The importance of health and safety

January 10, 2013 12:34 pm

‘In a tunnel underground a young Limerick man was found
He was built into the new Victoria Line
When the pouring gang had past sticking through the concrete cast
Was the face of little Charlie Joe Devine.’

Christy Moore’s lines from Paddy On the Road remind us that the tunnels of the London Underground are built on the bones of hundreds of men who died in the dark. As we celebrate 150 years of the tube this week, we should recall all those workers who were killed or injured building it.

The Victorians had an incredible sense of scale, vision and enterprise. The tube is a truly remarkable piece of work. But it wasn’t just vision that built the London underground, it was muscle and sweat. Thousands of navvies blasted and dug the tunnels, without computer modelling or power tools. They used, in the words of the Pogues song, ‘pick and shovel and old dynamite’. And they died in their hundreds, without monument or memorial. The Victorians had a lax attitude to health and safety; certainly death and injury was part of the price paid to build the railways, roads and bridges which shape Britain.

But look again at Christy Moore’s lyrics. Charlie Joe Devine was accidentally drowned in concrete, according to the song, and his body left there in the tunnel wall, building the Victoria line. That line (light blue on the Frank Pick’s famous map) was started in 1962, and completed a decade later. Christy’s character was no Victorian navvy – he might have died listening to the Rolling Stones.

Workers Memorial Day falls on April 28th this year. Started in Canada, it has been spread by the unions throughout the world. Their slogan is ‘Remember the Dead, Fight for the Living’. It’s an adaption of ‘Mother’ Jones saying ‘pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living’. Mary Harris Jones was a remarkable leader of the workers’ movement. Born in Cork in the 1830s, where last year the council put up a plaque to her, she emigrated to Canada, then the USA.

She lost her husband and four children to yellow fever, and her home and job in the Chicago fire. She founded the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or ‘wobblies’ and led a ‘children’s crusade’ of child labourers from American mines and factories to President Roosevelt’s house. Some say the ‘she’ in the song ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’ is Mary Harris. She’s certainly the sort of person Michael Gove doesn’t want your children to know about.

The day that adopted her slogan, Workers Memorial Day, is a chance to remember the countless, nameless millions who die in their workplace. It is also the platform for campaigning for greater safety. The TUC calculates that 20,000 people die because their work in the UK every year. 1.9 million are injured.

Columnists on the right-wing papers and the repugnant, loathsome Jeremy Clarkson (friend of David Cameron) make light of ‘health & safety’. They mock attempts to stop needless death and injury, because they are stupid and heartless. They dishonour those 110 Bangladeshi workers killed in December in the Dhaka factory fire, and many more besides.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has had its funding cut by 35% by this government. The ConservativeHome website published a list of 100 achievements this week including ‘trade union membership in 2011 is down 143,000 on the previous year’ as though this was a good thing. The fact is that if inspections are fewer, and if there are fewer trade union reps in factories, on building sites, or in tube tunnels, workers die.

  • disqus_k2w6GnkY4v

    Paul – H & S is important for all the reasons you mention in your article, but the reason that Clarkson et al say the things they do is that H & S officers give them plenty of ammunition! For example, in our small business premises (craft bakery/sandwich shop) there are two exits, one at the front and one at the back, and wherever you are in the building, you can see an exit, yet we were told that we must purchase Fire Exit signs to put over the doors! We have staff for whom health and safety risks are minimal – the most likely thing they will do to compromise their health and safety is cut themselves when making a sandwich or incur a minor burn when filling the pie warmer, and not only do I have to produce a risk assessment for them but also a separate one for young workers and pregnant women! I could go on, and on….Common sense often goes out of the window, to be replaced by mounds of paperwork (and just because you’ve ticked a box doesn’t mean that standards are high), which is why it is made light of/mocked.
    Joanne Price

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.crowder2 Jim Crowder

    You are probably watching a different Jeremy Clarkson from the one on Top Gear. The one I see makes fun of the people who care little for health and safety, but a lot for their own jobs. Instead of ensuring that the stunts a etc. are carried out safely, they focus on ensuring that no-one will be blamed if there are accidents. It’s not the same thing.

  • Brumanuensis

    Very good article Paul. It is highly depressing that health and safety is continuously maligned by know-nothings, although the blame partly lies with Labour, given that cut-backs to funding and inspections began about 8 or so years ago.

  • PeterBarnard

    Excellent article, Paul.
    Another point is that the vast majority of accidents are avoidable, but we too easily accept an accident as something that wasn’t avoidable and regard it as something that was just unfortunate.

  • Ivan Timson

    Great article Paul. With the government classing many workplaces ‘Low risk’ people are being put at greater risk. Many workplaces from printers to docks don’t receive any proactive Health and Safety inspections by the HSE. Thousands have been cut, and with the safety regulations that protect us all being attacked. Our workplaces will become more hazardous to work in….
    We must stop tragic incidents happening to workers. Such as the 16yr old apprentice who was killed this week in Manchester. Health & Safety saves lives.
    Too many people die at work…. Around 1,200 last year according to the Hazards campaign. We must fight back and get our MPs to our workplaces safe.
    http://Www.hazards.org

Latest

  • Comment Europe McFadden’s appointment comes at a time of big opportunity for Labour on Europe

    McFadden’s appointment comes at a time of big opportunity for Labour on Europe

    Pat McFadden is taking over the Europe brief just at the time when the issue can work in Labour’s favour. Provided we hold to Ed Miliband’s decision not to cave in to the calls to offer an in-out referendum. Europe is again becoming toxic for the Tories. How Cameron must be looking back wistfully to that time when he told his party to stop banging on about Europe. That’s exactly what it is now doing. And it’s largely his own […]

    Read more →
  • Comment The Next Portillo Moment

    The Next Portillo Moment

    Undoubtedly the highlight of election night ‘97 was seeing Labour record the unlikeliest of victories where I live in Enfield Southgate. We did it through hard work, at the time all three Enfield seats were blue and though the Labour swing meant that Edmonton and Enfield North were going red regardless it took a special campaign lead by an extraordinarily good candidate in Stephen Twigg to record what was an iconic victory in the Party’s history. We held the seat […]

    Read more →
  • Comment The business backlash against Tory EU exit plans 

    The business backlash against Tory EU exit plans 

    It’s not just José Manuel Barroso who has warned David Cameron that his party is taking the wrong approach when it comes to talk of an EU exit. There is a clear sense of concern and anger from the UK and international business community in respect of the Tory plans for an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in 2017. This has led to a serious business backlash against the Tories. Standard & Poor’s, the international rating […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Miliband sets out 5 point immigration reform plan (but won’t join “Operation Pander”)

    Miliband sets out 5 point immigration reform plan (but won’t join “Operation Pander”)

    Ed Miliband is in Rochester today, where he’s campaigning for the party’s by-election candidate Naushabah Khan against what he called the “two Tory opponents” of UKIP and the Tories in the Rochester and Strood by-election. But the main purpose of Miliband’s speech was to set out what Labour’s approach to immigration will be – specifically an Immigration Reform Bill in the first Queen’s Speech of the new Parliament. Miliband announced it’d be based around five key principles (most of which […]

    Read more →
  • News Sadiq Khan asks Mansion Tax critics – how would you fund the NHS?

    Sadiq Khan asks Mansion Tax critics – how would you fund the NHS?

    Since Labour conference, the majority of Labour’s potential London mayoral candidates have been critical of the party’s Mansion Tax proposals. However one presumptive candidate has been consistently positive about the plans – Sadiq Khan. That’s understandable and expected, as he’s a Shadow Cabinet member and a Miliband loyalist. But Khan has now launched a public defence of the tax (calling it “absolutely fair”) and a broadside against critics, asking them “why they are opposed to hiring thousands more nurses and doctors […]

    Read more →