Saturday is Workers’ Memorial Day, a day to commemorate those who have died or been injured at work and to fight for improved laws, enforcement and working conditions to make sure that these tragedies are never repeated.
Under the watchword “remember the dead, fight for the living”, the day will be marked by unions and campaigners at events across the country. It’s a key date in the union calendar, and for good reason: evidence has shown again and again that unionised workplaces are safer and healthier.
Work still kills people in large numbers. In 2016, 758 workers and members of the public were killed in Britain in work-related accidents (not including deaths at sea or in air accidents) – 229 in fatal work accidents, and 529 in road accidents involving someone who was driving for work.
Each year in Britain, somewhere between 8,000 and 20,000 people die of cancer caused by exposures in occupational settings (no one is sure of the exact figure – estimates vary widely). And an estimated 2.8 million people around the world die each year due to occupational accidents or work-related diseases – 5% of global deaths.
These figures don’t touch on the less serious injuries and health conditions that can nevertheless ruin people’s lives – the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cases of stress, repetitive strain injury, lung and hearing problems, bad backs and mental health issues experienced by people each year.
While statistics are important, they fail to communicate the human toll these work-related deaths leave in their wake, devastating the families, workplaces and communities involved. These are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, and each one is a tragedy that costs individuals and society.
But there is an effective tool in the nation’s arsenal: trade unions. Evidence shows that where there is a recognised union, injuries and cases of ill health are less likely – a phenomenon known as the “union effect”.
The most often-cited research demonstrating this was released in 1995, after researchers analysed the relationship between employee representation and injuries in the manufacturing sector. It found that employers with trade union health and safety committees had half the injury rate of employers without unions or joint arrangements. Several other analyses of the same figures carried out in the years since have concluded that the highest injury rates occur where management deals with health and safety without employee consultation.
More recent research, released in February this year, backs this up. Researchers analysed the results of a pan-European survey carried out by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA). They found that unionised workplaces were more likely to have good health and safety and stress management practices than workplaces without worker representation.
Health and safety reps – volunteers who use hard-won rights to protect their colleagues – are vital to this. This year, it is 40 years since the law that created the role of the health and safety rep came into force, adding particular significance to this Workers’ Memorial Day.
Health and safety reps have legal rights to investigate hazards and complaints, inspect workplaces, attend safety committees, challenge their employers and access any information necessary to represent their colleagues on health and safety issues.
Importantly, employers must consult health and safety reps on matters that affect employees’ health and safety. Talking, listening to and acting on the ideas of employees – the ones who know the risks better than anyone else – about job design and risk control is one of the most effective ways of reducing injury and ill health. Meaningful participation in decision-making helps foster trust and co-operation between management and staff – a win-win all round.
But this must go hand in hand with clear and effective laws and enforcement. The EU-OSHA survey found that legal obligation was a “major factor” in 89% of businesses addressing health and safety, while 83% said the same thing of avoiding fines and sanctions. Despite this, health and safety laws are labelled “red tape”, the budget of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is dwindling, and inspectors’ time and effort is being stretched ever thinner.
In this climate, health and safety reps are crucial. This Workers’ Memorial Day, why not join the ranks of Prospect’s health and safety reps? Speak to your branch reps, or visit the website for more information.
Whether you and your colleagues are ground down by stress, or your employer’s failing to properly address work at height, put the union effect into practice and fight for the living.