December 2015        

Health and safety is a working-class issue

Alan Hanlon

The Safety (Health and Welfare at Work) Act (2005) is the main body of legislation governing the whole area of health and welfare at work. This particular act gives effect to EU Council Directives 89/391/EEC of 12 June 1989 and 91/383/EEC of 25 June 1991 to introduce measures to improve health and safety at work.
     There are other acts, some dating from the nineteenth century, such as the Regulation of Railways Act (1842) and the Merchant Shipping Act (1894), as well as the Organisation of Working Time Act (1997), all of which relate in one way or another to health and safety in the work-place.
     Legislation in this area is a record of attempts by trade unionists and others to improve working conditions and to minimise the risk to health. The legislation calls on the employer not only to identify dangers but to carry out a risk assessment, and to put that risk assessment in writing. This “safety statement” has to be made available to employees and has to set out the action to be taken in the event of an emergency.
     There is much anecdotal evidence that employers view these obligations as little more than form-filling in order to comply with the law, and nothing more.
     The most recent figures show that in 2012 there were 42 fatal accidents at work in Ireland, as well as 6,828 non-fatal accidents among men and 2,921 among women. This was an average of just over 4 per 100,000 people employed, compared with an EU average of just over 2.5. Malta, Lithuania and Luxembourg had the dubious distinction of having an even worse record than Ireland. These figures contrast with the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, which had the best record, with a total of 31 fatalities in 2012, or less than 1 per 100,000.
     As one might expect, Cork and Dublin were the most dangerous places to work in Ireland, as they have the highest working populations.
     The total Irish fatality figure of 42 is an improvement on an average of 57 for the years 1989–2012. It is possible that some events outside the work-place, for example road traffic accidents and deaths from cancer, are work-related though not included in the official figures. Damage to the lungs from asbestos or the side effects of smoking (working in smoking environments before the ban was introduced) may take years to take effect, so the victim has ceased employment before these begin to show. Likewise heart disease and arthritis may take years to develop.
     Research sponsored by the trade unions and figures from the International Labour Organisation suggest that the number of deaths that are work-related is far higher than the official figures suggest.
     The ILO reckons there are still more than 160,000 work-related deaths in the world every year. Risk assessment has unfortunately become a paper exercise for insurance purposes or to comply with the law, rather than a serious process. Worker safety representatives are often not involved in the whole process of risk assessment and are often used to rubberstamp the safety document. Employers want to water down the legislation, on the grounds of administrative costs, rather than valuing their employees’ health and well-being.
     Long-term risks are often underestimated, as once employees have retired it may be difficult to relate health problems to work when younger. The Indecon Report reckons the cost of industrial accidents at 2 to 4 per cent of national income, which is equivalent to €3.3 billion for Ireland. These costs come from loss of output and reduction in the work force.
     The ESRI reckons that 1.8 million days are lost in Ireland per year to work-place health absences. This dwarfs the number of days lost through strikes, but the attention of the media is almost exclusively on industrial disputes.
     Patterns of working have also changed, with little study of the effects that zero-hour contracts and precarious work patterns may be having on employees’ health and welfare. In times of recession, workers may be less inclined to admit to work-place accidents and problems.
     Employers have sought to maximise profits regardless of working conditions or the risk to the health of employees. This is false economy.
     Unfortunately, trade unions in many cases do not engage fully with the process by appointing safety representatives on behalf of their own members. Risk cannot be eradicated, but it can be controlled. Health and safety statements, warning notices and so on will not prevent accidents. Trade unions need to treat health and safety seriously, as the statistics show that workers in Ireland are losing their lives and suffering serious injuries in preventable accidents. In a nutshell, profits are deemed more important than workers’ lives or safety.

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