Up to 100,000 prison officers in England and Wales downed tools this week in protest over safety concerns. Their concern is not over pay, holiday leave, or working hours, but safety. Most workplaces, if employers fulfil their obligations properly, are safe. Some, however, are inherently dangerous. Police officers face risks of assault, firemen accept huge risks to their personal safety and prison officers have now had enough. Whilst some occupations require some degree of risk, that risk must be lowered as far as possible by employers who should provide a safe system of work, conduct proper risk assessments, and provide suitable PPE.
Prison Officers this week downed tools because of fear of a “surge in violence" in English prisons as a result of underfunding and lack of proper management. The law prohibits certain classes of workers from striking on public policy grounds on the basis society at large would be put in danger should that class of workers strike. Prison officers fall within this as do police officers. The High Court has ordered the officers to end their protest within 24 hours and return to work.
Whilst there is logic in their decision there is a huge hypocrisy about it. They are being ordered to return to an unsafe workplace. The state makes a law which prohibits their employees from striking. It then fails to properly protect their employees and there is nothing the employees can do about it. In 2016, 55 years since the Factories Act, should workers really need to have to strike to be heard? Should they have to down tools to have safety concerns taken seriously? Shouldn’t they have a basic right to safety in the workplace and, more importantly, a means of enforcing this? Given they can not strike, and face inherently dangerous workplaces, should their employers not be under an increased obligation protect them?
We act daily for people assaulted at work and see the life changing impact it can have on their lives. With 30 assaults by inmates on officers, 14 hostage situations and 13 absconds, attempted escapes or escapes within the last fortnight it seems their concern is justified. What are they supposed to do?