Safety reps save lives

Workers' Memorial Day: Unite remembers the dead at Tower Hill

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Construction workers gathered at Unite’s annual International Workers’ Memorial Day commemoration at Tower Hill by the Building Worker statue in London this week.

In a year that saw deaths in the construction industry climb, speakers recognised the role trade union health and safety reps play in making workplaces safer, and demanded better access to all workplaces.

They also called for a decade of cuts to the HSE to be reversed and for the government to increase investment in the health and safety watchdog.

Unite regional coordinating officer for construction Vince Passfield (pictured below) recalled the sad and startling statistics of deaths in the sector.

Vince said, “Last year 135 people died in work related deaths — a third of these were in the construction industry – with falls from height being the most common cause of death.”

Highlighting the recent death of George Gilbey, an electrician who became well known for appearing in Gogglebox after falling through a skylight whilst working on a roof, Vince added, “It takes a celebrity death to make the national news, when nearly one person dies every week in the building industry.”

“It is a disgrace that companies put profit before safety, and a disgrace that some employers still block access to trade unions for their workforce – despite unionised workplaces being recognised as safer workplaces.”

This was a theme taken up by Steve O’Donnell, Unite regional secretary for London and Eastern region (pictured below).

Steve said, “As trade unionists it is incumbent on us to fight for safer workplaces across the country.”

“With worker deaths rising, trade unions should be there to make sure they are safer, and it is a disgrace that we have to fight tooth and nail to get union health and safety reps on sites.”

Following a two-year campaign to put in place an agreement at Old Oak Common Sidings and the HS2 site, Steve said, “Unite will run campaigns until we get trade union access to these sites, and we will keep going until we do get access!”

Spencer Wood for union solicitor OH Parsons (pictured above) also highlighted the 40 per cent cut in HSE funding that has resulted in only 1,000 inspectors left to carry out work covering millions of businesses across the UK.

Following the speakers, wreaths were laid at the base of the Building Worker statue by scaffolder Dave Watson and apprentice electrician Chloe O’Brien (pictured below).

Chole said she was one of around 30 apprentices with ESG working at Moorgate. Chloe left a job in retail to train to be a fully qualified electrician.

Chole said, “I’m in the last year of my apprenticeship and I’ve completed Level 2 and 3 training and moving on to the NVQ diploma. The training we get makes you feel safer, but attending events like today shows that the dangers are still there.”

With speakers finished and wreaths laid, Trevor Simpson from the London Building Workers branch led a minute’s silence which was followed by the releasing of 45 black balloons, one for every construction worker who never made it home after a shift.

As the balloons rose into the clear skies over the Tower of London, everyone reflected on the need to always remember the dead, but to keep working to fight for the living.

By Keith Hatch

Photos by Mark Thomas