Matthew's Law call to protect workers in extreme weather

International Workers' Memorial Day: Electrician's death leads to call for “Matthew's Law”

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In the lead up to International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) on Sunday (April 28), UniteLive will explore this year’s IWMD theme – the climate crisis and workers’ health.

Today, we highlight the untimely death of Unite member Matthew Campbell (pictured), who was killed because his employer failed to protect him in work during a storm. Matthew’s family is now working with Unite to get Matthew the justice he deserves – and to ensure no other worker is put at risk in extreme weather with the introduction of a ‘Matthew’s Law’.

A young electrician from Northern Ireland was killed by a falling tree during a storm while working in a forest park, with a judge slamming poor risk assessments and ignored weather warnings.

Matthew Campbell was only 24 years old, and had been working as an electrical engineer for just over three months, when the tragic accident happened in the Slieve Gullion Forest Park, Co Armagh.

The incident highlights the increasing dangers faced by outdoor workers in industries like construction as the climate warms and extreme weather events become more common.

This year International Workers’ Memorial Day focuses on the climate crisis and workers’ health and explores the impacts of climate change on occupational safety and health.

In particular there are concerns that changing weather patterns have notable impacts on the world of work, particularly affecting workers’ safety and health.

It was an extreme weather event, Storm Ali, that resulted in the 200-year-old beech tree falling that killed Matthew, but it was poor health and safety practices on the part of the employer and land owner that resulted in him being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Matthew’s father, Mark Campbell, said, “Mark had only worked for the company for three months, and had plans to be married to his fiancée in less than a year, when he was working at the site.”

Matthew Campbell was a member of Unite, which has been supporting his family to obtain answers and justice following his death, and has challenged the failure of the Health and Safety Executive NI to conduct an investigation into the incident.

Mark said that the support from Unite, and the union’s regional secretary Susan Fitzgerald, has been “fantastic” and really helped the family seek the justice they deserve.

He said, “From day one the union has been supportive, and we have had numerous meetings with them.

“Susan organised meetings with political parties to raise the issues around Matt’s death and explain what had happened, and she is still involved. Unite’s legal team has been superb and I can’t fault them at all.

“We found Susan and Unite fantastic, and my wife and daughter, as well as Matt’s fiancée have all since joined the union because of how good they are.”

This March a judge at Newry Crown Court handed out fines of £20,000 to Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and £30,000 to Lagan Construction Ltd, who admitted failing to make a proper risk assessment.

Unite member Matthew was working for the construction company with a colleague at a forest park when Storm Ali caused winds in excess of 90mph that battered Northern Ireland on September 19, 2018.

The pair had been working on a water mains rehabilitation project designed to improve water pressure in the forest park café and amenities as the weather deteriorated.

They had initially left the site, but returned to make the kiosk safe, when a 200-year-old beech tree was blown over by the storm force winds, killing Matthew and severely injuring Steven.

Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Lagan both admitted health and safety failings, and both had received weather warnings from the Met Office before the tragedy.

Now Unite is calling for a “Matthew’s Law” to be introduced to protect workers during extreme weather.

Unite regional secretary Susan Fitzgerald said, “Unite will be taking forward our campaign for new legislation to protect workers’ health and safety in extreme weather events. With climate change these are becoming increasingly common and we cannot continue to have institutional failure when it comes to the protection of workers.”

Mark added, “Bringing in new legislation is a long process, but Unite is going to push for it to protect workers like Matthew, and we would love it to be named in his memory.”

What could Matthew’s Law mean

Unite is campaigning for new legislation to stop needless deaths like Matthew’s happening in the future.

The union is currently working with officers and members to develop this new law as extreme weather events become increasingly common.

Matthew’s Law could:

  • Make it a legal requirement that employers must have risk assessments in place for employees’ health and safety during extreme weather events.
  • Introduce an expectation that workers should not be required to work in inherently dangerous situations.
  • Ensure workers are sent home on full pay if it is not possible to safely work due to extreme weather conditions.
  • Ensure that employers adhere to weather warnings – particularly when a danger to life and property is highlighted.
  • Introduce a requirement on the HSE to investigate all workplace deaths which occur during extreme weather events.
  • Result in greater fines for companies which breach Health and Safety regulations during extreme weather events.

Stay tuned on UniteLive this week for more stories in our International Workers’ Memorial Day series.

By Keith Hatch