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Problems at work No.4 How and why could I start to raise health and safety issues at work?

The amount of Health and Safety legislation in Britain has increased over the last 20 years (much of it coming from the European Union). However, it is largely unenforced, so bosses can ignore it. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the government's official enforcement body and has a history of letting bosses off lightly. Even so, its own figures show that many accidents at work go unreported and the vast majority are avoidable.

Although the government and bosses clearly do not care much about our health and safety, the fact that the legislation exists means we have a chance to use it ourselves in order to improve our own health and safety, not to mention getting right up and tickling management noses in the process.

Where to start? This depends upon what level of health and safety there is on your workplace. If you are in a union-recognised workplace, there is much wider scope for raising health and safety issues. If it is anti-union/non-unionised, you can still challenge and force management to comply with basic legislation.

All workplaces should have completed a risk assessment of all activities which take place there. Basically, this means management should have examined all work activities, highlighted the associated hazards, and looked for ways to eradicate the risks to workers. Protective clothing and the like should only be used as a last resort – wherever possible, hazards should be removed at source.

Risk assessments must be recorded in writing in any workplace of more than 5 workers. Furthermore, far from being locked away in a filing cabinet, these should form the basis of safe working practices on a daily basis.

You could do your own risk assessment. Go around your workplace, and try to identify hazards. A hazard is a situation where harm could be caused (whereas a risk is the likelihood or chance of the harm occurring). For example, in an office, hazards might typically include exposed computer cables, uneven floor surfaces or loose carpets, poor lighting, heating and/or ventilation, stressful environments, or unsafe equipment (all equipment should be checked regularly and verified as safe).

Workstations – desk/chair/terminal arrangements – are dealt with specifically, and require specific risk assessment. One hazard is repetitive strain injury, caused by repeated movements, such as operating a computer mouse. Another is back injury caused by incorrectly configured or old desk/chair arrangements, or incorrect height of monitors. Another is eye strain caused by malfunctioning monitors or poor siting, or lack of breaks away from the workstation. Such work should be varied, it should be made to fit the workers rather than the other way around, and hourly breaks should be provided. Eye tests should be provided free as well as glasses where required.

Obviously, workplaces vary enormously, and things would be different in a factory, warehouse, fast food outlet, building site, or whatever. But doing your own risk assessment is not rocket science. Consider other workers as well as your tasks, and think about long term hazards as well as daily ones. What about other shifts – would cleaners or security staff be exposed to other hazards?

Having highlighted hazards, you could take the information to a union safety rep. if there is one, or approach management directly and inquire about what they will do about problems you have identified. If a hazard poses a ‘major' risk, such as putting workers in immediate danger, you can point this out and if management fail to act, contact the HSE or local council, who should send a safety officer. Alternatively, you can refuse to work until the hazard has been dealt with. If you lack a union and the confidence to act directly, then you can contact the authorities anonymously. Remember, ultimately, health and safety depends upon workers coming together and forcing management to act – so always encourage your workmates to act collectively. This can be done by starting to discuss health and safety with your workmates, and by networking with other people in other similar workplaces.

The Solidarity Federation has networks in various industries. For further info. and free, unconditional and confidential advice, contact Catalyst

For a copy of “Health and Safety at Work”, a 36-page booklet with tips on using health and safety in DIY activism in your workplace, send £1.50 to Catalyst at the address below.

Write to catalyst for a full & frank answer to a problem at work, or contact the ansaphone helpline for advice - 07984 675 281
Catalyst, SF, PO Box 29, SW PDO, Manchester M15 5HW. solfed@solfed.org.uk

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