'A fight for our lives'

Unite member and award-winning campaigner Hilda Palmer tells UniteLIVE about her decades-long fight for safer workplaces

Reading time: 10 min

If the common saying is anything to go by, you’d think lovers and fighters were mutually exclusive categories — but Unite member and health and safety campaigner Hilda Palmer is in fact both.

“Andy Birchall, a wonderful Unite member and ex-miner, always said that health and safety is all about love – it’s about the fact that we love our lives, we love our work mates, we love our families and we want to live,” she told UniteLIVE.

“And then I often get criticised by, for example, people at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) who say the fight for health and safety isn’t a ‘fight’ and that I shouldn’t use that language. But of course it’s a fight. It’s a lie that we workers and employers have common interests. We may have some common interests some of the time, and there are some very good employers, especially those working with unions, but at the end of the day, health and safety is a fight for our lives.”

Hilda has been fighting this fight for over thirty years now as a health and safety campaigner. Her work was recognised this month by the Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP), which named her the most influential health and safety person of the year. She received an overwhelming number of votes for the award.

The SHP highlighted in particular her work with the Hazards Campaign, a national network that lobbies for better health and safety in the workplace, as well as her involvement with Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK), which advocates for bereaved families whose loved ones were killed at work.

Fighting for justice

Hilda first came to health and safety campaigning through another labour of love – teaching. After spending years teaching biology in secondary schools in the UK, she later worked in Zambia, in the African bush, teaching agriculture and biology.

“I’ve been interested in social justice and human rights for a very long time, and these were both at the forefront of my work teaching and that changed my life really,” she explained.

When she returned to the UK, she pursued a degree in environmental resources at the University of Salford. It was then, when working with a women’s group, that she learned that a new local organisation was being set up to campaign for and advise workers on health and safety at work.

“As a biologist, a scientist, I thought being involved with an organisation like this was something I could very usefully do to make working people’s lives better.”

Through what would eventually become the Greater Manchester Hazards Centre, she worked with workers and unions to help provide the technical, scientific and legal information they needed to fight for better health and safety.

“As part of that work, we obviously came across many deaths,” Hilda noted. “We found ourselves working closely with many families of people who died in work, so we then also set up the Bereaved by Work group, which supported families in the North West. We sought to make sure workplace deaths were properly investigated by local authorities, the HSE and other investigating authorities;  we helped families through the inquest process; and we worked to insist on the highest possible charges based on the evidence. That meant a huge amount of advocacy and representation on behalf of these families.”

Hilda told UniteLIVE that although it may be hard to believe now, back in the 1980s when she first started her advocacy work, the way workplace deaths were reported in the media was unimaginably insulting and cruel.

“Workers were considered these hapless, careless, stupid creatures who were apparently just trying to find the most creative ways to get themselves killed.

“The idea that a man would go to work, take a welding torch and try to cut up a 44 gallon oil drum which actually had the remnants of volatile organic solvents at the bottom, which then exploded and killed the worker, would be put down as ‘what a stupid man’ rather than what effing sort of work place allows such a thing to happen?

“So against this backdrop, families had to endure an incredibly brutal process, where they received no victim support. They weren’t considered victims of crime – even though they are because health and safety law is criminal law.”

Over the years, inquiries from bereaved families started pouring in from across the UK crying out for support, and so Hilda and her colleagues helped transform Bereaved by Work, a regional organisation, into the national network Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) in 2006.

Through her work with bereaved families, Hilda realised that the law was woefully inadequate in securing justice for these families – and so through the Hazards Campaign and other organisations, she and her colleagues lobbied to strengthen the law so that more employers are held to account. Though this campaigning met with some success in 2008, the law they pushed for was watered down, and the fight to ensure more negligent bosses are prosecuted under corporate manslaughter laws continues.

Workplaces ‘fueling the pandemic’

While Hilda says that the narrative around workplace health and safety has largely changed over the years thanks to unions and campaigners, the Covid crisis has starkly exposed how blaming workers for employers’ negligence is still alive and well.

“There’s this entrenched denial that workplaces are the centre and the cause of so much of what is fueling this pandemic,” she noted. “Airborne aerosol transmission has not been recognised or acted on so workers have been continually exposed. It’s been a phenomenal challenge because health and safety law is still there, it hasn’t changed, but it’s been undermined and sabotaged by the government in its weak and unenforceable workplace guidance.

“It’s been heartbreaking to deal with safety reps who know their stuff, who challenge their employers but then these employers just turn around and hide behind this lax guidance. Take for example, care workers who were told right at the beginning – and very little has changed now – that unless they were dealing with people with symptoms, they didn’t need PPE. We know that between 30 and 50 per cent of people who contract Covid-19 are asymptomatic so this is an absolutely ridiculous attitude to take.”

Hilda and her colleagues are busier than ever during the pandemic, dealing with an “overwhelming demand” for information, advice and support from workers, trade unions and safety reps about Covid-19 in the workplace.

The Hazards Campaign has set up fortnightly Zoom talks on Thursdays on various topics related to the pandemic, including most recently one about the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on Black and Asian ethnic minority groups. Another Zoom talk hosted a panel of experts on airborne aerosol transmission. With the help of these experts Hazards has produced research and materials about aerosol transmission for workers, and has also commissioned a film about Covid transmission in the workplace.

Proudest moments

While Hilda say she’s grateful for receiving the SHP award – if a bit uncomfortable about being in the spotlight – she’s by no means resting on her laurels. What keeps her going – and fighting – are the countless inspirational people she’s worked with and met along the way.

These include not only bereaved families, workers and safety reps, but also other colleagues like Rory O’Neill, editor of the award-winning Hazards Magazine and Janet Newsham, a Hazards campaigner who works with Hilda and set up the hugely successful Hazards Zoom talks during the pandemic.

Asked about some of her proudest moments, Hilda said there’s far too many to mention.

“It’s being able to give a safety rep that piece of information that allows them to finally force a success with their employer and actually get something changed, something they’ve been fighting for many years.

“Or it’s standing beside a bereaved mother in a court a she gives her victim impact statement and being able to feel through her grief her empowerment in doing that, in standing up for her son or daughter, or husband. Or to see the defendants –staggeringly unconcerned about human life — forced to sit there and listen to this mother in front of the whole court.”

Hilda is also very proud of the work she’s done with the Hazards Campaign in promoting International Workers Memorial Day, which was first brought to the UK via America and Canada by Tommy Harte, an activist for the TGWU, one of Unite’s predecessor unions.

“Tommy brought the day to the UK with the slogan ‘remember the dead, fight for the living’ which is now a major date in our calendars, not just here but internationally too.”

Hilda says she wants the award she received to draw attention to the vital work that health and safety reps in particular do, and she has a special message for them.

“You’re absolutely wonderful – you’re saving lives, you’re saving health, you’re fighting the pandemic on the frontline. All of you are essential workers and our job in the Hazards Campaign and FACK is to support you in your fight to get you what you deserve, which is a basic fundamental human right – a workplace free from risk to your health, safety and welfare. And during the Covid pandemic, this couldn’t be more true. You are life savers and you are doing a fantastic job.”

Unite national health and safety advisor Bud Hudspith hailed Hilda’s work and congratulated her for the award.

“Hilda absolutely deserves this accolade for her work this year, and for many years before,” he said. “She is a brilliant advocate for workers’ health and safety and has been a regular speaker at Unite regional events, as well as doing all of her other health and safety work. We are proud to have Hilda as a Unite member.”

By Hajera Blagg

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