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“Simon Jones was 24 when he died, his head crushed by the grab of a crane”

Poor working conditions kill a worker every 11 seconds. All of these deaths are preventable – if the political will is there. An edited version of a speech given on International Workers Day.

Image: Simon Jones's family, pictured 3 years after his death. Credit: Michael Stephens/PA Images.

Simon Jones was 24 when he died. It was 20 years ago last month.

Simon died, his head crushed by the grab of a crane at Shoreham docks. He didn’t know how to do that job. He wasn’t trained for it. But he took a job he was not prepared for and had no experience in, because of the push from the dole office to make him work, and the threat of his benefits being cut.

Worldwide, poor working conditions kill a worker every 11 seconds. 137 people died at work in the UK in the 2016-17, and in the same year, one and half thousand fatalities arose from work-related incidents.

Union health and safety representatives make a difference in the workplace. Yet this government is relentlessly attacking our unions. Workplaces with union representatives and joint safety committees have half the major injury rate of those without. Safety representatives save society up to half billion pounds a year, by reducing time lost through illness and occupational injury.

An academic report looked at the construction industry in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It concluded: “the strongest relationship with safety compliance is the presence of a safety representative”. The Health and Safety Executive’s own research has reinforced these conclusions. Other studies have shown that the better an employer consults with reps, the more effective the control measures.

And yet, this govt continues its attacks on our unions and our safety.

The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act is our primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in Great Britain. With the hard work, skills, knowledge, and watchful eye of people like our reps and of the Health and Safety Executive, thousands and thousands of lives have been saved.

Not only are this government hell bent on destroying the unions, they are attacking the Health and Safety Executive too. By 2020, the HSE budget will have been cut by half. Conservative leaders and a right-wing media, with the approval of sneering government officials, undermine the work of the Health and Safety Executive at every turn, citing any decision as ‘red tape’, the ‘nanny state’, and ‘health and safety gone mad’.

The 40-year social partnership between the Health & Safety Executive and the TUC/unions has been scrapped – after talks behind closed doors between the government and lobby groups - and it’s now ministers that decide who represents workers on the HSE board.

The need for proper health and safety, the damage that casual labour creates, outsourcing, the demonisation of the sick and disabled – these issues are as important as they ever were.

How outsourcing and privatisation worsen health and safety

Since the last Workers Day, the Ramsay health group who run the Winfield private hospital in Gloucester were fined for running an insufficiently staffed and managed occupational health service putting staff, as well as public, at risk.

Since last Workers Day, Liverpool has held a candlelit vigil for an outsourced worker who could not afford adequate time off work to recover, following surgery to have a lung removed in the hospital where she worked. Unfair sick pay meant she lost her home as a result.

Here in the NHS in Gloucestershire, hundreds of staff have just been transferred to a new private company, or ‘SubCo’ – transferred whilst its owners, Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust, were still discussing what Health and Safety committee provision there would be, whilst they were still tossing ideas around about the occupational health provision that those workers will have access to.

Many outsourcings across the NHS and beyond in this last year have led to reductions of sick days for staff. In Gloucestershire, we don’t know yet what several of the policies of the new SubCo will be. We are still waiting to see what new starters terms will be. Our workers in this county in the SubCo, outsourced to save money for the bosses, face many potential sources of injury every hour of the day in the work place. And these are the lowest paid workers in the health service. They are fodder for feeding the bosses’ profits and for feeding the government’s cuts. They are expendable trash, waste products, of a system that favours money over life.

Worldwide, working conditions kill a worker every 11 seconds. Every death is avoidable. There is the knowledge, there is the technology, there just isn't the will.

Union organisation is proven antidote. Remember Simon, and remember those that die at work everywhere. And think about your friends and family and the people you don’t know personally but greet each day as though they were your friends. Think about their safety, their futures. An injury to one is an injury to all.

Simon was an amazing young man who believed in direct action. He knew you couldn’t sit back and wait for politicians to make the changes needed.

Before the next government is sworn in, there will more deaths in the workplace. And we can’t wait for the next government. So, for now, we must do all we can to raise awareness of the good that unions do, the need for proper health and safety, the damage that casual labour creates, outsourcing, the demonisation of the employed and the non-employed sick and disabled. And when the next election comes – you know what you have to do. Then, let’s bring in a reversal to union legislation, repeal the vicious trade union legislation – and let’s make the workplace a safer place for everyone

About the author

Hannah Basson has worked for the NHS for 20 years. She is the Secretary of the Unite union Gloucester District Health Branch, a coordinator with Stroud Against the Cuts and liaison for Keep Our NHS Public locally in Gloucestershire. 

 

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