When I worked long ago in a notoriously unhealthy and dangerous steel works, Stanton near Nottingham, we often had disputes about safety.
When I first worked there the plant had the worst industrial accident record in the East Midlands region. Worse than any colliery. Deaths, limbs lost, massive burns, and cancers and lung disease as a result of fume inhalation.
Noise levels were rarely less than 100 decibels. In some areas over 125dB. When the company was eventually required to give hearing tests, one third of the workers were found to be suffering from hearing loss, including myself, though I religiously wore ear protection.
Perhaps there were a couple of shifts or parts of shifts when, like many of my work mates, I didn’t stuff cotton wool in my ears — the only protection available in the first years. I have suffered the consequences with tinnitus ever since.
In almost every dangerous industry in those days, a macho and cavalier attitude had been cultivated among the workforce by managers. I started working there at about the time the first Health and Safety Act, 1974, came into force. It took years after that before the unions, particularly mine, the GMBATU as it was then, got their act into gear.
Before and after the Act, disputes had often flared up over safety in my works.
Those disputes across industry were probably the cause of a Bill similar to the eventual Act being steered through Parliament by Barbara Castle for Labour prior to 1970. When the Tories were ousted in 1974, Labour completed the amended Act. Legislation was necessary because, particularly in more weakly organised areas, the unions knew that they could not protect workers from the levels of risk.
But at Stanton, as in many workplaces, some union stewards bargained money for risks.
I can remember when, after my interview, I was first walked round the plant where I was to work for 15 years. I asked about workers I saw barely visible through a cloud of fumes.
They were working on the dipping tank — a heavily manual process where iron pipes were dipped in a hot tank of bitumen.
The bitumen fumes contained xylene and other carcinogenic compounds. The extraction fan above the tank had broken. It often did, apparently. The workers were intermittently coughing.
I was told it was ok. The union had bargained and the workers had been granted a “fume bonus”, 50p per shift! Before I finished work there 15 years later, a number of those workers had died of cancer.
Demanding action on dust extraction, PPE, ear defenders was probably my major activity as a young militant.
It took many years to get the union to take the matters seriously.
They were ok on immediate risks to health. But action for protection from long-term damage to hearing or to lungs was more difficult to get.
Limited protective equipment — goggles, safety specs, visors, leather gloves etc. — was provided. Many workers didn’t use the equipment apart from the basics of leather gloves and steel toe-capped boots, without which it would be simply impossible to work.
Eye injuries were common. I had to be taken to hospital to have iron particles removed from my eye on four or five occasions in about two years whilst working as a grinder or fettler, finishing off the spigot and socket end of iron pipes which needed to be joined up airtight for pipelines of water, gas and oil.
The quality of PPE was often poor, but unions usually didn’t get into arguments about that.
Personally, I regularly stopped the job — refusing to work grinding pipes because the extraction equipment wasn’t working and I would be otherwise working in a cloud of silicon and iron dust. The usual problem was that the power of the motor of the extraction equipment was too weak. Iron and silicon dust was too heavy to be pulled down the extraction pipe.
Quite often I would spend 20-30 minutes taking the 5 metre long extraction pipe to pieces and clearing it of accumulated iron dust before working. A major production line, normally pushing through 80 pipes per hour each weighing 200 kg, would be frozen.
You can imagine the arguments with the foremen and, yes, a small number of workers worried about pretty feeble productivity bonuses.
Other workers would do the same as me, but we were probably a small minority.
For safety representatives or shop stewards, to get an individual to say “no, I’m not fucking doing it” was a cause for celebration. There was a genuinely strong feeling of solidarity against the gaffers.
If they threatened disciplinary action, as they did against me and others, we hoped others would stand by us, and they generally did.
As knowledge about the protection of the Health and Safety Act came in, it helped. For quite a period, neither managers or workers knew where we were.
I used to carry round a little booklet. I’m not sure now whether it was the regulations or guidelines. A small brown booklet, from which I quoted extracts to workers and bosses alike.
It gave confidence to workers. It worried managers.
On not one occasion did the regional Health and Safety Executive get involved. They were mostly sympathetic to the union case, but ridiculously overworked. They also saw their job as influencing managers rather than fighting them, as we had to. The only time we had any liaison with them was when we had a fatal accident.
What are the lessons of that experience long ago for now?
Firstly, the Health and Safety Executive are simply not up to task of enforcing whatever good legislation there is. They were not up to it the 1970s, when much of the legislation came in.
Their powers are weak. The legislation is always couched in terms of what is “reasonably practicable”. At the end of the day, the interpretation of that phrase is down to the courts. The courts aren’t under our control and will more likely be sympathetic to the bosses rather than to workers.
Enforcing good health and safety standards needs active union organisation. But there is uneven consciousness amongst workers. Some live in denial of the injustices they suffer. Some are afraid to confront their bosses. They can hide that fear by believing that they somehow can survive in spite of the statistics on accidents, injuries, infirmities and death.
Culturally, our movement has made fantastic strides in the last 45 years in making workers aware that what is important is not only their pay — including the 50p fume bonuses — but their health and their lives.
However we still need to encourage individuals to stand up on issues. The Health and Safety legislation has little power, particularly in the context of an immediate dispute. It can, however, give an individual worker the confidence to stand their ground — knowing that even capitalism’s rules nominally acknowledge that they have rights not to put their lives at risk.
Today, as workers by their tens of thousands are being herded into workplaces, with risks of contracting coronavirus and passing it on to their families, among them will be people prepared to demand safety compliance, valid risk assessments of Covid-19 threats, effective protection. They will face bullying managers, people wanting to offer them the modern equivalent of the 50p fume bonuses, people questioning their motivations.
However, in our communities there have never been more workers aware of the need for solidarity to stop this disease spreading. People will stand up.
It is up to the labour and union movement to make victories out of their moral stands.