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Worked to Death

A look at cases of people being killed or injured because of their work, and at why such things happen.

Over the last two decades at least twenty thousand sugar-cane cutters in Central America have died of kidney failure, caused by dehydration, heat exposure and physical stress (New Internationalist, November 2015). This is not the usual kind of industrial ‘accident’, but it was clearly their work that was responsible for these people’s deaths.

A more common kind of workplace death is exemplified by the case of Cameron Minshull, a 16-year-old apprentice killed at a factory in Bury in 2013. Cameron, who earned just £3 an hour, was dragged into a lathe and died of head injuries. There was no safety regime at the company; young workers were untrained and unsupervised, and had to clean the lathes while they were still running. The firm’s owner was sentenced to eight months in prison, the company admitted corporate manslaughter and was fined, and the recruitment agency (which had been paid by the government for placing Cameron at the firm) was also fined. His mother said, ‘He should never have died for doing the right thing, for going to work to earn a living and to be trained to become an engineer.’

In 2014–5 a total of 142 workers were fatally injured in Great Britain; this was lower than the average for the last five years but slightly higher than the figure for 2013–4. In addition 102 ‘members of the public’ were killed in work-connected incidents in 2014–5 (excluding rail suicides).

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) makes much of the fact that, since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974, fatal injuries to employees have fallen by 86 percent and reported non-fatal injuries by 77 percent. On the other hand, deaths from asbestos-related diseases increased by a factor of ten between 1974 and 2012, largely because of exposure to asbestos prior to 1980. So it is not purely a matter of being killed or injured while at work; deaths and injuries arising from work must also be considered (as the example of the cane-cutters shows).

Agriculture (including forestry and fishing) is the most dangerous industry sector in Greta Britain, according to the HSE. Only one worker in a hundred is in agriculture, but one fatal injury in five occurs there. The number of fatal injuries has been reduced since 1974, but much less than in other industries. In 2013–4, there were 27 workplace deaths among agricultural workers, the most frequent of which involved being struck by a moving vehicle; in addition, four members of the public were fatally injured. Furthermore, about ninety deaths a year among those who work or worked in agriculture are attributed to occupational carcinogens. Non-fatal incidents are common too, with 292 major injuries to agricultural employees in 2013–4 (this figure excludes the self-employed, who make up about half the agricultural workforce, and it is generally accepted that there is a high level of underreporting of non-fatal injuries).

In construction, there were 35 fatal injuries in 2014–5, almost half of them caused by falls from heights. The fatality rate per employee was 3.5 times the average across all industries, though far less than that in agriculture. And in any year, around 69,000 construction workers suffer from an illness they believe was caused or made worse by their work (around 40 percent of these are new conditions started during that year).

In the US, workplace deaths are much higher, with 4,679 fatal work injuries in 2014, the highest figure since 2008. Deaths in the oil and gas industries have risen dramatically, but construction remains the most dangerous industry, with one worker death in five occurring there. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) emphasizes that, since its creation in 1971, workplace deaths have been reduced from 38 a day to twelve, but this is still an astonishingly high figure (over thirty times that in the UK, with a population only five times the size).

In April 2013 the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing well over a thousand people who worked in garment factories in the building, making clothes for international brands such as Gap and Benetton. At least 500 Indian workers have died in Qatar while building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. Sadly, similar examples could be listed almost without end.

In 2014–5 there were 258 cases of prosecution related to health and safety in the construction industry, 243 of which resulted in a guilty verdict for at least one offence; nearly £4m was levied in fines. The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act of 2007 expanded previous legislation and made it possible to convict a company if it could be shown that senior management had committed a gross breach of duty of care. But by April last year there had been just eleven convictions for corporate manslaughter in the five years since the Act came into law. In the US, the OSHA has in over forty years achieved just twelve criminal convictions of errant companies.

The HSE notes that in 2014–5, the equivalent of 1.7 million working days were lost in construction because of workplace injuries and work-related illnesses. The ‘total economic cost to society’ (i.e. to the capitalist class) in 2013–4 was £0.9bn; across all industries the cost was estimated at £14.3bn. This is a crucial point, that workplace deaths and injuries give rise to costs for the specific employer and the wider employing class, in terms of health care and lost profits. Safety regulations exist partly to ensure that such costs do not get out of hand. And enforcement is often more about appearing to have done something than about actually performing rigorous inspections.

It is clear that much work is potentially dangerous, such as anything involving chemicals, machinery or working above ground. But that does not by itself explain why there are so many injuries, fatal and otherwise. While ‘accidents’ cost money, regulations and enforcement are expensive too. All impinge on profits, which are the main reason for production under capitalism. Companies will say that they take health and safety seriously, but they have to take profit most seriously of all. We cannot say that there would be no workplace deaths or injuries in a Socialist society, but we can be sure that the safety and well-being of those who produce the goods and services will be paramount. There will be no shortcuts, no cheap and nasty solutions, no forcing people to work in unsafe situations. Producing in the interest of the whole community will include making production as safe as is humanly possible – something that capitalism simply cannot deliver.       

PAUL BENNETT