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Asbestos hazard sign outside construction site
Richard Johnson

Workers Memorial Day - no more deaths at work from dangerous substances

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Workers Memorial Day is an annual opportunity to remember those whose lives have been lost at work

Workers Memorial Day is coming up soon. It is held each year on 28th April we should all take the opportunity to remember those who died through work and to raise attention to the hazards that are still in our workplaces to prevent more dying.

It’s not just accidents that kill

This year the theme is on “Dangerous substances”. This focus is welcome, because it reinforces the message that it is not just “accidents” that kill workers. Far more people die from occupational diseases caused by exposure to substances like asbestos, silica and diesel exhaust than from injuries caused at work. The TUC estimates that over 20,000 people die prematurely as a result of workplace cancers, lung diseases, and heart conditions caused by work. Over 5,000 of these deaths were a result of just one substance – asbestos. That compares to 144 killed immediately at work last year.

Preventing injury is not enough

Despite the huge death toll from occupational diseases such as cancers, traditionally health and safety has concentrated on preventing the immediate injuries. That is why we have to use the day to highlight the need to stop exposures that can lead to these diseases developing, often many years after they have stopped using the substance. Far too many people work all their lives and then, when they are looking forward to a long retirement, find they have developed a cancer or other disease that could, and far too often does, kill them. These deaths are just as preventable, and just as tragic as those more visible fatalities that happen in the workplace or on the road.

And those diseases are not a thing of the past. Even today millions of workers are being exposed to carcinogens at work because of the negligence of employers and the failures of the systems of regulation and enforcement. Asbestos is still found in hundreds of thousands of workplaces, often hidden and forgotten about until someone drills into it. Millions of workers are still exposed to diesel exhaust and silica. Yet most workers have no idea what chemicals they are breathing in, or getting all over their skin, because their employer has no system for surveillance.

Events happening this week

So, what can you do? There are events in towns and cities up and down the country. There is a list on the TUC website. These include speeches, multi-faith religious services, laying wreaths, showing videos, public meetings on some of the issues and even laying out empty shoes to symbolise those who have died at work. There is a list of some of them here.  Often these take place at a permanent memorial to workers killed through work and there are over a hundred of these in Britain. That is one of the strengths of the day. It is not a central event with a national march or service, it is about remembering in our towns and in our workplaces.

If nothing is happening close to you then you can still organise something in your workplace, such as a minute’s silence or a union meeting on a topic that is relevant to your colleagues. It may be dust, cleaning fluids, asbestos, diesel exhaust or any other substance that is risking the long-term health of the people you work with. As the 28th April is a Sunday this year, a lot of workplaces are closed, but you can always do something on the Friday or Monday.

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