ZERO HARM – The Foreword – Workers Dying to Live

So why publish a book like this that is so weighted towards workers? Because it’s workers who die, are maimed and are made ill by work. Not all of them granted, but far too many. Managers, owners, directors, Chief Executive Officers and others have a key role in preventing such death, maiming and ill-health. But they tend not to be the ones that die because of work.

Following a ‘Freedom of Information’ claim by the Hazards magazine, the HSE was forced to publish the names of those killed at or by work. According to the HSE between the 1st April 2010 and 23rd November 2010, 117 workers were killed at work.

For example, on the 6th April 2010 Alan Bannon and James Shears were firefighters killed whist ‘attending a fire’ in a high rise building. James Sim was killed when a trench collapsed on him. He was a self-employed worker on a construction project, killed on the 14th April. There are 114 other names all real people, to look at. It will continue growing. For the purposes of this guide, one fatal accident at work was picked at random.

Robert Greenacre was a pipe fitter at the Lindsey Oil Refinery in Grimsby. On the 29th June 2010, he ‘died following a release of hot oil and a fire’. Actually it was an explosion and fire, with two others being injured but not killed. The Grimsby Telegraph on 14th August 2010 carried Mr Greenacre’s photograph and three others from his funeral and cremation. The title of the article was:

‘Loved ones say their goodbyes at funeral of worker killed in refinery explosion’.

Apparently he was a popular person and the paper recorded that;

‘The heartfelt service was so well attended, that many well wishers watched it take place on screens outside Grimsby Crematorium.’

He was 24 years old.

To his family and friends, they will remember him for the person he was. In the HSE list he is a statistic. However thanks to the Hazards campaigners what used to be recorded as the IP (injured person) is now a name. Robert was a person and deserves to be recognised, as do all the others on the list.

The great American asbestos expert, Irving Selicoff once stated;

‘Statistics are people with the tears wiped away.’

Whilst many professionals do not like dealing with raw emotions that arise in health and safety, they need to be addressed. The fatal accident list the HSE provide does not identify any Chief Executive Officers, Managing Directors, Finance Directors, Marketing and Communication Directors, Bankers or Members of Parliament. It is workers that die, and what were they doing? Trying to live. Trying to earn the income that could keep them existing within the society they live.

Have you ever read a worker’s contract that says death is a condition of employment?  Just in case the reader has forgotten the evidence provided by the HSE, here is a reminder. About 80% of accidents are ‘attributable’ to a failure of managerial control.

But this is only part of the story. In the HSE’s Statistics 2009/2010, they estimate that within the previous year about 1.3 million people who had worked ‘during the last year were suffering from an illness (long-standing as well as new cases) they believed was caused or made worse by their current or past work’. Around ‘555 000 of these were new conditions which started during the year’. New conditions!! So it’s not simply dealing with the legacy of some bygone industrial age. Poor work organisation is making many thousands of people ill now!!

So, using the 2009/10 statistics, 152 workers were killed at work. It is estimated that each year, around 8,000 workers die from occupational cancers due to their past exposure to cancer causing chemicals at work. Around half of which are related to previous exposure to asbestos fibres. The HSE estimate that Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) caused around 4,000 deaths in workers ‘due to past occupational exposures to fumes, chemicals and dusts’. Whilst occupational health is being addressed, never has the term ‘too little, too late’ been more apt.

Take for example, lung disease in coal miners. In January 1998 the High Court decided that the British Coal Corporation was liable, due to their negligence, for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in coal miners due to the inhalation of coal dust. The initial forecasts indicated that 173,500 claims would be made. The claims included those from the families of deceased miners who had died and suffered from the conditions covered. In reality, by March 2007, over 591,000 claims had been submitted: nearly 3.5 times the original estimate.

Leaving aside that thousands of miners died whilst waiting for claims to be settled, the scheme highlights the scale of occupational health damage to workers the UK tolerates. Over half a million coal miners had their health ruined by the negligence of the British Coal Corporation/National Coal Board.

Oh yes, the Government also had to set up a compensation scheme for coal miners who had suffered Vibration White Finger. This is a debilitating condition and through the negligence of the British Coal Corporation/National Coal Board it was thought about 45,000 claims would be made. The Scheme registered 169,000 claims: nearly 3.8 times the original estimate.

In total it cost £4.1 billion in compensation to either diseased miners or families of dead miners thanks to the negligence of those who were in control of the organisation. For the record, the National Audit Office also estimated that administering the Scheme cost £2.3 billion. Now this reflects the true scale; the true cost; the true ‘burden’ of misery imposed upon coal workers by the negligence of their employers. This is just one occupational group in the UK.

Just in case the reader knows of a skiving worker on which to base some bigoted view that workers are their own worst enemy, the figures are worth repeating. The employer’s negligence (proved in the High Court) resulted in 591,000 claims for COPD and 175,000 for Vibration White Finger. All of these claims represented an individual; a life; their family; their friends. Truly they were dying to live.

But it is not just them. For the people who attend, deal with and follow up on a fatal incident, quite often things are never the same again.

Talking to my Dad one day, we got onto the subject of worst days at work. He was an experienced trade union official. Was it bitter industrial disputes? Angry picket lines? Belligerent employers? No. It turns out his worst day was going up to visit a widow whose husband (one of his union members) had been killed in a quarrying accident during the 1960s. Her husband had fallen into a stone crusher and nothing of his body was recovered. My Dad was helping the family in the aftermath.

The woman let my Dad in. She just went and sat down on the stairs. In a somewhat distressed state she said she was sorry. Despite her husband being dead for some weeks every time the bell went, she was still expecting him to come through the door. She looked at my Dad and said, “You know Mr Bryson, there wasn’t even a body to bury”.

My Dad retired in 1991 and that day in Northumberland still remained his worst working day.

A conversation with a family member who is a policeman revealed a similar position. He said that there was no particular worst day but a small group of them. They were the occasions (day or night) where he had to go to a house, knock on the door and tell someone their cherished loved one was not coming home…. not coming home as in never ever again.

He had been assaulted on several occasions; worked under cover; foiled armed robbers; and been in many dangerous situations. His worst days were associated with telling strangers their loved ones were never going to come home.

During the period of work with Metronet [part of the London Underground] between 2003 and 2007, the terrorist bombings occurred. On the 7th July 2005 three bombs exploded in different underground trains. The fourth exploded on a crowded bus in the morning rush hour. 52 people were killed and many were injured.

To allow the police to investigate the murder scene emergency response teams from Metronet and Tubelines (the other infrastructure company) had to secure the sites. Not only was the horror of the scenes before them to deal with, but the conditions they were working in were awful.

Walking to King’s Cross station about 6 months after the bombing with the leader of one of the emergency response teams, he indicated that it had been a dreadful experience. He and his colleagues were working in and around the remains of those killed in the explosion. He didn’t give any details of what he came across. Then, quite casually, he said that the flashbacks had stopped but the nightmares were still there.

Many years ago a friend of mine died in a road accident whilst travelling during his work. He and the driver were travelling back on an unlit duel carriageway at night. At what turned out to be a dreadful moment, an articulated lorry crossed the road to go down the opposite carriageway. The car went straight into the side of the lorry and wedged underneath it. My friend and the driver, his colleague, died instantly.

I was told that an experienced traffic policeman on the scene picked up my friend’s wallet, to try to identify him. The first thing he saw was a photograph of my friend’s two young children. Apparently he just fell to his knees and cried. He wasn’t the only one.

So death at work has repercussions for many people, not just the family and friends. Whilst health and safety professionals are urged to make ‘the business case’ for better health and safety, they should also remember who it is that dies. When some jumped up millionaire Minister or Lord talks about the ‘burden’ of health and safety, throw back at them what the real cost, the real burden actually is.

Workers dying to live is the real cost, the real burden of health and safety in the UK.

The workers of the United Kingdom deserve better than being positioned at the bottom of some organisational chart. This guide does not argue they should run an organisation or should take over the Board in some workers’ revolutionary coup. It argues that they should be treated as a key part of an organisation and be given a chance to help the supervisors and managers deal with health and safety problems they face effectively.

If this is done the workers’ unique knowledge of their own jobs can help shape organisations that are safer and healthier for those at most risk; workers. As night follows day, those organisations will be more productive; more efficient; more profitable; and more likely to survive in times of economic hardship.

It does not guarantee success but it makes it much more likely than plodding on with the current situation where 60% of employers cannot even comply with the minimum legal standards on consulting their workers.

Workers are not the problem: workers are the solution to health and safety problems.

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