Workplace exposure levels to asbestos remain far too high

April 28, 2015

On Workers’ Memorial Day The Morning Star has talked to Steve Murphy, general secretary of construction union Ucatt, about work place safety and occupational cancer.

Workers’ Memorial Day is a unique date in the calendar — it is the one day a year when workers come to together to remember colleagues killed or injured at work.

It is not simply a day of reflection, though. It is also a day when workers make a statement that deaths and injuries can and must be prevented. Workplace deaths remain all too frequent. In 2013/14 there were 42 fatal accidents in the construction industry — the vast majority of which were entirely preventable. Each and every one of these deaths was an individual tragedy, where a father, brother or son went to work and never came home again. For every fatality there are many more serious accidents resulting in workers being so badly hurt they will be unable to ever work in the industry again.

Workplace accidents, especially in construction, receive little publicity. But there is another far larger toll on workers’ lives which receives even less media attention. Every year thousands of workers die due to developing work-related (occupational) cancer. Construction workers are at the greatest risk of developing such diseases, and it is estimated that 4,000 construction workers are dying every year due to workplace cancer. Just under half of all workplace cancer deaths are construction workers.

That is why the theme for this year’s Workers’ Memorial Day event, focusing on the risk to workers through exposure to hazardous substances, is particularly poignant and important in construction. By far the biggest killer of construction workers is through exposure to asbestos, which accounts for 70 per cent of work-related cancer deaths. Construction workers are now at the greatest risk of dying from asbestos, and exposure levels remain far too high. Far too many employers, large and small in both the public and the private sector are willing to cut corners and risk exposing their workers to asasbestos. It is a problem that Ucatt officials report is actually getting worse. Workers in housing maintenance are increasingly being needlessly exposed to asbestos as management are failing to make the necessary checks.

While asbestos is the biggest workplace carcinogen endangering the lives of construction workers, it is not the only one. Hundreds of construction workers have their lives shortened due to exposure to silica dust, which does appalling damage to a worker’s lungs and can lead to cancer. A blitz of construction sites by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) last year focusing on respiratory risks found that nearly half of the sites visited were breaking safety laws. Preventing exposure to silica dust is straightforward. Therefore it is astonishing that the most effective safety masks are not compulsory as employers and the HSE have refused to take the necessary action.

This year’s Workers Memorial Day, on the eve of the general election, is an opportunity to pause and consider the current government’s appalling safety record. Over the last five years the Conservative-led government has attempted to systemically dismantle safety policies which were by no means overly rigorous to begin with. The most obvious example of this is the government’s behaviour towards the HSE.

Prior to 2010 the body responsible for safety was already struggling to properly fulfil its functions. On the back of cutting so-called red tape, the government has cut the HSE’s budget by 35 per cent since 2010. Given the scale of the cuts there is no way that the HSE can hope to do its job. In fact the organisation has become so fearful about its continued existence that it is now entirely cowed. As part of the government’s demented plans to cut red tape, the HSE is now barred from making vital unannounced inspections in many industries.

Thankfully, construction was exempt from this madness, as in the unorganised parts of the industry it is only the prospect of an inspection and prosecution which forces employers to abide by safety laws. The cuts have in reality led to a fall in the number of construction inspections in many regions. However the recently enacted Deregulation Act has made things even worse with many self-employed workers — unless they are on a prescribed list — now being entirely excluded from the Health and Safety at Work Act. Again, most self-employed construction workers will remain protected, but in reality the message given to workers officially classified as self-employed on site will be that they are excluded and have no legal recourse if injured at work.

Other specific laws and regulations cut by the government include the tower crane register and the scrapping of regulations on head protection.
The actual reporting of workplace accidents has also been dramatically weakened.

The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations have been substantially watered down, which means that far fewer accidents are being reported which pours cold water on government claims that workplace accidents have fallen. At the same time, in a boost to its friends and donors in the insurance industry, the government has introduced a series of amendments to make it even more difficult for a worker to claim compensation following a workplace accident.

Wherever you are today, whether you take part in a Workers’ Memorial Day event or not, please take a moment to remember the dead but more importantly ensure that you fight like hell for the living.