Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Your safety, your life, their "burden"

PRIME Minister David Cameron claims his war in Libya is aimed at protecting civilians. But who will protect the civilians in this country who are killed or seriously injured by employers cutting corners and ignoring safety in pursuit of profit?

"Let me make it clear", Cameron declared in December 2009, "yes the Conservatives will reduce the burden and impact of health and safety legislation in our country".

Whatever happens to other promises, this is one they intend to keep. It is a promise made to Cameron's own class, the bosses, and when they say "our country" they mean they own it.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is facing a 35 per cent or more cut in its funding. It has been told to stop educational campaigns, and chief executive Geoffrey Podger is reportedly proposing that face-to-face contact by inspectors be replaced by web-based initiatives. Demoralised staff have been leaving rather than wait for redundancies.

Work and Pension minister Chris Grayling, the man responsible for getting more people turned down for incapacity benefit, has also announced this week another review of health and safety laws with the aim of removing yet more protection for workers. Or as his side puts it, scrapping any regulations that put an "unnecessary" burden on business. Ministers said regulation will focus on high hazard sites and tackling rogue employers and consultants, not "tying up" the vast majority of Britain's businesses in red tape. The number of inspections will be cut by over a third.

Grayling told a conference in London on Monday: "Of course it is right to protect employees in the workplace, but Britain's health and safety culture is also stifling business and holding back economic growth". This echoes the complaint of some American employers that regulations they don't like are "job killers".

Some people who have experienced the way employers take care of their workers see things differently. Dorothy Wright. a founder member of Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) says:
“My son Mark, features in the Job Killers poster above, and he was not killed because of too much regulation, too much red tape or over zealous enforcement of health and safety, but because his employers paid very little attention to health and safety, and utterly failed to reduce the risk to which he was exposed. They lacked the common sense to treat aerosols as dangerous, crushed them and blew him up in a fire ball. They did not fear any enforcement action by the HSE, they were not overburdened by paper work. Mark was killed because they did not obey the law and no one made them do it. There are lots of employers like Mark’s. .”

(quoted in press statement from FACK)

IT was on 12 April 2005, that Dorothy and Douglas Wright received the call every parent dreads. “We received a phone call to come to Chester as Mark had been involved in an explosion and fire at Deeside Metal and there was no hope for his survival,”

“We left our home immediately and drove in silence for five hours going straight to the hospital, arriving after midnight,” Dorothy says. “I sat with my husband, Mark's wife and his son at Mark's bedside, seeing my son burned beyond recognition, until the life support system was switched off.”

The 37-year-old scrapyard worker died on 13 April 2005 as result of 90 per cent burns and scorched lungs from inhaling high temperature gases. He had been told to put 3,500 small air freshener aerosols, sent from Jeyes UK Ltd, into a mechanical crusher at Deeside Metal in Saltney, Flintshire.

The canisters were unmarked, transported without supporting documentation, handled at the scrapyard by untrained staff, and accepted at the scrapyard on the basis of unsubstantiated verbal assurances from the haulier, Ray Morgan. The yard manager at Jeyes had claimed the canisters were empty – in reality, they contained up to 35 litres of highly combustible propellant. When they were put in the crusher, a spark ignited the vapour cloud released as the aerosols were compressed.

Mark, concerned about safety at Deeside Metal, had told family and friends months before he was looking for other work. A week before his death he had narrowly escaped injury when a car destined for the crusher burst into flames. He had suffered several burns and other injuries while at the firm, and had spent eight weeks off work with breathing problems he believed were caused by inhaling of toxic fumes at work.

“I spoke to him on 11 April when he phoned in great spirits,” says Dorothy. “He had found another job and was so pleased and incredibly relieved, he would hand in his notice that week. He never did that. I never spoke to my son again. The death he so accurately predicted was his own.”

Mark’s death haunts Dorothy. “I spent many months of sleepless nights, and nightmares when I did sleep, following this with the vision of my son engulfed in flames, the most terrifying and painful of deaths imaginable. I kept asking, why was this hazardous waste allowed to leave Jeyes’ premises? Why was Mark told to crush aerosols?”

She says Mark’s family received “a few days’ wages from the employer, nothing else, no message of concern or enquiry about the welfare of his widow or children.” Mark’s son, Leigh, was 15 and daughter Megan was just two. “I had to put my grief to one side and track round the various government agencies, carrying my son's temporary death certificate, trying to sort out some kind of financial benefit for Mark's widow and children as she had no money to pay her bills or buy food.”

“In the midst of our own shock and grief we felt helpless and no official help was offered, not by the school or any other body. My grandson was mentally unable to cope with school.”

Fifteen-year old Leigh, who had been studying for exams, just sat in his dad's car, wearing his dad's clothes, playing his dad's DVDs, shutting himself off from the world. His small sister Megan, who for many months “went to bed cuddling Mark's t shirt, still asks questions about why her dad was killed.” The Christmas after Mark’s death, Dorothy asked Megan what she wanted from Father Christmas. “She replied: 'A big long ladder so that daddy can climb down from the sky and be here'.” Moved to tears, Dorothy wrote to Deeside Metal manager Robert Roberts “telling him of the children's agony.”

There was no apology or sympathy. Instead, the family was to receive three visits from uniformed police officers. The first, to the home of Mark’s widow Andrea and his two children, came with a warning that if Dorothy pinned any more flowers or cards on the railings of the industrial estate that housed Deeside Metal, “the employer would ensure that I was charged with criminal harassment.”

At the February 2009 inquest, Roberts accused Mark's family of “hounding” him. “When we became upset by his evidence and had to remove ourselves from court, we were shouted at by Mark's general manager that we 'couldn't take the truth' and having to hear a director, under oath and in public, say they 'didn't bother with written risk assessments' as he 'considered all his employees to be illiterate',” Dorothy says.

The family was devastated by the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) decision that neither Deeside Metal nor boss Robert Roberts should face manslaughter charges. In a series of meetings the family pointed out CPS had “erred in law”, failed to conduct a proper investigation and had not followed ‘Work-related deaths: A protocol for liaison’, the official procedure agreed between safety enforcers, police and the CPS.

It was over four years after Mark’s death when CPS obtained a crucial witness statement and decided Robert Roberts should face manslaughter charges. But this was far too late, a trial judge ruling in February 2010 proceeding would be “an abuse of process.” The family have since received an apology from Stephen O’Doherty of CPS’s Special Crime Division. Roberts, Deeside Metal and Jeyes were all fined in December 2010, after pleading guilty to criminal safety breaches. “The result of this court action will change nothing for us, will bring no closure or easing of our pain or burden,” says Dorothy.

Dorothy has been strongly critical about the way the case was handled and the lengthy delays. She said that the fines were the final act “in a travesty of British justice.” Manslaughter charges against Roberts were thrown out by a judge in February 2010 after a reluctant and botched investigation by the Crown Prosecution Service, for which the family subsequently received an apology.

She said government cuts would make justice even more elusive for grieving families. “This government is hell-bent on removing the already woefully inadequate protection of the Health and Safety Executive by reducing their budget by 35 per cent leaving the safety of workers up to the employer's 'common sense',” she said.

“How can you leave the safety of workers to the 'common sense' of people like this? David Cameron's government intends removing all of the so-called ‘burden’ on employers of safeguarding the health and safety of their employees, but the real emotional and financial burden is borne by the families of up to 1,500 killed every single year by totally preventable incidents at work.”

In February 2011, Deeside Metal, which had pleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches linked to the death of employee Mark Wright, indicated it was going the appeal against the size of the fine.

Families Against Corporate Killing (FACK), which Dorothy Wright and her husband Dougie helped to found, is one of a number of campaigns that have sprung up over the years, as working people find their voice and insist that they and their families are entitled to life, safety, respect and dignity. They include the Simon Jones Memorial Campaign, formed by family and friends of a 24-year old student sent to do casual work on Shoreham docks in Sussex, and killed on his first day, his head crushed by a crane grab that should not have been in use on that work but had just had chains attached to save time fetching proper equipment.

These cases, and the issues they raise, are seldom among the "human interest" stories with which the media likes to feature. Instead we get jokes and urban myths about safety requiring children to wear protective gear when playing conkers. Fortunately Hazards magazine, based in Sheffield, has provided a link and some professional publicity help for the various campaigns.

The Construction Safety Campaign(CSC), though rightly concerned with the particularly bad safety conditions in the building trade, and combining mobilisation of trade unionists with sensitively bringing in families, has also been happy to make links with other campaigners, and welcomed them into activities.

Hazards and the CSC are both working to mark Workers International Memorial Day on April 28, with the slogan: Remember the dead -Fight for the living! that has become its watchword.

In London the day will begin at 9.30 am on Tower Hill, with a gathering by the statue of the Unknown Building Worker, some speeches, and a minutes silence for all those killed due to work activities.

At 10.30 am there will be a march to the Mayor's office across Tower Bridge.

From 12 noon to 2.00 pm the action shifts to the Department of Work and Pensions, Tothill Street, London SW1 9DA. A good chance to show what we think of Chris Grayling and this government, but also to win allies from the civil servants whose jobs, pay and pensions are also under attack.

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