The purpose of this memorial is to remember those people who have died at work and is also a rallying call to improve workers’ rights around the world – as the trade union slogan says, "remember the dead: fight for the living".
As a personal injury solicitor representing those injured in the workplace, I too champion occupational health and safety rights and the drive for improvement.
England and Wales have historically been amongst the most progressive nations for occupational health and safety. By way of example, London’s Olympic Park was completed without a single death and won an award for safest Olympic Stadium build ever completed. More than 12,500 workers helped construct the venues and the "Big Build" of the site has been hailed as the safest construction of an Olympic Stadium ever. This is in stark contrast to the 10 deaths during Beijing 2008 and 14 deaths at the Greece Olympics in 2004. The construction work at The Qatar World Cup stadium holds a death rate of 1 worker dying every second day throughout 2014 (The Guardian 23.12.2014).
The theme for this year’s memorial day is “Strong Laws - Strong enforcement - Strong Unions" because across the world we are seeing growing attacks on health and safety protection. As a nation, we cannot become complacent by reliance upon former success stories like the above Olympic Stadium. Up to 50,000 people die from work-related ill health and incidents every year in the UK, according to UNISON.
In recent years, the Government has embarked upon several legislative reforms to health and safety legislation. Against a background of a perceived “compensation culture”, apparent over-compliance by business in health and safety, and a desire to reduce red tape, legal rights for workers have been substantially eroded.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 imposed a general duty on all self-employed people to protect themselves and others from risk to their health and safety, regardless of the type of activity the self-employed person undertook. However the Deregulation Bill that became law on 1st October 2015 now means that only self-employed people who conduct certain work (or who have employees) will have a duty under Health and Safety legislation to protect themselves and others from risks to health and safety.
The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 repealed another section of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Previously if a worker could prove injury as a result of defective workplace equipment there would be an assumption that liability rested with the employer. The 2013 legislation removed this presumption, creating extra hurdles for an employee to bring a successful claim.
The erosion of workers’ legal right shows no sign of abating in the future. In his Autumn statement, George Osborne dealt a devastating blow to the legal rights of the UK’s 31 million workers. The Chancellor pledged to raise the small claims limit for personal injury claims up to £5,000. If the reforms proceed, many injured workers will be unable to recover their legal costs from the negligent employer as part of their case, restricting their access to justice
It is clear that there is a worrying governmental movement towards relaxing occupational health and safety legislation. This direction is putting workers lives and safety at risk at a time when at least two workers a week are dying in the workplace across the UK. This is simply not acceptable in 2016.
Today we should remember the dead, but know that the fight still goes on for the living.