Blog: Today we not only mourn the dead, we also pledge to fight for the living

Today marks the day when we remember all those who died or have been seriously injured through their work.

Joanne Kaye writes on International Workers’ Memorial Day.

It is estimated that 50,000 die each year through their work. That equates to 140 people for every day of the year. It is relatively rare for our members to have their death directly attributed to their work, but the few that do occur, are a few too many. And behind all of these figures there is a story of lives and dreams cut short, children deprived of a parent, partners, loved ones, and families reduced to poverty.

Take the case of Sharon Walls, a former member of the Gloucester Districts and Community Health Branch.

On the morning of 9 July 2014 Sharon, a Healthcare Assistant, went, alone, to the aid of a patient. A short while later she was stabbed. Sharon was conveyed to a local hospital where, despite attempts to resuscitate her, she was pronounced dead. The patient was a diagnosed schizophrenic. He had been prescribed anti-psychotic medication but had stopped taking the medication before that fateful day. In addition shortly before the 9th July, he had been informed that he was due to be moved to another unit, news which had upset him. Carers had raised concerns about the patient’s state of mind, and his subsequent behaviour. The patient’s policies required that pair of assistants carry out morning checks. Sharon’s death led to an Trust-wide investigation which found areas for improvement for how the Trust manages the risks of violence and aggression towards staff. This led to changes being implemented which seek to protect staff from similar incidents.

There are many more UNISON members that have their lives, irrevocably changed and life expectancy reduced because of their work. Diseases such as mesothelioma, going undiagnosed between 7 and 70 years after initial asbestos exposure, cut lives short in the most painful and cruel manner conceivable. Stress related illnesses such as PTSD can go undiagnosed for many years with profound consequences for not only the person afflicted, but their friends and family. We know of UNISON members who, in recent years, have taken their lives, because of work related PTSD. Musculoskeletal injuries, whose seriousness is initially overlooked, can also have devastating life changing consequences, ending careers and reducing both life expectancy & quality.

But this is a day when we not only mourn the dead. We also pledge to fight for the living. It is a day to remind us that health and safety really does matter. The events of Grenfell just under two years ago are a stark reminder of what happens when essential life-saving health and safety regulations are treated as irrelevant red tape and bureaucracy. In UNISON we are seeing increasing numbers of UNISON members who are employed on zero hours contracts or other forms of casualised working, which undermine not only their pay, terms and conditions, but also their health & safety. Homecare workers for example are being sent to care for clients, often without the knowledge of the patient’s condition, or the support they will need. Just as Grenfell was a disaster waiting to happen this, so are the working conditions of these workers.

However, UNISON has a vital resource called trade union Safety Reps. Safety Reps are the eyes and ears of the workplace, and they keep our members safe. Research has shown that workplaces with Safety Reps and a strong trade union presence are safer than those without. UNISON has the best network of safety reps in the trade union movement. However we need more. Too many are due to retire or leave the workplace in the coming years. We need to recruit younger Safety Reps to replace them. That is why UNISON, in the Year of Young Workers, is using Workers Memorial Day to double efforts to recruit Safety Reps.

Workers Memorial Day reminds us that we are stronger together as a collective, as a trade union. We remember that together we protect each other – standing up for the individual employee and not leaving them to the whims of unscrupulous or incompetent employers. Health & Safety matters, trade unions matters, Safety Reps matter. That is my message for International Workers Memorial Day.