Why should it take a workplace disaster to improve working conditions?

Why should it take a workplace disaster to improve working conditions?

ZUMA / Rex Features

In the week we commemorate the lives of workers worldwide who have died in the course of their employment we ask this question of government.


What links multiple deaths, horrific injuries and destruction on a massive scale?


Going to war and going to work, when the workplace is run to maximise profit at the cost of worker wellbeing, where site inspections by health and safety inspectors have been reduced to virtually nil by budget cutbacks and political dogma and where accident victims and their families are stigmatised by insurance companies who seek to shift the blame for injury and illness at work onto the shoulders of the most vulnerable.

Sadly, this is the current picture in the USA and the UK, writ large by the latest high profile workplace disaster which ocurred last week in Texas.

The huge explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant in Texas that killed at least a dozen people comes three years after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 and resulted in the worst oil spill in American history.

All three explosions occurred at facilities with less than perfect safety policies, operating in an era of sporadic inspections by an understaffed regulatory regime. A new, post-Nixon Republican Congress responded to the earlier two disasters by proposing to cut OSHA’s budget by 20%.

In the UK, the health and safety of British workers and the general public is also under seige as never before in the modern era by David Cameron and Vince Cable, who are determined to pursue their war against ‘red tape’ and the so-called ‘Compensation Culture.’

Despite the respective key findings of recent government commissioned studies by Lord Young and Professor Lofstedt that the compensation culture is a myth and that most health and safety legislation is, in fact, fit for purpose, our Prime Minister has nevertheless seen fit to declare war on what he refers to as ‘the monster of health and safety legislation in this country’.

David Cameron has set out to dismantle legislation and protections that have been hard won by generations of working people in Britain who have struggled with the aftermath of workplace death and disasters such as Flixborough and Piper Alpha and campaigned for improvements that have culminated in the current regulatory framework that is the last line of defence for the working population across all sectors of the economy.

The truly invidious nature of this government’s attack on health at safety at work is exemplified by the bizarre notion that most workplaces are intriniscally safe and therefore a lesser standard of care and attention is justified.This is the only way they can justify budget cuts.

So what is it to be? Do some of us here in the UK deserve less, does securing our health and safety at work cost too much or are we just worth less to a government that could care less?

In the USA and the UK instead of inspectors, workers and the general public have come to rely on whistleblowers and half-hearted guarantees that health and safety breaches will be investigated, sometime, perhaps, or perhaps not…but hopefully before another major disaster…like Flixborough, Piper Alpha or Stockline Plastics.

Workers’ Memorial Day is on 28th April.

Written by Andy Thorogood, Business Development Manager, Bonnar Accident Law.