Experts call for a united campaign for better health and safety at work

04 July 2013 By Janet Newsham Trade unionists, campaigners and academics called for an end to the deregulation of health and safety yesterday at Institute of Employment Rights' conference Health and Safety at Work 2013.

Commentary icon4 Jul 2013|Comment

04 July 2013

By Janet Newsham

Trade unionists, campaigners and academics called for an end to the deregulation of health and safety yesterday at Institute of Employment Rights’ conference Health and Safety at Work 2013.

In opening the conference Carolyn Jones, Director of the Institute of Employment Rights, said that health and safety should be at the heart of all our campaigns. The consequences of government health and safety cuts are not a reduction in red tape, reduced burdens on business, or a diminishment in gold-plated regulations; but increasing injuries in the workplace, a rise in work-related ill health, and an upsurge in the number of people killed. Carolyn said that failing to protect the health and safety of citizens is a political issue. Only Labour Party MPs attended a recent lobby of parliament organised by Unite and Ucatt under the banner of ‘Save Our Safety – SOS’. Government was urged at the event to strengthen health and safety legislation and enforcement. Carolyn also reminded delegates that for the 2022 world cup in Qatar, it is estimated that more people will die during its construction than will be playing at it, because it is being built by exploited, unorganised migrant workers.

The first two speakers of the day were David Whyte from Liverpool University and Hilda Palmer from Greater Manchester Hazards. Both presented passionate arguments against government cuts in health and safety. David presented research showing the continuing reduction in inspections by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Despite the conviction of the body’s leadership over the last 13 years that it was sufficiently resourced, there has been a dramatic fall in inspections, and consequentially prosecutions. He said that only 5-7% of enforcement notices by the HSE are the result of Riddor reports, and called the separation of sectors into ‘high’ and ‘low’ risk as a ‘highly risky and reckless strategy’ that has never been justified with a health and safety rational. So called ‘low risk’ workplaces – which include most manufacturing industries, docks and quarries – now have no proactive inspections. He also reported that between 2006 and 2013, biological agents inspections and explosives inspections have fallen by 73%; chemical industry inspections have fallen by 40%; mines inspections have fallen by 94%; and offshore inspections by 75%. David reminded delegates that this year is the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, where on 6 July 1988 167 men died. The lessons learned and safety precautions put in place after the event are now being undermined, leaving the industry open to the threat of another disaster.

Following this, Hilda Palmer spoke about the sorry state of health at work. She argued that the UK’s neoliberal government is waging war on health and safety and this is resulting in more deaths, injuries and ill health. She cited estimates that 2.3 million people are killed by work each year, and claimed this is a gross underestimation. This means that globally more people die because of work than die each year as a result of war. Hilda explained that the HSE figures of deaths, injury and illness are just a very small proportion of those who are actually killed, injured or made ill by work.

According to research by GMHazards, the number of deaths due to work-related incidents was between 1253 and 1403 during 2011/2012. Those killed by work-related illness is approximately 50,000 each year, and those injured at work is around 1.8 million. These figures equate to approximately 140 deaths per day, and six people dying each hour. ALL preventable! Hilda said that we bear the burden of the cost for bad health and safety, both physically and financially. She also reminded delegates that we need to change the language and be more aggressive about health and safety. We need to unashamedly work together and shout about statistics and information on the importance of health and safety. She invited us all to sign up to the Hazards Facebook page, support the Hazards Magazine and ended with the slogan ‘THEY LIE, WE DIE!’.

All the speakers provided vital information and scrutiny of the government’s disastrous and sadistic changes to our health and safety. Daniel Shears from the GMB spoke about campaigning and organising against the challenges being faced. Steve Cottingham from OH Parsons solicitors explained about the Löfstedt report findings and the government’s determination to proceed with its ideological agenda despite the recommendations. He said that they the changes to strict liability will mean thousands of workers or their families will be unable to access justice for work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths. The exemption for self-employed people contained within the Deregulation Bill (which was published this week) does not take into account the spurious contracts people are forced to work under or the interaction on construction sites with dangerous work.

In the afternoon, Phillip Liptrot from Thompsons presented ‘Fifty Shades of Grayling: justice denied for injured working people’; Neil Hope-Collins from Prospect presented ‘The practical impact of government policy: a view from the trenches’; and Andy Fisher, UCATT NW Regional Secretary, presented ‘Health and safety in the construction industry: an update’. All gave impassioned presentations about the consequences of the cuts on working people from their different perspectives.

In conclusion, through organisations like GMHazards and the TUC there is a mass of information about the consequences of what the government is doing on health and safety: how people are being killed, injured and made ill by work; how the government is undermining our ability to ensure our employers are responsible and have to answer financially and legally for their actions. We have to campaign more strongly, with more unity and more urgently against this government and in the Labour Party, as well as within our trade unions. We need to prioritise the health safety agenda, challenge misinformation and the trivialisation of health and safety, and call for greater employer accountability, regulation and penalty, as well as additional resources for prevention and inspection.

Read all conference papers from the day by clicking here

Janet Newsham

Janet Newsham Janet Newsham Janet works for Greater Manchester Hazards Centre as the coordinator and Chair of the Hazards Campaign.