International Workers’ Memorial Day is marked on 28th April to remember those who have lost their lives as a result of work related disease or injury, or in accidents at work. For many, this conjures up images of the dangerous industrial work environments of the past, rather than a current and relevant issue, but that does not reflect the reality. The theme of IWMD this year is health and safety as a fundamental workers’ right, and over the course of the past year, the importance of this has hit home for everyone.
Thanks to those who campaign for justice and change, the victims of industrial disasters are not forgotten and neither are any of the failings which led to their deaths. When a fatal accident occurs in a workplace as a result of an unsafe environment, we expect inquiries, legal action and headlines expressing shock that this was able to occur. Yet, at the same time, modern health and safety law is still laughed at by some who view it as a hurdle to getting the job done, and an unwanted consequence of a compensation culture.
On IWMD we must remember that work related deaths are not a thing of the past and that protecting workers from unsafe conditions, and ensuring that there is a system which allows families to hold employers to account, is fundamental. Workers can be diagnosed with industrial diseases and cancers long after exposure to harmful materials. Even with improving standards and increasing recognition of employers’ duties, the consequences of an unsafe work environment can span decades. Unfortunately, it is also clear that not every employer will comply with the health and safety standards expected of them.
For the second year in a row, many commemorative events are scaled back or virtual, due to the ongoing pandemic. While the remembrance may be less collective, it is all the more poignant following the deaths of so many workers as a result of Covid. As the grim statistics of the past year start to be analysed, patterns have already been spotted which suggest that particular groups of workers have been at a higher risk of contracting, and dying from, Covid. The connection between the working environment and health cannot be ignored.
This IWMD, the images of health and social care workers with limited supplies of adequate PPE, and of workers with no option but to continue in non-Covid secure workplaces, will be at the forefront of our minds as we reflect on those who have been lost in recent times. Even workers employed in previously low-risk jobs have had to stop and consider the question of what is being done to keep them safe at work. Often, the answer has depended on the extent to which employers and governments have been willing to act and prioritise safe work environments.
The Covid death toll has been devastating in its own right, but the workplace related deaths show a trend which was present long before the virus. Globally, too many workers die every year as a result of lacking health and safety measures. Protecting workers must be treated as priority wherever there is a risk and this must involve more than a nod to regulations or a tick box exercise.
In 2021, IWMD sadly continues to be more than a day to remember past losses. It serves as a reminder that families are still suffering as a result of unsafe workplaces past and present, and of the need for health and safety at work to be treated as a fundamental right. The slogan - Remember the dead. Fight for the living. - resounds as strongly as ever.
Blog by Amy Haughton, Solicitor