For some years now at Trinity Methodist Church, Newlyn, we have marked the annual Workers’ Memorial Day at a special evening service.
Workers’ Memorial Day was started by the Canadian Union of Public Employees in 1984. The Canadian Labour Congress declared an annual day of remembrance in 1985 on April 28, the anniversary of the Workers Compensation Act passed in 1914. In 1991, the Canadian Parliament passed an Act respecting a National Day of Mourning for persons killed or injured in the workplace; making April 28, an official Workers’ Mourning Day.
Since then, the observation of the day has spread internationally including Argentina, Belgium, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, Gibraltar, Luxembourg, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Spain, Thailand, Taiwan, United States and the United Kingdom. Trade Unions in other countries including Benin, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Malta, Nepal, New Zealand, Romania and Singapore are pursuing government recognition (Source: Wikipedia)
Why do we remember this day at Trinity? It began with the widow of a man killed in a workplace incident and whose funeral I took. Helen wanted to do something not only for her late husband but also to draw attention to others killed or injured at work and as part of a campaign to make our work places safe places. The funeral was held elsewhere but Trinity seemed an appropriate place to hold the memorial service, set as it is in a fishing port that has seen more than its share of work related death and injury not only at sea but also in the quarry that once operated just along the road towards Mousehole. Death and injury is not confined to fishing and quarrying, however, and Cornwall has a mining tradition that took numerous lives while many seemingly safe workplaces can be dangerous if proper procedures are not in place, or workers’ health and safety is not taken seriously. It’s all too easy to say – and all too many find it all too easy to say – “such and such a rule is health and safety gone mad” until an incident occurs and someone is injured or worse.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) ran for four years a Myth of the Month feature on its website, debunking the stories that people like to tell each other, or even to run in the press.
It’s worth having a look at the link above; some of the myths are quite amusing, or would be were this not so serious a business.
We may understand just how serious this is when we realise that “every year, two million men and women die worldwide as a result of work-related injuries and diseases” more, in fact than die in wars. (Source: TUC)
During the four years of the Myth series, the HSE says “we’ve debunked some truly ridiculous misrepresentations of health and safety, including the banning of conkers, firemen’s poles and park benches. We’ve scotched scare stories about excessive safety signs, rebutted rumours about onerous risk assessments and kicked back at claims that kids need to be wrapped in cotton wool.”
The misrepresentation of the HSE’s work and our easy and unthinking acceptance of the myths surrounding it can be at the cost of lives or health, and can prepare the ground for the removal by legislators and / or employers of essential safeguards that keep our workplaces safe . As the HSE says: “health and safety is about saving lives, not stopping them.”
Trinity seemed appropriate also because we are committed through our work at and from our church and community facility, The Centre, to engaging with the wider community and offering opportunity to reflect on the good and bad, the happy and the sad, in our lives as well as to offering practical support where we can. If a church does not speak and act for justice where and when it can, it should not speak at all and indeed has ceased to be church.
People will come at this question from all sorts of angles. As a Christian, I come at it perhaps from some of the same angles as others, but also from the Christian story reflection on which helps us to discern how we are to live one with another in the divine economy. One of the earliest stories in the Bible about how we relate to each other as human beings is the story of Cain and Abel. It’s a strange old story, and I won’t go into it too much here, but it’s where we find that question that has passed into common usage when one wants to avoid responsibility for another: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Christian story, and indeed the old Jewish story from which it arises, says, “Yes. We are our brothers’ keepers; we are all children of God, and responsible for each other.”
“Love your neighbour as yourself,” said Jesus, quoting the Torah.
The Talmud tells a story of Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus. A pagan came to him saying that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the whole of the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.” (Talmud Shabbat 31a).
Whether we come at this from a faith or secular perspective, the question we must ask is: Would we want to work in unsafe conditions ourselves? Would we want our workplaces to be such that our health is at risk merely by earning a living? Yes, some jobs are risky – I was in the building trade for some years, and that’s a risky business. Although only 5% of the UK workforce is employed in the construction industry it accounts for 27% of fatal injuries. Improvements in health and safety (and things are certainly better than when I last worked in the industry 30 years ago) have seen fatalities reduced by two-thirds in the last 20 years, yet still 50 people lost their lives in the construction industry in 2011, often by falls from height, slips, trips and electrocution.
Yes, working at height can be dangerous as it can be working on the sea-washed deck of a fishing vessel but that doesn’t mean we should be content to take more risks than are necessary, or to ask others to do that on our behalf to catch or grow our food, to build our homes, took after us when we’re sick, or whatever, even to fight in our armed forces.
“Remember the dead; fight for the living”
The strapline for WMD being “remember the dead; fight for the living” there are two aspects to our work each year in west Cornwall: remembering, and raising awareness.
Alongside the service, there is now a memorial tree planted, with the kind support of Penzance Town Council, in Penzance’s Penlee Park and a short memorial service is held there every year either on or close to the day. This year it will be on Friday the 26th at noon. Helen and I have been on local radio, had features in the local press, had a presence at a community day dedicated to Newlyn’s work story, made displays and put up posters, blogged and posted on social media. Even so, what we do locally seems to us to be small in relation to the scale and seriousness of the problem. Nevertheless, our efforts here in west Cornwall represent another pin in the map of a growing number of activities globally. This year, hundreds of thousands of people in up to one hundred countries will be involved in thousands of activities ranging from commemorations, to protests, to educational activities and flash mobs. (Source: TUC)
Despite my earlier remarks about the construction industry, some may think this an issue largely for the developing world. Certainly there are those working in some countries in the most appallingly dangerous conditions, and child workers as well as adult but hazards to children at work are not confined to the developing world.
- More than half (53 per cent) of the 215 million child labourers worldwide do hazardous work.
- Hazardous work is increasing among older children, aged 15–17. Within four years (2004–08), it jumped 20 per cent – from 52 million to 62 million. Boys outnumber girls by two to one in this age group.
- Children have higher rates of injury and death at work than adults, as shown by data from industrialized countries.
(Warning, the report makes uncomfortable reading. A couple of excerpts are given below at i, ii and iii)
Still, in the UK in 2011, 1,600 people died because of their work, many of these having suffered occupational disease caused years previously, for example, asbestos exposure. (Source: TUC)
While Health and Safety rules are designed to prevent such deaths, some people seem to object to them as mere red tape that causes Britain to fall behind other countries in the industrial sphere. Regardless of whether we think it acceptable for people to die, be injured or made sick at work to make us more competitive, TUC figures show “Britain ranks 20th out of 34 in the Health and Safety Risk Index of OECD industrialised countries.” If we are behind others in output it is not because we are too keen on keeping people safe to be productive. In any case, and to make an economic if not an ethical point, sick employees aren’t producing and losing employees to ill health or worse is a failure to capitalise on an employer’s investment in training.
Good health and safety in the workplace is an investment in each other, is recognition of our value to each other and of our common humanity. Ultimately, if the price of my ease is the injury, ill health or death of another, can I ever be truly at ease?
Oh, and just in case we still think this is all unnecessary nonsense: that fertiliser plant in west Texas, the one that blew up, killed fourteen people and injured many others. Hadn’t been inspected by federal regulators since 1985, apparently.
I end with a prayer for those who’d like one. For those who don’t, maybe these could be what the Mayor calls “appropriate words” such as I offer as Chaplain at Town Council Meetings and as all good prayer is, an opportunity for reflection.
If you’ve got this far: thank you for reading. And if you’re working, stay safe.
The Farm Workers’ Prayer By: Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) Founder, United Farm Workers
Show me the suffering of the most miserable; so I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray for others; for you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life; So that I can be free at last.
Grant me courage to serve others; for in service there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience; so that I can work with other workers.
Bring forth song and celebration; so that the Spirit will be alive in us.
Let the spirit flourish and grow; so that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice; for they have given us life.
Help us to love even those who hate us; so we can change the world. Amen.
Excerpts from the ILO Report.
- In the United States, just in the 15–17-year age group, 374 children died at work in a 10-year period, 1998–2007 (a fatality rate of 2.9 deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalents) and an estimated 598,000 children sustained work-related injuries and illnesses severe enough to be treated in hospital emergency departments (an injury/illness rate of 4.2 per 100 full-time equivalents).
- An older but well-analysed review of injury data from the Philippines estimated that 23.8 per cent of all economically active children suffered an injury during one year – a total of 882,440 workplace injuries. Interestingly, the survey showed that night work, heavy work and exposure to physical hazards each increased the odds of workplace injury by 40 per cent. Children working in agriculture had a ﬁve times greater risk of non-fatal injury in comparison with children working in other industries and that the use of tools in the workplace was the risk factor most often responsible for the injury. Within a 12-month reference period, roughly 637,000 childhood agricultural injuries occurred, for an incidence rate of 0.08 injuries per 100 person-hours worked or 56.8 injuries per 100 full-time equivalents.
- A 2006 study in Bangladesh showed that almost 70 per cent of child domestic workers experienced physical abuse and systematic beatings, either to ensure compliance or as punishment when perceived to be slow or uncooperative. Nearly half of the physical abuse resulted in bodily injury and very few of the children received medical attention. A survey in Latin America of female child domestic workers found that, on average, more than 66 per cent were physically or psychologically abused and that the threat of sexual advances from their employers was a constant presence. A survey of children involved in commercial sexual exploitation found that 25 per cent of the children were former child domestic workers who had either run away because of abuse or been thrown out by the employing family after becoming pregnant.
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