Sermon preached on the Sunday before Workers’ Memorial Day 2017 at Newlyn Trinity Church.
Homes don’t just appear in ready-made streets; factories don’t just pop up together in industrial estate as if by magic, clothes don’t just appear on our backs nor food in our mouths.
People make those things happen. People, men, women and sometimes children, dig the stone, lay the blocks, mine the ore, plant, tend and harvest the crops, catch the fish, build and drive the vehicles and vessels that transport all that we have come to expect to be available for our comfort and wellbeing, as too do people teach us what we need to know, look after us when we are sick and make sure that we are safe in our streets and homes. People, like you and me, and some of those people, every year, give their lives for those ordinary jobs.
In the EU, in 2014, the last year for which I could find figures, there were 3,739 fatal accidents at work. 239 of those were in the UK. That’s 239 too many but when you hear that France had 589, Germany 500 and Italy 522, with similar populations then you’ll perhaps think for a moment the next time you hear someone say that we take too much notice of Health and Safety Regs in the UK!
There were also nearly a quarter of a million accidents requiring at least four days off work that year in the UK, and again there were similarly and proportionately higher numbers in those other countries.
Across the world on Friday coming there will be events commemorating those who have died going about their day to day work and we will again do our part in this locality. But the day is not just about remembering, it is also about looking forwards. The WMD slogan is “Remember the Dead, fight for the living.”
The aim is to recognise what work cost people in the past in terms of their lives and their health, and to campaign for the necessary protections for workers today.
According to the TUC, ‘Every year more people are killed at work than in wars. Most don’t die of mystery ailments, or in tragic “accidents”. They die because an employer decided their safety just wasn’t that important a priority.
In 2017 International Workers Memorial Day will have the theme of Good health and safety for all workers whoever they are and will focus on inequalities in occupational health and the role unions play in narrowing the inequalities gap.
The TUC will focus on the hidden and new gig economies, the risks faced by migrant workers and the issues of gender and class. On the matter of gender, the TUC says, “There are fourteen million working women in Britain. Many factors have helped keep occupational health a “men only” issue, from bad science to prejudice, to the jobs we do. The two enduring myths are that men do all the risky work and when women do get hurt it is explained by differences in gender, not jobs.
Women are more exposed to repetitive and monotonous work and to stressful conditions, young women are more likely to be assaulted at work than men and women are more likely than men to experience back strain, skin diseases, headaches and eyestrain.
Women’s workplace health problems are frequently compounded by getting more of the same at home – the “double jeopardy ” of domestic work, which can mean a second shift of lifting, responsibility and chemicals topping off those experienced all day at work.”
As some of you know, I spent five years working in West Cornwall Hospital and ten years with workers providing care in people’s homes. I know of the back problems that were widespread in that sector.
This is a global issue and workers in America will also be remembering and campaigning. The website of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO The Stand says, “…, after years of struggle new rules were finally established to protect workers from deadly silica dust and beryllium, a tougher coal dust standard for miners, and stronger anti-retaliation protections for workers who report job injuries. All of these gains are on the chopping block after the president ordered that for every new protection, two existing safeguards must be removed from the books. At the same time, Republicans in Congress are also moving quickly to overturn rules issued by the Obama administration. Agency budgets and enforcement programs are on the chopping block.
“The safety and health of workers and the public are in danger,” said Jeff Johnson, President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “We must fight back. We cannot and will not let them turn back the clock and destroy the progress we have made to make jobs safer and save lives.”
Johnson said that work includes “honoring the memory of workers who died on the job or due to work-related illnesses, and their families, as we rededicate ourselves to preserving and improving workplace safety and health.”
According to the, “Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene”, it is estimated that there are “2.3 million deaths annually for reasons attributed to work. The biggest component is linked to work-related diseases, 2.0 million, and 0.3 million linked to occupational injuries. However, the division of these two factors varies depending on the level of development. In industrialized countries, the share of deaths caused by occupational injuries and work-related communicable diseases is very low while non-communicable diseases are the overwhelming causes in those countries. Economic costs of work-related injury and illness vary between 1.8 and 6.0% of GDP in country estimates, the average being 4% according to the ILO.”
Even if we don’t know anyone directly affected by work related death, injury or illness, even if our sense of common humanity deserts us in the face of these cold statistics, even should we believe that the blood of our brothers and sisters doesn’t cry out from the ground to God or even to us, nonetheless unsafe and unhealthy workplaces hit the pockets of every one of us. Safe work spaces are good for the workers, but they are also good for us all.
Health and safety matters. It may be a popular source of fun for people who like to talk about “Elf and safety gone mad” largely as a result of myths peddled I suspect by people who haven’t bothered to check facts or have a vested interest in there not being regulation. Nevertheless, health and safety matters if it means a worker can set out for their employment and friends and family can reasonably expect her or him to return home afterwards safe and well.
Too many do not come home at all; many more still carry the burden of unsafe working practices in long term injuries and illness and early death. Like the slogan says, “Remember the dead; fight for the living.” There’s an election coming; maybe this is something about which to quiz those who seek your vote. “Remember the dead. Fight for the living.”