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       Hazards, number 144, 2018
Manifesto for safety: Good work wouldn’t leave you sick and tired
How did this happen in the 21st century? Diseases of the past are returning, hard won rights are being ripped away and temporary jobs are leaving many of us in a permanent state of despair. In an interview with Hazards editor Rory O’Neill, Hilda Palmer and Janet Newsham of the national Hazards Campaign set out their prescription for better, decent, healthy work.


It is a worrying time for workplace safety. Brexit has given the Tory free marketeers a platform and a vehicle for a renewed assault on workplace safety and employment protections (Hazards 143). But it has also seen the Conservative Party descend into disarray, and Labour make significant gains.

This, believes the grassroots Hazards Campaign, could provide a gilt-edged opportunity to inject new ideas into the safety debate. “The change in leadership in the Labour Party has given us an opportunity to place health and safety firmly back on the political agenda,” says the campaign’s Janet Newsham. “An opportunity to address our concerns, to discuss what we want from regulation, enforcement, to support trade union safety reps and how workers should be treated with more dignity and be able to organise and respond collectively.”

We’re listening

A first step in this process is to canvass ideas from those on the receiving end – the trade union reps, activists and occupational disease and injury advocacy groups that make up the Hazards Campaign.

The end result of this process will be a final health and safety Manifesto for government, says Hilda Palmer, Janet’s long-time collaborator and Hazards Campaign veteran. She says the manifesto will be “a plan of actions that must be taken by a new government to re-set the framework for health and safety, to back up the positive effect that workers and unions have in making work safer and healthier.

“We want to use it now to lobby and demand change from the current government and in the event of a general election, put it on the agenda, challenge political parties to take it up, or if they reject it tell us why workers’ lives and health are unimportant to them.”

Janet argues that workplace health and safety “is as relevant and important as it was at the start of the trade union movement.  “Workers are working in ever more vulnerable working conditions, conditions that shackle them to workplaces without regular or decent wages, and in conditions reminiscent of Victorian workhouses.  Their every movement is monitored and scrutinised, their workload ever increasing, in bullying and violent conditions and their safety and health are being put at risk every day.”

Hilda concurs, and says a reboot of this system is long-overdue. “The British health and safety system is broken. Workers are harmed daily just for going to work to earn a living, and many now have no realistic prospect of enforcement of their right to a safe and healthy workplace. To be able to go to work and come home alive and healthy is a human right but workers’ rights are not being assured.”

The established regulatory system that delivered a now stalled long-term decline in workplace fatalities “has been undermined and dismantled by neoliberal government over the last eight years,” Hilda says.

“The Hazards Campaign demands a health and safety system fit for workers, that explicitly creates decent work and decent lives for all workers in every workplace and our draft manifesto sets out a plan to achieve that.”

It is, she says, a dynamic process. The manifesto can develop as new ideas are fed in, from unions, union reps and campaigning groups. It is a necessary and overdue process, too.

Hilda notes: “Work contributes to a huge amount of public ill-health, to health inequality, lower life expectancy, less years of healthy life, kills over 50,000 people in the UK each year, makes millions ill, injures over half a million and the quality of jobs contributes to poverty and ill-health. But all of this is preventable with the right framework of strong laws, strict enforcement and support for active worker and union participation and will have massive payback for workers, employers and whole economy.”

No fixed abode workers

Changes in what we do and where and how we do it mean there needs to be a new, fresh regulatory contract, says Janet. “Workplaces are becoming less structured for many people – ‘No fixed abode workers’ without permanent workstations, buildings to work in or even workplaces. Their work controlled by apps. Also workplaces that are increasingly more precarious with zero hours contracts, lack of employment rights, security of hours, pay or job. 

AMAZON EXPOSED GMB organisers and activists have been a regular feature outside Amazon’s fulfilment centres, protesting day and night in all weathers about an employer the union says treats its workforce as little more than robots.

“Sexual harassment, bullying, lone working and violence at work are all increasingly more serious health and safety issues. We need the investigation of all workplace deaths, including suspected work-related suicides.”

We are living through a fast evolving working environment largely ignored by the government and its safety watchdog, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).“The HSE is still working in the past and ignoring what’s going on now for huge swathes of workforce,” says Hilda. “We must challenge the spread of Uberisation, Amazonification, App/Platform working, and all forms of precarious working, stop them becoming the new normal by exposing their abnormal and harmful effects.”

Top priorities

Janet thinks straightforward changes could have an immediate impact. “My top three changes would be increased enforcement with more resources, and more, more accessible inspectors, employment rights with collective representation from day one on the job, and an end to zero hours, precarious work.”

Hilda would start by putting an end to “all the lying, dishonest, unevidenced rhetoric” used to justify the deregulation of health and safety. She’d change the ‘purpose and mission’ of HSE, giving it “one sole aim - to prevent injury, ill-health and death caused by work and to use its teeth to enforce that strictly. Make the HSE a champion of workers’ lives and health and the whole health and safety system a proactive, preventive, precautionary, workers’ participatory project with ambitious aims to make work safer and healthier.”

But the plan would also involve granting workers much greater control over the circumstances under which they work, Hilda says. First steps would be to “give workers and union safety reps more power to take action in the workplace by abolishing all anti-trade union legislation, enforcing the Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations and extending and enhancing them.”

Barriers to progress

The current system is fixed, says Janet, to benefit “employers, global corporations and corrupt politicians.” Hilda says the outdated safety set-up serves the interests of “criminal employers and financial elites and complacent, corrupt government.” This, she says, “allows risk to be shifted to individuals, their families and the environment, while maximising profits. Meanwhile the government benefits from the financial gratitude of businesses who want to avoid scrutiny.”

There needs to be sea change, says Janet, with workers given “protection from day 1, access to advice and support from enforcement bodies to ensure their health and safety. They need to be able to join a trade union and be represented by a trade union regardless of the number of members.”

The Hazards Campaign says specific additional measures will make an instant impact. Safety reps’ rights should include the right to stop the job, to issue ‘provisional improvement notices’, to have the safety reps’ regulations properly enforced and the ‘right to know’ about all the risks from substances, hazardous environments and processes and how to prevent them.

Hilda adds there also needs to be a backstop. “Workers must have access to justice to help them assert their rights and gain redress and this includes just and fair compensation for any physical, mental or financial harm they incur due to work.”

While mental health first aid has been given the government stamp of approval, support alone misses the point, says Janet. “We need prevention of stress and mental ill-health caused or made worse by their working environment or work.” She also wants to see explicit action “challenging precarious work and the consequential lack of and undermining of the safety and health of workers.”

Add to that a recognition that air pollution is an issue for many at work, travelling to and from work and when they get home from work. She says there is a “need for it all to be risk assessed and controlled,” particularly after any changes.

Hilda also has chemicals in her sights. She wants “exposure to all chemicals eliminated or massively reduced by enforcing the COSHH regulations and using toxics use reduction methods, and ensuring all sources of chemicals exposure including indoor and outdoor air pollution and waste streams are  included.” 

Addressing climate change is a win-win she says, but only if done right. Dirty jobs should be replaced, but this must be a “just transition” involving both employer and government support for new industries, job redesign and retraining.

“21st century jobs should be cleaner, better, decent jobs,” Hilda says. ‘Decent work’ sums up the basic objectives of the union movement, says Janet.  But health and safety is a key component of any good jobs package and must be a bigger priority for trade unions, with an emphasis on better safety training and better union organisation, recruitment and retention around health and safety issues.

Janet concludes: “Unions could support their safety reps better by prioritising and organising around health and safety, establishing health and safety committees at all levels, providing adequate resources and information and support to members and encouraging members to deal with issues collectively.”

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Better plan

How did this happen in the 21st century? Diseases of the past are returning, hard won rights are being ripped away and temporary jobs are leaving many of us in a permanent state of despair. Hilda Palmer and Janet Newsham of the national Hazards Campaign set out their prescription for better, decent, healthy work.

We’re listening
No fixed abode workers
Top priorities
Barriers to progress

Hazards webpages
Deadly business

Want to know more?
Hazards Campaign manifesto for health and safety webpages
Hazards Campaign