Against a background of Lord Young\’s review and the ongoing debate about Jackson, unions continue to campaign for fairness and decent health and safety standards at work. These are basic social needs necessary for stable industrial relations, growth and prosperity in any workplace.
Employees have a fundamental right to go to work and come home unharmed. While this statement is self-evident, a regulatory and enforcement structure is nevertheless required.
It was announced in June that, in this country, 151 people were killed at work over the previous year. This was the lowest ever recorded figure, representing an 80% fall since the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was introduced. But this is still 151 deaths too many. Moreover, that figure is less than 1% of the real death toll, as every year more than 15,000 die from occupational cancers alone.
Unions have vastly improved working conditions. With 150,000 health and safety representatives, they play a key role in improving health and safety in the workplace, and in pushing issues such as asbestos hazards, occupational stress and hearing loss up the political agenda.
But some consider regulations which maintain basic levels of workplace health and safety, to be a burden on business, rather than the hallmark of a civilised society. Stories of ‘banned conker games\’ are often simple misinterpretations of the law. The long-term effect of these myths paints health and safety as a misplaced set of ‘over-the-top\’ rules, whereas the framework protects the vulnerable from preventable accidents.
The phrase ‘compensation culture\’ is bandied about, but the truth is different. Over the last 10 years, the number of civil compensation claims against employers as a result of accidents has fallen steadily. Britain pays out far less compensation, as a proportion of GDP, than any other European country except Denmark.
Other statistics may surprise. More than 850,000 people are injured or made ill each year as a result of their job. The most common injuries include back injuries, injuries from repetitive strain, slips and falls, and deafness. The number of employees recovering compensation from their employer is only 60,000 a year.
Moreover, the overwhelming majority of compensation payments fall below £5,000. Compensation awarded for an injury is based on independent medical evidence. It compensates actual loss and hence is lower than expected. For example, the cancer mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure. It is always fatal. Judicial guidelines for compensation for the pain and suffering of contracting and dying of mesothelioma are £45,000 to £70,000. Remember that most mesothelioma sufferers are only exposed through their work.
Unions offer their members quality legal services that aim for the speedy resolution of claims. Unlike a high street law firm or a claims company, union lawyers work with the organisation to encourage employers to adopt preventive measures and avoid a repeat of the injury or illness. Union lawyers forge a strong link between compensation claims and accident prevention.
Union legal services compete with claims management companies which advertise through television or in hospitals. Once ‘signed up\’, the victims\’ claims are sold to a law firm, which may not necessarily be union-friendly, in a process which profits the claims management companies. Since most accident victims use the compensation claims system only once in their lifetime, they are inexperienced and therefore vulnerable. The claims management sector is regulated but much more can be done to encourage transparency.
Union legal services matter. Unions help improve work conditions and source quality legal services for members. Unions lobby for changes in law to safeguard the interests of working people. The HSWA is one such change, resulting over time in the lowest-ever figure for recorded deaths at work in a 12-month period. Sadly, the ongoing deaths from asbestos prove that much remains to be done.