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Health and Safety Representation


In workplaces where they negotiate with the employer, unions have the right to appoint safety representatives to represent the interests of employees in the area of health and safety. In non-union workplaces the employer decides whether employee representatives for health and safety should be elected, or alternatively whether employees should be consulted directly. Non-union health and safety representatives have fewer powers than those appointed by the union, as they cannot undertake workplace inspections. Union safety representatives, but not non-union ones, can also require the employer to set up a safety committee.

Basic approach at workplace level


UK health and safety legislation states that employers have a duty, “so far as is reasonably practicable”, to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. But they also have a duty to consult with any employee representatives present to allow the employer and the employees to cooperate effectively in promoting and developing measures to ensure the health and safety at work of the employees.


Employee health and safety bodies


Recognised trade unions (those with whom the employer negotiates) have the right to appoint workplace safety representatives, often known as safety reps. With the exception of actors and professional musicians, the safety representative must be an employee in the organisation whose employees he or she represents. Officials of the musicians’ and actors’ unions are the only union officials who can represent their members in workplaces where their unions are recognised but where they themselves do not work.


In organisations where there is no recognised union, the employer must consult employees either directly or through elected representatives. It is the employer who decides which route to take. These elected representatives are known as representatives of employee safety (ROES). This situation may also arise in parts of an organisation which are not covered by a recognised union.


In addition, two or more safety representatives can insist that the employer establishes a safety committee, normally a joint employer/employee body. ROES do not have the right to call for the setting up of a safety committee.  


Numbers and structure


The legislation does not state how many safety reps should be appointed, leaving this to negotiation between unions and employers. However, guidance notes to the regulations on safety representatives say that it would be appropriate to take into account:

  • the number of people employed;
  • whether there are different occupations;
  • the size of the workplace and variety of workplace locations;
  • shift systems; and
  • the kind of work and degree and character of the hazards.


There is no indication in the legislation of the number of ROES it would be appropriate to elect.


A safety committee should be set up if an employer receives a written request from at least two safety representatives asking for one. It must be established within three months of the request being received and the employer must consult the representatives making the request and representatives of recognised trade unions in workplaces covered by the committee. The legislation does not specify the composition of the safety committee but the guidance to the regulations recommends that, where safety advisers, a works doctor and other health and safety professionals are present, they should be members. The guidance also suggests that the number of members coming from management should not exceed the number of employee representatives. In any case employees should be informed of the composition of the committee and the areas it covers.


Research by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) in 2014 found that 70% of workplaces in the UK had health and safety representatives and 27% had a health and safety committee. These are both above the EU-28 averages, which are 58% for health and safety representatives and 21% for health and safety committees. (The figures are for workplaces with five or more employees.)[1]


However, as a separate EU-OSHA report on worker participation in health and safety in the UK noted in 2017, “these levels are substantially higher than other national surveys suggest is in fact the case among United Kingdom workplaces”, making it likely that the results in fact reflect “the  best end of the spectrum”.[2]


Tasks and rights


Safety representatives’ functions, as set out in the regulations, are to:

  • investigate potential hazards and dangerous occurrences and examine the causes of accidents;
  • investigate members’ complaints;
  • make representations to the employer;
  • carry out inspections at least every three months and after a serious accident, dangerous occurrence or the contraction of certain specified diseases (Additional inspections can be made if work conditions have changed substantially, or if the health and safety authorities have published new information, provided the employer has been consulted.);
  • consult with and receive information from health and safety inspectors and other enforcement officers on behalf of members; and
  • attend meetings of the safety committee (where one exists).


In order to carry out these functions, the official code of practice accompanying the regulations states that safety representatives should take all reasonably practical steps to keep themselves informed of:

  • the legal requirements relating to health and safety at work, particularly those of the group of workers they directly represent;
  • the particular hazards in their workplace and measures to eliminate those risks; and
  • the employer’s health and safety policy.


The regulations require the employer to provide safety representatives with the information they need to carry out their functions, although there are exceptions, such as for information relating to an individual or information that would damage the employer’s business. The code of practice sets out in greater detail the information that should be disclosed: 

  • any proposed changes that may affect health and safety;
  • technical information about hazards and necessary precautions, including information provided by manufacturers and suppliers;
  • information and statistical records on accidents, dangerous occurrences and certain specified industrial diseases;
  • any other information specifically related to matters affecting the health and safety at work of employees, such as measures to check the effectiveness of health and safety arrangements; and
  • information on articles and substances provided to those working at home.


In addition, safety representatives are also entitled to receive information from health and safety inspectors regarding their visits to the employer’s premises.


The functions of the ROES – the representative elected where there is no union – are more limited. In relation to the group of employees he or she represents they are to:

  • make representations to the employer on potential hazards and dangerous occurrences at the workplace which affect, or could affect, employees;
  • make representations to the employer on general matters affecting the health and safety at work, in particular where the employer is undertaking a consultation; and
  • represent employees in consultations at the workplace with health and safety inspectors.


The ROES does not have a right to undertake inspections – a crucial right for the union-appointed safety representatives – or to require that a safety committee should be set up. There is also no official code of practice for ROES, equivalent to that for safety representatives, setting out the information they should be given by the employer.


The consultation requirements, however, apply to both types of representative. Where safety representatives and/or ROES are present, there is a general requirement for employers to consult with them on health and safety issues. More specifically, they should be consulted in good time about:

  • the introduction of any measure at the workplace which may substantially affect health and safety;
  • arrangements for appointing competent people to assist with health and safety and implementing procedures for serious and imminent risk;
  • any health and safety information the employer is required to provide;
  • planning and organisation of health and safety training; and
  • the health and safety implications of the introduction (or planning) of any new technology.


There is no specific right for safety representatives or ROES to interrupt work but employee cannot be penalised if they take appropriate steps to protect themselves and others from a serious and imminent danger.


The regulations say nothing about the functions of the safety committee. Guidance from the health and safety authority suggests that its tasks could include analysing accident and disease trends, developing safety rules and advising on safety communication.


Frequency of meetings


There is nothing in the regulations stating how often the safety committee should meet. Guidance from the health and safety authority suggests only that it should meet “as often as necessary”.


Election and term of office


The legislation does not specify how unions should appoint safety representatives in organisations where they are recognised. However the regulations state that, where reasonably practicable, safety representatives should have at least two years’ employment with their present employer or two years’ experience in similar employment. Exceptions to this include cases where the employer or the workplace is newly established, where the work is of a short duration, or where there is a high labour turnover. There is no term of office specified in the regulations, although they make clear that the union that appointed the safety representative can end his or her appointment by writing to the employer to this effect.


There is no legislation specifying how ROES should be elected or how long their term of office should be. It is also the employer who decides whether they should be elected at all. Direct consultation with all employees is always an alternative.

Resources and time off

Union appointed safety representatives have the right to paid time off to carry out their functions, as set out in the regulations (see above), although the legislation does not specify how long this time off might be. They also have a right to sufficient paid time off for training “as may be reasonable in all the circumstances”. The official code of practice says that as soon as possible after their appointment they should be given paid time off to attend basic training approved by the unions and that further training should be undertaken, where necessary. While the code of practice says that that the length of training required “cannot be rigidly prescribed”, it also states that basic training should provide an understanding of the role of safety representatives, of safety committees, and of trade unions’ policies and practices in the area of health and safety. ROES, the representatives for employee safety, who may be chosen where there is no recognised union, also have a right to paid time off to carry out their functions and for “such training … as is reasonable in all the circumstances”. However, for ROES there is no code of practice spelling out what this means in detail. Both safety representatives and ROES have a right to receive from the employer the “facilities and assistance” that they reasonably need in order to carry out their functions.

Protection against dismissal


Both safety representatives and ROES have some protection against dismissal as general employment legislation states that employees should not suffer a detriment or be dismissed or made redundant for carrying out legal functions as “a representative of workers on matters of health and safety at work or member of a safety committee”.

 Other elements of workplace health and safety


UK health and safety legislation is not prescriptive on the support that employers need to meet their health and safety obligations. The 1999 management regulations state that, “every employer shall … appoint one or more competent persons to assist him in undertaking the measures he needs to take to comply with the requirements and prohibitions imposed upon him by or under the relevant statutory provisions”. However, the regulations do not set out the qualifications necessary, stating only that a competent person is someone with “sufficient training and experience or knowledge and other qualities”, although they also say that “a competent person in the employer’s employment” is to be preferred to “a competent person not in his employment”


This approach is reflected in guidance from the key UK health and safety body, the HSE, which states that an employer must “appoint someone competent” to help him or her meet their health and safety duties, but that that person could be the employer or one or more of the workers. The guidance goes on to say that, “if you run a low-risk business, health and safety is something you can manage without needing to buy in expert help” Only “if you are not confident of your ability to manage all health and safety in-house, or if you are a higher-risk business” may there be a need for “some external help or advice”.[3]  


There are certainly no set thresholds above which certain types of health and safety experts, either internal or external, are required. As the recent EU-OSHA report on workers’ participation in health and safety in the UK notes, “the use of such practitioners by employers is not subject to detailed regulatory requirements, unlike in many other EU Member States”, and it points out that there is also no legal obligation on employers to provide access to an occupational health service except where workers are exposed to specific risks.[4] This does not mean that there are no health and safety experts. As the report adds, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, the professional health and safety body in the UK, has more than 44,000 members and is the largest such body in Europe.

National context


The key body dealing with health and safety in the UK is the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which one of the agencies of the Department for Work and Pensions. There is a separate The Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI), which is an agency of the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland. As well as developing health and safety policy, the HSE is one of the main enforcement bodies for health and safety legislation in the UK and most of the rest of the enforcement is undertaken by local authorities. The HSE deals with potentially more hazardous environments, such as factories, farm, building sites and mines, as well as schools and colleges, hospitals and nursing homes and government offices. Local authorities cover most other premises, such as offices, shops, hotels and restaurants. There are separate bodies for railway and maritime safety, civil aviation and nuclear facilities. Unlike labour inspectorates in many European states, the HSE does not enforce compliance with other aspects of labour law.


Trade unions and employers have an influence health and safety policy through their membership of the board of the HSE. In the past, the main employers’ organisations and the main union confederation, the TUC, have each had three representatives on the board. However, the legislation (the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974) states only that the minister “shall appoint three members after consulting such organisations representing employees as he considers appropriate” and, in recent years, the government has chosen to appoint individuals who have not been not proposed by the TUC. In 2018, only one of the three “employee members” was formally nominated by the TUC.[5]


The UK does not have specific legislation on psychosocial risks, although there is legislation on harassment. Despite union pressure the HSE has not produced a so-called “Approved Code of Practice” on stress, which would place tighter controls on employers in this area. However, it has produced “Management Standards” on stress, which group together the principal causes of work-related stress and make proposals on how they can be tackled.


Key legislation


Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974

The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977: SI 1977 No. 500

Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996: SI 1996 No. 1513

Employment Rights Act 1996

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999

[1] Second European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2016

[2] Worker participation in the management of occupational safety and health — qualitative evidence from ESENER-2: Country report – United Kingdom, by David Walters, Emma Wadsworth and Claire Evans, EU-OSHA 2017

[3] http://www.hse.gov.uk/business/competent-advice.htm and http://www.hse.gov.uk/simple-health-safety/decide.htm

[4] Worker participation in the management of occupational safety and health — qualitative evidence from ESENER-2: Country report – United Kingdom, by David Walters, Emma Wadsworth and Claire Evans, EU-OSHA 2017

[5] For more information on the national context see  OSH system at national level – United Kingdom by Aditya Jain and Stavroula Leka , OSH Wiki  https://oshwiki.eu/wiki/OSH_system_at_national_level_-_United_Kingdom

L. Fulton (2018) Health and safety representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Produced with the assistance of the Workers' Interest Group of the Advisory Committee for Safety and Health at Work (of the EU Commission). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.