By Ray Bedson
An important role within a workplace is that of an elected Health and Safety Representative (HSR). Health and safety legislation throughout Australia specifies the requirement for worker representation in relation to health and safety matters.
HSRs are a key conduit for the transfer of information between the workers and management. Those in the role of an HSR need to be trained to be effective. They have comprehensive powers that can be enacted to deliver positive outcomes for improvements to workplace safety.
But some of these powers can be a thorn in the side of managers and employers, and care needs to be taken to make sure HSRs do not abuse these powers. They must be seen to be acting responsibly and reasonably.
Keep in mind that HSRs do not have any imposed duties or accountabilities, other than those of regular workers. So, it can be a fine balancing act to not impose accountabilities on HSRs yet allow them to be effective in improving safety performance.
Helping HSRs perform their roles effectively
HSRs are elected to represent a group of workers or a Designated Work Groups (DWG). They are often thought-leaders or well-respected by the workers in the DWG.
The election process for HSRs needs to be fair and transparent, and employers can assist by arranging voting or ballots to make sure the process is fair and impartial. Managers should ensure that potential candidates are not coerced, intimidated or bullied. An HSR is a key role that needs to be taken seriously.
Providing training to HSRs
There are legislated obligations for training HSRs, which should be provided both on their initial appointment and on a refresher basis. These training obligations are aimed to provide HSRs with basic knowledge and skills to perform their role effectively. The 5-day initial HSR and annual refresher courses equip the attendees with sound risk-management knowledge, the skills to communicate effectively, and know how issues should be resolved within an organisation.
Training is essential to ensure HSRs are fully aware of their roles and responsibilities and also the structure for issue resolution. They will also learn how to perform risk assessments and other valuable safety skills. Proper training will provide knowledge and power, and take away misguided and non-consultative processes that untrained HSRs may exhibit.
Recognising and rewarding good behaviour
You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. This old saying is worth considering when dealing and consulting with difficult HSRs. It is important to recognise the good work that HSRs perform.
This does not mean financial reward or remuneration, which you should avoid as it could attract HSRs who only wish to perform the role for financial reasons. The profile, importance and improved safety performance of HSRs can still be recognised through a staff newsletter, intranet or something similar.
There are also annual HSR awards conducted by the statutory authorities that recognise exceptional HSR performance. You may even consider implementing an awards system within your business that recognises the commitment of HSRs to improving safety outcomes.
Sometimes discretion and biting your tongue is the best approach to take with difficult HSRs. Hostility or aggression shown towards a difficult HSR may put them further off side and make safety a blame game.
Removing an HSR who has gone beyond their duties
Once HSR’s have been elected, unless they resign their position or leave the organisation it is very difficult to remove them from their office.
The decision to remove any HSR should not be taken lightly and needs to consider the ramifications this action could cause throughout the business in terms of the safety message it may convey.
The legislation throughout Australia has the ability to disqualify an HSR from their appointed position through the courts. This is generally due to improper behaviour or disclosing confidential information.
The HSR would need to be seen to be attempting to damage or cause harm to the employer. The term ‘vexatious’ is often used to describe a person trying to irritate or be a troublemaker.
If this avenue is being considered, it would be wise to contact a health and safety inspector in your jurisdiction or seek independent legal advice before commencing any action.
HSRs are an effective way of improving safety in any workplace. The importance of worker representation has been well recognised for many years, and HSRs are often seen as the voice of workers who may be intimidated or fearful of speaking up about a safety issue. Dealing with HSRs positively will help bring about a safe, happy and productive workplace.