The theme of this year’s International Workers’ Memorial Day is removing exposure to hazardous substances

WMD 2015Trade unions in the UK are today remembering the workers across the world who are at daily risk of accidents, injury and illness at work.

Today marks the 23rd year that International Workers’ Memorial Day has been commemorated in the UK and falls just days after the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. In April 2013, almost 1200 workers, most of them young women, lost their lives when the factory building collapsed.

The theme of this year’s International Workers’ Memorial Day is removing exposure to hazardous substances. To coincide with this theme, the TUC is highlighting the results of an online questionnaire on hazardous substances at work, filled in by 500 people.

Of the respondents, 71 per cent said they are exposed to, or at risk from, potentially dangerous substances at work. This included asbestos (49 per cent), hazardous chemicals and gases (49 per cent), radiation sources (35 per cent) and biological agents such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and other pathogens (27 per cent. Asbestos alone is responsible for 5,000 UK deaths a year.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The people who completed our questionnaire are a reminder that many workers in the UK are exposed to a range of hazardous substances. For some it is on a daily basis, and the result has been thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of people suffering ill health.

“Yet every single one of these cases could be prevented. Many of these substances could be removed from the workplace or their use reduced, but where this is not possible, workers need much better protection. That means stronger regulation, and, more importantly, proper enforcement.

“On International Workers’ Memorial Day in workplaces across the world and in the UK, trade union health and safety representatives will consider what can be done to stop unnecessary deaths, injuries and illness. We need employers and governments to do more too.

”The appalling loss of life that resulted from the Rana Plaza collapse shows just what can happen when workers do not get the health and safety  protection they need at work. It was a tragic reminder that complacency about health and safety is deadly.”

The FBU has warned that more firefighters could be seriously injured or killed at work if lessons are not learned from past fatalities.

A report by Stirling University, published earlier this year, found that in the last decade the number of firefighter deaths at fires in the UK had doubled from the previous decade.

Between 1993/94 – 2003/04 there were six firefighter deaths at fires but that figure jumped to 14 between 2004/05 – 2013/14.

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “Firefighting is a profession which deals with dangerous situations but there is no excuse for employers not to do everything possible to safeguard their staff.

“No worker should ever expect to lose their lives whilst on the job. Regrettably our investigations have found that similar errors lie behind a number of firefighter deaths at fires and other emergency incidents. This suggests that lessons are not being learned or applied by employers. This must be addressed.

“This is not an issue confined to the UK. Each year hundreds of thousands of workers across the world die from preventable ‘workplace accidents’ or occupational diseases.

“International Workers Memorial Day is a chance for us to remember the dead and fight for the living.”

Jerry Swain, Regional Secretary for UCATT London and South East, said: “Workers Memorial Day is a day to be both sombre and angry. It is when workers come together to remember their colleagues who were killed or injured at work and when they vow to make sure that lives are not needlessly wasted in the future.”

Construction is the most dangerous industry in the UK. In 2013/14 (the most recent figures available) 5 construction workers were killed in London. It is feared that as the industry continues to grow, safety will become more lax and deaths and accidents will increase.

Following every previous recession as the industry has recovered deaths have increased. UCATT fears that death rates could be even higher due to the Health and Safety Executive having its budget slashed by 35% and a series of attacks on health and safety laws by the current government.

The biggest occupational disease faced by construction workers is caused by exposure to asbestos. Roughly 2,500 people a year die due to having been exposed to asbestos and construction workers are now the group at greatest risk of exposure.

Jerry Swain said: “As well as campaigning about site deaths we need to also target the invisible killer caused by occupational disease. Thousands of construction workers die prematurely every year because their employers needlessly exposed them to dangerous substances.”

ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said: “Every year, around the world, more people are killed at work than are killed in wars. Most of these men and women don’t die of mystery ailments, or in tragic ‘accidents’. They die because an employer decided their safety wasn’t a priority. Today [Tuesday] we remember them – and redouble our efforts to make sure fewer men and women die at work in the future.

“Every day of every week of the year, ASLEF’s health and safety representatives are working hard to ensure that Britain’s railways are safe. Safe for those who work on the railway; safe for those passengers who use the railway; and safe for those people, and firms, who depend upon the railway.

“The railway is the most safety critical of industries and railway employees play a major role in maintaining safety. We are fortunate that the hard work of our reps, and our members, have helped make the railway a much safer place to work – despite the actions of a coalition government intent on making industry less safe under the guise of ‘red tape’.

“Our thoughts go out today to those workers, around the world, who operate in workplaces that are not so safe.”

To find an event near you, click here.


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Tim Lezard

Campaigning journalist, editor of @Union_NewsUK, NUJ exec member; lover of cricket, football, cycling, theatre and dodgy punk bands

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