28th April is the annual day of remembrance and action for workers killed, disabled and injured by their work. It serves as a timely reminder to workers across the world that they are not alone, that others have suffered at work and have been engaged in a long struggle to improve conditions in the workplace. It is also a time to reflect on how far we still have to go and the steps we must take to protect the lives of future generations of workers.
This year the ETUC is focussing on how ‘Unions make workplaces safer’. The best way to secure the health, safety and wellbeing of all workers is for every workplace to have a dedicated workers’ health and safety committee backed by fully-trained and fully-engaged safety representatives appointed by independent trade unions.
The need for more trade union safety reps is highlighted by the fact that in the EU, more than 3,700 workers die in occupational accidents each year and there are more than 200,000 deaths as a consequence of work-related diseases. Behind each of these statistics is a life cut short, a family bereaved.
Making all EU workplaces safe demands that workers be informed, consulted and allowed to take part in discussions on all questions relating to occupational health and safety. But we know that where worker involvement happens in non-unionised workplaces, it is much more likely to follow the employers’ agenda, whereas unionised safety representatives are more likely to be empowered to set the safety agenda and challenge employers when they put workers at risk for whatever reason.
Union safety representatives know the workplace realities. They are better informed and more aware of what really goes on at a day-to-day basis and they identify risks long before management. There have been many examples of this, from highlighting risks of dangerous substances, concerns about stress, violence and harassment in the workplace, RSI, and the effects of passive smoking. Union safety reps can also function as a channel for individual workers to raise their concerns. Not only do workers become more aware of safety issues but the presence of union safety reps also gives workers confidence to speak up and raise health and safety concerns.
Yet, this critical role that we play continues to be overlooked by both policymakers and employers. It’s clear we need more tools at our disposal to make workplaces as safe as they can possibly be. On the occasion of International Workers Memorial Day 2018, the ETUC stresses that unions – and union safety representatives – really do make workplaces safer. And we call on EU to improve the recognition rights that trade union safety representatives are entitled to and to renew the commitment to genuinely empower them to act decisively in all workplaces.
Today we remember those killed by work and rededicate ourselves to fight for safer workplaces.
 E.g. Fidderman, McDonnell, Worker involvement in health and safety: what works?, HSE, 2010.