Hospo Voice

Health and Safety Representatives: Keeping us safe at work

April 26, 2021

Cover art by Hospo Voice member Hollie

How to elect an HSR and why you should

Hospo workers know that we can’t always trust bosses not to steal our wages — so why do we trust them with our safety? Occupational health and safety laws might look great on paper, but they don’t mean much unless we can hold negligent employers accountable in the workplace. That’s where Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) come in!

You and your workmates can get together and elect an HSR for your workplace. HSRs represent worker to ensure that everyone in your workplace is safe and can ensure that workplace hazards are dealt with by your employer. We spoke to Hospo Voice member, Laurence who has been going through this process at his workplace.

What is a Health and safety representative and why should we elect one?

Health and Safety Representatives have legal powers to direct unsafe work to cease if there is a serious and imminent risk, and to direct unsafe work processes to be changed. HSRs can play a crucial role in organising workers to protect our health and safety at any time – but they are especially important with the threat of a global pandemic still looming over us. Whether you work for a large hospitality group or a small café, you have the right to a health and safety representative.

During the height of the covid epidemic in 2020 HSRs played a pivotal role in many workplaces. It was also the catalyst for workers to get together and protect their safety. That was certainly the case for Laurence.

“Because my employer was getting JobKeeper they would stack the roster. We had upwards of 20 people on shift on Friday nights, about double the staff we needed. Everyone felt this was a huge covid issue,” he explained.

Though, of course, even without the threat of a global pandemic we still face hazards in our workplaces.

How do you elect a health and safety rep?

Ready to elect a HSR in your workplace?  It’s always a good idea to involve your union in the process!

Notify your employer in writing that you want to establish Designated Work Groups and elect HSRs. There’s no set form, just a simple letter is fine. Ask our Mobilise experts if you need a hand starting the process.

We asked how he and his colleagues submitted their request to form a designated work group in order to elect an HSR.
You should circulate some kind of petition or form and get your co-workers to sign it. Best practice is to try do this outside of work or in a very safe working space,” he suggested.

Employers have 14 days to initiate discussions with workers about what the scope of Designated Work Groups are (except in WA). DWGs are the particular groups of workers who elect HSRs. So there might be one DWG per venue, electing two HSRs each, for instance.

DWGs must be established by agreement. That is, the employer can’t just unilaterally decide. If there is no agreement, Worksafe can be asked to arbitrate.

Once the DWGs are agreed, the workers meet and elect HSRs. Again, there’s no set form that this needs to take. Once you’ve elected your HSRs, you can form a Health and Safety Committee (which must have at least 50% representation from workers).

What are some common hazards in hospo workplaces?

Hazards in hospo include everything from broken glass and heavy lifting to facing violence and sexual harassment. 

Every workplace is different, so it’s a great idea to talk to other workers about hazards in the workplace. We often know and understand the hazards associated with our jobs, and have ideas on how to deal with them – whether it’s by introducing a comprehensive safety orientation or getting some non-slip mats. Electing an HSR can help you implement these safety measures even if your employer tries cutting corners.

Some workers may not ask important questions because they are self-conscious, or simply don’t know what or how to ask. It’s important that all workers are trained to navigate hazards in the workplace, and that we all have an opportunity to discuss safety topics without fear of judgement or reprisal.

Sometimes tasks that have always been considered as simply part of your job are really quite unsafe. Laurence and his workmates have already identified some hazards that their Health and Safety Representative will be able to assist with.

“We have a lot of outdated equipment. There’s a constant stream of burns that workers experience every shift from this equipment.

On top of that we are also expected to do quite a lot of heavy lifting. We’re a multi-story business so we have to take stock upstairs which leads to injuries.

Also, a third one would definitely be bullying and harassment. We have a pretty toxic culture at my workplace. A DWG and an HSR can step in on those matters legally.”

Common problems

HSRs do not have legal powers unless they are duly elected by agreed DWGs and in some states, HSRs must also undergo training before they have legal powers.

Sometimes, the employer will say that there are already Health and Safety Representatives, and it turns out that they were established ages ago and managers have the positions. A letter signed by the majority of workers in the DWG saying they want to remove an HSR and hold fresh elections legally removes old HSRs. Employers are also legally obliged to negotiate DWGs if requested.

Laurence also flagged that some employers might not take the news well.

“The initial reaction of my immediate superior was “Why are you doing this to me?” and “Why do you hate me?””

And, like many instances of organising at your hospo workplace,

Make sure all the talk you’re having about OH&S reps is going on outside of work after your shift, or if it does happen at work, in a very open and transparent manner because stuff like talking about union rights at work is inherently risky, especially if you’re employed casually.

He quickly added not to be deterred though, just make sure you’re thoughtful about the process.

Want more info or advice about Designated Work Group and electing Health and Safety Representatives? Ask a question on Mobilise!

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