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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Little power, great responsibility

DEB HARDWICKE sets out the issues facing health & safety representatives and says they offer opportunities for forward-thinking organisations to engage workers.

Despite being enshrined in law, definitions of the role Health & Safety Representatives (HSR) play and the resources they require are vague, to the extent many of them are under-resourced and face difficulties balancing primary workloads with HSR duties; they have little real power yet feel great responsibility.

HSR are elected by work groups to represent the workers, and act as a conduit for health and safety issues. From this starting point we can infer the responsibilities of the role, the essential resources required, and gain some insight into why HSR may feel powerless (despite often being perceived as having too much power).

Issues raised by workers pass through the HSR into escalating channels (eg committees, advisers, managers), and the HSR surrenders ownership of the issue to whomever has assigned responsibility. However, relinquishing ownership does not imply an end to stakeholder interest. Unless there is complete transparency the HSR loses contact with the issue, becomes disconnected from the underlying message, and is unable to report back to the work group on how the issue is progressing or being addressed.

A real loss of power occurs when the HSR conduit role is reduced to merely that of a reporting agency. Conversely, empowering the HSR will aid toward the development of “high-trust relationships” and the willingness of senior management to “listen to workers’ concerns” regarding H&S issues, and respond to them directly. (Quotes from Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy.)

Workers are a major stakeholder in any organisation and it is the HSR who gives this stakeholder a voice on health and safety. Advocating on behalf of workers and expressing their perspective on any H&S issue is extremely difficult when the HSR has lost contact and is excluded from discussions. If the workers’ perspective/voice is diminished or blocked from reaching those with the authority to effect change then the HSR either abandons pursuing the stakeholder perspective (hoping any intervention takes all practicable steps and gains worker endorsement) or doggedly raises the issue again in the hope someone finally takes notice.


A criticism of HSR is that they will have too much power, primarily due to their legal capacity to issue Provisional Improvement Notices (PINs). However, in its submission on the Health and Safety Reform Bill, the NZCTU found no instances of PINs being issued maliciously. It is more likely that the issue of a PIN would only occur where the HSR was frustrated that lines of communication had closed down and they were unable to advocate on behalf of workers. Even on these rare occasions the PIN is “designed to facilitate the constructive resolution of the issue(s) in the interest of health and safety” (Worksafe Victoria, A Guide to Part 8 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004) and is unlikely to be issued on a whim.

A further criticism, that “real H&S work is best left to the professionals”, directly diminishes the HSR. This criticism is doubly flawed. First, the HSR, as “Knowledge Activist”, may be equally qualified on any issue; and second, peer equality and worker trust means the HSR may be best placed to both recognise specific risks and the most appropriate intervention.


HSR may have few work-allocated resources, restricted work hours, and limited work-based training to advocate and effectively communicate on behalf of workers. They must often choose between narrow understanding of an issue(s) or commit personal time to upskilling and research so as to be fully informed. The Knowledge Activist may hunger for new skills, and learning can be its own personal reward. However, the HSR voluntary work is largely unrewarded, unrecognised and can lead to loss of personal power, conflicting responsibilities and loyalties, poor home-work life balance, and burnout.

If the goal is anything more than compliance then the degree to which an organisation should fund and train HSR is a difficult question. HSR must have sufficient time to communicate with and advocate on behalf of employees throughout the lifecycle of the H&S issue (negotiation). They must develop the skill sets necessary to understand H&S issues (compliance), and be able to communicate at all levels within the organisation (reporting).


In a truly just culture, as organisations move away from backward-thinking (blame, single-causation) towards forward-looking (holistic, participatory), perhaps some of these issues may dissipate, leading to increased potential for more workers to willingly engage with health and safety.

I see no reason to be daunted by the incoming Health and Safety at Work Act. New Zealand has a wonderful opportunity to make the most of Health and Safety Representatives, and employee participation. I believe we can all help make a difference.

Deb Hardwicke is a PSA delegate and a health & safety representative. She completed her GradDipOSH as part of a personal journey as a Knowledge Activist.

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