Health and safety – Time to return to basics
After five years of unrelenting attacks on health and safety from all sides, many activists were hoping to see a change in direction after the election. Labour had promised to prioritise the prevention of occupational cancers and illnesses, ensure that every employer could be inspected at any time, introduce a maximum temperature and reverse the coalition’s proposals to exempt some self-employed workers. They had even offered to support health and safety representatives.
Now, these hopes seemed dashed and we can only anticipate with dread what lies ahead from the new Conservative majority government and a European Commission eager to please them.
But perhaps we should not be too quick about giving up on achieving anything over the next five years. Firstly, only about a third of those who voted endorsed this Government and the TUC and unions are certainly going to be campaigning hard to show that they have no mandate for attacking working people. Also, most employers do not buy into the de-regulatory, anti-safety rhetoric of the Tories. They know that working together to protect their workforce makes sense. But most importantly, health and safety protection is not something that is given to us by politicians. It is not parliament that makes workplaces safer. The biggest factor is strong trade unions working with employers at local level. What led to the ban on asbestos was union activists and campaigners around the Hazards movement taking on the asbestos industry and getting asbestos out of the workplaces. Unions in hospitals got their employers to tackle the problem of needlestick injuries long before there was a European directive, and of course the issue of stress only came to the attention of employers, government and the public because of the work of unions.
Under the last Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major, health and safety in the workplace remained as strong as ever. The Tories tried to deregulate then as well, but we continued to protect workers and campaign on the issues that mattered.
Today is no different. We still have over 100,000 union health and safety representatives.
Working people need us more that ever. The continuing austerity measures and attacks on the public sector will mean that we are going to see big increases in stress in these areas. The confusion over self-employment will be exploited by employers in areas like construction. We will see further moves to remove some of our rights, including our right to protect union health and safety representatives from victimisation by taking industrial action. But that does not mean we cannot challenge them and continue to support our members.
Our first priority has to be to support and develop the union health and safety representatives we have and to encourage new ones to come forward. At the same time we have to use health and safety as a recruiting tool in the workplace. That means being seen, and being heard, on issues that matter to those we work with; Supporting members with stress-related illnesses and getting employers to manage stress; Using issues such as well-being to argue for better and fairer treatment at work, and of course campaigning for the removal of those chemicals and substances that are making people ill and even killing them.
Given that union representatives are already finding it harder to get time off to represent their members or get training, this may be easier said than done, but the TUC and unions will be trying to develop new ways of helping activists by getting them the tools and information they need. We will also be running campaigns on the issues that matter on the workplace. For instance, this summer we will be launching a campaign aimed at eradicating asbestos from all workplaces and public places in the country. But making progress on health and safety, and defeating any further attacks, is not going to be achieved just by any national campaigns, but by trade union activists in offices, factories, schools, shops, building sites etc., doing what only they can do – working to keep their members safe and healthy.