A history of struggle for workplace safety

Workplace safety has been a key battleground for unions during the pandemic, alongside job losses and attacks on the pay and conditions. JIM HORTON places current struggles for workplace safety into historical context.

Covid-19 is a class issue, no more so than in the workplace where the pandemic has exposed capitalism’s innate disregard for workers’ health and safety. Workplace infections account for a significant proportion of all Covid cases, with 40% of people testing positive for Covid-19 reporting prior ‘workplace or education’ activity.

According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) over ten thousand workers have died of the virus from workplace infections, on average 200 a week. Countless more are suffering the health complications of long covid, yet the media has given scant attention to the bosses’ failure to keep workers safe in their workplaces, with serious implications for the wider community. This is not new, with pre-pandemic cases of workplace deaths, injuries, and ill-health rarely reported by the mainstream media.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution the bosses have resisted any legislative measures to improve working conditions, deeming safety laws a threat to their profit margins. Laws introduced under pressure from workers emphasised self-regulation, that is the goodwill of rapacious capitalists.

Today, notwithstanding all the regulations governing workplace health and safety, the system remains essentially self-regulatory, with woefully inadequate resources committed to enforcement. Covid-safe workplace guidance issued by the government during the pandemic imposes even fewer obligations on the bosses.

In January the British Safety Council argued that a government focus on workplace safety would be “far more likely to reduce the spread of infection than concentrating on individuals who break lockdown rules”. Public Health England cited 3,549 outbreaks of Covid-19 in workplaces since July 2020, including during UK wide lockdowns. Offices were responsible for more outbreaks in the second half of 2020 than supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafes combined.

Recalcitrant employers are wilfully ignoring rules on social distancing and personal protective equipment, yet the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has not prosecuted one single employer for being in breach of government guidelines or issued prohibition notices stopping workplace operations “deemed to be injurious or damaging to health”. Meanwhile, there were fewer proper workplace inspections during 2020 than the previous year, as the HSE instead relied on ‘spot checks’ by phone.

Contrast the inaction of the HSE to the police response to a recent protest in Manchester against the government’s insulting 1% pay rise plan for NHS staff, where the protest organiser was arrested and fined £10,000, justified on the grounds that “regardless of one’s sympathies for a protest’s cause, we would ask the public to maintain social distancing and follow legislation”.

Yet HSE inspectors were warned by the regulator that any prohibition notice served on employers would unlikely be supported due to government pressure to keep workplaces open, regardless of risks to workers and their families. One inspector revealed: “HSE are telling us ‘walk off site if you feel unsafe’, but you can’t do anything to stop work. We can leave crowded workplaces lacking social distancing if we feel ourselves threatened, but we can’t stop people from working”.

Shockingly, the HSE has classified Covid-19 as merely a “significant” threat, rather than place it in its highest risk category of “serious”, despite the deaths of over 125,000 people in the UK from the worst global pandemic in a century. In a ridiculous attempt at justification, Employment Minister Mims Davies claimed that “the effects of Covid are non-permanent or reversible, non-progressive, and any disability is temporary for the working population as a whole”.

This disingenuous assertion, callously made to let employers off the hook, will anger the loved ones of workers whose deaths from Covid have been neither temporary nor reversible, while thousands of those lucky to have survived suffer the debilitating consequences of long covid.

At the dawn of industrial capitalism

Should any of this surprise us? Karl Marx once remarked that “capital… takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so”. By society Marx meant working class pressure.

During this pandemic workers have taken matters into their own hands. Education workers collectively used Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act to prevent the unsafe reopening of schools at the beginning of the year.

Construction workers maintained a heroic ‘shut the sites’ campaign through the seven weeks of the first lockdown to protect the thousands of workers forced to work on non-essential projects such as luxury flats, where social distancing was impossible. On the buses Socialist Party members pushed Unite to take a stand and force the Blairite Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn and Transport for London (TfL) to put suitable control measures in place after weeks of dragging their feet, at the cost of bus drivers’ lives.

More than one hundred years ago Beatrice and Sidney Webb made reference to industrial action on poor workplace safety: “In the trade union world of today, there is no subject on which workmen of all shades of opinion, and all varieties of occupation, are so unanimous, and so ready to take combined action, as the prevention of accidents and the provision of healthy workplaces”.

At the dawn of industrial capitalism, the bosses imposed a new industrial discipline to eradicate preindustrial working habits, with fines and punishments for ‘indiscipline’. Onerous piece rates were set, and it was not uncommon for workers to be trapped behind the locked gates of large workshops and factories, made to labour to the bosses’ clock. Whole families were often contracted to secure a ready supply of labour for the factory owners, including young children. Injuries and ill-health were rife, and death not infrequent.

In The Conditions of the Working Class in England 1844, Frederick Engels wrote: “Besides the deformed persons, a great number of maimed ones may be seen going about Manchester, this one has lost an arm or part of one, that one a foot, the third [one] half of a leg: it is like living in the midst of an army returning home from a campaign”. Yet these workers had not come home from war, they had been spat out of and left disabled by a factory system, which had total disregard for their health.

Then, as now, only trade union action could prevent the industrial slaughter of workers, but the Combination Act of 1799 had banned unions in every economic sector across the country. Twenty-five years later trade unions gained a quasi-legality, though it was still unlawful for workers to combine for any reason other than over pay and hours, which therefore precluded health and safety. This did not prevent union campaigns though.

Marx explained that in addition to worker agitation, the impetus for factory safety laws was partly to “curb capital’s drive towards a limitless draining away of labour-power”. The first safety legislation was prompted by the horrific conditions in the textile factories.

The 1802 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, however, merely limited the working hours of the most vulnerable children to twelve hour days, only applied to cotton mills, and relied on a voluntary system of inspection. The close relationship between mill owners and local magistrates meant that prosecutions were rare, and convictions even rarer. But still the bosses complained that the rules ‘restricting’ children’s working hours would ruin their business or expose them to unfair competition, objections to workplace safety repeated ever since.

The next significant piece of safety legislation, the Factory Act of 1833, came after years of workers’ campaigns for factory reform, and mass working class agitation for the extension of the franchise. The government was forced to concede the 1832 ‘Great Reform Act’, but workers dubbed it the ‘Great Betrayal’ because it merely extended the vote to the industrialists.

The unions of spinners, potters and textile workers turned their attention to factory reform, forcing the government to extend the 12-hour day to all young persons in the woollen and linen mills. The bosses though successfully secured the omission from the Act of any requirement to fence dangerous machinery, and there was no reference in the Act to preventing workplace accidents.

The 1833 Factory Act also ended the system of the ‘common informer’, invariably union activists, who reported on employer infringements of the law. Factory inspectors were instead appointed, just four covering 3,000 textile mills! Their focus was on persuading employers to improve health and safety rather than penalising transgressions.

The weakness of the 1833 Factory Act, and the limited extension of the franchise the previous year, angered workers who felt betrayed on both fronts. The ruling class went on the offensive, using brutal state repression to break up the unions, particularly in the mining areas of the north of England and South Wales. They also targeted Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Union, membership of which included the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

From Chartism to New Unionism

Notwithstanding industrial defeats in the 1830s, working class campaigns for further factory reform continued, including for shorter working hours, and against punitive poor relief laws. The decade ended with the establishment of the Chartist movement. In 1842, a general strike linked action against wage cuts and poor working conditions to support for the Chartists’ political demands, including universal male suffrage and working class representation.

In 1837 factory inspectors were instructed to produce reports to the government on worker agitation in the areas they covered, including weekly reports on the Chartists. One year before the Chartists presented their final petition to parliament, Marx described how the “factory inspectors urgently warned the government that class antagonisms have reached an unheard of degree of tension”, as workers in Lancashire and Yorkshire protested against sections in the 1847 Ten Hours Act which allowed employers to easily circumvent provisions restricting working time for women and young people.

Condemning the influence of middle class reformers in the achievement of the Act, Engels warned that the “working classes will have learned by experience that no lasting benefit whatever can be obtained for them by others, but that they must obtain it themselves by conquering, first of all, political power”.

It would take further industrial action over the following decades to achieve shorter working hours. In Capital Marx described the establishment of a normal working day as “the product of a protracted and more or less concealed civil war between the capitalist class and the working class”. This has proved to be true for all aspects of workplace health and safety.

In 1855 a group of manufacturers in Manchester formed what became the National Association of Factory Owners, with the intention of opposing the inspectors and workplace safety. Charles Dickens described it as ‘The Association for Mangling of Operatives’.

A year later an Act amended the factory laws to meet the capitalists’ demands to limit the extent to which machinery had to be fenced. It also extended the scope for arbitration in the event of disputes between the factory owners and inspectors, with employers permitted to select arbitrators sympathetic to their case.

The widening of the franchise, as a result of union campaigns, to millions of male workers with the 1867 Reform Act, though still excluding most working class men and all women, increased political pressure on the government to address other working class concerns, notably trade union legality and health and safety. In 1875 trade unions gained full legal status, and lawful industrial action was freed from criminal sanctions. Three years later the Factory and Workshop Act consolidated previous Acts into one, and extended coverage to all trades.

However, by the end of the 1880s factory legislation remained a patchwork. The arrival of new unionism at this time saw previously unorganised semi and un-skilled workers create new combatant trade unions, led by socialists, in contrast to the more conservative-led craft unions.

The great East London dock strike of 1889 for the dockers’ tanner (two and half pence an hour) is often cited as the beginning of new unionism, but in fact it was the inspiring strike of the female match-workers at Bryant & May over working conditions, including health and safety, which heralded new unionism.

The socialist leaders of these new unions adopted a militant approach to industrial action, and also pushed for independent working class political representation, which led to the formation of the Labour Party at the turn of the twentieth century. This put the then Conservative government under pressure to address workplace safety. The Factory and Workshop Act of 1901 attempted the rationalisation of factory legislation, which was followed by a series of detailed regulations. This Act remained the principal statute for the regulation of factories until its repeal by the Factories Act of 1937.

The level of reported workplace accidents continued to rise in the first decade of the twentieth century in the textile trades, metal founding industries and engineering, due to increased speed of machines, the pressure of piecework and fatigue. The ‘Great Unrest’, mass industrial action from 1910, included strikes on work conditions, including increased workloads at Singer, Clydebank in 1911.

Wartime struggles

During the first world war the Factory Acts were suspended, with no objection from the trade union leaders, who also called a halt to the mass strike wave engulfing Britain in the pre-war years. Unsurprisingly, the number of machinery fatal accidents increased.

The government encouraged ‘cooperation’ between management and workers, and the formation of safety committees in factories, along with self-inspection. However, weak statutory enforcement, widespread employer non-compliance and the inaction of the union tops, meant resistance to the bosses’ attempts to roll back past gains was left to the union rank and file. This saw the formation of the National Shop Stewards Movement, which organised strikes over pay and wartime working conditions.

Before the war, shop stewards had merely collected union dues from members and reported to union district committees, but the war changed this as they found themselves dealing with a whole range of issues abandoned by the union leaders, including workplace safety.

There were no specific safety reps at this time, though in 1872 mining legislation had empowered workers in the sector to carry out monthly inspections. Eighty years later, the Mines and Quarries Act of 1954 took worker safety representation one step further, empowering unions to appoint worker inspectors who also had the right to investigate accidents and take part in mine inspections by management.

But it was not until 1964 that the TUC leaders, under pressure from union activists, agreed to campaign for the appointment of safety reps for all union workplaces with the right to conduct workplace inspections and accident investigations. This was eventually achieved with the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the subsequent Safety Representatives, Safety Committee Regulations.

In the meantime, in May 1918, the port of Glasgow became the first place to record a case of the Spanish flu. Young factory workers, especially women, were the worst affected, but workplaces were not closed. A “memorandum for public use” issued by the Royal Society of Medicine, which advised people to stay at home if they were sick, was buried by the government.

During the years of the pandemic and beyond, militant struggles of workers were largely defeated by the betrayal of union leaders, including the 1926 general strike which included opposition to the extension of working hours. This, and the subsequent economic depression, led to a period of union membership decline, which did not fully recover until after the second world war.

However, workers continued to battle on unhealthy work conditions. Miners in Scotland and Wales participated in ‘dust strikes’, which contributed to the recognition of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis in 1942. Union campaigns on tuberculosis resulted in it too being officially recognised as an occupational disease in 1951.

Union campaigns also compelled the government to legislate. The Factories Act of 1937 provided, for the first time, a comprehensive code for safety, health and welfare applicable to all factories, This Act was later replaced by the Factories Act of 1961.

During the second world war unions negotiated the implementation of health and welfare provisions for workers, including compulsory employment of company doctors and welfare officers, and workplace canteens, but despite sitting on the Factory and Welfare Advisory Board, union leaders once again capitulated on the suspension of factory legislation, and failed to prevent a legal ban on industrial action.

Workplace health risks were downplayed, ostensively to maintain wartime morale, but in reality to prioritise production, not unlike during the pandemic today. Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, rejected a call by the local Transport and General Workers Union branch for an investigation into unhealthy conditions in asbestos insulation on Clydeside, arrogantly dismissing workers’ concerns as nonsense.

Post-war relations

It would take decades of union campaigning, including an unofficial month-long strike at Newall’s Insulation by TGWU members in 1966, for masks, protective clothing and medical checks to be introduced. The boycott of asbestos handling by London dockers in 1967, and building workers’ strikes against asbestos and asbestos substitutes in the 1970s, forced the full recognition of occupational asbestos related diseases, and the eventual ban on the supply and use of asbestos.

Asbestos remains a key health issue for workers given its presence in around half a million non-domestic premises, including 90% of schools. Prior to Covid-19, it was still the largest cause of work-related ill-health and death.

In the first couple of decades of the postwar period, when governments worked with employers and unions in tripartite organisations to achieve ostensibly common aims, there was a slow and piecemeal extension of health and safety legislation to groups beyond the coverage of the Factories Acts and mining laws. This included the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963, which gave statutory protection to the largest remaining groups of previously unprotected workers.

But the so-called industrial consensus was a sham, as deaths and injuries at work rose from 450,000 in 1961 to 513,000 in 1969. Fines and prosecutions for breaking the requirements of the law were low and failed to act as a deterrent to greedy bosses prioritising profits over workers’ health and lives. By 1970 around five million workers remained unprotected by any safety legislation.

The ruling class used compliant trade union leaders to police the working class in order to more easily restore the profitability of British capitalism after the devastation of war, which meant restricting wage rises and sacrificing safety. This must not be repeated post pandemic.

The cosy postwar tripartite arrangements were undermined by militant industrial struggles over pay and working conditions. As plant level bargaining proliferated, shop stewards prioritised workplace safety, leading to the establishment of joint health and safety committees across many industries long before this became law in 1974. These committees played a significant role in raising occupational health and safety standards.

During Edward Heath’s 1970 Conservative government the Robens Committee on workplace health and safety recommended an emphasis on effective self-regulation. The Labour peer Lady Summerskill responded that the Robens Report “would bring rejoicing to the hearts of every irresponsible employer of labour who used the voluntary approach as an escape from his obligations”.

Heath’s government was booted out of office in 1974, following industrial action by workers against anti-trade union laws and pay restraint. Later in the year the Labour government passed the Health and Safety at Work Act. The Act echoed the conclusion of the Robens Report, promoting ‘personal responsibility and voluntary, self-generating effort’. This emphasis, harking back to the nineteenth century, continues to permeate capitalist attitudes to workplace safety today.

The employers and the Tories welcomed the Act’s minimal state role, which was predicated on the bosses and unions working together. The legal recognition of safety representatives was welcome, along with union rights to consultation on all safety matters, and the establishment of joint safety committees, but these employer obligations and workers’ rights were a farce without strong, well-organised unions in every workplace.

Logic of capitalism

Thirty-five years before the current pandemic, John Cullen, then HSE Chair, revealed how the HSE accepted the logic of capitalism and the priority of wealth creation over health protection: “We don’t tell people how to run their show. We are not seeking to be over-protective”.

This was during tenure of Margret Thatcher’s hated Tory government. It is no coincidence that as Thatcher went to war against the trade unions between 1981 and 1985, fatal and major injury rates increased across British manufacturing by 31%, and in construction by 45%. Failures by the TUC leaders to support workers in struggle led to key industrial battles being lost in the 1980s, most notably the miners and printers.

The coverage of collective bargaining, and therefore safety reps, has since declined significantly, leaving self-regulation of workplace safety to rapacious employers. Rather than lead battles to rebuild workplace union organisation, the union tops looked to the European Union to improve workers lives, including a raft of EU health and safety regulations which also rely mainly on self-regulation.

Notwithstanding falls in workplace accidents since 1974, injuries, acute and chronic ill-health and deaths continue to occur all too frequently, while the HSE and local government inspectors have faced drastic cuts. Occupational diseases and deaths caused by chemicals, dust and asbestos, such as cancer, remain prevalent, along with asthma, work-related stress, anxiety and depression. In addition, cases of heart disease linked to shiftwork have proliferated, while working hours are among the highest in Europe. Poor quality, insecure and low paid work all contribute to all round poor health. During the pandemic it has become clear that poverty pay and cramped living conditions are also health and safety issues.

The current pandemic arrived at a time when health and safety had been undermined over the last decade by successive governments. Indeed, two hundred years of weak health and safety legislation, widespread employer non-compliance and poor regulatory enforcement have left the health and lives of millions of workers at the mercy of the bosses. The Socialist Party’s demand for trade union control of health and safety in every workplace is the bare minimum required to redress this.

The health and economic consequences of the pandemic have given added urgency to the need for unions to establish new working class political representation, particularly given the failure of the Corbyn project and Keir Starmer’s virtual silence on workplace safety. We need a socialist government to democratically plan a publicly owned economy. This is the only way to end poverty, safeguard jobs, and ensure that workers’ health and safety is a priority.