The true cost of an industrial accident

by Stewart Hume, electrician and Unite activist

TRUE COST Kenneth Hume was just 29 when he was killed at work, leaving behind a young family. His son, Stewart, became a committed safety activist.

On 1 February 2014, a National Rank and File meeting was held in Glasgow. One of the guest speakers was Louise Taggart from the Scottish Hazards and FACK (Families Against Corporate Killers) campaigns who gave a really moving health and safety presentation around fatalities in the workplace. She spoke in detail about her own personal experience of when her brother who was an electrician was electrocuted and killed at his work and how it affected her family.

I don’t think that there was anyone in the room, full of tough construction workers, that wasn’t moved by Louise’s experience. This has inspired me to write this article about my own experience of a fatal industrial accident and how it has affected me and my family for almost 30 years.

My story starts way back on 5 July 1984, a really hot summer’s day, but a day which was to become one that would haunt my family forever. Kenneth Hume, my dad, was an electrician who worked for SSEB (Scottish Power). He served his time with them and was an experienced 29-year-old operative.

I vaguely remember him being on call or standby a lot of the time and having to go out through the night to deal with faults and issues throughout the area, but on this particular day he was carrying out maintenance at Gartcosh Substation in Lanarkshire which was around three miles or so from where we lived. My dad took the opportunity, as he was working so close to home, to come home and have lunch at my gran’s and spend some time with myself and my brother Scott. We had only just celebrated Scott’s second birthday a few days previously.

When it was time for my dad to go back to work, I remember asking him to give me a lift to my friend’s house just around the corner in his Ford Transit. I was obsessed with his van and in particular his tool chest in the back which had a photograph of a chimpanzee on the lid, I would often ask to go out to the van to see the chimp, these are the sort of things that interested me at 4-year-old I guess.

Dad told me that he couldn’t give me a lift, I can’t quite remember if it was because he was in a hurry to get back or if it was because he wasn’t insured to have me travelling in the van, but in any case, being a child I threw a tantrum because I wasn’t getting my own way and the words that came out my mouth next, are words that I have wished I could take back for nearly 30 years… “I hate you!” I know my dad would not have taken it to heart and would know that I was just acting like a spoiled brat, but it tears me up that those are the last words I would ever say to him.

Later in the afternoon the sound of sirens could be heard heading towards Gartcosh. I remember years later my mum saying that she got a really horrible feeling when she heard them, however not knowing or even thinking at the time that she was to become a widow with two young sons. The sirens were heading for Gartcosh because my dad had been electrocuted.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the actual incident, mainly because I still don’t have the full details and because I want this article to focus on the how my family was affected in the aftermath. The reason for this being that the files relating to the Fatal Accident Inquiry were to be kept with a lawyer, with an instruction for myself and Scott to receive them when we were old enough to handle the details contained within them. These files were destroyed without permission and we have never seen them.

Part of the reason I became an electrician was to try and understand how electricity works and maybe understand what caused my dad’s death. You can imagine how my mum took the news about my career choice, initially she found it quite difficult but I reassured her that I wasn’t going to be working in the high voltage side of things.

My brother is also a spark and I often think about how things could have been very different as mum used to tell me that my dad’s dream was to have his own electrical business someday. Maybe dad would have tried to direct Scott and myself down another career path or would he have supported our career choice to make it a family business? Something we will never know.

I remember mum being very upset at times after my dad’s death, I can only assume that the only reason she carried on was because of Scott and me. The police asking very personal questions about her marriage, my dad’s state of mind, if he had been drinking etc. I know they were only doing their job but the timing wasn’t appropriate and the press were turning up at the house as well and my gran having to chase them off the doorstep were all putting strain on my mum as she started the grieving process.

I also think about my grandparents whom had already lost a son in a tragic accident. My dad’s eldest brother William had been killed in a road accident at 13-years-old. I really don’t know where they got the strength from to hold it together.

I wasn’t at dad’s funeral as mum felt I was too young, but everyone always tells me that there was a queue of cars behind the hearse that stretched through all the streets of the estate where we lived. That comforts me to know how much my dad was loved by family, friends and workmates. I suppose the funerals of young people are always well attended as it is such a shock that a life is cut short so prematurely.

Now that I am a parent myself with a daughter Jorja and a son whom we named after my dad, it really hits home to me all the things that my dad missed out on as Scott and me grew up. All the advice that we should have got from dad as well as the telling offs for all the crazy stuff we used to get up to as teenagers. Holidays, family gatherings, birthdays, nights out, being there for us when we had a problem, the list is endless.

I truly am grateful to my mum for giving us a fantastic upbringing under such tragic circumstances with help from friends and family. I really wish dad had been here to see his grandchildren, every time either of them do or say something new it makes me think about dad and all the joy that he has been robbed of and that Jorja and Kenneth have been robbed of a loving Papa. I hold every hour I spend with them precious as what I have learned from this is that you never know what is around the corner.

Only this morning [7 March], we had the tragic news of a worker killed in a tunnel on the Crossrail project in London. A 43-year-old man out earning to provide for himself and his family, won’t be returning home to them today. Unfortunately the way that Crossrail have handled the incident in the press, in my opinion, comes across as almost trying to make excuses and verging on justifying this poor man’s death by quoting their accident rate as “below the industry average”. It’s almost as if they are saying that they have done so well to get this far into the project without there being a fatality.

At this time my heart goes out to this man’s family and I can relate to how they must be feeling. This is “THE TRUE COST OF AN INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT”, not the delay to a project, not the suspension of production, not the cost of an HSE investigation, not the cost of a Fatal Accident Inquiry, not the cost of expensive company lawyers, not the cost of the emergency services attending an incident and not the cost of compensation if there even is any.

The cost lies with the families left behind, the emotional and mental cost. No amount of money can take away the pain.

This is why on Monday 28 April 2014 for International Workers’ Memorial Day, I ask that every worker in the country support the UK Hazards Campaign and fight like hell for our lives and health and that of our families and friends.  All those killed simply for going to work to earn a living are not publicly remembered on any other day.

Social media should be put to great use to show support and Hazards Campaign has suggested using “Health and Selfies”.  Take a photo of yourself holding a piece of card with ‘I Love Red Tape – it’s better than bloody bandages!’ then tweet your Health and Selfie to your own MP, to David Cameron, to DWP and BIS Ministers, to local press, etc. using the hashtags ‪#‎HealthandSelfie and #IWMD14.

The campaign would like everyone to tweet the same slogan ‘I/We Love Red Tape – it’s better than bloody bandages’ #IWMD14 at least once, and then any other slogans you can make up that say what you think to support good health and safety regulation.  Suggested slogans to hold in your Health and Selfie – which you can also use as tweets:

#HealthandSelfie I love red tape- it’s better than bloody bandages #IWMD14

‪#‎HealthandSelfie I’d rather be wrapped in red tape than bloody bandages #IWMD14

#HealthandSelfie I’m working for a living, not to die #IWMD14

#HealthandSelfie I go to work to pay the bills, not to die #IWMD14

#HealthandSelfie I go to work to support my children, not to die #IWMD14

#HealthandSelfie I’m 2young2die@work so I love red tape #IWMD14

#HealthandSelfie Don’t work me to death: Don’t cut health and safety #IWMD14

#HealthandSelfie Work should be a means to an end, not the end #IWMD14

#HealthandSelfie No-one should die earning a living@work #IWMD14

‪#‎Healthand Selfie “Employers I’m (Joe Bloggs is) 2young2die@work Protect me with red tape at work!’ #IWMD14

#Healthand Selfie ‘Don’t work me to death’ #IWMD14

#Healthand Selfie ‘Prime Minister: we’d rather be wrapped in Red Tape than bloody bandages, stop deregulating health and safety law’ #IWMD14

#Healthand Selfie ‘I only work here, my family want me back safe at the end of my shift ’ #IWMD14

Good regulation and strong enforcement plus union safety reps make work safer#IWMD14

Please take part in International Workers Memorial Day, I know I will. I will be thinking of my dad in particular and I’ll have a photo of him and a slogan to suit for my “HealthandSelfie”

Remember the dead and fight for the living!

Commons committee says ‘blacklist the blacklisters’

Blacklisting firms jeopardise workplace safety, should be banned from publicly funded contracts and their victims should be compensated, MPs have said.  The House of Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee also paid tribute to the activists of the Blacklisting Support Group for exposing the injustice.

The damning 14 March 2014 report of the committee’s investigation into the blacklisting scandal says that just ending blacklisting is not enough. The committee says that firms caught blacklisting must undertake a process of “self-cleaning,” including an admission of guilt, paying full compensation and taking other appropriate remedial steps.

The MPs argue that monitoring and reporting procedures for health and safety, as well as a commitment to direct employment should be adopted as standard throughout for all publicly funded projects. The report notes: “There is a clear link between blacklisting and poor health and safety standards in the construction industry. Workers must be free to voice concerns about health and safety on sites, and union shop stewards play a key role in this.

“Evidence to our inquiry has clearly demonstrated that with union membership comes the risk of being blacklisted, particularly if the union member in question is responsible for raising health and safety issues with clients/contractors. As such we are concerned that protecting workers against blacklisting should not begin and end at the procurement and recruitment stage.

“There must be provisions in place to allow reporting of health and safety concerns, and processes to encourage workers to make use of these provisions and encourage an open culture.”

The report concludes: “It is essential that workers feel that they are able to report potentially life threatening health and safety concerns without fear. Adequate reporting systems are a vital part of preventing the threat to workers of blacklisting and ensuring a robust health and safety culture.”

Ian Davidson MP, chair of the select committee, said: “Had these companies not been caught, blacklisting would still be happening, and indeed we have heard evidence that it is still going on in some areas.

“Although blacklisting is illegal now, it is not enough to just end the practice. Reparations must be made, and steps must be taken so that we are pro-actively preventing these practices – and the health and safety problems they lead to – rather than just stopping it when it happens. Companies that are caught blacklisting now, or do not make the proper reparations, or do not apply agreed standards of practice in their contracts, should be ‘blacklisted’ themselves and barred from obtaining any publicly funded work.

“It is impossible to fully quantify the damage that may have been done to people’s careers and livelihoods, and to their families, as well as to health and safety on site, by these practices, but restitution must be made.

“It must not be left just to the companies themselves to determine what this should be, but it must be agreed after negotiations with the relevant trade unions and representatives of blacklisted workers. It must also be applied to all the victims of blacklisting who have yet to be identified, and where the victim has died, compensation must go to their families.

The committee chair paid tribute “to the activists of the Blacklist Support Group, who have fought over a long number of years to maintain this issue in the public eye and to seek recognition for the injustices experienced by so many working people.”

Steve Acheson, chair of the Blacklist Support Group said: “I would like to put on record, the heart felt appreciation of all blacklisted workers for the tremendous work done by MPs on the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. Honest hard working men and women have been denied the opportunity to provide for their families because we were members of a trade union or dared to raise concerns about health and safety on a building site.

“The companies involved have shown no contrition and even less recompense for their actions, most of the directors responsible for blacklisting are still in post. The MPs call for no publicly funded contracts for blacklisting firms may now concentrate their minds.”

He added: “This report vindicates the years of tireless campaigning that many trade unionists and supporters have carried out not just over the past five years since the secret blacklist was discovered but over decades. The report barely lifts the lid on this evil conspiracy and we will not stop our campaign until a fully independent public inquiry into all of the aspects of blacklisting are exposed and the guilty brought to justice.”