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Danger: people at work

This year, just like every year, there has been a catalogue of horrific mass killings at work.

September 1, 2004
7 min read

The most high-profile tragedies have included the killings of at least 23 cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in January, four rail workers in Tebay, Cumbria, the following month, and nine people in the explosion at ICL Plastics in Glasgow in May. Horrifically, none of these three incidents was an “accident”, something that could not have been prevented. In each case ample warning had been provided by an event of similar magnitude. In the cases of Tebay and Morecambe Bay, there had been recent near misses reported to the relevant regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), that were, fatalities aside, virtually identical. In the case of ICL Plastics, appalling standards of safety at the plant were well known to workers and, again, the HSE. All of those deaths, just like most of the hundreds of routine deaths of people seeking a living through work every year, were entirely preventable (see “Death at work: the hidden carnage” below). Surely, then, the case for reinvigorating the safety agenda in the UK workplace is undeniable? Yet far from being invigorated, safety protection, long fought for by working men and women since the dawn of the industrial revolution, is being quietly corroded.

It is by no means original to say that New Labour is worse than the Tories. Often this is accurate; often it misses some of the subtle differences between Labour’s brand of neo-liberalism and Thatcher’s. But there are no subtle differences evident in New Labour’s health and safety sell-out. Even Thatcher backed away from dismantling the health and safety protection system in the 1980s; not so New Labour. Currently, the HSE is facing a cut of at least 10 per cent in funding by 2006. Inspection and prosecution rates by the executive, already at an absurdly low level and falling, will decline even further. There has been no movement on a corporate killing bill, pressure for which has its origins in a 1996 Law Commission document published when the Tories were in power (see “Government prevarication over corporate killing legislation”). And there has been no safety bill to extend safety representatives’ rights and expand penalties for health and safety crimes, despite a promise made in the 2002 Queen’s Speech. Indeed, the government is moving closer to a business agenda than most business associations ever dreamed it would.

Health and safety policy in this country – on paper at least – is governed by a principle of tripartite consultation between trade unions, employers and the HSE. The basic but false assumption, always challenged by trades unions, is that on matters of health and safety at work there is a “natural identity of interests” between employers and employees. This is an assumption that obscures the fact that workplace safety is always balanced against profit. The Health and Safety Commission (HSC), the body that decides the policy the HSE is responsible for administering, was left untouched by 18 years of Tory rule. In its preoccupation with reaching “consensus”, however, it has hardly been a champion of workers’ interests. As Alan Dalton, the lifelong safety and environmental campaigner who died earlier this year, so cogently documented, the commission’s unwillingness to eradicate hazards such as asbestos meant that consensus quite literally kills. But even if business interests held sway in the HSC, trade unions were at least included somewhere in the decision-making process. Not anymore.

The “radical” new strategy set out in the HSC’s latest policy document has been greeted enthusiastically by employer organisations, chiefly because it threatens to reverse many of the concessions won by trade unionists over the past 30 years. The document formally breaks with the HSC’s commitment to expand the role of safety representatives. It represents the most explicit statement to date in favour of a “voluntary” health and safety regime, a regime in which prosecution for health and safety breaches will be replaced by a system of advice and consultation. Rather than enforcing safety law, the HSE will be expected to adopt a new service for businesses, who will be provided “effective support free from the fear of enforcement”. The more sinister hidden policy idea is a system of twin-track enforcement that will grant some employers complete exemption from inspection if they behave well. The HSE calls this “earned autonomy”.

Most of the research on systems of earned autonomy implemented in other countries concludes that safety records are made worse rather than better under this type of system. At the same time, unless there are regular inspections or a highly organised workforce, there is no way of knowing whether an employer is “behaving well” or not. Even when it comes to serious injuries and deaths at work we have no idea who the employers with the best record are, since many deaths and injuries are either not reported or recorded (see “Death at work: the hidden carnage”). The earned-autonomy strategy will undermine health and safety inspectors’ ability to punish law-breaking firms, and will marginalise trade union involvement in health and safety – something that has always been acknowledged as the most important factor in reducing death and injury at work. It is believed that some initial experiments with the earned-autonomy system are now being put in place, without any trade union consultation, at arch anti-union firm Marks & Spencer.

July’s conference of the Hazards Campaign in Manchester made clear the degree of trade unionists’ anger about the government’s retreat from enforcement. The annual conference provides a forum for rank and file trade union safety representatives. Jane Kennedy, the government’s seventh minister for health and safety since 1997, was roundly booed and heckled when she outlined the government’s new strategy.

Only seven years previously, Labour’s current chairman Ian McCartney told trade unionists that when it comes to health and safety they were “pushing at an open door” and that all of the Hazards Campaign’s demands for safety rights would be granted. Now it looks like that door has been firmly slammed shut. Little wonder that many delegates at Hazards 2004 talked of ending their political links with New Labour.

And yet it is not as if the Hazards Campaign is making unreasonable demands. A Work and Pensions Select Committee report published shortly after the Hazards conference expressed almost complete support for the campaign’s safety charter, and noted: “It is inspection, backed by enforcement, that is most effective in motivating duty holders to comply with their responsibilities under health and safety law. We therefore recommend that the HSE should not proceed with the proposal to shift resources from inspection and enforcement to fund an increase in education, information and advice.”

The committee recommended: a bill on corporate killing; legislation that would give workplace safety representatives sweeping new powers, including the power to issue employers with enforcement notices; tougher penalties for safety offences; and new safety duties on directors. It also demanded sufficient resources to ensure substantial increases in inspections and prosecutions. Indeed, it is doubtful whether any select committee in recent memory has produced a document that corresponds so closely to the demands of the trade union movement and which contradicts government policy so starkly.

The HSC and the government’s commitment to voluntarism will be challenged from within the workplace and by the Hazards Campaign. We know that the best guarantors of safer workplaces are active, union-appointed safety representatives. We also know that managements that injure workers are also those most likely to damage the health of the local population and the local environment. And in this regard Alan Dalton was ahead of the game: he was at the vanguard of those within the Hazards Campaign who saw the urgent need to develop links between worker and environmental safety and health.

Now, perhaps more than ever before, we need to follow his example and link campaigns for worker and public protection in a way that would challenge a creeping business-led consensus that poses new and fatal dangers to the health of both workers and communities.

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