Mourn for the dead: Fight for the living

Yesterday’s Workers Memorial Event in Princes St Gardens was moving.  Along with my Labour colleague Ian Murray MP I attended our Edinburgh Workers Memorial Event to show solidarity with our local trade union branches.

As Unison leader Mike Kirby has said “no one should be put at risk at work. Work related deaths, ill health and “accidents” are not acceptable.  Employers have a responsibility to ensure that work doesn’t cause harm to their employees – it’s not only the right thing to do – it’s the law.”

But hard won regulations and enforcement regimes are being undermined and underfunded.   As the recession hits companies and there is pressure to cut corners we need to campaign to ensure that health and safety regimes are upheld.   The Health and Safety Executive estimate that 70% of deaths and major injuries are the result of poor management.

As Luke, a former Environmental Health worker, made clear the combination of cuts and reductions in the health and safety enforcement is putting at risk past progress.

The UK Government’s document Good Health and Safety Good Health for Everyone actually sets out a weaker regime – how Orwellian.   Proactive inspections in “low risk” work places are now banned.   So for example the whole of the public sector, emergency services, agriculture, road and air transport are now classified as low risk.  And this is while in the public sector occupational health services are seeing an epidemic of stress and musculo-skeletal disorders.   The TUC estimates that 20,000 die every year in the UK as a result of work-related illnesses caused by for example exposure to chemicals, dusts, and carcinogens such as asbestos, stress from long hours at work, overwork, bullying and harassment.

The combination of public sector cuts and the impact of the recession on companies mean that there’s pressure to make short cuts.  Without routine inspections the onus is then on individual staff to act as whistle blowers – hard when people are worried about speaking out in case they put their job at risk.

That’s why it’s vital that the Labour and Trade Union movement fight for Health and Safety.  Yesterday wreaths were laid by Unite, NUJ, UCU, Unison City Council and NHS Lothian branches.

Across the UK this weekend there were events to campaign for decent health and safety standards.  But the campaign is needs to be fought across the globe.  In other countries workers are even more vulnerable to chemical exposure, poor health and safety conditions and environmental degradation in their workplaces.

In September the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on International Development will host a visit from survivors of the 1984 accident at the Bhopal industrial plant in India which leaked 27 tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate gas, killing thousands and polluting the groundwater around the factory.  I’ll post information of the event nearer the time.  Meantime check out http://www.bhopal.org/ to read about the ongoing health impacts on the survivor community.