Workers Health & Safety Centre

Knowledge activists more effective as health and safety reps, study finds

Worker representative talks to another worker about workplace health and safety conditions
Worker representatives have more workplace impact when they engage in a variety of activities that build both knowledge and relationships, says a new study.

The study was conducted by LOARC, the Labour, Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, Academic Research Collaboration. The research is based upon a survey completed by 888 worker health and safety representatives, unionized and non-unionized, from a variety of work settings. Fifty-one of the worker representatives also participated in follow-up interviews. The Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) was among those who helped disseminate the survey electronically and through WHSC training programs.
The study, Making Participation Work in the New Economy, was funded by the Research Advisory Council of the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board.
Researchers set out to examine how worker health and safety representatives do their work, if the size and type of workplace dictates their approach and strategy and what impact representatives have on workplace health and safety.  
This study builds upon earlier research that attempted to identify models of worker representation based upon their activities, strategies and related outcomes.
The new study finds differences among worker representatives in both the amount of overall time they devote to health and safety and how they distribute their time among various activities.
A majority of survey respondents (55 per cent) divided their time among a greater range of activity, including engaging workers and managers and spent more time on research and education. The study authors call this sub-group of worker representatives knowledge activists. “Knowledge forms the core of how these representatives achieve changes but what is also distinctive is the range of types of knowledge that representatives express and use in their intervention activities – a knowledge of procedures and policies, knowledge of the law, knowledge of the workplace and work processes, scientific, medical and engineering knowledge and, knowledge of the social and political dynamics of the workplace,” according to the study.
Knowledge activists have an expansive understanding of their role. Beyond attending meetings and conducting inspections, these representatives also spend time building knowledge and relationships and use both strategically in their health and safety work.
According to the study, knowledge activists:
  • reported more attempts at workplace change
  • attempted change on a greater range of issues from housekeeping to ventilation
  • spent more time, both paid and unpaid, on health and safety activities.
Those categorized as knowledge activists were also more likely to:
  • be elected than appointed to their role
  • have longer tenure with their employers
  • be co-chairs of their joint health and safety committee.
The findings also indicate that knowledge activists can be found in large and small workplaces, both unionized and non-unionized, and across economic sectors. The study authors hope the findings will inform strategies for worker representation recruitment, training and education. Based on the research findings LOARC is developing a guide to help identify guiding principles and best practices for effective health and safety representation. The guide will be released in the spring of 2014. 
For their part, knowledge activists believe they are having an impact in the workplace but they also recognize and value the need for ongoing training, education and research. One worker representative put it simply, “Take as much training as you can.”
In their report to study participants the authors concluded, “The evidence also points to the value of worker centered training and education in helping representatives to develop both the orientation and the skills needed to be an effective knowledge activist.”
The Workers Health & Safety Centre offers a full range of health and safety training including programs specifically for joint health and safety committee members and worker representatives. 
Check out WHSC resources for health and safety representatives.   
Review the complete WHSC training catalogue.