Opinion

Vital role of safety reps

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Earlier this month, the annual report on workplace fatal injuries was released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).


This details the annual figures of workers who died as a result of injury sustained through work. It makes for devastating reading and a reminder of how important the role of union safety reps are in preventing injury and saving lives.

The figures report 111 deaths. But this is not the full picture. The statistics do not include fatal diseases (including Covid-19, which we know has led to a high death toll this year), nor fatal transport accidents which do not occur on the railways (for example accidents at sea, in air or on roads).

The report does suggest however, that the lockdown due to Covid-19 and the disruption caused to work in the preceding weeks, will have led to a lower rate of fatal injury at work during these months.

The Hazards Campaign-produced research ‘The Whole Story’ provides us a more accurate estimate of the number of people who die as a result of work-related illness or injury, and puts the annual figure at 50,000.

These estimates, unlike the HSE’s stats, which are based on direct reports, include work-related cancers, lung and heart diseases; as well as suicide linked to working conditions.

The report gives us an understanding of the most dangerous sectors to work in, and who is most at risk. Construction remains the industry with the highest number of fatalities.

Industries with the highest death rates per 100,000 workers are agriculture, forestry and fishing and recycling and waste, where the risk of fatal injury at work is 18 times higher than that of any other industry.

Insecure employment leads to more accidents

It is not a coincidence that the riskiest industries are also those where we find a larger concentration of workers on insecure contracts. Many are migrant workers. As with Coronavirus, it is those with the least power that are the most at-risk.

Short-term contracts make workers disposable in the eyes of bosses, and the hostile environment of our punitive immigration system puts migrant workers in further danger, as they work at risk and in fear of repercussions if they dare speak out or unionise. Legislative change to give safety reps the ability to advise in non-unionised workplaces would go some way towards protecting such workers.

Our safeguard against deaths at work is the ability to identify and mitigate risk and enforce safe working measures. But when safety regulators have been gutted by cuts, and proactive inspections and investigations are in decline, it makes our fight that much harder.

Workers organising for safety via trade unions is an absolute necessity: we already know that workplaces with unions statistically have fewer accidents and deaths.

Our 100,000 health and safety reps save lives every day, and while we fight for the living we remember those who have lost their lives, and organise in their memory.

Trade unions fight for safety at work because no life should be disposable, no work should be unsafe, and no boss should be able to avoid being brought to justice for thinking otherwise.

Shelly Asquith is Health, Safety & Wellbeing Policy Officer at the TUC

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