Johann Hari: Thanks to Cameron, more men like this will die

Mark Wright died at work, in an accident that could have been prevented. Yet the Prime Minister's cuts to the Health and Safety Executive will cost more lives

Johann Hari
Wednesday 27 April 2011 00:00

I want to tell you the story of a man called Mark Wright, and how he died – because, thanks to David Cameron and a campaign of deceit in the right-wing press, stories like this are certain to happen a lot more in Britain from now on.

Mark was a 37-year-old man with two young children who worked all his life, in whatever jobs he could find, no matter how tough. By 2005, he was working in a scrapyard near Chester run by a company called Deeside Metal Company Ltd, clearing through your detritus and mine. But the job was making him anxious. He had to take eight weeks off work with severe breathing difficulties, which he suspected came from inhaling toxic fumes. Then one day, a car that was due to be crushed burst into flames, and he only just dodged the explosion.

A week later, he was ordered to pour 3,500 small air freshener canisters into a mechanical crusher. He was told they were empty – simply because the haulier who handed them over, unmarked and undocumented, had said so. The managing director, Andrew Graham, later said at the inquest – according to those present – that he didn't carry out the written risk assessments required by law because he regarded his staff as "illiterate".

In fact, the canisters weren't empty. They were full of highly combustible propellant. So when Mark put them into the crusher, a massive fireball erupted – and he inhaled burning gases that set fire to 90 per cent of his body. Mark's mother, Dorothy, says she is haunted by "the vision of my son engulfed in flames, the most terrifying and painful of deaths imaginable". His young daughter still sleeps cuddling his T-shirt in her bed every night.

A month later, the police came to visit Mark's family – not to hear their side of the story, but because Deeside Metal had complained that Dorothy was "criminally harassing" them by pinning flowers and cards to the railings where Mark died. Initially, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to press charges against anyone who had worked at the site. Four years later, it changed its mind after taking a crucial witness statement – but a judge ruled it was too late. The CPS apologised to Mark's family for its incompetence. Eventually, there were fines for causing the death: operations director Robert Roberts had to pay £10,000 – and he's appealing against it. Dorothy was so radicalised by what she feels to be the lack of justice she set up the organisation Families Against Corporate Killers.

We know what prevents events like this, and what saves men like Mark. The evidence is plain, and overwhelming. Dr Courtney Davis at the University of Sussex produced the most detailed study. She found that where you have rigorous, unannounced health and safety inspections, the number of accidents and deaths falls by 22 per cent over the next three years.

But David Cameron has decided to do precisely the opposite. He is cutting the budget for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) by 35 per cent, and it has been announced that from now on entire sectors of British industry – including some where the HSE admits the dangers are "significant" – will never get an unannounced knock on the door again. There will be no more proactive inspections of agriculture, quarrying, manufacturing, or paper mills, where there is a long history of people being crushed, and even the most high-risk areas will be checked much less.

Virtually every public health expert in Britain says this makes it a certainty more people will be maimed and killed simply doing their job. Professor Rory O'Neill, of Stirling University calls Cameron's policies "a recipe for regulatory surrender," and points out that "places where you might be rundown by a forklift truck or have your hand sliced off by a cutting machine or a guillotine" will now "never see a Health and Safety inspector. But worse than that, your employer will know they will never see a Health and Safety Inspector." The Government has even cancelled the campaigns to inform construction workers about the dangers of being exposed to asbestos.

Why would Cameron do this? There are several reasons. The first is that he is happily responding to a sophisticated and persistent misinformation campaign, where the words "Health and Safety" have been turned into curse-words by the right. Every day, the newspapers feature false claims of practices that are being "banned by Health and Safety". The HSE then quietly and politely explains on their website that no, they are not banning Pin the Tail on the Donkey, or conkers, or candyfloss, or flip flops, or pancake races. Investigate the "outrageous" stories of perfectly reasonable people being "shut down" by "Health and Safety Nazis", and you invariably find they are false. But it's a clever way of turning people against their own protectors and their own interests – of training them to hate the people that will save their lives.

The originator of this media myth is Richard Littlejohn. He is the journalist who pioneered this campaign against Health and Safety based at his mansion in Florida. So it's worth bearing in mind what his alternative vision for British workers is. After a series of horrific deaths in Chinese factories last year, he lamented that in Britain "Elf and Safety would have closed the plant" to "issue hard-hats and hi-viz protective clothing". The Chinese have a better way for us to follow: "They have rigged up giant nets to stop workers jumping to their deaths. Back of the net!"

Cameron claims that it "saves money" to cut Health and Safety. The opposite is the case. When one of us is needlessly injured at work, we – the taxpayer – have to pay for their healthcare and their benefits, often for the rest of their lives. Even if the wrecked life didn't matter to you, this costs more than the original inspections.

A May 2006 UK government study found that the cost of cancer alone acquired through dangerous work practices is £3-12bn a year – and that leaves out asbestos cancers. The entire annual budget of the HSE, by comparison, is £230m.

Who pays for the sickness and injury that results from that gap? You do. A recent study for the academic journal Thorax investigated who pays for sicknesses resulting from your job. The ill individual pays 49 per cent, the state pays 48 per cent, and the employer who is actually responsible it pays three per cent. The idea we can't afford health and safety is absurd – we can't afford not to do it.

So this isn't a way of saving money. No: it's a way of shifting the cost – from the wealthy businesses who fund David Cameron's election campaigns, to individuals like us. He's now adopting the George W Bush model of silent deregulation: keep the laws on the books, but stop anybody from enforcing them – to please your paymasters, and feed your own ideological opposition to regulation.

The HSE had already been slashed by New Labour, which shared many of the same funders and the same ideological precepts. Prosecutions for a worker dying doing a job for you fell from 46 per cent to 28 per cent on its watch – and now they will fall even more dramatically under Cameron.

Of course, businesses claim that any form of regulation dents their profits and so prevents them from creating jobs. This was their argument against every advance in safety that has pulled us out of the Dark Satanic Mills. Their claims rarely stand up. In 1974, the US banned vinyl chloride, whose resins cause liver cancer. Manufacturers howled that it would cost $90bn and result in giant lay-offs of workers. A decade later, even a report for the Reagan administration admitted it had slashed rates of liver cancer, cost only $300m to implement, and resulted in no job losses whatsoever.

Far from being zealous, our safety rules in Britain are pretty basic. They're things like – if you're going to be moving five tons of steel on a crane, there needs to be a banksman acting as a lookout, so you don't crush anybody. Is that political correctness gone mad? Yet far fewer people will be checking it happens from here on in.

This hate-campaign against basic safety protections lays bare the fake populism of the right. They are always claiming to be standing up for the ordinary working man, but in truth they only ever "defend" him from powerless "threats", such as benefit recipients, immigrants or gypsies.

Here's a real threat to ordinary working men – and the right is cheerleading the moves that will result in many more of them being crippled or killed, for the sake of slightly swollen profits for the already-rich.

Remember the story of Mark Wright. You'll be hearing more like it, and soon.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments