On International Worker’s Memorial Day, the motto is ‘Remember the dead and fight for the living’.
In the fifth and final part of our Workers’ Memorial Day series, we show how Unite is now fighting for the living — in this instance, protecting workers against diesel fumes.
Unite has launched a major new initiative to protect workers from “the ticking time bomb” of carcinogenic diesel fumes.
The union’s diesel emissions register has been set up so that members can record when they have been exposed to excessive diesel fumes.
The information will be used by Unite to report accidents, force employers to clean up their workplaces and could be the basis of future legal claims.
The register was launched to coincide with International Workers Memorial Day, the day when workers come together to ‘remember the dead and fight for the living’.
The growing scandal of diesel emissions, which is a class one carcinogenic and causes many other serious health problems, has been likened to that of asbestos.
Unite’s register has initially been trialled across the transport sectors where the issue is a priority and has already produced disturbing results.
One member reported that “many shifts have had dense fog through diesel emissions, staff have coughed, had sore eyes, sore throats”, while another said, “I regularly work in a building with diesel fumes from diesel engines”.
The reports fit with the results of an undercover diesel emission test taken in and around East Midlands airport by Unite in 2012. Some of the readings were so high that the electronic meter went off the scale.
A Unite train depot worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said the issue was being ignored at his workplace.
“The management are not in the slightest bit interested in sorting this issue out. There’s diesel engines that run in the shed for hours on end. They need electric onboard and the connection to the mains hasn’t worked for 15 years. We’ve had four people struck down with cancer over the last five years and although there’s been no link identified it does make you wonder,” he said.
“Sometimes you walk in the shed and it doesn’t feel like its doing you any harm but other times it does: you can feel it in your lungs, you’re coughing and spluttering. The management won’t do anything about it until they’ve been presented with hard evidence that could see them hauled before the courts.”
Unite’s study revealed that affected workers reported a series of short-term health concerns. Fifty-five percent reported wheezing and respiratory problems, 45 per cent had eye irritation, 36 per cent suffered with lightheadedness, chest tightness and headaches, 27 per cent had nausea and 18 per cent had heartburn.
Long term problems recorded by Unite members included effects on lung capacity, breathlessness, asthma, being more prone to colds and flu and sinusitis.
Unite already has registers for members who are exposed in the workplace to asbestos or fume events on board aircraft. The union is currently pursuing 94 legal case on behalf of cabin crew who have been exposed to toxic fumes on board passenger planes.
Unite assistant general secretary for transport Diana Holland said, “Unite is acting to protect our members from the ticking time bomb of being needlessly exposed to poisonous diesel fumes. We cannot take risks with health and safety at work. We are deeply concerned the government is burying its head in the sand and allowing people to become sick and even die due to its inaction.
“In the meantime, where it is clear that employers are ignoring their legal duties, information from the register will be used to force employers who are making our members sick and ill to clean up their acts.”
She added, “If it can be proved that the health of workers has been damaged due to exposure to diesel fumes, Unite will consider taking legal action on behalf of our members.”
The emissions register can be found here.