UK: EWCO comparative analytical report on Information, consultation and participation of workers concerning health and safety

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Published on: 21 Deireadh Fómhair 2010

United Kingdom

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

Health and safety in UK SMEs is primarily covered by the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act and the 1989 Framework Directive on health and safety. There are no statutory obligations upon firms to establish health and safety committees, but in reality trade unions and information and consultation bodies are substantially involved in improving health and safety conditions in SMEs. Further, the UK social partners have engaged in much activity with the UK public authorities to attempt to improve health and safety conditions in SMEs. Although there are qualitative studies that suggest that health and safety conditions can be poorer in SMEs than in larger firms, various campaigns have been conducted to draw attention to the issue of decent health and safety conditions in SMEs.

Background information

The general issue

According to several studies (Walters, 2002, HSE, 2005), Health and Safety management shows significant differences between large companies and SMEs. In these latter, especially among micro-enterprises (less than 10 employees) and small ones (10-49 employees), H&S regulation is a lot of times perceived more as a burden to comply rather than a competitive opportunity because of stronger pressure over costs, company struggle for survival, lack of both financial and human resources. Further, in micro and small firms employers do not always own adequate OSH managerial skills and knowledge and they often see with suspicious the support offered by public agencies.

The extent of workers’ involvement is ambiguous: on the one hand could be easier because of direct relationship with ownership, while lower skills and shorter average tenure and the lack of OSH workplace representatives, due to legal threshold and/or non-unionization, make workers less involved in taking care of H&S on the other.

Regulatory Framework

The Health and Safety at work Framework Council Directive 89/391 introduces general prevention principles applicable to all occupational risks, aimed to ensure a higher degree of protection of workers at work through the implementation of preventive measures to guard against accidents at work and occupational diseases. The directive establishes the obligation on employers to adequately inform (art. 10) and to consult his/her employees and their representatives (art.11) by allowing them “to take part in discussions on all questions relating to safety and health at work”, thus including their right to make proposals and to a balanced participation. Finally, the directive sets an obligation on the employer to adequately train at his expenses his/her employees (art. 12) and their representatives, with regular repeals in order to take into account of technological and organizational changes and to the insurgence or changes of new risks.

The H&S at work strategy 2007-2013 stresses the importance of SMEs, high-risk sectors and subcontracting in achieving the target of a 25% cut of work accidents within 2013: in particular, SMEs are seen as more vulnerable since they have “fewer resources to put complex systems of protection in place, while some of them tend to be more affected by the negative impact of health and safety problems”.

The strategy envisages a simplification and adaptation of the existing legislation to SMEs and various forms of support in its implementation, such as dissemination of good practices, training of employees, development of simple risk assessment tools and guidelines, access to affordable and good quality prevention services, and economic incentives. Labour inspectors should play a twofold role both “as intermediaries to promote better compliance with the legislation in SMEs, primarily through education, persuasion and encouragement” and “when necessary, through coercive means”,

Member States are invited to “take steps to facilitate access to good quality prevention services” particularly in favour of SMEs, to improve health surveillance of workers while avoiding inflating the formal requirements, to incorporate into their national strategies specific measures (financial assistance, training tailored to individual needs, etc.). Further, Member States and the social partners are encouraged to promote “the practical, rapid implementation of the results of basic research by making simple preventive instruments available to enterprises and in particular to SMEs”.

The second programme of Community action in the field of health (2008–2013) and the 2008 "European Pact for Mental Health and Well-being" , together with framework agreements on work-related stress (2004) and violence, bullying and harassment at workplace (2007) show both an important shift from the original notion of H&S, as stated by the 1989 directive, towards a more general “well-being” approach, and the prominent role played by social dialogue in its advance.

Figures and trends

Eurostat figures over work accidents (2002-2006) show the highest incidence rates in medium companies (50-249 employees), while micro-entreprises (1-9 employees) show the highest rates over fatal accidents. These trends seem to depend on the impact of manufacturing, construction and transports, while in the other services industries trends are not so clear-cut. However, Eurostat figures by industry and company size are not complete in order to provide an adequate assessment over time. Further, new risks emerge and work-related diseases (WRDs) evolve from the so-called “hygienic” risk factors towards “psychosocial” ones reflecting changes in working conditions.

Similarly Eurofound 4th EWCS does not show a clear-cut relationship between work accidents, risks for health and work-related diseases with company size. When asked “Do you think your health or safety is at risk because of your work?” (question 32) and “Does your work affect your health, or not?” (question 33), respondents working in small companies (10-49 employees) report the lowest scores. However, the share of respondents not well informed on H&S (question 12) declines from 15.3% in companies with 2 to 9 employees to 11.2% in companies over 250 employees: on average, such a share tend to increase since 1995 (see the full descriptive report). Similarly, both training and involvement over organizational issues are positively correlated with company size and could display indirectly a positive effect on H&S. Composition effects with respect to age (small companies show younger population), and industry (wider proportion of SMEs in services) should be taken into account.


1. National settings and regulatory framework

- How is the 1989 Framework directive on H / S and in particular information / consultation practically implemented in SMEs? Any data available? Do administrative reports exist in particular from the Labour Inspectorate?

In the UK, the content of the 1989 Framework Directive on health and safety was implemented by law. The elements of the Directive setting out the need for consultation of workers or their representatives and the rights of workers to be informed of risks to their health and safety are deemed to have been particularly influential in the UK policy context (HSE, 2000). A 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act pre-empted the Directive however and contained elements of the content of the 1989 Directive. The 1974 UK act and the implementation of the 1989 Directive is applicable to small and large firms and makes no general distinction on the basis of the size of the firm. The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) act as an inspectorate for health and safety conditions within workplaces, and are in charge of monitoring the application of the Act and Directive in UK SMEs. The implementation of the 1974 Act and 1989 Framework Directive in UK workplaces is generally considered to be successful according to the evaluation of the HSE (HSE, 2000). The UK has one of the lowest rates of fatal accidents at work in the EU according to the HSE, and between 1974 and 2007 the number of fatal injuries to UK employees fell by 73% (Hansard, 2008). This suggests the successful implementation of the 1974 law and 1989 Directive in UK workplaces and in SMEs.

- Does its implementation in micro and small companies follow similar patterns than in medium ones?

Yes. The HSE are charged with ensuring compliance with the 1974 Act in workplaces, and make no distinction between large firms and organisations and SMEs. The generally smaller rates of union membership and presence within SMEs may, however, lead to poorer rates of application within these firms (Stranks, 2005).

- Is H&S the current focus of legislation or did it evolve by incorporating “well-being at work” as the basic concept?

Health and Safety has been specifically mentioned in UK legislation since 1974. Further, it has underpinned many HSE campaigns to improve health and safety conditions in sectors. The current idea of ‘well-being at work’ currently underpins the health and safety strategies of the UK Government and public authorities. According to the HSE, ‘well being at work’ is a central element of the wider welfare reform agenda and builds on the UK Government’s White Paper 'Choosing Health: making Healthier Choices Easier' and the Health and Safety Commission's Strategy for Workplace Health and Safety.

- The Community strategy health and safety at work for 2007-2012 calls upon the member states to work out and implement strategies to reduce the number of industrial accidents and occupational diseases; are the SMEs specially singled out in the national strategies and cooperation between social partners underlined / foreseen / called for?

The HSE held meetings to discuss the implementation of the Community strategy health and safety at work for 2007-2012 in 2008. However, the general view of the organization was that health and safety standards in the UK sufficiently fulfilled the content of the Community strategy. SMEs and the issues specific to them were not specifically mentioned during these discussions.

2. The micro-level settings: the role of H&S representatives

- From what level onwards / number of employees onwards, is it legally binding to establish an H&S Committee in the companies? What’s its role and function?

There is no legal obligation upon firms in the UK to establish health and safety committees (Stranks, 2005). However, in practice, there are a number of laws and workplace institutions that exist to uphold health and safety standards in workplaces. Firstly, one of the functions of trade unions within workplaces is to uphold health and safety standards. To this end, much of the work that shop stewards in workplaces do is geared towards upholding workplace health and safety standards. In workplaces with over 250 employees, there is often a trade union health and safety representative (WERS, 2006). Further, for firms with more than 50 employees, it is statutory that an information and consultation body is established by the firm should it be requested by 10% of the employees. This is in accordance with the EU Information and Consultation Directive of 2002. These information and consultation bodies very often concern themselves with workplace health and safety topics. Further, the UK Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974specifies that employers are responsible for the health and safety of their employees. To this end, firms are legally bound to communicate to individual employees health and safety risks and to consult with them on such matters. In workplaces where there is a trade union presence or there is the existence of a body for the information and consultation of employees, health and safety risks are normally communicated to the representatives of workers.

- From what level onwards / number of employees onwards are risk prevention representatives elected? Are they distinct representatives from H&S Committee and work councils?

It is not statutory to elect risk prevention representatives in the UK.

- Does the H&S Committee deal with individual health related complaints? Does it have the right to initiate action?

As stated above, there is no legal obligation upon firms in the UK to establish health and safety committees.

- Do regional/territorial risk prevention representatives exist, covering several small SME’s?

Although there are no specific regional or territorial risk representatives, in practice there are many approaches to the question of health and safety taken at the regional level. This trend is most prominent amongst the local public authorities. In many local Governments, there are committees established to look at health and safety conditions in local sectors. These committees are often of a tripartite nature and include representatives from employers and trade unions.

- Is there special H&S training foreseen for OSH representatives/committees? Is it adequate in order to cope with both emerging risks and legislative and technological changes in SMEs?

As stated above, there is no legal obligation upon firms in the UK to establish health and safety committees.

In order to carry out prevention policies, does a right exist for the H&S Committee to carry out surveys, call in outside independent experts? Who finances the costs of the operations / expertise? Does this right exist also in SMEs?

As stated above, there is no legal obligation upon firms in the UK to establish health and safety committees.

Does the H&S Committee have the right to consult the Labour Inspectorate?

As stated above, there is no legal obligation upon firms in the UK to establish health and safety committees.

Does regular reporting, annual reports exist which describe enterprises occupational diseases, assess the occupational risks at the workplace and present prevention policies? Are they submitted to the H&S Committee for discussion before publication?

As stated above, there is no legal obligation upon firms in the UK to establish health and safety committees.

Is the HS Committee, when providing a high standard of working conditions and of occupational health and safety seen as a positive competition factor? Can the image of the companies be regarded as important in the context for winning major contracts? Do companies refer to the activities of the H&S Committee in their Annual report of activities, to the existence of day-to-day bargaining and the management of working conditions by the H&S Committee? Do and how differ the approaches between micro/small, medium and large companies?

Increasingly, compliance with health and safety regulation is seen as being key to the competitive performance of firms (Stranks, 2005). This is particularly the case with large firms, where the potential exposure of negative health and safety conditions has the potential to badly damage their public reputation. Indeed, reports (The Guardian, 2004; The Guardian, 2008) in the press on poor health and safety conditions in sectors such as catering, agriculture, and hotels (often involving migrant workers) have led to attempts by trade unions and employers within the sector to increase levels of compliance with UK health and safety regulation. Many larger firms such as Cadburys in the food manufacturing sector and Corus in the manufacturing sector also stress the extent to which they comply with health and safety regulation in their end of year reports.In smaller firms, the threat of negative press coverage is not present in the same degree as it is within larger firms. Further, concerns have been aired by trade unions that some smaller firms see health and safety regulation and compliance with it as potentially damaging to their businesses. However in the previous year the UK HSE has mounted a public campaign to stress to SMEs the competitive advantages of complying with health and safety regulation. According to the HSE, this has had the effect of increasing rates of compliance within SMEs.

3. Social partners and the role of collective bargaining

Please summarize specific arrangements on H&S for SMEs and SME-dominated industries, and how territorial OSH representatives could intervene at workplace.

HSE arrangements for SMEs tend to be led by the local and national public authorities. For example, there are many examples of the UK HSE leading campaigns to raise levels of health and safety within SMEs in sectors such as catering and agriculture. These campaigns have involved holding conferences, publishing leaflets and information, and conducting publicity campaigns. In the UK, the equivalent to a territorial OSH representative would be trade union shop stewards. Shop stewards are very often involved in workplace health and safety activity and commonly do this in conjunction with regional and national trade union representatives.

What is the role of Social partners in drawing guidelines and implementing H&S and work organization intervention aimed to prevent work accidents and WRDs? What is the role of labour inspectorates, social security institutions, OSH services and national agencies in promoting local-level experiences in SMEs? Please summarize, if there exist, the extent of the cooperation between these latter and social partners.

The UK social partners play many different roles in conjunction with the UK public authorities. For example, the TUC and CBI have worked closely with the HSE in previous years in attempting to boost levels of health and safety within SMEs. Further, the UK social partners have been consulted by the UK public authorities on the direction of legislation regarding health and safety within SMEs and larger firms. The TUC and CBI have also issued many guidelines to their lower level affiliates regarding health and safety within SMEs and larger enterprises. These guidelines are then subject to lower level implementation by firms and shop stewards. This action has been of a bipartite nature in some cases. For example, the TUC and CBI jointly implemented the European Work-related Stress Agreement in 2005 through the production of joint guidelines. These guidelines were aimed at lower level affiliates of the two organizations and have had the effect of lowering levels of work-related stress in SMEs and larger firms.

4. Figures, quantitative and qualitative studies.

Are there specific surveys which prove that standards of working conditions, health and safety within small enterprises as compared to larger ones are significant lagging behind?

No information was found.

Do these surveys also investigate the impact of training, information and consultation over working conditions also in SMEs?

Yes. A survey of 71 organisations by Employment Review in 2008 showed that the numbers of employers consulting their workforce on health and safety has started to decline. Less than half (44 per cent) now consult on health and safety, compared with 68 per cent in 2006. This is despite it being a legal requirement. A 2005 HSE paper Plans for the worker involvement programme, also found that: ‘Approximately six out of ten workers in Great Britain are not consulted (whether directly or indirectly through safety representatives) on health and safety matters that affect them’. Both studies concluded also that adequate information and consultation on the topic of health and safety in SMEs was pivotal in improving health and safety in SMEs.

When surveys lack, are there qualitative studies investigating the impact of involvement and training on working conditions and health in SMEs?

In 2009, the TUC published a study entitled ‘Safety representatives: A charter of change’. This included several case studies that demonstrated that an union presence in SMEs and decent levels of knowledge on health and safety led to improved outcomes with regard to health and safety regulation.

Develop on the findings / results. Please mention / enumerate / give links.

5. Good practices for SMEs: company/territorial level

Are there well known examples for specific collective agreements in a given sector covering working conditions, H&S in particular in SME’s which go far beyond legislation? Are they exceptions or the rule? Please report at least one example at national level and at least two at territorial/company level.

Health and safety arrangements are typically not the focus of collective agreements in the UK. Traditionally, the law is used primarily to regulate the topic in the UK. One good practice example engaged in at the national-level is the HSE’s ‘health and safety performance indicator for SMEs’. This tool is ‘intended to help SMEs measure their health and safety performance and benchmark against others. An example of a company engaged in good practice on health and safety is Interserve, a firm that operates in the construction sector. Interserve has won several awards from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents for the health and safety standards at Interserve sites. Enterprise Mouchel a firm that operates in the construction sector, has also won an award for the quality of the health and safety conditions in its workplaces in the UK. In 2009, Enterprise Mouchel were presented with the ‘Sword of Honour’ award by the British Safety Council.


  • Hansard, 2008: House of Lords: Column 473

  • HSE. (2000), ‘Employee consultation and involvement in health and safety’, Suffolk.

  • HSE (2005), ‘Obstacles preventing worker involvement in health and safety’. Research Report 296.

  • HSE (2005), ‘Plans for the Worker involvement programme’.

  • Stranks, J. (2005). Health and Safety Law (5th ed.). London: Prentice Hall.

  • The Guardian, (2004), ‘Victims of the sands and the snakeheads’, 7 February 2004

  • The Guardian, (2008), ‘Victims of the sands and the snakeheads’, 7 February 2004

  • TUC, (2008), ‘Safety Representatives: A charter for change’, London.

  • Walters D. (2002), Regulating health and safety in small enterprises. PIE, Peter Lang, Brussels

  • Workforce Employment Relations Survey 2004 (2006)

Thomas Prosser, University of Warwick

[1] Question 28a_1 “Have you undergone: Training paid for or provided by your employer, or by yourself if you are self-employed?”; Question 28a_2: “Training paid for or provided by your employer, or by yourself if you are self-employed - number of days”; question 28b_1. “Have you undergone: Training paid for by yourself?”; question 28b_2. “Training paid for by yourself - number of days”; question 28c: “Have you undergone: On-the-job training?”; question 28d. “Have you undergone: Other forms of on-site training and learning?”

[2] Question 30b: “Over the past 12 months have you been consulted about changes in the organisation of work and / or your working conditions?”; question 30d. “Over the past 12 months have you discussed work-related problems with your boss?”

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