Asbestos: a threat to life

Submitted by martin on 28 February, 2007 - 5:40

By Jill Mountford

Environmental issues also affect us in the workplace and one of the things that illustrates this most clearly is the question of asbestos.

Over 3,000 people die of asbestos-related diseases every year in the UK. By 2020 the annual deaths are likely to be 10,000. Across Western Europe, 250,000 men will die from the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, between 1995 and 2029. Of men born around 1945-50, about 1 in 150 will die of mesothelioma.

Recent court cases show an increase in the development of asbestos diseases among workers in the construction industries, non-asbestos manufacturing factories, power stations and shipyards. Many of those now facing illness did not work directly with asbestos, but in buildings where it was used in construction. Every month there is a new case of bosses deliberately endangering workers’ lives by not providing enough and sometimes any protection against asbestos. Often than not these bosses get away with a slap on the wrists, community service or a fine in the courts. Most cases of workers being exposed to asbestos because of the reckless behaviour of their bosses never come to court. Yet the UK has no no comprehensive ban on the import and use of this material which with even minimal contact can cause fatal diseases ten, twenty or thirty years later. Recently the European Union has forced a change in the law on white asbestos, but this doesn’t amount to a great deal.

To the bosses workers’ lives come cheap. To date only seven bosses have actually been jailed for all work-related accidents and injuries. All of these were small companies run by one man. The bigger the company, the bigger the profit, the easier it is to avoid prosecution and conviction for the maiming and death of workers.

The top ten corporate criminals in Britain have never been jailed for the many repetitive and serious accidents involving workers in their employ.

Tarmac, who hold the number one spot on Health and Safety convictions (i.e. being prosecuted for criminal offenses), are responsible for 20 serious accidents and 13 workers’ deaths in the last decade. When prosecuted, and this is rare, they have have been fined between £3,000 and £10,000 for each worker’s life. Compare this figure to the £184 million made by Tarmac in profits last year alone, or the hourly rate of pay of the top Tarmac boss, Roy Harrison — £110.58.

The top bosses get away with murder because the courts are set up to protect their interests. Workers lives are insignificant compred to profit. It is clear the law is on the side of the bosses.

The Health and Safety Execuive (HSE) — the health and safety police — has the job of investigating deaths and injuries at work and if it finds out that health and safety laws have been broken thy prosecute. The HSE is by any objective standard a failure. Of the 46,0000 major injuries inthe workplace reported over the last two years it failed to investigate 88%. and of the remaining 12% it did investigate, 90% did not lead to prosecution.

Even fatal accidents are not automatically investigated. Over the last couple of years 22 British Steel employees have suffered injuries leading to amputation, yet only one of these injuries was investigated by the HSE. Repeatedly the HSE failed to uncover or mention in court vital information and evidence relating to the injuries or deaths of workers resulting in favourable results for those bosses involved. Yet their own figures show that 70% of all accidents and injuries in the workplace are the result of management negligence!

Things are even worse when it comes to compensation for the workers injured or their families left behind after their death. Most people injured or made ill though work do not receive any compensation at all. The systems which are supposed to award it are both unfair and inaccessible. Those who do win compesation will on average receive very low awards. Nothing like the dividend payouts received by the top bosses (Lord Sainsbury got £36,047,866 in dividends last year alone!).

Successful applicants to the Industrial Injuries Scheme (IIS) receive Disablement Benefit (now targeted for cuts by the Government under their Welfare Reform plan). Most workers, particularly women, fair badly when applying under the scheme, largely because it is based on an outdated list of industrial diseases and only applies to injuries and illnesses of a severe nature. In fact most occupational diseases are not compensated for undet the IIS list. The list, one of the most limited in the European Union, reamins so because the Government refuses to adopt the EU list which is much more inclusive.

The only alternative to the IIS is civil litigation. This is very costly if unsuccessful and made all the more difficult by the abolition of the Legal Aid Board; which up until now helped around 12,000 people annually who were injured at work to seek some justice. Civil litigiation is not only prohibitive to individual workers it is a costly affair for the unions too. The NUJ has in the last couple years spent £1 million fighting two separate cases trying to prove Repetitive Strain Injury — losing both cases because the law worked against the journalists affected.

If your work doesn’t make you sick, then these facts surely must. The key to making the bosses abide by the Health and Safety laws, central to any successful prosecution of the corporate criminals and crucial to workers winning justice is our ability as a movement to crush the anti-trade union laws that shackle our class.

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