Despite statutory obligations that work site health and safety representatives be elected by their colleagues – which helps ensure better health and safety outcomes – the majority of safety reps who attend health and safety training appear to be appointed by their employers.
Jason Braithwaite, general manager of New Zealand health and safety training provider Besafe Training Ltd, says elected health and safety representatives are more passionate about safety.
As the voice of the workers, they have statutory power to direct a worker who is in their work group to cease work that is not safe. However, appointed health and safety representatives are less likely to want to rock the boat.
“For a business of 20 or more staff, or where sites are considered high risk – like building construction, heavy and civil engineering construction, food production and manufacturing – employers are required to hold an election for a health and safety representative. However, most of the safety representatives we talk with are appointed by their bosses.”
Braithwaite says that some employers just don’t know, or they may be reluctant to take their chances with an elected health and safety representative because the rep has the power to issue a provisional improvement notice (PIN) and stop work if necessary. Employers, understandably, are reluctant to relinquish control or risk finding themselves in a fractious relationship.
“Once a health and safety representative is properly trained, they can better identify a high-risk area and ask their employer to fix the problem, issue a PIN, report the matter to WorkSafe or halt work until the problem is fixed. All of these measures can have a substantial impact on the business. It makes employers nervous.”
He says, however, that it is the workers who are on site day in and day out and who are exposed to the risks. The safety representative who is conscientious about their responsibilities fulfils a vital role in communicating hazards to employers and ensuring they are rectified.
Three quick checks:
1. There should always be a health and safety representative
“Workers frequently complain that they can’t get their bosses to listen to their concerns. A health and safety representative solves that problem, provided the rep takes their elected role seriously.”
2. Elect, don’t appoint
In addition to being a legislative requirement, health and safety representatives chosen by their colleagues are likely to be more passionate and conscientious about the role, which in the long run saves lives and ultimately protects the business as well.
3. Training is essential
A trained health and safety representative makes a site safer. Their enhanced ability to do proper risk assessments and communicate with workers and bosses means they are less likely to make costly mistakes for both workers and employers.
“An elected health and safety representative, because they are the kind of person that can get elected, is more likely to have essential communications skills.”
Braithwaite says health and safety deserves to be taken extremely seriously because it is about health, lives, and livelihood.
“We want mums and dads to get to come home to their families at the end of the day.”