Over 15 years after they were first proposed, union-sponsored safety reps are finally roving around construction sites. Joanna Booth spends a day with Ucatt's Midlands officer, Shaun Lee
'I THINK it's down this road, ' says Shaun Lee, pulling off a roundabout in central Leicester. Covering an area ranging from the Yorkshire border to Birmingham, it's hardly surprising that he loses his bearings from time to time.
Mr Lee's van has run up plenty of mileage since he started as a roving Ucatt health and safety adviser last September.
'If I'm spending all day visiting sites I'll probably fit in half a dozen.Most days I'll have a meeting at some point too - with the HSE, the TUC, company directors or safety bosses.No two days are the same.'
Today our first port of call is a JH Hallam site, where Mr Lee has arranged with the site manager to give a toolbox talk on basic health and safety.
Armed with leaflets, he begins chatting to the nine workers who are waiting.
Initially they seem relatively unexcited by the talk, standing and listening as Mr Lee goes through basic safety issues.There are a few jokes - 'What about working with fat people?'- and Mr Lee targets the loudest members of the group, encouraging them to speak out.
As he catalogues the extent of injuries and throws in a few statistics, the questions start to fly. Some are concerned that safety equipment designed to help only hinders.Goggles, for example, can steam up and obscure a worker's view more than the dust they protect against.Mr Lee urges them to report this to their company safety managers, who should be able to make sure that the correct equipment is obtained.
Mr Lee is keen to highlight the need for each worker to take responsibility for his own safety provision, and tells them about a 72-yearold roofer who went to work in his slippers after injuring his foot and then fell to his death.This prompts a full-scale discussion about safety on site.
Scaffolder Michael Hamill says that safety standards always play second fiddle to corporate concerns.
'It all boils down to money.There should be a rescue plan on every site but in 15 years I've never worked on a site with one.
'This site is good for health and safety, but if I fell who would get me down? If I tell someone there should be a cherrypicker here at all times they just see pound signs.'
He believes that time pressure causes more accidents than anything else.
'Planning is terrible across the industry.They never schedule long enough for a job, so everyone is under massive pressure to get things done as quickly as possible, at the expense of anything else.'
He asks how to combat employers who are resistant to safety precautions and adds: 'I got asked to leave a site not long ago. I said 'what about those brickies working off trestles well above the height limit?' So my company was told that I complained too much and to move me off site.'
Many of the workers agree that questioning safety issues can give you a bad reputation.Mr Lee suggests that an on-site safety rep is the way forward, as it gives a structured forum for voicing concerns.Union safety reps are also protected from employer prejudice by law.
Mr Lee adds that Mr Hamill would be ideal as an on-site safety rep, and offers to speak to his company.
'He'd be perfect, ' says Mr Lee as we leave the site.'He's not scared to speak up, he's bright and he knows his stuff.'
One of Mr Lee's long-term aims is to increase the number of on-site reps.
'They're a link between workers and site agents. I can't be everywhere all the time.They're eyes and ears out on site. It's beneficial to the company too, although they don't always recognise that immediately.Hopefully the lads and the company trust them, so we don't get situations where lads are kicked off site.We can't have people ignoring safety issues - someone dies because people were too scared to come forward.'
Our next port of call is the JH Hallam headquarters, where Mr Lee is meeting company director Chris Hallam to discuss setting up a safety committee. Representatives from management and sites will meet once a month.
'We've been toying with the idea for quite some years but with Shaun's help we're finally getting it off the ground, ' says Mr Hallam.'Clients are increasingly keen to know that we have a safety committee in place.'
Mr Hallam says that closer union links have benefited the company.'The directors were suspicious initially, but they've come round.The union help has been invaluable in getting our guys safety trained.'
Mr Hallam's attitude extends to union membership within his company.
Rather unexpectedly, he suggests that they could do with another shop steward.
He explains: 'He's educating my blokes for free, so I want to be as helpful as possible.'
Next on the agenda is a walk round a large Barratt housing site.Mr Lee had a good relationship with the previous site manager and hopes he can cultivate the same with his replacement.
Out on site Mr Lee keeps an eye out for things like trip hazards, scaffold tags and PPE.Apart from a few missing hard hats everything seems to be in order, so he distributes some leaflets and has a chat about recruiting onsite safety reps.
The next site is a cold-call, a housing site we happen to drive past.As we park the van, the site manager hurries to meet us.
'You can't come on site!' he says.'One of the directors is here and he's really anti-union.'
Mr Lee chats to the manager, gives him some leaflets and arranges to come back at another time when he will be welcome.
He doesn't feel that union safety reps would benefit from having greater powers.
'If we started demanding entry to sites or shutting them down people wouldn't trust us.We need to work with companies to make sites safe.We have to use the law when it is right to, but you have to be positive. If you just throw the book at people they'll tell you to shove it.'
While working as an engineer Mr Lee was an on-site safety rep for 12 years.A union member since he was 16, he jumped at the chance to work for them full-time.
Mr Lee believes co-operation is the way forward.'We just want to get a dialogue going.That's all we ask, for people to talk to us.'
The long road to roving reps
ARSENAL was top of the premiership when roving safety reps were first suggested - this was back in 1989. Roving safety reps were seen as the way to bring health and safety awareness to smaller sites which did not have their own safety rep.
Since then, the idea has caused endless controversy.
Wrangling ensued about the level of powers reps should have, where sponsorship should come from, and whether the roving rep would improve site safety at all. Some employers worried that the scheme would be a channel for union recruitment.
Leading up to a proposed pilot scheme in 2001, the Construction Confederation was the most vocal critic of the rep system.
It argued that bringing a 'stranger' on site was not the way to improve relations between management and employees.
Despite reservations within the Major Contractors Group (which was worried about conflict with the HSE), clients tended to back the scheme.
The first pilot was scheduled for April 2001.Due to lack of contractor interest, funding queries and disagreement on how it would be monitored, it kept being postponed.
Finally, in February 2002, the nine-month scheme ran in three regions, London, the north-west and Scotland.
Despite worries about contractor involvement, all 38 firms approached agreed to take part.The consultative report found that three-quarters of employers involved in the scheme made changes to health and safety as a result of reps' visits.
Ucatt went ahead with its scheme in September 2003 and now six representatives are employed to cover the whole country.
Last month the scheme was given a boost after Ucatt and transport union TGWU both won bids for funding from the government's £3 million Challenge Fund, set aside to finance methods of improving workers' safety.
Both organisations won £69,000 from the fund, and will re-bid in March next year for a further £200,000 each.