Saturday, May 19, 2012

Can they snatch away crane safety law?

VICTIM'S MOTHER, Liliana Alexa (centre with dark glasses) at Tower Hill for International Workers Memorial Day event

WE know the government is attacking hard-won rights, and that health and safety provisions are among the services being attacked. But when a law that was only enacted two years ago, after determined public campaigning, is in danger of being taken away, it is hard to believe the attack could be so blatant, or - since it was in response to two deaths -so heartless.

On 26 September 2006 a 165 foot crane collapsed in Thessaly Road, Battersea onto a block of flats killing Michael Alexa, 23, and the crane driver, Jonathan Cloke, 37. Michael, a bus driver and member of the Transport and General Workers Union, now Unite, was changing a wheel on his car in the street outside his mother's home. His body was trapped under the collapsed crane and was left there for five days until the he could be moved safely.

"My life stopped that day", recalls Michael's mother Liliana. "He was a wonderful young man who wanted to achieve so much. He left behind a son who is nearly two and who will never know his father".

But Liliana Alexa did not stop at grieving for her son. Together with neighbours, and helped by the Construction Safety Campaign and the Battersea and Wandsworth Trade Union Council, she started the Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group (BCDAG). London Hazards Centre assisted with technical health and safety information and background research.

Initial investigations at Thessaly Road showed faults in the crane, including missing, bent and worn bolts, and that the crane was very old. News from other parts of the country including more accidents in London, showed that the Battersea disaster and its causes were far from unique. Inspection and regulations on cranes appeared to be left to owners - and with sub-contracting it was not always easy to see who was responsible for what.

Besides calling for an investigation of their own tragedy, BCDAG worked to publicise the bigger picture, and demanded a proper enforcement regime on construction industry safety and regulations, and a national public register for all cranes in the UK.

In January 2008 the group met with Lord McKenzie and discussed their submission to an enquiry into health and safety regulation and in January 2009 the HSE launched a consultation on new Regulations to set up the register, which ended on 9 October 2009.

In 2010 the Notification of Tower Crane Regulations Act was introduced, with a 'Crane Register'. Although campaigners might not have been satisfied this went far enough, they did feel it was an important achievement.

Now it appears this was a step too far so far as this government is concerned.

David Cameron has said he has a New Year's Resolution to "kill off the health and safety culture for good".

We have seen that already inadequate HSE inspections are being cut back, that industries like docks are being declared safe, and that there is insufficient money available apparently to check asbestos in schools. Of course it helps that media can't find space to tell the public about such issues, having previously fed us stories about children being banned from playing conkers without wearing safety goggles in school yards.

In March 2011 Employment Minister Chris Grayling commissioned an independent review of health and safety legislation and appointed Professor Ragnar Löfstedt - Director of the King's Centre for Risk Management at King's College, London - to chair it. This review and HSE consultations are due to end on July 4.

But it is reported that Löfstedt has proposed repealing the Notification of Tower Crane Regulations (2010).

So we are back to "self-regulation", and leaving it to the owners.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has welcomed the publication of the Löfstedt review. A statement on their website in November says:
"Professor Löfstedt has made recommendations aimed at reducing the burden of unnecessary regulation on businesses while maintaining Britain's health and safety performance, which is among the best internationally. The Government has accepted his recommendations".
Incidentally, we note that the professor himself has insisted he did not use the word "burden" when talking about the health and safety regulations.

But it is a safe bet that the Con Dems' government will read what they want in the review and draw from it the conclusions that suit them.

Health and safety campaigners say there are positive bits in the review. Professor Löfstedt does not recommend widespread repeal of UK health and safety legislation, most of which is determined at European level these days. He makes positive comments about the work of safety reps, although proposing nothing to strengthen their rights. (One thing to come out in the exposure of blacklisting in construction is that workers who raise safety issues or come forward as reps can be victimised, and their names added to the lists, so further employment is denied).

But of immediate concern is the the threat to remove the crane regulations which campaigners like Liliana Alexa worked so hard to achieve.

When Cameron and co. speak of killing off a "health and safety culture", it isn't just a culture that can get killed.

The Construction Safety Campaign, Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group and London Hazards Centre are holding a meeting to discuss the implications of the Löfstedt review, and how to resist attacks on health and safety.

This is on Wednesday May 23 at the London Hazards Centre, in the old Hampstead Town Hall,
213 Haverstock Hill, London NW3 4QP (nearest tube Belsize Park)

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