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January 25th, 2019:

Health and safety – shared concerns

At our General meeting last year, we reported that the branch was experiencing problems trying to engage with the senior management to address serious safety concerns at this University. Managing risks to the health of staff and students is, and should be, a shared concern. This is an area where the trades unions can work in partnership to keep us all safe and well. Sadly that partnership is breaking down.

Nationally UCEA (the body that represents employers), the trades unions, and USHA have agreed that “in exercising their statutory functions, trade union health and safety representatives have a key role to play in representing the views of staff groups, participating in employers’ health and safety consultation structures and promoting opportunities for joint working and collaboration”. This is something that we want senior managers to recognise. This role for trades union representatives makes sense; union reps are ‘on the ground’ in our workplaces, and so can monitor safety and take action to address risks. Crucially, they are also protected by health and safety legislation, making it possible for them to speak out when needed.

The TUC describes the benefits of the ‘union effect’ on health and safety: organised workplaces are safer workplaces and, when asked, 70% of new trade union members say that health and safety is a “very important” union issue (more important than pay). UCU health and safety representatives across the UK make a real difference in Universities, helping to prevent workplace hazards, injuries and accidents, and intervening on matters ranging from open plan offices to excessive workloads, and prevention of bullying, through to fire safety and the storage of chemicals.

We are saddened that our attempts to work with the University to ensure and improve the health, safety and welfare of staff, students and visitors, appear to have been thwarted in recent months. In the closing months of last year this manifested in the senior management’s repeated refusal to hold an emergency Joint Negotiating Committee meeting, delayed responses to communications about our concerns, and a refusal to allow our national H&S officer to support our representatives undertaking an inspection. We had invited our national H&S official to support our H&S reps in an inspection of Building 53 because we have long had serious concerns about safety, following casework related to staff sickness, problematic water quality, and a dangerous incident with a pressurised system. Despite giving ample notice of this inspection UCU, were told at short notice that our official, Adam Lincoln, was banned from entering the building. Adam frequently accompanies UCU reps in such inspections across the country and at our General Meeting he wryly observed that he had found it easier to conduct such inspections in some of the UK’s most challenging prisons than here.

We had hoped that by undertaking this inspection we could clarify the actions needed to protect people working in this building. Reluctantly, because of the serious nature of the threats to health and well-being, the joint campus trades unions decided to report our concerns to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). We are awaiting their response.

UCU are now taking the unprecedented step of detailing our concerns here in the hope that the senior managers will take action to protect staff and students. We are concerned about the following reported hazards and threats to health and wellbeing:

1. We do not believe that senior managers have enacted appropriate control measures, mitigation and remedial actions in Building 53 in response to concerns listed in our previous communications to the employer (beginning in 2014) and as set out in the formal complaint to the HSE (also copied to the senior management). The health and safety risks to staff health and wellbeing posed by significant structural defects with Building 53, include but are not limited to:

a. pipework in this building has been installed incorrectly and uses wrong and incompatible components. This has led to several “minor” incidents and at least one spectacular, and potentially fatal, near miss.

b. exposure of staff (and potentially students) to harmful dust that includes a category one sensitising agent, and that several colleagues appear have been harmed

c. potential drainage problems, due to drains that are not constructed of appropriate material

In addition to these specific issues in Building 53 we have raised further concerns that:

d. Near-miss and incident information is not being passed on from the safety office to Departmental managers

e. The campus trades unions are experiencing difficulty in obtaining safety information from the University about halls of residence, notably pertaining to fire safety and cladding.

2. We do not believe that effective or appropriate health and safety consultation arrangements are in place across the University to enable the University, its employees and recognised trade union representatives to cooperate effectively. The reorganisation of trade union representatives on the Health and Safety Committees and forums represents a negative shift away from a culture of joint working and cooperation.

3. The Joint trades unions Joint negotiating Committee (JJNC) is the appropriate body to resolve disputes and disagreements in relation to these matters. The senior management have refused repeated requests for an emergency JJNC to discuss matters relating to Building 53.

We will be reiterating the concerns outlined above to the senior management.  We have offered to resolve B53 issues via a working group and joint inspections and we hope to be able to tell members that we have made progress soon.  Please tell us if you have additional health and safety concerns about your workplace at the University.

When he spoke at our General Meeting last year, Adam Lincoln outlined the new UCU Workloads campaign designed to tackle the problems associated with the ever-increasing workloads. Following the sad death, from suicide, of a colleague at Cardiff last year we feel impelled to speak out about workload-related stress at University of Southampton. We note the successful campaign at Liverpool Hope University which resulted in the HSE serving an enforcement notice on that University for failing to properly assess workplace stress risks. [apologies, for the paywall]. At our General Meeting last year, members agreed that we needed to run the workload campaign locally, and we are recruiting a number of new Health and Safety representatives who will focus only on these workload concerns. This will be a key UCU branch priority for 2019. If you think you can help, or want to find out more please contact Amanda (ucu@soton.ac.uk).

While we are here we would also like to promote the Hazards Campaign manifesto for a ‘safety system fit for workers’. Launching the manifesto Janet Newsham said: “Work contributes to a huge amount of public ill-health, to health inequality, lower life expectancy, fewer years of healthy life, kills over 50,000 people in the UK each year, makes millions ill, injures over half a million and the quality of jobs contributes to poverty and ill-health. But all of this is preventable. The right framework of strong laws, strict enforcement and support for active worker and union participation will have massive payback for workers, employers and whole economy.” The campaign seeks to create “a health and safety system based on prevention, precaution and participation of strong active unions.” Southampton UCU are committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of staff and students and we hope that the senior management shares this commitment.