Construction Safety Campaign: A timely history that is still being made
WORKERS MEMORIAL DAY
Tony O'Brien in yellow waterproof.
ASBESTOS SUPPORT GROUP members with Tony Whitston (right).
CONSTRUCTION SAFETY CAMPAIGN has brought families to the forefront of fight for safety in industry.
THE TV news chose to illustrate its report that Health and Safety legislation was being reviewed with some children wearing supposedly compulsory safety gear for a game of conkers. Although the commentator admitted this was the stuff of urban myth (we would say media-generated urban myth), the trivialisation remained.
It was teatime, so I suppose we were meant to be shielded from less appetising images, like say, young Simon Jones, decapitated by a crane grab on his first morning at Shoreham docks, or the two maintenance workers roasted alive in a Leicester bakery, or carpenter Patrick Sullivan, buried in the mud at Wembley stadium.
AS though the promised downgrading of an already cut Health and Safety Executive(HSE) was not enough, a ruling by the Court of Appeal last week is seen as a new setback in efforts to gain compensation for asbestos victims.
Two years ago the High Court ruled that employers' insurers at the time of exposure to the lethal substance were liable to pay out on work-related mesothelioma claims. Insurers appealed. And on Friday the Court of Appeal judges ruled that in certain cases the responsibility lay with the employers' insurers only at the onset of symptoms, which can be 40 to 50 years after initial exposure.
Nearly 6,000 families in this country have been waiting for over five years for compensation, while insurance companies argue over whether claims can date back to the moment a person is exposed to asbestos, or the moment they develop the disease from it.
The original High Court hearing examined a number of cases where insurers refused to pay out. They included that of Charles O'Farrell who died in 2003 after being exposed to asbestos while working as a steel erector for Humphreys & Glasgow, which was insured at the time by Excess Insurance Company, in the 1960s. The employer ceased trading in 1992.
Excess Insurance argued that it was not liable to pay out because, according to the wording of their policy, employees had to "sustain injury" at the time they were working for the employer. The Court of Appeal decided that Mr O'Farrell had not "sustained injury" until he developed mesothelioma years later. Mr O'Farrell's daughter Maureen Edwards condemned the ruling. "My dad died a painful death from mesothelioma. Watching him suffer was agonising for all of his family," she said."My dad would have been disgusted by the lengths the insurers have gone to get out of paying." (Morning Star, Saturday October 9)
In effect the ruling opens the door for insurers to revisit their initial policies and scour the small print for get-out clauses, not just in mesothelioma cases but those involving any other form of "latent" disease. Thompsons Solicitors head of asbestos policy Ian McFall said: "Insurance companies sold policies to cover risk. Now that risk has become reality they have resorted to picking apart the words in their own policies."
Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum chairman Tony Whitston said: "This is a disastrous decision. "Thousands of dying asbestos victims will lose compensation and all will live their last days in uncertainty. As a last resort, the government must overturn any judgment which upholds the Court of Appeal decision."
Although the dangers of asbestos were long known, it took years of campaigning to get government or industry to recognise them, let alone do something about it. Construction workers are among those most likely to have been affected by asbestos, and the Construction Safety Campaign (CSC), founded in 1988, has been active on this issue, as it has on accidents on sites, aiming to stop asbestos imports as well as win recognition for its effects. The government finally had to admit that 150,000 would die from asbestos exposure by 2025, mostly construction workers.
When the CSC was started Margaret Thatcher's government was pursuing 'deregulation' of business, breaking of trade unions, and " no such thing as society". Deaths were soaring on building sites, where employers got away with cutting corners and workers feared the blacklist if they put themselves forward as safety reps. As Tony O'Brien, one of CSC's founders, explains, a group of 'ordinary' building workers, of assorted left-wing views, met in the House of Commons with Labour MP Mildred Gordon and Tower Hamlets councillor Teresa Shanahan, whose ward was overshadowed by the huge Docklands development, and whose husband worked in the building trade.
Besides building workers themselves, other early supporters of the Campaign included left Labour MP Eric Heffer, himself a carpenter by trade, East End GP David Widgery, and Alan Salton, a writer on Health and Environmental issues. The founders wanted to keep their campaign rank-and- file based - CSC decides its policies and elects its leaders at annual conferences -rather than entrusting it to top union leaders.
It was not long before it ran into opposition from union officialdom, jealously guarding its authority and suspicious of rank and file initiatives. "The attention of the Executive Council was drawn to an unofficial financial appeal being circulated to UCATT branches", wrote that union's then general secretary Albert Williams, reminding members that health, safety and welfare were matters for the union, and "everything possible is done at national level..". Fortunately, within a year this opposition was reversed by UCATT's national conference, in May 1990, where delegates voted by a large majority to back the CSC.
Then the Campaign experienced its own disagreements. Some members supported a proposal that CSC should picket any site where there'd been a fatality, to bring the workers out on strike. Others argued that desirable as spontaneous stoppages might be, conditions in the industry had changed. Picketing of unorganised or weakly organised sites by a bunch of outside individuals, not the workers' leaders or shop stewards, could arouse resentment rather than consciousness, and completely misfire. Eventually, taken to the AGM, the latter counsel prevailed. CSC is willing to back workers who decide to down tools. But it will not try to take the decision for them. Nor will it
The Construction Safety Campaign has been characterised by energy, intelligence, imagination and breadth. A building worker badly injured or killed is not just a building worker, but somebody's father, son, or brother, as well as a member of the working class. Old-style union officials might worry what union card, if any, the victim carried. The CSC will speak to family members, making sure they are alright and know their rights at inquests, etc, and inviting them to get involved. Some stay involved in more than their own relatives' case. When I was living in Westminster I strolled casually down to Horseferry Road coroners' court one lunchtime, and the first person I met leafleting outside was not a building worker but a woman whose brother had been killed in an earlier incident. She has become a regular attender at CSC events.
On the first Workers Memorial Day march I took part in the Construction Safety Campaign people were joined by members of the scientific and technical union MSF (now part of Unite) and by the parents and friends of Simon Jones, who was killed at Shoreham. They were able to set up their placards outside the Health and Safety Executive, where staff came out to meet us. Last time we were there, Mark Serwotka of the PCS union spoke about the cuts they were facing. This year we went to the Olympic site at Stratford. Workers from two sites stopped work, and wreaths were laid by UCATT and Unite officials for workers killed.
The campaign has come some way, and Tony O'Brien's book is packed with fact and pictures, but plainly its work is more important now than ever. Behind all the specifics is one basic issue of class consciousness - that our lives and well-being count for more than the employer's profit -Our Health versus Their Wealth!
There's a launch meeting for the Construction Safety Campaign's book on Wednesday evening, October 13, 6pm in Committe Room E at 7, Millbank, Westminster, SW1
To order the book, send £10 (plus £2 postage) to Construction Safety Campaign, PO Box 23844, SE 15 3WR.
For more info. or to order bulk copies: