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Worker Participation in safety and health

Worker participation is an important part of managing health and safety. Managers do not have the solutions to all health and safety problems, while workers and their representatives have the detailed knowledge and experience of how the job is done and how it affects them. Therefore workers and managers need to work together closely to find joint solutions to common problems.

For employers it is about obtaining help to identify the real problems and finding the right solutions and having a motivated workforce. For workers it is about preventing themselves from being harmed by their work.

According to the law, workers must be informed, instructed, trained and consulted on health and safety. Full participation goes beyond consultation - workers and their representatives are also involved in making decisions. Worker participation on health and safety is a simple two-way process where employers and their workers/ worker representatives: 

Talk to one another Listen to each other’s concerns
Trust and respect each other Discuss issues in good time
Consider what everyone has to say Make decisions together
Look for and share views and information


Benefits of worker participation

Worker consultation is enshrined in health and safety law because of its importance in preventing risks and finding effective solutions. Workplaces in which employees actively contribute to health and safety often have a lower occupational risk level and accident rates.

The main reasons why workers should actively influence management decisions include: 

  • worker consultationworker participation helps in developing realistic and effective ways of protecting workers
  • by getting involved in an issue at the planning stage, workers are more likely to identify problems and their causes, help find practical solutions, and comply with the end result
  • if workers are given the opportunity to participate in shaping safe work systems, then they can advise, suggest, and request improvements - helping to develop measures to prevent occupational accidents and ill-health in a timely and cost effective manner
  • where workers are involved from an early stage they will feel commitment to the solution
  • communication and motivation in general will be improved

More information: Worker representation and consultation on health and safety: An analysis of the findings of the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks


Role of employers

employer consultationEmployers have the main duties to provide workplaces where risks to health and safety are properly controlled, and they must provide information and training to workers and consult workers and their representatives as part of the process.

In order to consult effectively employers need to establish arrangements that allow and encourage workers and their representatives to participate in decisions about managing health and safety at work. They need to promote a culture in which health and safety is integrated into everyone’s roles.

Consultation needs to take place what ever the size of an organisation.

The principles are the same – encouraging open dialogue, listening to what is heard, learning from it and acting upon it - but the format will vary.

It is very important that all workers have access to the arrangements that allow them to fully participate. There may be workers who have particular difficulties in being able to participate in the mainstream arrangements such as shiftworkers, lone workers, cleaners, contractors, trainees, agency workers. Communicating with workers who are non-native speakers or who have low literacy levels needs to be taken into account.

Employers should:

  • Ensure they have effective measures by which workers can participate in helping managers develop safe systems of work.
  • Provide appropriate training to managers, supervisors and workers representatives – where they exist - so that they can effectively support worker participation.
  • Ensure that workers are directly involved with the risk assessment process.

National legislation covers the requirements for consultation, designating worker representatives and setting up safety committees.

More information: Worker participation in occupational safety and health: a practical guide.

Role of worker representatives and safety committees

worker representativesWorker representatives combined with direct worker participation in a complimentary approach is an effective way of obtaining views and involving workers in health and safety.

The role of the worker representative is to ensure that workers’ have an input into managerial decision-making when preventative and protective measures are being developed, by reflecting their views, concerns and ideas.

There may be a joint worker-employer safety committee which worker representatives take part in. Safety committees are used as a discussion forum and advisory body for company decisions. A safety committee allows worker representatives, health and safety advisors, managers and supervisors to meet and identify health and safety issues and jointly influence health and safety performance in the company.

Worker representatives may also be trade union representatives. Trade unions play a valuable role in supporting and training their representatives and providing independent information on workplace health and safety. They frequently work with employers on projects to solve health and safety problems.

National legislation and practice sets the roles and rights of worker representatives and the operation of safety committees.

More information: Worker participation in occupational safety and health: a practical guide 

Role of workers

Workers’ responsibilities to cooperate

Employers have the main duty to protect their workers by putting in place protective measures including safe ways of working, safe equipment, suitable personal protective equipment and information, instruction and training for workers.

But the law also requires workers to play their part and help their employer to protect them by:

  • taking care of their own and other peoples’ safety and health;
  • cooperating actively with their employer on safety and health;
  • following the training they have received for doing their job safely, and for using equipment, tools, substances etc;
  • telling someone (employer, supervisor or worker representative) if they think the work itself - or inadequate safety measures - are putting anyone’s safety and health at risk


Why participate?

The law expects workers to get involved in helping to raise health and safety standards for themselves and their workmates for good reasons

  1. health and safety is about stopping them getting harmed by work
  2. they know the risks in their workplace and should contribute to managing them.

Employers first need to promote a safety culture which supports worker participation. But workers should not limit their participation to just passive cooperation and following safety rules. If workers are to get the most effective protection for their own health and safety, they need to make full use of the worker participation arrangements at their workplace.


More information: Worker participation in occupational safety and health: a practical guide


European legislation foresees worker participation in health and safety and lays out minimum requirements on information for workers and consultation (especially the EU ‘OSH Framework’ Directive 89/391).

National legislation and practices set the specific requirements, especially regarding the designation of worker representatives and the use of joint management-worker safety committees at the workplace.


Worker consultation requirements

  • Employers must consult workers and/ or their representatives and allow them to take part in discussions on all questions relating to safety and health at work, respecting their right to make proposals and organising their balanced participation.
  • The issues on which consultation must take place, in advance and in good time, are:
  • any measure which may substantially affect safety and health
  • the designation of workers responsible for OSH activities, and first aid, fire and evacuation activities and the enlistment of outside competent services
  • the information the employer has to provide workers relating to risk assessment and groups of workers exposed to particular risks, including consultation on: protective measures to be taken, including the provision of personal protective equipment, details of occupational injuries
  • the planning and organisation of health and safety training for workers
  • the planning and introduction of new technologies

Worker/ worker representative rights

  • Workers/ workers' representatives have the right to ask the employer to take appropriate measures and to submit proposals.
  • Employers must allow workers' representatives with specific responsibility for the safety and health of workers adequate time off work, without loss of pay, and provide them with the necessary means to perform their functions.
  • Workers' representatives must be given the opportunity to submit their observations during inspection visits by the competent authority (e.g. labour inspectors).
  • Workers/ worker representatives may appeal to the competent authority (e.g. labour inspectorate) if they feel that health and safety is inadequate in their workplace.
  • Worker representatives with safety responsibilities are entitled to appropriate training.
  • Employers must give worker representatives with safety responsibilities access to all the information necessary for a proper evaluation of risks within the enterprise and to the accident reports drawn up for submission to the competent member state health and safety authority

Consultation at construction sites

Directive 92/57/EEC on OSH at construction sites says that consultation must also ensure whenever necessary and taking account of the degree of risk and the size of the worksite, the proper coordination between workers and/or workers' representatives in undertakings carrying out their activities at the workplace.

More information in the European legislation section.

Ways to involve workers

National law varies in how consultation must take place, especially in areas such as workers’ representatives, safety committees and involvement in risk assessments.

However, using a combination of arrangements and methods for participation, both formal and informal, is usually best. In particular, direct worker participation and worker representatives should not be seen as alternatives, but as different avenues to be combined as effectively as possible.

Whatever methods are used, requirements for effective participation include: providing access to all relevant information; allowing sufficient time for consultation and discussion; and having the means to resolve conflicts and achieve consensus


Risk Assessments

Risk assessment should include genuine and effective participation of both workers and their representatives in the process, with both being asked their views about problems and solutions.

Risk assessment is a key management process designed to protect workers. The employer must identify hazards such as noise, heat, heavy loads, repetitive movements, chemicals, machinery, monotonous or over pressurised work etc. They must then assess the chances of them causing harm.

Protective measures must then be put into place. It is a legal requirement to consult workers over risk assessment and protection measures. However, the more that workers actively participate in the assessments the more effective the resulting control measures are likely to be. Obtaining workers’ opinions is an important part of the process.

risk assessment

Working Groups & trials

A working group is often setup to help tackle a specific problem and workers and worker representatives should be invited to participate.  In planning measures to deal with specific hazards, involving those who work on relevant tasks helps to ensure that the outcome takes into account their working experience. In addition, workers are more likely to follow such measures if they have been involved in developing them.

It is a good idea to trial or pilot solutions, involving workers to test possible control measures and adjust them based on experience.

Reviews of control measures, after implementation, should also involve feedback from workers.

working group




During training participation can be promoted by getting workers to discuss the issues and provide their views. Some companies get trainees to actively spot and examine real workplace problems, feeding the results back into the company risk assessment process.

Workers should also speak up on safety matters during on-the-job training. Mentors and supervisors have a key role here. Workers also need to apply the knowledge received in training to their work tasks.



Communication and feedback

Workers must be properly informed in a timely way about all relevant matters regarding their health and safety. Most organisations have various communication routes both formal and informal.

Reporting procedures should exist so that workers not only report injuries, near-misses etc, but propose ideas and give feedback on the employer’s suggestions to improve health and safety.

On the other hand workers need feedback on any ideas they make – even if it is to say something can’t be done. A great cause of frustration is where workers make a suggestion and then hear nothing more.

Opportunities for face-to-face dialogue and feedback include: ‘shop floor’ discussions between managers, workers and their unions, ‘toolbox’ talks, briefing sessions, department/team meetings, or via an organisation’s intranet, suggestion schemes etc, management meetings, individual discussions with supervisors and mentors.

Direct worker information and consultation routes include surveys, suggestion schemes and through the staff newsletter and intranet etc.

Discussion should be broad, not just limited to physical hazards and safety rules. Matters such as work organisation, changes in production, technologies and equipment or working methods can all affect health and safety.

 communication with workers


Resolving conflicts

Worker and employer opinions may differ over what the risks are and priorities for managing risks. Anticipating this, it is good practice to have in place procedures for negotiation and looking for the consensual solutions. To be effective, both managers and worker representatives need training in negotiating skills.



Some examples of worker participation


Safety improvements in navigable inland waterways

The Belgian Navigation Office (Dienst voor de Scheepvaart) is responsible for the maintenance and exploitation of the country’s northern inland waterways. Its 500 employees suffered a high accident rate.

The organisation managed to reduce this rate by more than 60% over a 12-year period through a comprehensive safety and health policy. This involved revising its accident prevention policy to include extensive and systematic worker consultation.

Joint working resulted in a new accident registration system to analyse causes and to learn from mistakes, safety improvements in equipment and its use and measures to improve public safety.

 safety in navigation


Worker involvement in a hospital safety campaign

At a Danish hospital worker representatives from the Danish Nurses Organisation and management planned and implemented a safety campaign to reduce needlestick injuries, which focused on finding measures that would actively involve and engage staff.

The campaign was planned in a "MED-Udvalg" which is a committee composed of employees, managers and top management of the Hospital. The campaign amimed at actively involve workers and incorporated the following events:

  • Kick off event with a "what do you know"- competition
  • Posters
  • "Give us your ideas" - competition with prizes. Four of the ideas were used as photo examples in the campaign.
  • Offers to all hospital wards to have a ‘needlestick’ check-up performed by the safety department
  • Extended follow-up on needlestick injuries
prevention of sharp injuries


Young workers in the energy industry

Promoting health and safety is an integral part of apprentice training in the energy company E.ON. Apprentices are encouraged to take an active role from the beginning of their employment with the company.

Measures include:

  • skilled coordinators supervise apprentices and actively listen to their ideas for improving safety and health performance;
  • young workers are encouraged to become actively involved in investigating safety projects and to make recommendations;
  • electronic communication forums are used to spread safety information and to listen to new ideas;
  • apprentices are empowered by including them in such forums as Personal Protective Equipment working groups. This allows more experienced apprentices to pass on their knowledge to their younger colleagues. Representatives from these forums attend a national conference of E.ON worker health and safety representatives. This led, for example, to the use of newer and more fashionable safety sunglasses being used by the workforce once the company learned that the original ones were not being worn because they ‘did not look cool’.

(Source: British Safety Council)

 young workers


Designing a new sewing machine guide

A clothing company and the trade union discussed how to reduce needle-in-finger injuries in sewing machinists. 

A small team was established at the site with the worst record – which included two machinists - and they were asked to design a guard that everybody could work with.  Where the guard was fitted needle-in-finger injuries were eliminated.

As a result, after two years, injury compensation claims dropped to €95,000 from €195,000; the company’s insurance premiums were cut by 50%; and with European lobbying at the CEN Standard for Industrial Sewing Machines was amended to incorporate the encapsulating guard concept.

 sewing worker


Joint training organised by employer and trade union

A 2-day risk assessment course was agreed by the trade unions and managers of a major gas distribution company.

A trade union provided the tutors and the joint training course was carried out during the course of a year for regional managers, supervisors and trade union worker representatives.

In the first year after the training was implemented accidents were reduced by 50% in some areas. After 4 years, ‘lost time’ injuries across the whole company had been reduced by 80%.

(Source:, Zero harm – worker involvement)

joint training for safety 


Company ignored workers’ concerns over glove policy

A global chemical company introduced a policy at one of its factories which required workers to wear gloves when using metalworking machinery, despite some workers trying to explain that this created entanglement risks for workers. Workers failing to follow the policy were reprimanded.

Subsequently, a maintenance worker seriously injured his right hand at a factory after his gloved hand was pulled into machinery.

The costs for the worker were the loss of his ring finger and damage to his middle and little finger.

The costs for the company included being prosecuted and fined for breaking health and safety laws.

 safety policy about gloves