Thursday, December 02, 2010

Fighting for Health & Safety

Book review

By Robert Laurie

Tony O’Brien: Construction Safety Campaign: Over Twenty Years Fighting for Workplace Health and Safety London: Construction Safety Campaign, 2010 pp. 211. £10.00 plus £2.00 pp from the Construction Safety Campaign, PO Box 23844, London SE15 3EA.

AS THE title implies this book is a history of the work of the Construction Safety Campaign, an organisation established in London by rank and file building workers in 1988 with the motto: “Safety before Profits”. The 1980s saw a rapid rise in construction related deaths during the boom that saw the derelict London docks transformed into the bankers’ paradise of Canary Wharf.
Dissatisfaction with the slow response of the official union leadership sparked the launch of the campaign. At first the main construction union Ucatt was hostile to the formation of the CSC, but under pressure from branches it has become a supporter.
The campaign has focused on several issues. Apart from seeking to improve health and safety on building sites it has also assisted in the campaign to secure a pardon for the Shrewsbury building workers jailed in 1973 for fighting for their rights.
Working at great heights, collapsing trenches, cranes and walls are not the only dangers facing building workers. No less dangerous, but much slower to cause damage, are the dangers of asbestos. Once inhaled, microscopic asbestos particles slowly destroy lung tissue, condemning the sufferer to a lingering painful death.
Securing compensation through the courts is particularly difficult as the symptoms only appear years or decades after inhalation and are almost impossible to trace back to a particular incident for which a particular employer can be held responsible.
A major theme of the book is the struggle to get compensation for workers killed or injured on building sites. The book illustrates many cases of long court cases. Relatives of building site tragedies have became valuable CSC activists. Securing punishment for negligent employers has been even more of an uphill struggle. It was only in 1995 that a company director was finally jailed for corporate manslaughter.
Prevention is better than seeking compensation after a death. The CSC has been involved in campaigning for changes to the law and enforcing those laws which are on the statute book. It campaigned for a ban on asbestos imports from Canada.
Workers’ Memorial Day on the 28th April has developed as a major labour movement event thanks to the work of the campaign. Blacklisting of union activists is especially common in the construction industry, many cases are detailed here.
While this is a valuable well illustrated reference work, presenting much important information useful for any activist involved with the construction industry and other health and safety matters the format makes it hard going at times.
The largely chronological format of the book makes it difficult to keep track of individual issues that appear at different points in the book. Statistics for construction site deaths are given for 1989-2000 on page 96 and for 2003-8 on page 148 in a different format. Given this arrangement it is sad to report that the index is particularly poor.
Not only is it very incomplete (no mention of Ucatt) it seems to have been computer generated without any editing whatsoever. The bibliography simply lists periodical titles without letting the reader know which issue to consult. There is a much more helpful two-page list of sources of information.
In the capitalist media health and safety have become something of a joke with stories such a schools ordering pupils playing conkers being forced to wear goggles gaining wide currency. The Con-Dem government’s recent plan to cut the Health and Safety Executive’s funding by 35 per cent is yet another battle which the Construction Safety Campaign will doubtless play an important role.