Role typology for health and safety representatives

AuthorLeigh‐Ann Harris, Kirsten Bendix Olsen, Robyn Jane Walker
Publication Date10 Aug 2012
Role typology for health and
safety representatives
Leigh-Ann Harris, Kirsten Bendix Olsen and
Robyn Jane Walker
Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to focus on the development of a health and safety (HS)
representative role typology that demonstrates how representatives enact their roles and improve
occupational health and safety (OHS) under New Zealand law. It aims to consider the factors that
influence the roles that HS representatives’ assume.
Design/methodology/approach – This qualitative, cross-perceptual study centres on the role
enactments of eight HS representatives at two metal manufacturers. Semi-structured interviews were
conducted with HS representatives, managers, workers, senior managers, OHS managers and a union
convenor. “Types”were differentiated by the HS representatives’ purpose, activities and OHS impacts.
Findings – In total, four HS representative role “types” were identified: administrators, workshop
inspectors, problem solvers and craft experts. Administrators implemented and operated OHS
management systems and improved OHS management. Workshop inspectors undertook compliance
and monitoring roles and improved workers’ attitudes towards OHS. Problem solvers found solutions
to control hazards and improved production from an OHS perspective. Craft experts applied technical
knowledge to influence strategic OHS decisions. Role enactment appeared to be influenced by
representatives’ expert power, job roles and the organisational role definition. Representatives
operating under both managerial and worker defined HS representative systems, increased worker
“voice” by providing an avenue to redress OHS concerns.
Practical implications – Implications arise for OHS policy, HS representative training courses and
organisational/managerial support.
Originality/value – The paper presents a HS representative role typology distinctively based on
cross-perceptual data that also provides a more holistic perspective of the HS representative role by
considering representatives’ purpose, role enactment and OHS impact.
Keywords New Zealand, Occupational health and safety, Employees participation,
Employees relations, Health and safety representative, Impact ladder, Laws and legislation
Paper type Research p aper
Employee participation is a cornerstone of systematic occupational health and safety
management (OHSM), now the dominant legislative strategy for improving workplace
health and safetyacross industrialised nations.Under OHSM, employers are responsible
for occupational health and safety (OHS) and should adopt systematic processes to
manage hazards (Frick et al., 2000). Employee participation is required because
“managers simplydo not know or control the productionbase of OHS in enough detail to
do without the experience, competence and motivation of workers to detect and abate
hazards” (Walters and Frick, 2000, p. 44). Consequently, international covenants, such
as the European Union Framework Directive 83/391, and legislative reforms across
developed countries have sought to strengthen employee participation in OHS,
particularly via promotion of HS representatives; workers mandated to represent
workers’ interests in relation to health and safety (Walters, 2005).
HS representative’s rights vary between jurisdictions. At a minimum,
representatives commonly have the right be chosen by workers, time off to attend
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Employee Relations
Vol.34 No. 5, 2012
pp. 481-500
rEmeraldGroup Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/01425451211248532
Role typology
for HS
specialist training and to perform OHS tasks, access to health and safety information and
specialist advice, consult with employers and OHS inspectors, investigate worker
complaints and protection from discrimination (Walters and Frick, 2000). Given that
inspectorates are often unwilling to enforce legal provisions for employee participation
(Garcia et al., 2007; Walters and Frick, 2000; Waltersand Nichols, 2006), HS representative’s
access to their rights is dependent on the propensity of management to give the legislation
effect (Walters, 2005). Walters (2005) found that organisations tend to treat legislative
rights as a “list” from which to choose rather than a minimum standard on which to build,
and that representatives do less than what is prescribed by regulations (Walters and
Nichols, 2006). This signals the importance of evaluating how the HS representative role is
interpreted and implemented in organisations, and how workers who assume this position
enact their OHS roles for the improvement of health and safety.
HS representatives’ role perfor mance is commonly evaluated via questionnaire
surveys. These studies are often descriptive, simply stating the p ercentage of HS
representatives found to perform specific OHS tasks. Findings from numerous
countries suggest that representatives tend to be operationally focused. Studies include
those from Australia (Gaines and Biggins, 1992), Britain ( Hillage et al., 2000), Canada
(Brun and Loiselle, 2002), New Zealand ( Johnson and Hickey, 2008), Spain (Garcia et al.,
2007) and Sweden (Tragardh, 2008). However, representatives’ role focus differs
between countries. For instance, Australian representatives primarily ensured workers
acted safely by encouraging compliance with safety r ules (Gaines and Biggins, 1992)
while their New Zealand counterparts motivated workers to report pain ( Johnson and
Hickey, 2008). Differences in the activities of representatives across jurisdictions may
be attributable to discrepancies in study focus and design or the influence of
macroeconomic factors, such as variations in legal prescription of the role o r promotion
of specific role inter pretations by industry organisations and trade unions.
Methodological approaches affect the type of information available about HS
representatives. Questionnaire surveys, for examples, elicit useful “snapshots” of
representatives’ activities, but do not consider how role enactment is influence d by
contextual conditions, particularly how the role is interpreted and constr ucted. Further,
questionnaire studies generally provide limited insight into why representatives enact
the role in a particular way and how their participation affects OHS outcomes.
Qualitative research, relying on interview data from HS rep resentatives, provides
opportunity for richer and more advanced insight into representatives’ role enactment
(Hall et al., 2006; Hasle and Jensen, 2006; Walters, 1985; Walters, 1987; Wright and
Spaven, 1999). Some of these studies have created typologies to characterise HS
representatives’ roles, which simultaneously demonstrate the multiple interpretations
of the role and simplify complex data by distilling similar HS representative
characteristics into identifiable “types”. These frameworks enable the comprehension
of some major elements of the HS representative role within a specified context. Yet
by emphasising certain elements, others may be masked that could provide a more
nuanced understanding of the role. A UK study in the offshore oil and gas industry,
with its particularly unique employment relation conditions, developed a typology
based the representatives’ motives for taking on the role (Wright and Spaven, 1999).
A Canadian study, focusing on p articularly active HS representatives in auto plants,
developed a typology describing representatives’ p olitical strategies and subsequent
OHS impacts (Hall et al., 2006). Given that these typologies focus on extrao rdinary
cases, the type-castings may illustrate unique rather than “ordinary” approaches to the
HS representative role.

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