A wealth of useful information

As a UNISON member you have access to the best advice and representation you need at work. For your convenience we have compiled a list of frequently asked questions along with a range of useful health & safety information. Contact us if you need any further advice on any issue.

You can download a printable FAQs info sheet here pdf logo or browse the section below.

Health and safety

UNISON believes health and safety in the workplace is an issue for everyone. Every year, thousands of people suffer accidents and ill-health at work - most of which could be avoided.

We have compiled a comprehensive guide to health and safety, from RSI and fire safety to dealing with cancer.

UNISON Welfare

UNISON Welfare is our registered charity

UNISON Welfare is our registered charity.
We are aware of the pressures UNISON members face on a daily basis. We can provide support at times of unforeseen financial hardship or personal difficulty such as redundancy, bereavement, illness or relationship breakdown.

Support, advice and assistance
Support is offered through our team of experienced casework staff at national office and network of branch welfare officers. They are there to listen and help.
Confidential advice is available on a range of issues. This includes sorting out a member's finances, advice on benefits, or putting them in touch with another organisation who can help.

Financial assistance is available to members and their dependants who meet our criteria and charitable objectives. There is no guarantee that applicants will be offered financial help, although each year over 1,000 members and their families benefit in this way.

Help
Help can be given in a variety of ways in direct response to the applicant's individual circumstances. This could be to help with household bills, ease debts or a much needed break. We can often help with the extra costs of coping with a disability or caring for a family member with special needs. These are just a few examples of circumstances where we can help.

The advice and information we provide on a wide range of issues is an important part of the service. We always ensure that beneficiaries are claiming their full entitlement to state benefits. We can also put them in touch with other organisations that can help such as a money advice agency. Where possible we collaborate with other grant making charities to maximise the financial assistance available.

We are committed to improving and developing our services so that we can continue to respond to the changing needs of members and their families.

How to apply for financial assistance
If you, or a colleague you know, is in need and you think we might be able to help, please contact your branch welfare officer or branch secretary in the first instance. They will help you to complete an application for assistance form.

If you are experiencing difficulty in getting hold of your branch welfare officer or branch you can contact us directly for an application form at national office on 0845 355 0845.

Your application will be reviewed by a caseworker and a decision recommended. This process will normally take a few weeks but in exceptional cases we can reach a decision more quickly.

Problems facing members
UNISON Welfare helps to address a wide range of problems faced by members and dependants.  These include illness, injury, relationship breakdown, bereavement and loss of income. Whilst on their own any of these experiences can be devastating, life is rarely so simple.

The majority of those seeking our support have multiple and complex needs. Their difficulties are nearly always accompanied by financial problems and there can be little doubt that low pay and fuel and water poverty contribute to their hardship.

Stress, depression and anxiety are the second most commonly reported group of conditions affecting people in the workplace, and in 1999 we recorded an increase in instances of work-related stress.

Sadly, of the thousands of requests for help we receive each year there is often the common thread of domestic violence.

UNISON Welfare is helping to complement UNISON campaigns on all these issues by providing practical support to members and through our work with other organisations.

Welfare services
Approximately 90 per cent of branches responding to our 1999 questionnaire on the development of convalescence and other services gave a thumbs up to the proposals.

The key elements are the introduction of a more flexible convalescence service integrated with financial assistance in the form of grants.

Members can now recuperate anywhere in the UK using a wide range of accommodation. UNISON Welfare no longer provides convalescent facilities itself. The service as a whole can respond to more members in need, principally:
Carers needing respite breaks
Those with special care needs eg because of a disability or medical condition
Those needing to recuperate at home
Families needing breaks
Members undergoing rehabilitative treatment
Whilst inevitably breaking down the distinction between grant aid and convalescence, the new approach enables us to take a more holistic approach to supporting members and their families.

Because of these changes the proportion of working members benefiting from convalescence or a break has steadily increased.

The survey has helped to inform many other aspects of our work and our plans for the future. These include more promotion of our services and a look at ways to improve their delivery.

One of the most consistent views expressed was that stressing the value and contribution of branch welfare officers.

 

Frequently asked questions

Bullying and violence

Q. I think I'm being bullied at work.  What can I do?
Q. What's the best way to deal with a difficult boss?


Q.  I think I'm being bullied at work.  What can I do?
A.  One of the problems with bullying is that the intimidation often works only too well. Many people are too scared to tell anyone else what's happening and end up feeling it's their fault even though they're the one being abused. Bullying undermines your confidence and self-esteem.

So the first thing is to be clear about what is unacceptable, bullying behaviour. Bullying includes:

  • violence or the threat of violence;
  • calling names or making jokes about you;
  • constant criticism;
  • shouting at you;
  • humiliating you or picking on you in front of others or in private;
  • setting you up to fail by, for example, overloading you with work;
  • always making you do the worst or most difficult tasks;
  • general rudeness and unpleasantness;
  • spreading malicious rumours or gossip about you.

You can be bullied by anyone, whether it's your boss, a co-worker or a customer. Some kinds of bullying are more obvious than others.The bullying can happen anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

Don't put up with being bullied. It's unfair and bad for your health.
Your first aim is for the bullying to stop. You may also want the bully to be disciplined.

- Tell the bully to stop
- If there are other witnesses ask them to note down what they saw or heard
- Tell someone else immediately - a friend, colleague or someone senior
- Keep a diary recording each incident large and small - date, time, place
- Write to the bully following any incidents, denying or correcting their false claims if necessary. Keep copies of any correspondence as evidence.

If you are a victim of bullying it is vital you seek help from your union. Your union rep may be able to approach your employer with a complaint with you and/or lodge a grievance on your behalf if necessary. This is a complex area and you will need specialist advice.

You may be off sick as a result of bullying or need psychological support. If you visit your doctor ask them to write down the cause of your illness and stress.

Some employers have effective systems and procedures in place for dealing with complaints, others have on paper only. In small companies or casualised work all too often there is nothing available internally.

Although there are no specific laws covering bullying, employers do have a general legal duty to protect the health and safety of employeees. Bullying or allowing bullying by other employees is a breach of that duty for which your employer may be liable.

Bullying may also include sexual or racial overtones which may mean it is also unlawful discrimination.

People who bully should be disciplined or in the worst cases dismissed for their behaviour.


Q.  What's the best way to deal with a difficult boss?
A.  How you decide to deal with a problem boss depends on all sorts of factors, including:

- whether your boss is just a bit of a difficult character or having a difficult time at work themselves but you can cope;
- what's happening is really bullying, discrimination or harassment in which case you need union help urgently;
- the real problem is about the way your -and their - work is organised which may mean workloads, division of labour, your job description or payscales, for example, need to renegotiated.

There's a difference - or should be - between a stressed out boss on a bad day and a bully.

Is this your boss?
abusive e.g. shouting at you, making insulting remarks, giving you menial tasks repeatedly that are not the main part of your job, displaying racist, sexist, disablist or homophobic behaviour?
a lech e.g. touching you, making suggestive comments, trying to get you alone, sending you inappropriate emails, taking too much interest in your private life, offering you a payrise or promotion in return for sexual favours?

In such cases you should get union help and consider making a formal complaint. These are just two examples of unacceptable behaviour which should not be allowed to continue.

Temporary job - nagging, critical boss
Just because you're in a low paid 'casual' or very temporary job doesn't mean you don't deserve to be treated with basic respect. So ask for it if you can.

Try and explain to your boss how their behaviour makes you feel and ask them to stop or change. Point out, if appropriate, how it effects your work and how you'd enjoy your job much more if they could, for example, stop nagging you unnecessarily.

If the boss at this point becomes even more unpleasant because they're too immature to take valid, constructive criticism from a junior, then you need to consider one or more of the following courses of cation:

- consider making a formal complaint via the grievance procedure;
- you may want to put your complaint in writing to personel or the boss directly;
- if others are having the same problem talk to them and decide what you want to do about it together.

Good job - moody, bad tempered boss
If you're in a more permanent job where you need or intend to stay for some time you can:
- ask for a meeting and explain the problem, stressing how much you like the work but feel uncomfortable/stressed etc;
- talk to your union rep, especially if its a question not so much of personality but of working styles and pressures such as overload, being asked to do too much, other unreasonable demands;
- talk to the personnel department;
- get support and advice from trusted colleagues - chances are you're not alone;

Bullying and harassment
If the problems you're experiencing are really to do with discrimination or bullying you'll need to:
- keep a record of all incidents and conversations including a note of any witnesses and what you said;
- get union help immediately.

 

Call Centres

Q.  How can I survive working in a call centre?
A.  Already more than 1% of the UK workforce work in call centres, with the total set to double in the next two - three years. Unions are very concerned at health and safety in call centres. Some are working hard with employers to develop better standards and conditions.

Working in a call centre often involves:
* longer hours, unsociable hours (including weekends, evenings, bank holidays) without proper breaks or adequate notice of shift changes.
* unreasonable targets and pressures from management, including call monitoring
* very tedious, repetitive work in an unhealthy environment with little chance to move around or develop skills

Well documented problems include:
* stress
* hearing damage
* voice loss
* aches and pains including headaches, eyestrain, RSI and back pain

Not surprisingly many call centres have a high staff turnover which can also add to workload problems for remaining staff.

If you want to survive and even thrive in a call centre environment you'll need to:

TAKE BREAKS
take your rest breaks to reduce the stress and strain
take ad hoc breaks to get away from the workstation when needed

LOOK AFTER YOUR EYES
take breaks from the screen
get your eyes tested (if you need glasses soley for your VDU work at work the employer should pay)

AVOID RSI
make sure your work and equipment are organised to reduce this risk as much as possible
do a variety of tasks as much as is possible and take regular breaks from repetitive work

 

Discipline and Grievance

Q. What can I do if my employer tries to discipline me?
If you are facing a disciplinary or grievance hearing you should contact your union rep or get employment advice urgently.

Keep a record of anything relating to the incident or situation which you are being disciplined for.

West Yorkshire Police has both a Discipline Procedure and a Fairness in Action (Grievance) Procedure.  Copies are available on the Personnel Dept intranet site.  Ensure you are clear how the process works and that it is being followed.

You have the right to be accompanied to disciplinary and grievance hearings by a union rep or co-worker of your choice.

If your chosen companion is not available on the proposed hearing date then you are entitled to ask for the hearing to be postponed for up to five days so this person can join you.  As long as the request is reasonable the employer has to agree.

By law the person who accompanies you is allowed to:
-address the hearing
-confer with you during the hearing.

If your boss or any other person refuses to allow you to be accompanied to a disciplinary or grievance hearing you can complain to an employment tribunal.

You also have the right to have anything removed from internal records held on you at work if it's proven unfair or in some cases, after a certain amount of time has passed. This is important because bad records or even a critical comment can effect your chances of promotion or references for a new employer.

And don't forget that the process works both ways. You can also take out a grievance against the employer.

 

DSE working

Q.  Do the Display Screen Equipment Regulations apply to
security guards watching CCTV screens?

Q.  How can I work safely using screens and computers?


Q.  Do the Display Screen Equipment Regulations apply to security guards watching CCTV screens?
A.  These regulations are the main laws covering VDU'sand apply to all kinds of computer screens.  However there is a specific reference in the guidance to the regulations that they do not apply to screen whose main use is to show TV or film.  This is often interpreted as applying to CCTV screens.

Regardless of whether the regulations apply, employers need to do a risk assessment.


Q.  How can I work safely using screens and computers?
A.  Many VDU workers regularly experience problems with one or more of the following:
damaged eyesight - including eyestrain, irritated eyes, blurred vision, headaches, discomfort with contact lenses;
Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) - potentially disabling muscoskelatal aches and pains;
stress - symptoms include fatigue, irratability, headaches, sleeplessness - due to the repetitive, monotonous nature of VDU work;
pregnancy - research has linked VDU work with pregnancy problems including miscarriages - stress and anxiety should be avoided.

Prevention of VDU problems:
a good quality VDU with full adjustability;
adjustable chair;
flexible desk layout;
adjustable screen;
document holder;
enough space;
well laid out workstation designed to eliminate glare and reflections on the screen and to be comfortable and pleasant;
suitable seating;
suitable lighting;
adequate training including health & safety training;
regular rest breaks;
a mixture of tasks to reduce the amount of time spent on repetitive work;
regular eye and eyesight tests;
the option not to work on a VDU if pregnant.

One useful adjustment is to make sure your mouse and keyboard are on the same level close to each other - if you keep the mouse on the desk and your keyboard in a tray below you are forced to stretch out your arm and reach forward each time you use the mouse.

Posture
try not to slouch;
adjust the chairs backrest to support lower back;
remove obstructions from beneath the desk;
organise the workstation to sit upright;
use a document holder;
place document holder close to screen and at same height;
adjust the seat height so that forearms are horizontal;
use a footrest.

Reading the screen
adjust the screen angle to avoid reflections;
use window blinds;
clean the screen regularly;
adjust the brightness and contrast to suit.

Seating
Office workers spend most of their working day sitting, typically 25-40 hours per week, yet many use chairs which are unsuited to their height and build and are inappropriate for the job.  For work done sitting down you need:
a suitable chair must be provided and a footrest where necessary to support the feet comfortably;
a stable chair which is height adjustable and has a fully adjustable backrest must be provided for VDU users (DSE Regulations).

Posture
try keeping reasonable erect as much as possible - but not rigid;
keep feet flat on the floor with a footrest;
do not sit with legs crossed for long periods;
avoid leaning and stretching.

Rights
Display Screen Regulations aim to prevent muscular disorders.  Employers are required to:
assess the risks associated with VDU use and introduce measures to reduce the risk of harm;
provide information and training on safe VDU use;
ensure that daily work is periodically interupted by breaks or changes in activity;
provide free eye tests if required and lenses or spectacles if required for VDU work only;
ensure that VDU's and workstations meet the minimum standards laid down in the regulations.

The Health and Safety Executive advise 5-10 minutes away from the scene after 50-60 minutes of VDU operation.


Working environment

Q.  It's very hot inside at work.  Is there a maximum temperature?
Q.  It's very cold at work.  Is there a minimum temperature?
Q.  What kind of lighting must my employer provide?
Q.  What can I do about bad lighting at my workplace?


Q.  It's very hot inside at work.  Is there a maximum temperature?
A.  Unfortunately there is no legal maximum temperature for workplaces, but employers must provide a working environment which is safe, without risks to health, and with welfare facilities.  They must assess the risks of hazards at work and introduce prevention and control measures.  This means that employers must take reasonable steps to keep the temperature at work at a reasonable level during working hours (Regulation 7 of the Workplace Health & Safety Work Regulations 1992).

Examples of "reasonable steps" include:
insulating hot pipes and equipment;
shading windows, siting workstations away from hot areas;
provfans, air conditioning and increased ventilation in general and locally at individual workstations;
and - as a last resort - providing rest facilities and limiting  the amount of time individuals spend in the heat.

Regulation 6 requires employers to provide "effective and suitable ventilation" - meaning that fresh air must be drawn in from outside and diluted with the warm humid air inside, creating movement and a sense of freshness without causing a draught.

Regulation 22 requires employers to provide an adequate supply of readily accessible wholesome drinking water and cups.

Clearly, if you are becoming ill because of high temeratures at work, the situation is unacceptable and the employer must take action.

 

Q.  It's very cold at work.  Is there a minimum temperature?
A.  The Workplace Health, Safety and Welfare Regulations set out a legal minimum temperature of 16 degrees Celcius.  Your workplace should reach the minimum after the first hour at work, but, depending on the type of work being done, it may still be too cold to be comfortable.  Employers must provide a safe working environment, without risks to health, and with welfare facilities.  They must assess hazard risks and create prevention and control measures.

Thie means that employers must take reasonable steps to keep the temperature at a reasonable level during work.  Reasonable steps may include draught exclusions or local heating.

If, dispite these measures, a reasonable temperature cannot be achieved or maintained, employers may need to consider providing suitable personal protective equipment, heated rest facilities or new systems of work (like job rotation), that limit how long staff work in uncomfortable temperatures.

While this leaves an arguement about what is reasonable and about the risks to health, it does mean than an empoyer who does nothing to control low temperatures is probably breaking the law.  Clearly, if members are becoming ill because of temperatures at work that are too low then that is unacceptable and the empoyer must act.

 

Q.  What kind of lighting must my employer provide?
There are minimum lighting levels set by the Health and Safety Executive which vary according to the task.  In addition to ensuring these standards are met the employer should:

-make sure there is no disabling or distracting glare caused by lighting equipment, sunlight through windows, bright room surfaces or reflections on equipment
-provide additional local lighting as needed
-ensure that the minimum levels of emergency lighting required in various areas are in place
-ensure as far as is reasonable that all workers have natural light in their workplace by adjusting the position and lay out of workplaces within the building and by maintaining a tidy office and clean windows so that natural light is not blocked
-ensure that lighting is in a safe position or hung so as to avoid avoid the risk of injuring staff
- make sure lighting equipment are not likely to come into contact with hot parts of the light and hot surfaces heated by lights
- ensure all lights are positioned so that they can be cleaned and bulbs can replaced safely and provide safe, adequate access equipment for lights in e.g. stairwells or over heavy industrial or dangerous equipment of any kind
carry out checks on all aspects of lighting at regular intervals and whenever changes are made to existing workplaces

In any areas where computers and display screens are used, the workplace and equipment should ensuer that no distracting reflections appear on the screen and so that there is appropriate contract between the screen and its background. Adjustable blinds are often necessary to achieve this.

 

Q.  What can I do about bad lighting at my workplace?
Lighting is one of the most important things in your working environment, but is often neglected by cash-strapped, busy or downright negligent employers.

All employers should provide good lighting which enables you to do your job and whatever tasks it involves safely and well.

Your eyesight can quickly be damaged, often permanently, by poor lighting. You are also more at risk of accidents and injury in a badly lit room or building.

In a unionised workplace, health and safety reps appointed by the workers, will monitor lighting and ensure the employer addresses problems identified. So tell your rep if you're experiencing a problem yourself or have noticed a problem to do with lighting anywhere in the workplace.

Otherwise:

-report all lighting problems to the responsible person
-do not attempt to fix lights yourself
--ask for additional lighting if current lighting is not good enough for the task
don't place lights, especially portable lamps, in positions or places where they might block access or injure people
--use window blinds to control brightness or glare from the sunlight
keep your workplace tidy and ask colleagues to do the same so that natural light is not blocked

If you report a problem to management and nothing happens, put the problem and the solution needed in writing in a dated memo or letter. If all else fails, talk to your union rep.

 

Equalities

Q.  What is age discrimination?
Q.  Is age discrimination a large problem?  How many people are affected by it in employment?


Q.  What is age discrimination?
A.  Age discrimination - ageism - is a form of prejudice like racism or sexism.  It can be a barrier to older people - and young people - seeking fair access to employment, goods and services, and an equal part in society.

UNISON is committed to working for equality of opportunity and opposes discrimination in all its forms, including age discrimination in employment.

Age discrimination differs from other forms of discrimination because it will affect every one of us in some way during the course of our lives.


Q.  Is age discrimination a large problem?  How many people are affected by it in employment?
A.  It is a problem at both ends of the age spectrum:
eight million people have experienced age discrimination in employment - 35% of people aged 45-64 and 27% of people aged between 16 and 24
the most common ages for women to encounter ageism at work are 21 and 40
men are most likely to encounter ageism at 18 and 50
50 is the most common age for older managers to experience ageism.

Age discrimination in employment results from prejudice, misconception and stereotyping and means the skills, talents and experience of the person are not taken into consideration.

 

Hours of work

Q.  I only work for a few hours a week - why bother to join a union?
Q.  I never get the time to take a proper meal break.  What should I do?
Q.  I work nights - what are my rights?


Q.  I only work for a few hours a week - why bother to join a union?

If you're a a part-time worker or job-sharer, you need the support and protection of a union just as much as anyone else, if not more so.

Unfortunately:
- many part-time and/or casualised jobs are very poorly paid and involve unhealthy, unsafe working conditions
- managers often discriminate against people who aren't full-time staff;
- if you're part-time or temporary you're not present at work to look after your interests all the time and/or may not be taken seriously by your boss or some of your colleagues;

If any of this sounds familiar, then:
- you definitely need a union behind you so you can get a better deal at work
- you may well be part of group of people who are already likely to experience discrimination at work regardless of whether you work 3 hours a week or are full-time - which is all the more reason for joining.

Black women, white women, black men, school leavers, young people and students, for example, are usually the ones doing part-time jobs and losing out on their rights at work.

In UNISON, subscription rates are linked to your earnings so as a part-time/job share worker you'll pay less than full-time colleagues.


Q.  I never get the time to take a proper meal break.  What should I do?
A.  It's an extremely good idea to stop work and eat - whether you go off to the staff room with your lunchbox, pop out for a quick sandwich or go for a proper sit-down meal.  Whatever you do try and separate work from eating so you get a proper break and time to enjoy and digest your food.  This helps:
give you energy
stop stress building up
rest and refresh your brain and body
improve your work performance.

If you can, get out of the workplace and get a breath of fresh air.  This means you get a bit of exercise and a change of scene too.

If you get on with your boss and they're a workaholic who never stops for lunch then try persuading them to come out with you.  Show them the benefits of taking breaks and eating regular meals so you can take a proper break without feeling guilty.

If your boss is being difficult about you taking a lunch break, remind him/her that you have the right by law to a minimum amount of rest during working hours (this varies depending on your contract).  If the difficulties continue please contact your local UNISON steward of Branch Office on 22843.


Q.  I work nights - what are my rights?
A.  If you regularly work at night you should by law:
-not work more than an average of eight hours in each 24 hours during a 17 week period;
-get a free medical check or health assessment from your employer before you begin night work and at regular intervals;
- where possible, be allowed to switch to day work on medical advice.

A health assessment can take the form of a questionnaire, rather than an examination by a doctor or nurse, as long as the questionnaire has been developed by someone medically qualified and is evaluated by someone with training (but not necessarily a doctor or nurse).

Young people and those doing specially hazardous work get better protection. If you're under 18 you're not allowed to be a night worker at all.

The official definition of a night worker is someone who works:
- more than three hours at night as part of the normal course of your job.
- between 11pm and 6am.

If you work split shifts - say one week on nights followed by one week on days - your average night hours will be nowhere near eight hours. However you are still entitled to a medical check up .

If your work involves special hazards or heavy physical or mental strain, and you are a night worker, as soon as you have worked eight hours you must stop.

Because the rules on working out your hours can be complicated and because definitions can be varied by agreement between the employer and the workforce, it's best to get union advice on your situation.

Your employer is also obliged by law to carry out what is called a risk assessment.

The eight hour limit does not apply to these jobs:
- security guards, caretakers and other jobs requiring a permanent presence to protect people and property;
- where the job involves long travelling distances;
- where the job requires 'continuity of service or production' such as hospitals, prisons, docks, airports, media, post and telecoms, civil protection, agriculture; - industries where work cannot be interrupted such as utilities;
- jobs where there are seasonal rushes such as tourism, post and agriculture.

However, if you fall into one of these categories you are entitled to 'compensatory rest' to make up for any breaks or rest periods you have missed by working beyond the eight hour limit.

 

Posture / RSI / WRULDs

Q.  What is RSI and what can I do if I think I'm getting it?
Q.  What can I do if my boss doesn't take RSI seriously?
Q.  My chair is wrong - how can I get a new one?
Q.  What can I do to improve my posture at work?


Q.  What is RSI and what can I do if I think I'm getting it?
A.  An estimated 200,000 workers a year duffer from Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI).  Work-Related Upper Limb Disorders (WRULDS) is another term for this potentially disabling injury characterised by pain and discomfort in the muscles and limbs.

Symptoms include anything from a dull ache at rest to intense pain during movement in the:
hands;
wrists;
shoulders;
elbows;
neck.

You may also experience:
pins and needles/tingling;
numbness;
swelling;
a crackling sound (crepitus);
muscle weakness;
loss of movement;
burning.

Symptoms may be noticed:
during or after long periods of repetitive work;
after a break from work;
when new equipment is used;
during very busy periods.

RSI is not just something typists get.  Construction workers, cleaners, supermarket check-out staff, production line workers, hairdressers and musicians are among those most at risk.  It's caused by:
a fast pace of work/high work rates;
awkward posture;
poor workstations or seating;
repetitive movements;
staying in the same position for a long time.

If you think you're suffering from, or risk suffering from RSI act immediately - if you do something straight away you may avoid serious or permanent injury.  Unfortunately, even early treatment may not be sucessful.

Your priorities are:
to get treatment as early as possible;
to get the work/task that is causing the problem to be changed if you are able to stay at work.

So you will need to:
see your health and safety rep to discuss your situation;
record the incident in the accident book at work even if your condition doesn't seem to be serious at the time;
go to your GP and get treatment quickly - tell your doctor about your job and what may have contributed to your condition;
report your symptoms to your employer;
keep a record of your employer's response from the outset.

Not all doctors know much about RSI or take it seriously.  If you are unhappy about your doctor's  diagnosis, treatment or lack of treatment, you're entitled to ask for a referral to a specialist.  If you're refused you may want to consider changing your GP.

If you do end up suffering from RSI you may be able to get compensation although damage awards have so far not been very high (typically between £2000 and £7000).  Any case involving medical evidence can be very costly.  Your best bet is to ensure you are a member of UNISON, a union that takes RSI seriously and can ofer expert assistance.


Q.  What can I do if my boss doesn't take RSI seriously?
A.  Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) are a range of conditions characterised by pain or numbness in the hands, wrists, forearms, elbows and upper arms.  It is estimated that RSI affects 100,000 keyboard users every year, although many others are also at risk.

Your alarm bells should ring if your boss:
is not aware of RSI as a risk and a problem or believes it is not a risk or is victimising anyone complaining;
has not carried out a workplace assessment or has carried out one inadequately and not included RSI factors;
has not acted on the risk assessment to prevent or minimise the risk of RSI.

These are all situations which UNISON health and safety reps can help resolve, so alert them to the problem.

All employers must by law carry out a risk assessment of work activities to identify any problems and then remove or minimise the risk and monitor, including of RSI developing.  In order to achieve this the employer may need to:
change the way the work is done:
redesign the work area or workstation;
provide new equipment;
reduce the pace of the work;
introduce a variety of tasks and breaks from repetitive work;
provide training in safer methods of working.

Safety reps should be consulted on the health and safety consequences of any new technology in the workplace.

The RSI association recommends a break of 3 minutes in each half hour of keyboard work.


Q.  My chair is wrong - how can I get a new one?
A.  Using a bad chair or the wrong one for you can lead to serious problems and injuries including:
back pain;
tenseness;
stiff muscles;
varicose veins;
poor circulation;
Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

It's therefore essential that you get the right chair for you and your work.  The employer must by law carry out a risk assessment to identify and eliminate or minimise health and safety problems at work, including all equipment such as chairs and other furniture used in your job.  If this has not happened or has not been done properly, alert your UNISON health and safety rep.

For work sitting down you should be provided with a suitable chair and where necessary a footrest.  In the case of VDU users, a stable chair which is height adjustable and has a fully adjustable back rest should be provided.  If your chair (or lack of) is causing you problems ask your boss for a suitable replacement.  If the answer is 'no, we can't afford one' or there are repeated broken promises contact your UNISON health & safety rep for advice and support.

Even with the ideal chair you need to be aware of your posture and sit properly, including through the following steps:
keep as reasonably erect as possible without being rigid;
keep feet flat on the floor or footrest;
don't sit with legs crossed for long periods;
avoid leaning and stretching whilst sitting doing your work.


Q.  What can I do to improve my posture at work?
A.  You were not born with your present posture - you've learnt it and unless you're a yoga teacher you've probably learnt some bad habits along the way.  Some of these will have been learnt at work, including, for example, through:
poor eyesight caused by bad lighting and too much time at the VDU screen;
bad layout of space at work;
lifting and carrying things;
inadequate equipment including chairs and workstations;
lack of a proper risk assessment.

Some do's
move things to a position you can see or reach them more easily;
get your eyes tested;
wear comfortable shoes and clothes;
sit up straight;
move around rather than sit or stand all day in one place or position;
learn to relax;
use the right chair, desk and other equipment for your work and your size;
lean back in your chair, not forward, when using the keyboard.

Some don'ts
don't poke your chin forward towards the screen to see something more clearly;
lift or carry things without planning the move safely and getting help if needed.

To avoid neck pain:
stand with your spine and the back of your head against the wall;
now pull out your chin and push your head up the wall;
hold this position, step away from the wall and memorise the posture;
now put a small red dot on things you look at a lot such as the computer, the clock, the phone, the desk etc; everytime you see the dot adopt the posture.

 

Safety Representatives

Q.  If I were to be a UNISON safety rep what training would be available to me?
Q.  I'd like to do a TUC Certificate in health & safety but my boss says I must do it in my own time.  Is this right?


Q.  If I were to be a UNISON safety rep what training would be available to me?
A.  UNISON provides a basic health and safety induction course for all new safety representatives.  You should aim to go on this within the first three months of becoming a safety rep if possible.  These are arranged through your regional office.

In addition, UNISON encourages all its safety representatives to get further training.  The TUS runs very good safety reps courses which all UNISON safety reps can go on.  These are in three stages.

The TUC training is very highly thought of and safety reps who complete the third stage become eligible to get "technical safety practitioner" level membership of themain professional body the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health.

In addition there are UNISON regional courses of one, two and three days in length covering specific issues such as stress, manual handling and voilence.

Many employers provide training for safety reps but, while this can be very useful, it should not be seen as a substitute for proper trade union training.

Most professional courses are intended for employers' safety officers and are not really of much practical use to safety reps, as they concentrate on the legal aspects or developing management systems rather than how to challenge employers and protect workers.


Q.  I'd like to do a TUC Certificate in health & safety but my boss says I must do it in my own time.  Is this right?
A.  The employer cannot refuse you time off to attend.  They can, however, ask you to put it off temporarily if they cannot release you at that time.

A recent employment tribunal ruled that the intention of the law was to make time off during work the norm for health & safety training.

It is also up to UNISON, not management to decide what is appropriate training.

 

Stress

Q.  How do I know if my job is stressing me out and what can I do about it?
Q.  How can I deal with stress at work?
Q.  What can I do if I'm really stressed out by my work?


Q.  How do I know if my job is stressing me out and what can I do about it?
A.  Stress is just as harmful as a physical injury so watch out for it and take action before it's too late.

Common signs of stress include:
anxiety and worry about not being able to cope;
tiredness;
headaches;
skin rashes;
not sleeping well;
altered appetite;
weight changes;
apathy;
increased smoking, drinking or drug-taking;
poor work performance.

The long term effects can include:
insomnia;
marital and family breakdown;
heart disease;
chronic depression and anxiety;
suicide.

Work-related stress is often caused by one or more of the following situations:
pressure of work, workloads and excessive hours;
being expected to carry out tasks or take on new responsibilities without training and support;
job insecurity caused by uncertainty, constant change, threat of job losses;
lack of control and no say in your work;
repetitive and unvaried work;
shift work, unpredictable, long or unsocial hours;
working in unhealthy conditions, eg bad lighting, no fresh air, cramped, too noisy, dangerous materials;
bullying and harassment from employers, co-workers or customers.

Overall, there are two kinds of work-related stress - the kind you can handle if you decide it's worth it and the kind that is dangerous and you should walk away from if necessary.  Stress is definately a major health and safety issue in today's workplace.  So get union help in dealing with stress at work.

UNISON has sucessfully won compensation for members suffering stress and reached agreements with employers on preventing stress.


Q.  How can I deal with stress at work?
A.  The best thing you can do with stress is to know how to:
recognise it;
avoid it where it's unreasonable;
handle it where necessary;
get support when you need it from friends & colleagues;
know when stress is a serious problem and you need union or specialist advice.

Learn to:
respect yourself;
know your limits;
say no to unreasonable demands;
ask others for help;
set realistic goals;
pace yourself;
manage your time well;
take one day at a time;
keep it in perspective;
stop critisizing yourself;
relax;
treat yourself.

Remember no job is worth getting ill for or damaging your relationships.  If the problem is really about unreasonable workloads, a bullying boss or some other unacceptable situation such as racism or sexual harassment, get help from UNISON immediately.

Destressing
There are lots of different ways to destress which basically involve looking after yourself and learning how to relax no matter how bad a day you're having.  Different techniques suit different people so try things out to find out what works for you.  Here's a few ideas:
controlled deep breathing and meditation;
visualisation;
massage - it doesn't have to cost money, ask a friend
physical exercise and fresh air - walk to work, cycle, swim, do yoga or Tai Chi before or after work;
stretching in the office/at your desk to reduce muscle tension and prevent strain;
take breaks at work, eat regularly, healthy food;
stick to moderate amounts of caffeine, alcohol, salt and sugar;
do something for yourself that you enjoy every day - make time for a hot bath, a TV soap, the book you keep meaning to read.

There are thousands of books, videos and tapes on relaxation techniques and related subjects such as stress management.  Some are very useful depending on your situation but overall the quality is variable.  Either shop around before you buy, try your local library or the web.


Q.  What can I do if I'm really stressed out by my work?
A.  Bad work conditions, job overload, poor management, bullying, difficult colleagues and customers, isolation, lack of variety, long and unsociable hours, time pressures - all cause serious stress at work.

Stress is a health and safety issue just as much as other hazards such as handling dangerous chemicals or working at heights.

If the amount of stress you're experiencing is unreasonable, keeps repeating itself or is getting worse, contact your UNISON representative as soon as possible.

If you're suffering stress to the point of not being able to do your job properly and/or having to take time off work you should also;
tell your supervisor or boss;
keep a written record of your stress including  causes and symptoms where possible;
if you're off work and visit your GP, tell him/her you're suffering stress due to your work and ask them to record the problem.

Written reports are very important in proving a stress problem, although it is difficult to win compensation for stress-related illness or loss of work.

Try to avoid things getting to the stage of illness or you leaving.  Watch out for the warning signs and ask for:
a change or changes in the job or your role;
more support from your boss;
more training.

UNISON has sucessfully won compensation for members suffering stress and reached agreements with employers on preventing stress.

 

Trade Unions

Q.  Can I be forced to go on strike or sacked for taking part in industrial action?
Q.  What do I get if I join a union?
Q.  I don't have any problems at work - so why do I need a union?
Q.  How do unions work in the workplace?


Q.  Can I be forced to go on strike or sacked for taking part in industrial action?
A.  Industrial action is usually a last resort to be used only after all other options have been tried and negotiations with the employer have failed. Overall, there are very few strikes yet some people seem to think that's all unions are about. Some managers try to portray unions as militants who want to down tools at the slightest excuse. This is very old fashioned and simply not true.

Unfortunately, however, there are some situations where industrial action is the only option when it comes to, for example, saving peoples' jobs or protesting against unfair treatment or unsafe working conditions.

Industrial action does not necessarily mean going on all out, indefinite strike although it can do. A group of workers in a workplace may decide to:
- work to rule e.g. refusing to work overtime or at weekends or evenings;
- stage a one day strike;
- repeated one hour actions over several weeks;
- withdraw co-operation with management on certain issues.

For industrial action to be legal:
there must first be a ballot in your workplace;
the ballot must be carried out according to the rules;
a majority of those voting must agree that industrial action should be taken;
the action must be about terms and conditions of employment or other work-related matters in your workplace such as:
- selection, dismissal, suspension or termination of contracts, jobs, people;
- allocation of work among the staff;
- disciplinary matters;
- negotiation or consultation procedures, including with the union.

Your union branch must then decide what to do and when, if the vote is in favour of action. They may decide not to take industrial action immediately but use the ballot to strengthen their negotiating hand with management.

Even if the ballot is 99% in favour of taking some kind of action, no one can force you to work to rule or go on strike if you don't want to.

By law it's unfair and illegal for employers to dismiss people for taking part in lawful industrial action:
- during the first eight weeks of the action;
- in some cases, after the industrial action has finished as long as it is over within the first eight weeks;
- if the employer fails to follow a proper dismissal procedure and doesn't act fairly.


Q.  What do I get if I join a union?
A.  Unions offer:
information, advice and support to help you get what you need at work;
a voice at work for all staff to help protect you and your job and deal with problems;
help when things go wrong and you are being treated badly by the boss or colleagues at work;
campaigns to improve conditions and set standards for everyone or for particular groups of workers.

By joining a union you can work together with colleagues to improve conditions at work. They are best placed to negotiate your pay and conditions with your employer or as part of national pay agreements.

Being a union member puts you in a much stronger position to get a better deal or cope with a problem at work. It means you're not alone but have the support of other colleagues as well as union reps and union staff.

In unionised workplaces:
pay tends to be higher;
terms and conditions are better in general e.g. hours of work, more sick pay, longer holidays;
the working environment is safer and there are fewer accidents and injuries;
equal opportunities, anti-harassment, bullying and other policies are more likely to be in place;
there are more likely to be development programmes and training for all staff and opportunities for progression at work.

If and when things do go wrong at work, unions help members through:
workplace stewards and health and safety reps who are on hand to give advice and support on any problems at work;
local branches where members get together to decide what to do about problems, issues and campaigns;
a network of regional and national staff who support local branches, reps and members;
representation on work-related problems;
awareness raising, education, training and campaigns on your rights at work;

You also get a say in the union on what happens in your workplace, local and national campaigns and policies and how the union is run.

Members can also take advantage of lots of benefits and special deals negotiated by the union e.g. education and training, cheap holidays and discount shopping ( in some cases you have to be a member for a certain amount of time to be eligible).

For all this you pay just a small amount each week depending on how much your earn.


Q.  I don't have any problems at work - so why do I need a union?
A.  If you haven't got problems right now, it's probably because unions have won the rights most people can now take for granted at work such as holidays, sick pay, health and safety protection or equal opportunities.

Unions are not just there as an insurance policy against things going wrong in the future. They provide a range of useful services such as:
practical advice and support on your rights at work;
free legal advice on some issues;
welfare assistance;
special benefits and discounts for members.

If you do experience problems - from illness and injury to discrimination or dismissal - your best bet is a trade union.

But don't leave joining until the last minute or your back is really up against the wall. You usually need to have been a member of a union for a certain period of time before they can give you full support and many can't deal with problems which began before you became a member.

And don't forget things can go wrong not only with your employer, but also with your colleagues or with customers and clients. Unions are there to help ensure you get a fair deal at work all round.

West Yorkshire Police actively support trade union membership and are happy to recognise and co-operate with UNISON.


Q.  How do unions work in the workplace?
A.  Members:
As a union member you have the right to unpaid time off to take part in union activities such as workplace meetings. This is on top of all your standard legal rights and any contractual ones, most of which have been won by trade unions over the years.

Branches:
Every member of a union belongs to a local branch which is made up of people working for the same employer - or sometimes working for a company which is used by the main employer.

Each branch is run by a committee made up of people elected to positions by the branch members. The exact function and number of these positions vary from branch to branch depending on size and needs. They include:

branch secretary
treasurer
equal opportunities officer/women's officer
shop stewards and safety reps.

Branches hold branch meetings where you can discuss workplace problems and wider issues as well as elect people to branch posts. The branch will probably also produce a newsletter and/or have a website to keep members informed.

Shop stewards, safety reps and workplace contacts:
Stewards represent members in particular workplaces. They are the first port of call and main contact for members. This role includes:
keeping in touch with people and keeping them up to date with developments;
encouraging people to join and take an active part in union activities;
stand up for members who are having problems at work, including representing their case to the employer where necessary.

As an elected rep belonging to a union recognised in your workplace by the employer you have the right to reasonable paid time off to carry out your functions and for training in industrial relations.

Safety reps make sure that employers are providing safe and healthy workplaces. They have rights to paid time off to carry out inspections in the workplace and investigate problems and concerns.

A workplace contact is someone who agrees to, for example, help recruit new members and pass on information, but is not responsible for representing them to the employer.

Regions
Branches usually come together under the umbrella of a region and a regional council made up of delegates from all local branches. This means a strong network at regional level and gives branches a stronger voice than if they were operating in isolation.

National Conference
In most unions, branches and regions send delegates to represent them at the annual conference where the union's national policies are decided. The policies agreed by the delegates each year are usually implemented by a national executive council made up of union representatives.

Services
Unions usually have head offices and other structures where people are employed to provide services and support for members, including:
advice and support for union members, activists and officials;
legal help for members;
communications;
education and training;
benefits and discounts.

 

Working practices

Q.  It's very hot inside at work.  Is there a maximum temperature?
Q.  It's very cold at work.  Is there a minimum temperature?
Q.  What kind of lighting must my employer provide?
Q.  What can I do about bad lighting at my workplace?


Q.  It's very hot inside at work.  Is there a maximum temperature?
A.  Unfortunately there is no legal maximum temperature for workplaces, but employers must provide a working environment which is safe, without risks to health, and with welfare facilities.  They must assess the risks of hazards at work and introduce prevention and control measures.  This means that employers must take reasonable steps to keep the temperature at work at a reasonable level during working hours (Regulation 7 of the Workplace Health & Safety Work Regulations 1992).

Examples of "reasonable steps" include:
insulating hot pipes and equipment;
shading windows, siting workstations away from hot areas;
provfans, air conditioning and increased ventilation in general and locally at individual workstations;
and - as a last resort - providing rest facilities and limiting  the amount of time individuals spend in the heat.

Regulation 6 requires employers to provide "effective and suitable ventilation" - meaning that fresh air must be drawn in from outside and diluted with the warm humid air inside, creating movement and a sense of freshness without causing a draught.

Regulation 22 requires employers to provide an adequate supply of readily accessible wholesome drinking water and cups.

Clearly, if you are becoming ill because of high temeratures at work, the situation is unacceptable and the employer must take action.


Q.  It's very cold at work.  Is there a minimum temperature?
A.  The Workplace Health, Safety and Welfare Regulations set out a legal minimum temperature of 16 degrees Celcius.  Your workplace should reach the minimum after the first hour at work, but, depending on the type of work being done, it may still be too cold to be comfortable.  Employers must provide a safe working environment, without risks to health, and with welfare facilities.  They must assess hazard risks and create prevention and control measures.

Thie means that employers must take reasonable steps to keep the temperature at a reasonable level during work.  Reasonable steps may include draught exclusions or local heating.

If, dispite these measures, a reasonable temperature cannot be achieved or maintained, employers may need to consider providing suitable personal protective equipment, heated rest facilities or new systems of work (like job rotation), that limit how long staff work in uncomfortable temperatures.

While this leaves an arguement about what is reasonable and about the risks to health, it does mean than an empoyer who does nothing to control low temperatures is probably breaking the law.  Clearly, if members are becoming ill because of temperatures at work that are too low then that is unacceptable and the empoyer must act.


Q.  What kind of lighting must my employer provide?
There are minimum lighting levels set by the Health and Safety Executive which vary according to the task.  In addition to ensuring these standards are met the employer should:

-make sure there is no disabling or distracting glare caused by lighting equipment, sunlight through windows, bright room surfaces or reflections on equipment
-provide additional local lighting as needed
-ensure that the minimum levels of emergency lighting required in various areas are in place
-ensure as far as is reasonable that all workers have natural light in their workplace by adjusting the position and lay out of workplaces within the building and by maintaining a tidy office and clean windows so that natural light is not blocked
-ensure that lighting is in a safe position or hung so as to avoid avoid the risk of injuring staff
- make sure lighting equipment are not likely to come into contact with hot parts of the light and hot surfaces heated by lights
- ensure all lights are positioned so that they can be cleaned and bulbs can replaced safely and provide safe, adequate access equipment for lights in e.g. stairwells or over heavy industrial or dangerous equipment of any kind
carry out checks on all aspects of lighting at regular intervals and whenever changes are made to existing workplaces

In any areas where computers and display screens are used, the workplace and equipment should ensuer that no distracting reflections appear on the screen and so that there is appropriate contract between the screen and its background. Adjustable blinds are often necessary to achieve this.


Q.  What can I do about bad lighting at my workplace?
Lighting is one of the most important things in your working environment, but is often neglected by cash-strapped, busy or downright negligent employers.

All employers should provide good lighting which enables you to do your job and whatever tasks it involves safely and well.

Your eyesight can quickly be damaged, often permanently, by poor lighting. You are also more at risk of accidents and injury in a badly lit room or building.

In a unionised workplace, health and safety reps appointed by the workers, will monitor lighting and ensure the employer addresses problems identified. So tell your rep if you're experiencing a problem yourself or have noticed a problem to do with lighting anywhere in the workplace.

Otherwise:

-report all lighting problems to the responsible person
-do not attempt to fix lights yourself
--ask for additional lighting if current lighting is not good enough for the task
don't place lights, especially portable lamps, in positions or places where they might block access or injure people
--use window blinds to control brightness or glare from the sunlight
keep your workplace tidy and ask colleagues to do the same so that natural light is not blocked

If you report a problem to management and nothing happens, put the problem and the solution needed in writing in a dated memo or letter. If all else fails, talk to your union rep.