Thursday, 28 November 2013

Death on the docks

Unite convenor Andy Green gives a stark warning about the dangers of deregulation on the docks.
Over 90% of the UK’s trade comes through its docks, the workers in them are handling hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo every day, hundreds of millions of tons every year. Docks are dangerous places and it’s a sad fact that many workers in our Docks can tell you a story about a friend or colleague who has been killed at work; in the last 3 months the numbers telling those story’s has risen sharply.
In the last 3 months 8 people have been killed in separate incidents in the UK’s docks. The first on October 23rd 2011, Ian Campbell, a dockworker in Tilbury was killed when the Container Straddle Carrier he was driving overturned, a few days later a lorry driver was killed in the same port. There then followed further deaths of a Tugman in Liverpool, an Engineer in Sunderland, a Driver in Ipswich, a Crewman in Felixstowe, another Crewman in Hull and the latest on 27th January 2012, an Agency Worker in Immingham was buried beneath tons of coal inside a ships hold. Surprisingly Docks has just be reclassified as a low risk industry, so why is being inside one of the UK’s ports now more dangerous than serving in Northern Ireland during the troubles.
The numbers of army personnel in Northern Ireland during the troubles ranged between 10,000 – 20,000, these numbers are in line with the estimated numbers working inside our Docks; and with 8 dead in 3 months it would have made it one of the most bloodiest years.
The history of the docks is a tale of poverty, death and injury spanning hundreds of years, such were the conditions that one of the first major strikes took place in the UK occurred in the London docks; abject poverty often saw families starving. Inside the dock, workers were being killed, crushed and drowned on a massive scale, life was cheap.
The very first strike in the modern sense was at the Bryant and May factory when the Match Girls took action over their pay and conditions. Their health and safety was being ignored and many women working at the factory suffered from a form of bone cancer they called Phossy Jaw, this dreadful industrial disease slowly killed dozens of the Match Girls at the factory. The British Government at the time unlike other country’s refused to ban phosphorous as it was deemed a Restraint of Free Trade. Today the Government would call it Red Tape and a Burden on Business, the same vile message being pedalled centuries apart.
Low Risk?
We are all used to hearing these barmy health and safety myths pedalled by politicians, normally involving conkers and pancakes. Well last year this Government following the Lofstedt review decided that health and safety in Docks had improved to such an extent that it could now be considered a low risk industry, and eager as ever to believe these myths the Government acted and downgraded the risk classification of the Docks industry. The result as ever was fewer inspections and less enforcement action, and predictably the downward spiral of poor health and safety began. Except bad health and safety didn’t so much begin to fall into the industry, its plummeted killing 8 people in 3 months.
Statistically when numbers employed are compared to deaths and serious injuries Docks is a highly dangerous environment in which to work. So how did one of the most dangerous industries in the UK come to be downgraded to a low risk industry?
In 1989 Margaret Thatcher met the port employers and business leaders who complained about the National Dock Labour Scheme and its stranglehold on the docks, as ever willing to listen to the business lobby she deregulated the entire industry and so ended the safety and security it provided to the thousands who worked in the docks.
There were immediate concerns about the return to casual labour, workers hired and fired by the day. In response to these concerns the then Employment Minister Norman Fowler made a bold statement that there would be no return to casual labour. As ever with politicians this assurance was not strictly kept and instead of casual labour returning, the dock industry introduced ‘Non Permanent Employees’ who were coincidentally hired and fired by the day. The result was a disaster, deaths and injuries soared to levels not seen for a generation.
There were reviews of the industry and the Transport Select Committee who examined health and safety in our Docks were highly critical of the carnage being wrought on those who worked within them.
The figures were an embarrassment which no end of spin could hide or excuse, in response the Dock industry has attempted to clean up its image and over the last 20 years the numbers of deaths and serious injuries did decline though tracking who was actually working in the docks became increasingly difficult, so a true figure on reductions is uncertain.
Roll forward 20 years and today’s Government introduces the Red Tape challenge on cutting burdensome regulation, big business organisations were moaning about unnecessary bureaucracy and health and safety was their number one complaint.
Employment Minister Chris Grayling in trying to make a bit of a name for himself when it comes to health and safety, launched his Health and Safety Made Simple
“a package of changes designed to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and promote a proportionate approach to managing health and safety”
HSE Newsletter No. 29 summer 2011
And so after a round of consultation with business organisations many of the regulatory burdens of health and safety have been removed. Unfortunately the lessons of history are not often learnt and in the case of the Docks, history is repeating itself. Docks were subsequently reclassified as low risk and deaths and injuries began increasing at an alarming rate.
So who takes on the responsibilities of health and safety in our Docks now that Government feels the industry can look after itself?  
Self Regulation
Over the year the port employers have come together along with others within the industry and formed a number of safety bodies which have attempted to lay down standards and provide support to their subscribing members, each body evolving from the ashes of its predecessor; another new name, another new strategy and another new beginning.
As with all these industrial safety bodies their subscribing members are not compelled to adhere to these standards, it is voluntary. Should a member choose to ignore these standards then that is the end of the matter, there is no compulsion, there is no sanction.  Many of these companies, especially the agencies that supply non permanent workers, attempt to gain credibility and a reputation for good health and safety practice by simply paying the subscription and buying the name.
The current industry safety body for the Docks is Port Skills and Safety (PSS) whose stated purpose is to encourage and promote high standards of health and safety, such bodies as this are the new safety format which Government sees as the answer to regulation. However well intentioned they are they are powerless, but lacking power is the whole point of self regulation isn’t it?
This Government also believes that low risk workplaces can be managed in-house using plain common sense and thereby reduce bureaucracy. Stopping people getting killed at work is common sense isn’t it?
Working in the Docks today
Despite assurances that casual labour would not return huge numbers of ‘non permanent’ workers still sit at the end of the telephone hoping for a few hours work. Not daring to complain about the dangers they face at work for fear of losing the little work they have, they tolerate the most dangerous conditions. They are often put to work with little or no training, their own lives and the lives of others put in danger.
Unite the Union regularly receives reports from workers in the docks about atrocious health and safety conditions and the numbers of reports are increasing.
Speak with most temporary workers and won’t even have seen a risk assessment let alone know what one is. The training they receive doesn’t meet any standard at all, even those laid down by the industry itself. When they receive just 30 minutes training to drive a forklift it’s not just the temporary workers in danger, everyone is at risk.
The hours which temporary workers can be expected to do can be lethal, there are those who are working 26 consecutive night shifts without as break, others who are told to work 24 hour shifts, complain and there’s no more work.
They are being charged for their PPE and so they scrape together old helmets and ragged boots in which to work, and if they are working with dusty cargo their employer will charge them for their Lung Function tests; despite this being a statutory duty of the employer. But who dares to complain?
This dreadful situation will only deteriorate further as these companies now see the low risk industry in which they operate as being without HSE interference. The users of these agency (non permanent) companies do not get involved in the health and safety issues of their labour suppliers; after all it is someone else’s problem, right?
Also worrying is that many labour suppliers to docks have begun using imaginative employment methods as they attempt to avoid the Agency Worker Regulations. As these workers are shifted around they become missing from the statistical radar, becoming lost from sight. Accidents in the docks are going unreported or are attributed to other industries.  
The full time workers in the docks don’t fare much better, there are growing pressures upon dockworkers as employers seek to increase productivity and cut costs, the drive to maximise profits is driving health and safety to the brink.
The story across the entire docks industry is one of reduced spending on Health and Safety, reductions in permanent labour and increases in temporary workers. There is a move to ever more flexible working patterns which impact on pay which drives workers to work ever more hours, disrupting home life and leaving them tired. Spending on maintenance is being squeezed; instead of preventative maintenance there is a trend to provide nothing more than a breakdown service.
The long term impact of these changes is being ignored for short term gain, but now more than ever all workers in our docks need protection
So how could such a situation develop when we have industry safety bodies that lay down standards and guidance?
Where Next?
The increasing numbers of deaths is a sad reflection of the state of health and safety within the port transport industry. Good Effective Regulation is a key requirement but without enforcement they are empty words; it’s like setting a speed limit, removing the police force and asking everyone very nicely to slow down. IT DOESN’T WORK!
We are told that health and safety regulation is a burden on business and excessive inspections on ‘safe’ businesses are unnecessary. But these alleged burdens have saved the lives of countless people at work; these sickening phrases are an insult to the memories of those who have been killed at work. That their expectation of going home to their families after work is a burden on business is beyond words when more widows and orphans have been created in just 3 months than at any other comparable time.
Low risk businesses should be allowed to self regulate according to the Mr Grayling and his Government, it reduces the health and safety burden upon industry. But having a loved one getting killed is the greatest burden of all but that seems to be secondary issue for this Government, when they talked about making cuts in health and safety, most never knew they meant cutting throats, but as this Government will tell you, there’s no money in caring, its a burden.
Docks are a high risk industry, that’s not a slanderous remark or a criticism, it’s a fact. The workers within the industry need high health and safety standards, standards with teeth. It needs the HSE to undertake a high level of inspection and when needed enforcement. Categorising the dock industry as low risk is bordering on criminal negligence; docks are death traps and should be treated with the respect they deserve. It’s time the industry and the government faced the facts.
Andy Green
Executive Council Member
Docks, Rail, Ferries and Waterways
Unite the Union

1 comment:

  1. So true Andy but not much support from our local Unite stewards.