The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Work shouldn't be a death sentence

Today, April 28th, is International Workers' Memorial Day. As I'm sure you already know, it's the day when we remember all those killed or hurt on the job, and also highlight the importance of health and safety in the workplace because so many of those incidences are in fact preventable.

What's that? You didn't know? But it was all over the papers! On every telly station they covered the alarming number of workplace deaths and interviewed talking heads about the need to take health and safety seriously! Oh, wait...

Well, it's on the Council of Trade Unions website anyway. And it looks like it's a much bigger deal overseas.

So it should be. People deserve to be safe on the job. Obviously there is some work that is going to be dangerous no matter what, but every precaution that can be taken should be. Bosses should not be making choices between profit or safety and the role of Government is to ensure this through passing appropriate legislation and enforcing it. Where the State's machinery is lacking* unions should take on the leadership role in lobbying for improvements and monitoring it themselves, not to mention organising around these issues.

When I was at school I had a friend whose father was a wharfie. He had a big family - she was the youngest of nine kids. He was killed on the wharves a few weeks before retirement. All my working life, starting at the age of 13, I've worked in jobs that most people would consider "safe". But there have always been hidden risks. Even when I worked in a bookstore I had a close call - a shelf fell down from a high-up storage area, missing my head by about an inch. If it had brained me I possibly wouldn't be typing this now. It hadn't been properly secured, everyone just thought it would be ok. Luckily it was.

I worry too about the invisible risks and the damage we can't see - in particular the stress that we now seem to see as an accepted part of modern mahi, and the mental illness which is always explained away by non-work related factors. I read once that the life expectancy for school principals after they retire is about six months. I have no idea if it's true, but if it is then that is shocking. I wonder about the rates of cancer, strokes, heart disease, depression and other illnesses exacerbated by stress. Not to mention Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and related conditions - those affected often seem to have lived lives saturated in stress.

Workplace danger, be it overt or covert, seems to me to be a part of our system that we can't completely expunge. In Aotearoa we have brought in a democratic structure around the issue, but my perception is that it hasn't really been adopted outside of those industries commonly seen as perilous. Unions haven't always taken advantage of the opportunities health and safety issues give to organise and achieve positive change. And I can understand some of the reasons why - for example, workplace bullying, which I see as a leading cause of illnesses caused by the work environment, is not illegal and is difficult to fight. Ultimately the system we work under isn't one that can eliminate all the preventable illnesses and deaths - because actually money comes first.

Maia asked in one of her recent posts about Anzac Day why we don't have a memorial day for those killed in the workplace. The answer is we do, we just don't remember it.

* So basically everywhere, all the time. To be honest I don't think we can rely on governments to do this stuff for us - as workers we need to look after ourselves, together.

(Pic Via)


Anonymous said...

I think the main health and safety hazard in my job is stress caused by the number of *morons* that work in IT jobs in client organisations.

However, banning obdurate thickheads from working would in turn be an infringement of their rights, I guess.

Andrew Blackman said...

Hi Span,

International Workers' Memorial Day has been completely ignored here in England as well, so thanks very much for drawing attention to it!

I used to be a journalist in the US and looked up worker injury cases on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website. They have all kinds of statistics and individual cases up there about workers getting chewed up by machines and so on (over 5,000 fatalities per year). They don't actually do anything about it other than give the companies a slap on the wrists, but they do put the information up there. It's pretty horrific, and a much ignored area. The numbers involved are on the scale of a war, and in many cases are preventable with a bit of investment, but the issue doesn't get a lot of attention. Thanks for writing about it!

Span said...

In regard to working with Stupid People, I think some of the frustration and stress resulting from this actually stems from poor management. I don't know about elsewhere in the world, but I think in NZ we aren't very good at managing people, from the appointment process onwards, and that has a detriment on everyone in the workplace. The number of times I've seen a manager use a crap appointment process and end up with someone who isn't suited to the job or the workplace is depressing. It frustrates everyone who has to work with that person, especially when the situation is then exacerbated by hands-off management that means the newbie doesn't know or understand what they should be doing, or micro-management that treats everyone like an idiot. My observation has been that workplaces that actually include workers in the decision-making processes are considerably happy, and further they are better at coping with stupid people. Just an observation though.

Span said...

Thanks LeftAlign for the linky, much appreciated!

One of the key roles Government can play in improving workplace safety is to make the consequences such that ignoring risks becomes a commercially stupid decision. Thanks for sharing some examples from the USA, it's interesting to hear what it is like in the land of the litigants - here in NZ we have a no fault Accident Compensation system, and thus there is no right to sue. Sounds like legal avenues for those hurt or killed aren't actually doing the business...