Worker participation refers to any process in the company that allows workers to exert influence over their work or their working conditions. Worker participation is obligatory in various processes in the company due to European legislation. In practice, it can be seen as a powerful instrument in safety and health management and is strongly recommended by OSH experts as well as by the European Commission to generally involve the workers and their representatives. Also see: Occupational safety and health management systems and workers’ participation.
Despite the fact that the term “worker participation" is frequently used in ILO conventions as well as in EU Directives, there are various definitions of it. Worker participation in a most general sense can be defined as “a variety of processes and structures which enable, and at times encourage, employees to directly and indirectly contribute to and influence decision – making in the firm and in the wider society". With respect to the work place, it is seen as any process in the company that allows workers to exert influence over their work or their working conditions.
We can distinguish between passive forms of participation, e.g. “information of workers" when the management notifies the workers of decisions in a timely manner. Other forms try to activate workers and ask for opinions.
Active and passive forms can also be seen in light of different levels of influence workers can exert on the decision making process in the company:
- Information of the workers in the sense of the Framework Directive as well as in the context of the ILO conventions can be described as a form of participation where the company management informs a body of organised worker representation.
- In contrast, consultation describes a process in which organs consisting of worker representatives and management representatives are installed where both sides enter into a state of exchange of opinions, discussion or even negotiation before a decision is made.
- Co-decision (or co-determination) is the strongest form of collective worker participation, when worker representatives could veto management decisions and both parties would need to agree in a formal manner.
Two main drivers with respect to worker participation that have influenced forms and practice to this day can be seen:
- On the one hand, the entire complex of worker participation has to be seen in the context of the history of collective bargaining and the struggle for the co-determination of the workers, which still influences the establishment of worker representations in the companies in the different EU Member States. Hence, national traditions influence forms of indirect participation in the companies.
- On the other hand, ergonomics and applied industrial and organisational psychology promoted participation of the workers by mainly using forms of direct participation in order to better assess working conditions in the company and working strain in single workers. Strain is experienced individually, so it is considered to be advantageous to include the workers in order to promote health effectively.
In the following, the issue of worker participation is given an emphasis for the forms and processes that are used in the context of safety and health at work.
Legal sources of worker participation
ILO conventions and recommendations
First international conventions and recommendations on worker participation were concluded under the authority of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Of central importance is ILO Convention 155 of 1981. In Art.19, the signatory states commit themselves to guaranteeing that: “representatives of workers are given adequate information on measures taken by the employer to secure occupational safety and health and may consult their representative organisation about such information provided they do not disclose commercial secrets."
Workers and their representatives should also be granted the right to enquire into, and be consulted by the employer on, any aspect concerning safety and health at work. Furthermore, they shall be informed about OSH measures and receive appropriate training on safety and health at work. Art.12 of ILO Recommendation 164 supplementing the convention provides more details on the rights and position of the workers, their representatives and representative bodies concerning safety and health at work in the company. Recommendations on communication within the company are already given in ILO Recommendation 129.
European OSH legislation
The European legislation on OSH has taken over and specified the ILO convention 155 and introduced a “genuine form of consultation". Its provisions are to be seen as minimum prescriptions that guarantee workers the same minimum level of rights and protection in all EU Member States and further countries that have committed themselves to transposing the acquis communautaire into national law as well as in companies that operate on a trans-national basis within the European Union .
The main source for worker participation in the European OSH legislation is the Council Directive 89/391 EEC, also known as the Framework Directive. In Art.11, it foresees two different forms of worker participation, namely:
- Consultation of workers or their representatives in Art.11, No.1.
- Consultation of workers or their representatives with a specific responsibility for the safety and health of workers in Art.11, No.2.
Art.11, No.1 obliges the employer to consult the worker representatives or the workers directly in case that a representation has not been established and to allow them to take part in discussions about all questions regarding safety and health at work. Workers and their representatives are also given the right to make proposals.
The Framework Directive does not define the form of representation. This European law leaves it to the national legislator and to the traditions of collective bargaining to find adequate forms of representation. Either it is up to the national law to decide if the workers should be informed in addition to their representatives. Hence, the details of the participation in the context of Art.11, No.1, differ significantly between the EU Member States.
Art. 3c of the Framework Directive declares that a worker representative with specific responsibility for safety and health of the workers can be either be elected, chosen or designated in accordance to national law or practices of representation. Consequently, the details of the participation in the context of Art11, No.2, differ significantly between the EU Member States.
These forms of participation are also applicable for the individual directives within the meaning of Art.16 of Directive 89/391. Further obligations for the employer in addressing single workers due to the Framework Directive are:
- Workers have to be instructed on the results of the risk assessment (Art. 6),
- They have to be informed on risks at work and measures of protection and prevention (Art. 10)
- They have to be trained on safety and health at work (Art. 12).
Examples of group participation in practice
Participation of safety representatives
Directive 89/391 EEC also introduces the obligation for the employers of carrying out a risk assessment for the prevention of risks at work, but neither the method to be applied for the correct assessment of risks nor any obligation on workers participation is legally defined. Still, the effective prevention of risk at work may require the participation of the workers concerned and may be indicated in order to assess the risks correctly.
Therefore, it is strongly recommended by OSH experts as well as by the European Commission to generally involve the workers concerned by the risk assessment and their representatives. Methods for the involvement of representatives should be in line with Art. 11; methods for the involvement of single workers should be decided on by the employer during risk assessment.
Health circles are based on the concept of quality circles and originate from management concepts used in Japanese companies. While in Japan, the emphasis of quality circles was set on the use of the workers’ knowledge in order to improve the company’s performance. In Europe and in the U.S., they were widely used as an instrument for workers’ participation in work-related decisions.
In order to create sustainable effects in the improvement of safety and health in the company, a permanent establishment is preferable. As health circles are topic-oriented and not hierarchic, it is essential that the company management actively promotes the work in health circles, defines their competences, and integrates them in the general process landscape. Otherwise, they can conflict with line management.
Participation in health circles is usually voluntarily and the chair is elected by the participants. They can be established ad hoc or be permanently integrated into the company’s management processes. In practice, health circles are often guided by experienced organisational psychologists, ergonomists or company physicians, at least in the start up phase. They usually serve as moderator and can guide the discussion in the health circle.
Health circles are used for the assessment of psychosocial risks and the strain of workers due to such risks, but are principally not limited to a certain group of risks. The method can generate good results and methods for improvement with regard to physical risks and other hazards in the working environment
Further forms of participation of groups
There are other forms of group participation that mainly derive from different forms of organising work. While health circles are frequently installed with the aim of obtaining the worker’s feedback in order to improve working conditions, other forms have a mainly indirect impact by supporting self-determination and enhancing job satisfaction, which are known to be important resources.
- Project groups or work groups are often established to introduce new technology, work practices or organisational changes into a company. They can also be useful for training purposes. Project groups are established ad hoc and disassembled once the project is finalised. Especially in Scandinavian countries, they usually consist of management representatives, worker representatives, workers and external experts or consultants.
- Teamwork is mainly a model where management supervision is replaced by self-control and joint responsibility by groups of workers. The workers often elect a team-leader. Sometimes the team leader is appointed by management. Benefits for OSH are mostly indirect, for example, by fostering communication, motivation and self-determination, but these effects can also be contrasted when strict key data for production teams lead to self-exploitation.
- (Semi-autonomous) group work is also a model of breaking traditional management structures and of attributing more responsibility to groups of workers. The idea is that groups of workers are given extensive rights of self-organisation. The difference to teamwork is the higher level of autonomy attributed to the groups. Benefits for safety and health at work are also indirect.
Participation of single workers
Direct worker consultation
The most basic form of individual worker participation is the direct consultation of a single worker by a management representative. With regards to safety and health at work, this can also be the company’s safety representative or safety expert. This can be done individually at the workplace, during workplace inspections, or also during team sessions or in health circles (see 4.2). Fields of application in the company can, during the risk assessment, which is recommended by OSH experts, especially with regard to assessment of psycho-social risks and the European Commission. Different methods that are based on workers’ feedback have been developed that can also include models of group participation (e.g. the so-called moderated risk assessment).
Questionnaires and interviews on working conditions
Questionnaires on working conditions are used widely in different contexts with respect to safety and health management. A questionnaire is an instrument to provide feedback from a defined number of respondents. Quantitative questionnaires allow the management to generate statistics or to get a representative overview on working conditions in a company or in parts of a company. Qualitative estimations of single workers or groups of workers are often collected via face-to-face interviews or group interviews.
Questionnaires and interviews are also the backbone of the assessment of psycho-social risk factors or for the measurement psycho-social strain in the workers and they can be used for developing and improving safety culture in the company. Conducting interviews requires a high level of expertise and should be done by external consultants or experts with methodological experience in psychology or social sciences.
Peer observations refer to a method where colleagues observe workers’ behaviour at the workplace. Observations can contribute to revealing weak points in work organisation or to correcting inadequate working habits. The worker receives feedback from his/her colleague and can learn from experience. Peer observations can be used during risk assessments, near miss reporting systems or for improving the company’s safety culture.
Well-known are also programmes involving mentors for young workers in a company. Peers can also be used as support or contact persons in the prevention of psychological traumata after work-related accidents in addition to psychological and medical services.
Internal feedback systems
The basic form of a feedback system is the so-called suggestion scheme. This is frequently part of the innovation cycle in the company used for generating new ideas, but can certainly also be used to establish good practices in safety and health at work. Suggestion schemes can work on an individual basis or can be part of quality circles. They are frequently backed by an incentive scheme.
A near miss reporting system is a special form of internal feedback systems established by the company’s safety and health management. The theory behind this system is the so-called “iceberg model". Many potentially dangerous situations occur below the individual or collective level of awareness. However, every single unsafe situation can possibly lead to a workplace accident or contribute to the workers’ ill-health in the long run. In order to improve occupational safety and health, it is considered to be essential to become aware of unsafe situations and practices and to start the learning cycle.
Aims and effects of the participation of workers
The most general aim of workers’ participation in OSH management is the reduction of workplace accidents and the promotion of the workers’ health. Some intended aims and effects can be summarised, and for a detailed analyses of management motives also.
Firstly, it is considered to be a fundamental right of workers and their representatives to be thoroughly informed about hazards at work, about the risk of being injured or getting sick, and on how to prevent ill-health and accidents via adequate protection and prevention measures. It is also seen as the common interest of the employer and workers to cooperate in reducing accidents and preventing work-related ill-health, also for the following notions.
Secondly, workers’ participation can be used to influence the behaviour of workers at the workplace or for mainstreaming behaviour-based prevention measures. It is seen as the key for fostering the acceptance for safety and health at work amongst the workers. Personal protective equipment can be named as an example. When workers are consulted and integrated into the process of choosing personal protective equipment, they are much more likely to actually wear the PPE. Programmes on strengthening the safety culture in the company use instruments like peer observations, interviews, or near-miss-reporting systems to promote safe behaviour in the workers.
Thirdly, direct involvement of workers might be required in order to carry out a risk assessment that takes account of hazards and risks at work in the best possible manner. OSH experts generally recommend direct participation, since workers can be seen as experts for their workplace and the working conditions. Furthermore, it is crucial in the case of hazards or risks that the workplace interact with the individual attributes of a worker, to cover the workforce in its diversity, and to assess psycho-social risk factors or psycho-social strain in the worker.
Finally, fostering the communication between the management and the workers respectively, the participation of workers in management processes are often seen as an effective strategy for motivating workers and to strengthen the identification with the company. It is used for example in models of transformational leadership. Both motivation and a sound working environment are said to contribute positively to the productivity and to the overall performance of a company; for more information see The importance of good leadership in occupational safety and health.
The positive effects of worker participation on the company performance are backed by findings made by the EPOC Survey conducted by Eurofound. Eurofound states that “growth is more likely to be associated with highly innovative workplaces which consult with their employees rather than delegate responsibilities". Another result was that direct, individual forms of worker participation have stronger positive effects on employment levels rather than other forms of participation.
A report issued by the Austrian Ministry for Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection (BMASK) based on data gathered in 3000 Austrian companies shows that work place risk assessments were the best when they were carried out by teams under participation of safety representatives and workers. The ESENER report of the EU-OSHA concludes that companies with a worker representation carry out risk assessments more likely and generally better in OSH management. Furthermore it reveals that companies that consult their workers during risk assessments are better in implementing improvement measures.
In detail, intended and generated effects depend to the application of single measures in the safety and health management in the company. Hence, a more detailed analysis of benefits and effects of worker participation will be presented in the OSH Wiki article: Occupational safety and health management systems and workers’ participation.
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