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International Socialism, May 1977



Health and Safety


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 98, May 1977, pp. 15–17.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This briefing is the result of a joint effort between Dave Campbell of the BSSRS Work Hazards Group, which produces Hazards Bulletin, and the ISJ editorial group.

THE Health and Safety at Work Act was passed in 1974. It was hailed as a major advancement, and is different to all previous Health and Safety legislation.

For the first time, the Act encouraged shop-floor workers to take an interest in their own and others’ health.

For the first time they are to be consulted by employers on these issues.

The underlying philosophy of the Robens Report of 1972, which formed the basis for the legislation, is: ‘There is a greater identity of interest between management and workers over Health and Safety at work than over any other issue.’

Robens located the root of the problem with the individual. Accidents are caused either by apathetic workers who ignore safety procedures or by apathetic employers who ignore the law. The employers were partly excused from responsibility because the law was so hard to understand.

There are about 12,000 chemicals in regular use in Britain today. A new one is introduced every day. Only 500 of these have been tested at all.

You can’t blame that on lazy workers. Neither can you blame the class distribution of disease on ‘apathy’. The Act does place some responsibility on manufacturers, but they are so vague that any competent company lawyer can get around them.

Everyone who works is covered by the new legislation. Seven to eight million people are now ‘protected’ that weren’t before. Workers in education, hospitals, fairgrounds and safari parks may or may not have noticed this.

But there are some exceptions. Workers on North Sea Oil rigs are not covered by the Act, presumably because they are outside territorial waters.

The death rate of all workers on North Sea Oil rigs is higher than it was for serving soldiers in the Second World War.


The Health and Safety at Work Act is written in gobbledygook, and contains a hefty 85 sections. We note briefly the sections which are important to workers. Section 2 deals with the ‘general duties’ of employers. ‘It shall be the duty of the employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable the health, safety and welfare at work for all his employees.’ This means so far as is economically practicable: 2(i) Employer’s duty to produce a written statement of safety policy. 2(iii) The appointment/election of safety reps and safety committees.

Sections 3 & 4 cover the duties of employers to prevent hazards from reaching the public. Section 5 prevents the discharge of noxious materials into the atmosphere.

Section 6 refers to those who design, manufacture, import or supply machinery, and their obligations to ensure that it is not hazardous. Sections 7 & 8 place an absolute duty on the individual worker to ‘take reasonable care for the health and safety of himself and other persons who may be affected by his acts or omissions while at work’. 7(b) states that workers must cooperate with employers over health and safety matters. So it is easy for employers to shed their responsibilities onto the workers. Employers’ obligations only go as far as is reasonably (economically) practicable, but workers are under absolute obligation.


Anyway the Act has no teeth. The average fine in 1975 was a derisory £75. Prosecutions were 27% down on 1974.

It appears from their statistics that accidents in 1975 (243,140 reported) are down on 1974 (272,518 reported). Deaths (427 including 181 in the construction industry) are also apparently lower. But these figures hide more than they reveal. In 1973 Pat Kinnersly wrote ‘each year the figures for occupational injuries are washed and shrunk in the government’s statistical laundries and then delivered in separate bundles ...’

Suffice it to say that there is massive underreporting of accidents and deaths. Firms are rarely prosecuted for failure to report.

And the toll of disease caused by work is incalculable. No statistics can ever reveal the headaches, backaches, eyestrains, miscarriages, gastric ulcers and neuroses, or the diseases which have not been recognised as work related.

The Health and Safety Executive, the controlling body, proposed to transform existing Regulations into Codes of Practice. The importance of this is that violation is not automatically followed by prosecution.


The Tories drew up the Act in 1972 and gave no recognition to the role of trade union organisation in industry. In 1974 Labour added sections introducing safety representatives to be elected (or appointed!) from trades unions. The idea is that the safety rep has a consultative function.

S/he should keep watch on the factory and report hazards to management which then supposedly rectifies the fault. In fact safety reps elected from the shop floor, with a role parallel to that of the shop steward, have a vital role to play in any well organised workplace. As negotiators rather than consulters they can demand improvement and back up the demand; with the threat of direct action.

Safety Committees were also proposed in the Act Many companies and, in particular, educational establishments and hospitals have already set up joint safety committees.

These should be viewed with the utmost suspicion. They often consist of equal numbers of management and workers. Workers’ representatives are sometimes handpicked by management, or may include representatives of tame ‘company unions’. Management see them as consultative sops where, over tea and biscuits, they express tender concern al conditions and do nothing about them. Strong shop floor organisation can use these committees to a limited extent. Workers representatives can demand rather than suggest that hazards are eliminated.

As yet the regulations for safety representatives and committees have not been implemented. They were due at the beginning of 1977 but in late 1976 were suspended on the grounds of cost. The cost of training reps was estimated at £40–80M.

Nice One Albert

The suspension caused an outcry from the labour movement.

The minister responsible, Albert Booth, announced recently that the regulations will now be effective in October 1978. But the delays should not stop workers from electing their own safety representatives. What matters is not parliamentary wranglings but strong shop floor organisation.


Safety or Shit?

At a joint safety committee meeting at North East London Polytechnic, eight weeks after the strike of 5 women cleaners against asbestos had started, and while the building in dispute was still closed down, the agenda included the following relevant items:

  1. A ban on dogs in Polytechnic grounds
  2. Smoking rules in teaching areas
  3. Cleanliness of Student Union bars


Imagine coming in one night after a weekend away and finding a gas leak in your home. You ring up the Gas Board and they arrive to sort it out. They produce gas masks for mum, dad, the kids and the dog, and put up no smoking signs in every room.

Workers accept a similar solution every time they allow protective clothing as a solution to dangerous work conditions.


The ‘unity of interest’ philosophy behind the Act is reflected by the fact that the TUC and the CBI submitted joint evidence to Robens. The only unions which gave evidence were the NUT, and the IPCS, the union to which Factory Inspectors themselves belong.

The Health and Safety at Work Act is a piece of paternalistic legislation born out of pressure from the insurance companies, who needed some definition of areas of responsibility as guidelines in compensation cases, from the Factory Inspectorate, who wanted the law tidying up, and from the medical establishment.

One of the effects of the Act is to shift responsibility from management to workers. If workers are given a gauze mask by the boss to protect them from toxic fumes, and they decided not to wear them, they are putting themselves at risk and must bear the consequences.

No matter if the design is such that its impossible to wear for an eight hour shift, the employer has protected workers ‘as far as is reasonably practicable’ and has discharged his responsibilities in the eyes of the law.

Management themselves do have a certain interest in cutting down on accidents and disease. It costs them lost production. But workers should be careful of accepting the bosses’ favourite offering.

Personal Protection

IT’s an obvious answer. If a manufacturing process is so designed that it threatens the physical extremities of the body, emits nasty fumes or dusts, or ejects pellets of metal, then embarrassment can be saved all round by enclosing the vulnerable parts of the human body in protective clothing.

There is a vast new industry evolving around the design and sale of goggles, masks, rubber aprons, ear-muffs, parachutes, respirators and so on.

A recent issue of Safety and Rescue carried a proud article and picture of a worker whose eyesight had been saved by his safety specs. He worked a lathe which sporadically ejected pieces of metal in unpredictable directions, at high velocity. One hit his super shatterproof specs ... but could equally easily have embedded itself in his skull.

Processes, not individuals, need to be changed. No one should have to face a barrage of metal at 400 mph.

It is always possible to make a machine safe, it just costs money. Substances which are so dangerous that they threaten health at any concentration should simply not be used. The campaign to boycott asbestos has shown the possibilities. [1]

Reengineer The Plant Not The Workers

WORKERS at BP’s Baglan Bay plant in South Wales fought a long campaign for the control of their working environment, beginning in 1974. They make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from vinyl choride monomer (VCM).

In early 1974 news broke from the USA that VCM causes a wide range of very nasty diseases ranging from angiosarcoma (a liver cancer) to the breakdown of genes. Baglan had only been open for 3–4 years at this point and the diseases had not really taken effect. BP management panicked because VCM levels were several times as high as in the factory where 3 workers died in the USA. [2]

Their initial response was to offer airline respirators (spacesuits) until they could reduce the levels. The joint shop stewards committee successfully argued that the men should refuse this offer. They also refused to accept danger money.

Had they accepted they would have conceded that protection is a solution and management would have been relieved of the incentive to remove the hazard.

The men were quite clear that they wanted a safe working environment and continued to fight.

Using their strong collective bargaining traditions the men won a series of ‘minor’ concessions from the bosses. They got better washing facilities, woolly underwear, and successfully refused to do a particularly unpleasant part of the job.

And they got the level of VCM down from 200ppm parts per million to under 10 in a year.

Baglan workers made management install continuous monitoring which would tell them exactly where levels were unacceptable. They then had to make sure that the monitor was not installed in the foreman’s office!

They proceeded, by a process of selective refusal to work in certain areas, to force management to reduce the level down to what the men themselves would accept.

The men controlled the information (the monitors) and set their own standards.

Five women cleaners at North East London Polytechnic struck or 18 weeks for the removal of asbestos from their workplace. Protective clothing only came into this dispute because they were demanding that the asbestos be removed once and for all by the union labour wearing full protective regalia. [3]

It’s not hard to make people believe that a large number of accidents at work are caused by carelessness, drunkenness, or simple human error. It’s not quite so easy with disease. After all, if you have to inhale the stuff to earn a living ...

But they are trying hard.

Industrial hygienists [4] argue that certain individuals are more prone than others to disease or ill health as a result of exposure to certain chemicals. Undoubtedly true – individuals’ physiologies vary extensively. Racial and sexual differences are only the most obvious divisions.

Industrial hygienists are busy testing individual workers for their susceptibility to the nasty side effects of particular processes. Then it’s a simple matter for the boss to argue that he is protecting the susceptible by not employing them.

By seeking out the fittest for a heavy job, or those with the strongest livers for work with chemicals, they avoid the cost of changing the process to make it safe. Employers can discriminate legally against women (Sex Discrimination Act notwithstanding), the physically weak, the old, the young, and the disabled.

The great attraction of these screening techniques is that they sound scientific.

‘A recent study of HL-A phenotypes in 56 asbestos workers suggested an excess of antigen W27 among patients with asbestosis’

What that means is that its no longer asbestos which causes asbestosis, but the inherent susceptibility of the workers. [5]

They have discovered that Africans and Jews of Yemenite origin have a low white blood cell count which makes them more susceptible to many chemicals.

And the other way round. Black workers, because of skin pigmentation, are less likely to get skin disorders and cancers when working with radioactive material. The answer is to employ black workers in these industries. Never mind any other harmful effects. Racism? No – science.

What About The Unions?

THE TUC spent £250,000 of workers money setting up the TUC Centenary Institute to provide a service to trade unionists on health and safety. It costs £25,000 a year to run. But, other than paying for it, ordinary workers have little to do with it. It has a deliberate policy of spending half its energies answering management enquiries, and although it charges for them, the rates are much lower than for private consultancies. Workers’ questions are answered free ... if they can afford to wait the average 15 weeks it takes for the answer to arrive.

Individual unions are no better. Only two have full time safety officers – the NUM and ASTMS. Many workers at Baglan Bay are TGWU members. The International Chemical Workers Union produced a free booklet on the hazards of PVC processes, at the time of their struggle, which was sent to T&G head offices. It never got passed on to Baglan.

We are not unreservedly arguing that any union should take on more full time ‘experts’ in any field. There is an alternative.

‘Rank & File Scientists’

WORKING scientists in industry, schools, colleges and universities are able to give much of the information that shop floor workers need. Often it’s a case of identifying stuff or decoding technical jargon. For some years, some scientists in the SWP have been doing this. [6]

The British Society for Social Responsibility in Science produces the excellent Hazards Bulletin which no shop stewards committee should be without, and other useful publications. It has involved many scientists in workers health and safety struggles. [7]

Rank-and-file groups in white collar unions should be organising scientists to provide their services.

The record of industrial action over conditions at work shows that it is rank-and-file workers, often women, who have taken the lead. During the last few years, with pay struggles at a low ebb, militancy has often emerged in new areas. Workers have begun to take action against the carnage, disease and discomfort caused by production designed for profit rather than need. Society will not be transformed without the building of rank-and-file organisations in the trade unions. We must see to it that these organise and educate their supporters around health and safety issues as an integral part of the wider struggle.


Health Versus Economics – The Measurement of Hazards in the Air

The commonest figures bandied about as ‘safe levels’ are Threshold Limit Values (TLVs). They have no legal standing at ail but are advisory levels which can give you some idea of how dangerous a chemical is. The TLV is the level to which it is believed that nearly all workers may be repeatedly exposed day after day without adverse effect’.

Exposure time is 7 or 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week for 40 years. They are based on the supposedly average healthy male human body, although the widespread use of US Marines as guinea pigs does not inspire confidence. They cannot take account of actions between chemicals in the air.

The overriding criterion used in their calculation is an economic one – how much would it cost to prevent exposure to the chemical above certain levels. It is explicitly accepted that some workers will have adverse effects at the TLV. Even at very low levels, some workers will suffer ‘subjective’ symptoms like nausea, headaches and dizziness.

The workers at Baglan Bay have shown that we don’t have to accept this. Worse than that, they are unenforceable. Because they are a cumulative measure you can never say at any one point in time that you are being overexposed. Continuous monitoring and step by step reduction of the maximum acceptable concentration are the militant demands for workers faced with airborne hazards like gases dusts and vapours.


The ‘Safe’ level (TLV) for asbestos is 2 fibres per cubic centimetre of air. At this level you breathe in 16 million fibres during an 8 hour shift. One is enough to kill.


There are now fewer factory inspectors per factory or institution covered by the law than there were in 1832 when the FI was established. And factories are a bit bigger these days ...


For more information

The Hazards of Work: How to Fight Them by Pat Kinnersly, Pluto, 90p

Work is Dangerous to Your Health by Stellman & Daume, £2.10

Hazards Bulletin, produced every two months by the BSSRS Work Hazards group. 20p an issue or £1.50 a year.
Shop stewards committees are strongly recommended to subscribe. (BSSRS 9 Poland Street, Wl)

Also from BSSRS
OIL deals with the hazards of lubricating and other oils in widespread use throughout industry. 75p
NOISE Fighting the most widespread industrial disease. 25p
Coming soon VIBRATION.
BSSRS offers discounts on orders from trade unionists

Science for People, BSSRS journal carries frequent articles on health and safety 30p per issue

J. Irving Sax, Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials (Van Nostrand Reinhold, NY) is a useful dictionary of toxic substances. At £25, get your public library to order a copy for reference.

The Health and Safety Executive produces Technical Data Notes (or Guidance Notes) on hazards of specific processes and industries. These are free from HMSO.


1. See the disgusting advertisements put in the press by the ‘Asbestos Information Council’ in response to increasing demands for the total blacking of asbestos. Hazards Bulletin 6 has an interview with an East London building worker involved in such action. Numerous articles in Socialist Worker have reported on this.

2. The disputes at Baglan Bay were far more complex than we have shown here. Information is from Charlie Clutterbuck. who advised the workers and from his article Death in a Plastics factory in Radical Science Journal 4.

3. See Socialist Worker and Hazards Bulletin No. 4.

4. The repulsive term used to describe those scientists employed in business and educational establishments to further mystify the conflicts between management and workers.

5. Cited in C. Clutterbuck, The New Gene Screen, in Science for People, No. 32, BSSRS. A fascinating exploration of the ideology behind this new ‘science’.

6. SWP scientists who have not been involved should contact R. Bowman, 33 Kinross Crescent, Loughborough.

7. British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, Work Hazards Group, 9 Poland Street, London WI. See guide to reading for further information on their publications.

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