‘Those in authority must always be challenged’. According to BBC presenter, John Humphries, that was the key lesson to be learned from the Aberfan disaster. Miners repeatedly warned the employers that the rock and shale tip was unsafe prior to the disaster that killed 116 children and 28 adults on 21 October 1966.
This could also be a motto for health and safety representatives as we start European Health and Safety Week. Up and down the country, union health and safety reps and union branches will use the week to highlight the vital importance of effective safety law.
It is particularly important this year given the threat of Brexit. A ‘Hard Brexit’ means the UK would have more freedom to opt out of EU regulation and reinvent its regulatory framework. That could mean continuing in the deregulatory direction of travel first set by the coalition government in 2010, including the 2014 report for the DWP that drew up targets for repeal. Even under softer Brexit options, the UK will lose its influence over European safety standards.
On Friday, I was launching UNISON Scotland’s annual survey of violence at work. It shows a rise of 20,000 to 40,000 violent assaults per year in the last decade (2006 to 2016), against public service workers in Scotland. With a significant increase in violent assaults against local authority workers – up by 4399, from 13,206 to 17,605. And these are only recorded incidents – the tip of the iceberg.
All workers who deal with the public are at risk, but care workers are at twice the national average risk of assault. A majority of these workers are now employed in the private and voluntary sector. Although most members surveyed said their employer encouraged the reporting of violent incidents, worryingly 83% said that their employer regarded the violence as ‘part of the job’.
This doesn’t surprise me, as I have heard the CEO of a majority care charity say just that. Leadership is important in safety and CEO’s, far removed from the reality of front line care, should know better.
This year, the theme for Health and Safety Week is “healthy workplaces for all ages – promoting a sustainable working life”. This is an opportunity to reflect on the opportunities and challenges an older workforce brings to the workplace. This is particularly true in the Scottish public sector workforce, where because of austerity; the fastest growing part of the workforce in proportional terms is 50-59 year olds.
One aspect of this was covered at a recent STUC conference on workplace dementia. More than 40,000 people under the age of 65 have been diagnosed with dementia in the UK, 3,200 of those in Scotland. It is estimated that 18% of them continue to work after a diagnosis and therefore this is a growing workplace issue that employers and unions should be addressing.
UNISON has also published two new health and safety guides for members in preparation for this week: Resilience and Well-Being and Behavioural Safety. ‘Resilience’ is the new buzz word in health and safety. Some employers are trying to change the way we look at health and safety. They want the focus to shift away from what managers should be doing to manage health and safety in the workplace, towards finding reasons to blame employees when something goes wrong. I bet the charity I mentioned above thinks that is a great idea!
So, let’s use European Health and Safety Week to celebrate the great work our safety representatives do every day to help keep us safe. Welcome the sensible framework of safety law that has been developed in partnership with our colleagues in Europe. And most importantly, commit to keep challenging those in authority.