Defending health & safety: ‘We are in the fight of our lives!’

In December 2012 16 year old Cameron Minshull of Bury, Greater Manchester, started work at Huntley Mount Engineering .  He was over the moon and his mum was so pleased she drove him to work every day.  Five weeks later he was dead, killed by the lathe he worked on.

Cameron was untrained and unsupervised, over-dressed against the January cold in a freezing factory .  All the lathes had had their guards disabled, and Cameron’s sleeve had caught in the machinery, drawing him in and causing fatal head injuries.

A minutes silence is held in memory of Kevin Campbell. A construction worker who died on the DLR site at Walton Rd.
A minutes silence is held in memory of Kevin Campbell. A construction worker who died on the DLR site at Walton Rd.

It’s rare for bosses to be sent to prison for health and safety infringements, even those leading to a death, but this one was.  The director was sentenced to 8 months and banned from being a director for 10 years.  The company was fined £150 000, and the recruitment agency which promised Cameron an ‘apprenticeship’ and placed him in this death-trap was fined £75 000.  These were tough fines as criminal prosecutions go but it’s less than a quarter of a million for a young life, and none of this money will go to a bereft family who have lost a son and brother.

In the week this sentence was handed down a massive explosion at a wood flour mill in Bosley near Macclesfield in Cheshire reduced the building to rubble, killing four employees.  The plant owned by Wood Treatment Ltd had experienced two fires in 2010 and 2012, and the Health and Safety Executive had served Improvement Notices on them in 2013 and 2014 for failing to control the exposure of workers to wood dust, and for failing to reduce the risk of fire or explosion from liquid petroleum gas stored at the plant. The brother of one of the victims claimed this was an accident waiting to happen.

The last two weeks have seen at least nine work-related deaths, including two workers in Norwich and a worker at a Yorkshire waste treatment plant. Is this a blip or the start of a new, sinister trend?

David Cameron has made it his mission to rid the UK of ‘red tape’, for which read ‘health and safety’. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has had its budget reduced by a third over the last two years, following a major re-organisation under Labour which saw, amongst others, offices in Manchester and Preston close.  The London HQ has since re-located to Bootle, taking the HSE further away from the ‘corridors of power’.  The Tories have restricted preventative inspections to five sectors classified as ‘high risk’ so employers in other sectors need not fear a HSE phone call.  This is despite – or perhaps because of – evidence from the TUC showing that 61 per cent of employers are believed to have made improvements because of the possibility of a visit by an inspector. The HSE has also had a ‘growth agenda’ imposed on them i.e. nothing the HSE do should impede the expansion of the economy and jobs growth. Bosley, on the other hand, now has 4 deaths to mourn and 50 mill workers without jobs to go to.

Family of Rene Tkacik join health & safety campaigners at the inquest into his death on a Crossrail site.
Family of Rene Tkacik join health & safety campaigners at the inquest into his death on a Crossrail site.

As Hilda Palmer of Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) puts it: ‘Good health and safety at work will not survive another five years.  If we don’t fight for our lives now there will be no health, no safety, and no justice at work, for us, our children and their children. Another five years of Tory misrule risks setting in stone the rowing back of all that was hard won by generations of workers and their unions fighting together for the good of all workers.’

The Health and Safety at Work Act was only ever a lever in the battle with the employers, and workers’ health at work depends on the strength of the trade unions and active safety reps and stewards.  Union recognition and facility time are under attack across virtually all workplaces and we are now faced with corner cutting and super-exploitation on a massive scale through 24/7 operation, zero hours contracts, lone working and many other threats.  The defence of health and safety at work must be part of the campaign to build fighting trade unions which will use their power to bring the employers and the Tories to heel.

Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK)

Families against corporate killers is a national organisation which campaigns to stop workers and others being killed in preventable work incidents and supports and advocate for bereaved families, providing emotional support and access to legal and other help.

Contact them at:

Paul Gerrard (Bury NUT)