deaths including suicides and record them.  Visit for more information.

Finally safety reps should put up posters and leaflets, conduct surveys, carry out risk mapping and conduct a special inspection on violence.  Work with employers to develop policies and ensure there is full consultation about all the issues.  All incidents of violence including near misses should be recorded and acted on.” Janet’s presentation is available here to download.

The second Keynote Speaker was Kyle Carrick, HSENI Principal Inspector. Kyle provided an update on the Our Work Our Health Our Lives campaign. The campaign has provided an ongoing focus across all industry sectors on the workplace health priority areas as outlined within HSENI’s draft Corporate Plan for 2018-2023.

Occupational lung disorders, occupational cancers, musculoskeletal disorder and work-related stress were each considered within the context of our Northern Ireland workforce. The impact of occupational ill-health remains a significant issue with recent studies suggesting a cost of £238 million to the local economy. The human cost to individuals and that of their families was clearly presented during the session with real life examples cited that shown all too clearly the impact on individuals. A range of ongoing initiatives were also presented to conference that are cross cutting of many employment sectors. The value of effective partnerships with local employers and industry groups was highlighted as an effective strategy in improving the health and mental wellbeing of employees across Northern Ireland. Click here for a copy of his presentation.

Workshop Sessions

Following the keynote speakers the delegates split into four different workshops.


Margaret Loughran, Chairperson of NIPSA Health and Safety Committee, delivered a workshop on ‘When is a reasonable adjustment reasonable?’ The workshop discussed what a reasonable adjustment was, the factors that should be considered when negotiating an adjustment and the procedure for making such a request. Click here to download Margaret's presentation.

A workshop on ‘Stress and Mental Health’ was delivered by Nigel Fyffe from Aware. The workshop identified and challenged the things which affect/stress us in the workplace and provided techniques to help us manage our mental health at work.

Barbara Martin, ICTU tutor, delivered the workshop session ‘Gender Health and Wellbeing’. Barbara explained the different risks at work between men and women due to their biological sex, and gender segregation of jobs. She examined what this meant and how sex and gender sensitive risk assessment and organisation can prevent harm and inequality. Click to download a copy of Babara's presentation.

The fourth workshop on ‘Reps Functions and Employers Duties’ was delivered by Brian McAnoy, ICTU Tutor. Brian provided a detailed examination of employers’ duties and safety reps’ functions. Looking at how we ensure safety reps are able to carry out their functions and ensure management side do not misinterpret the legislation to weaken and undermine the role of health and safety reps.

Brexit Roundup

Paul MacFlynn from the Nevin Economic Research Institute gave an update on the Brexit negotiations. He said:

“The Brexit deal that has tentatively been agreed between the UK and the EU is welcome in that it avoids and no-deal exit. However, there are some troubling aspects to this deal. Any deal between the EU and the UK regarding Northern Ireland has always been complicated by the UK government’s decision to leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union.

These are the two central economic pillars of the EU and they define its economic borders. The Single Market relates to the harmonised standards and regulations that apply to goods and services within the EU. The Customs Union relates to the absence of tariffs on goods traded between members and a common external tariff charged on trade with non-members.The Single Market and the Customs Union respectively define the regulatory and the customs border of the EU.

In order to prevent a border on the Island of Ireland it has been necessary to build a compromise where NI participates with these EU structures whilst also remaining a part of the UK. Participating in the Single Market is the easier of these two propositions. If Northern Ireland remains in the Single Market, the UK can commit to keep up with EU regulations and standards to ensure as little a difference as possible between NI and the rest of the UK. This would mean that the regulatory border between NI and the rest of the UK would be only marginally larger than it is at the moment. Here, both Boris Johnson and Theresa May’s deals accepted this point.

However, Boris Johnson’s deal contains a weaker commitment on the rest of the UK matching up to the regulations of the Single Market and therefore the regulatory border under this deal could be more significant. For customs it is harder to make compromises, a country is either in a customs union or it is not. Theresa May accepted this and her plan would have seen all of the UK remain aligned to the Customs Union until such time as technology would obviate the need for a border on the Irish sea. Boris Johnson on the other hand has decided that all of the UK will still leave the EU Customs Union, but that NI will continue to charge tariff as if it were still a member.

Under this scenario NI would leave in EU customs union in name only. How and where Northern Ireland lands in these negotiations matter for issues beyond trade. Obviously, firms will be impacted by whatever deal is reached but there are also impacts for those in jobs not directly affected. If NI participates in the Single Market, that means we must still apply EU regulations and standards in areas such as the environment, employment and indeed health and safety. Not all Single Market regulations would apply in NI, but a sizeable proportion.

Theresa May’s deal would have seen the rest of the UK maintain current standards and attempt to keep pace with future reforms where possible. Boris Johnson’s deal has no such commitment and could see a significant diversion on these matters in the rest of the UK. Such a divergence can lead to political pressure to water down these standards and regulations in the name of competition. This is the most worrying aspect of the new deal for Northern Ireland, Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”