Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Britain’s dock workers shouldn’t have to rely on a Brando figure

Of all manual labour jobs, working in a dockyard might be the hardest. I say this because a friend once spent a summer working in Exmouth docks in Devon. He was exhausted by the end of every day. Sometimes his hands and wrists were cut by what he was unloading – he especially he hated fertiliser bags. But there was no alternative; my friend couldn’t just stop and invoke health and safety legislation. It was a case of either getting on with whatever he had to do, without complaint, or losing his job.

That was some 25 years ago. Society has come a long way since, and Britain stands proud as having the best health and safety at work record in Europe. Employers no longer resent provisions in legislation such as the Healthy and Safety at Work Act 1974. The majority now accept that they have a duty of care to look after, as far as possible, their employees’ health, safety and welfare while they are at work. For all that the tabloids sometimes assert that this means that it’s impossible to change a light bulb without performing a risk assessment, there’s an undeniable upside: our working environments are, for the most part, safe places to be.

It’s with some concern, then, that I read about proposals by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to axe rules which are specific to dockyards. There is more about this on the website of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers. In a nutshell, the HSE proposes that regulations which are specific to dockyards, such as ensuring ladders are in place as a means of escape if workers fall into the water, are to be scrapped and replaced with ‘guidance’.

The measure is in keeping with the present government’s obsession with cutting red tape. I object to red tape as much as the next man – if it’s unnecessary and counter-productive. But I’m very worried when I see ‘red tape’ being cut in a dangerous working environment like a dockyard. The words of APIL president Karl Tonks are salutary: “Five times more dock workers die than the national average for workplace deaths so the last thing the port industry needs is weaker safety measures.”

It’s impossible not to agree. Working in a dockyard is tough enough without stripping workers of much-needed health and safety protection. As ever, what is required is a full and considered appraisal of existing rules and regulations and a holistic approach to whether they work or not. I very much doubt that this has been undertaken; once again, it seems as if the government is looking for sound bites in the tabloids rather than properly assessing a given situation.

In 1954, years before my friend had his summer stint in Exmouth docks, Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront was released. The film chronicled corruption in New Jersey’s dockyards, with former boxer Marlon Brando famously taking on the mob boss, and winning. Great though it is, On The Waterfront depicts a lost era, one in which health and safety at work was as fanciful as rain in a desert.

We’ve come a long way since. What we don’t want is our dock workers having to rely on a Brando figure to secure their rights. I urge a rethink of the HSE proposals and due consideration of whether their implementation might not ultimately have tragic consequences.