The importance of health and safety

10th January, 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.

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