It is always difficult to lift our eyes from the day-to-day, but never more so than in the middle of a major, global crisis.
However, if we don’t develop some clear ideas about the world we wish to live and work in, and how to achieve that, there is a danger that the arrangements that seem appropriate for the immediate situation become entrenched and a major burden on us and future generations.
When there is real danger from a collapsing building, the risks of inhaling some asbestos fibres seem a minor issue that has to be accepted – but if following a localised issue like this there wasn’t a serious effort to consider the standards required to protect emergency workers and action taken, a large number of people may be harmed in predictable and preventable ways.
So bending rules and relaxing standards may be essential for a short time, but it isn’t the way in which society should be shaped for the foreseeable future.
This is a cautionary note. While premises are closed, normal life is suspended. But that doesn’t mean that the routine inspection of lifting equipment and air receivers can be shelved forever.
What we do to keep essential services operating during lockdown, with working teams under huge pressure and exposed to real risks to their health and the health of their families, doesn’t set standards for staffing, for safety at work when things begin to get back to normal.
If anything, this crisis should make us all think about the kind of work that really is essential, and to make a little more effort to look after the people that do it.
It is heart-warming to participate in the applause on Thursday evenings for NHS, care and other essential workers. But there are 200,000 vacancies among care staff in the UK, and over the past 10 years austerity has meant that nurses’ pay has fallen by eight per cent against the retail price index.
A revaluation of priorities means that we should make greater efforts to establish and maintain decent work standards and not use the crisis as an excuse to lower them.
For example, not only are doctors from ethnic minorities – many of them migrant workers who came with their skills to the UK to contribute to the NHS – apparently more vulnerable to Covid-19, disproportionately populating the fatal statistics for NHS workers, but they are also less likely to complain about the lack of PPE.
We know that migrant workers have a harder time, fill the jobs with more difficult working conditions, are less active in worker organisations, less likely to raise their voices. These people are not only vital to the national effort of rebuilding our economy, they are also our canaries in the coal mines, the early warning that conditions aren’t good enough.
Out of the crisis they may form a key part of our efforts not only to restore ‘normal life’ but to go beyond it to achieve real improvements. We need to ask them, bus drivers, shelf stackers, nurses, care workers and many other essential workers “what can we do together to make every workplace a safe and healthy place to work?” It is the least that they deserve for their efforts during the lockdown.
Perhaps, this will be our equivalent of building homes fit for heroes.
Lawrence Waterman OBE is chair of the board of trustees at the British Safety Council
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