Workplace Day of Remembrance: pandemic shows our fight for safer and better workplaces never stops

Chris Warburton · 8 December 2021

This Sunday’s National Workplace Day of Remembrance is an opportunity to remember that the battle for better health and safety remains as important as ever, especially in the face of new challenges such as those posed by the pandemic, writes Prospect health and safety officer Chris Warburton.

Health and Safety

This Sunday is the National Workplace Day of Remembrance, a time to remember those who have died because of their work.

The commemoration, launched 2019, is on the anniversary of the 1866 Oaks Colliery disaster – the worst mining disaster in England in which as many as 383 workers and rescuers died in two gas explosions.

It was known that the seam of coal produced a lot of gas, and there had been a series of smaller accidents – including fatalities – over the years. The warning signs were there. The organisers are encouraging people to observe a minute’s silence at 12pm and fly flags at half-mast.

The commemoration gives us an opportunity to reflect on the fact that dangerous working conditions have not been consigned to the Victorian era, and that there are new challenges on the horizon, either caused or exacerbated by the pandemic.

Value of unions

Covid-19 has represented the greatest health and safety challenge of our generation.

It has underlined the value of trade unions and their reps, who have been vital in protecting employees, both those who have continued to work throughout lockdowns and those who have moved with unprecedented speed and scale to homeworking. That reps have done this against a backdrop of scientific uncertainty and poor government advice should be commended.

Nevertheless, during our minute’s silence on Sunday we should remember that unsafe workplaces are still responsible for huge suffering, even 150 years after the Oaks colliery disaster. Across the whole economy, while work-related injuries are decreasing, cases of occupational ill health are travelling in the opposite direction.

Around 1.6 million workers in the UK suffer from some form of work-related ill health; there are around 9,000 cancer deaths alone each year caused by occupational exposures; and around 3,000 people die of work-related Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD.

Taking just cancers and COPD together, this represents an Oaks Colliery disaster every 12 days. And yet this represents only part of the picture. The Hazards campaign estimates the total number of people who die in the UK because of work to be more than 50,000 people each year.

Pandemic’s legacy

The pandemic – particularly with the rise of Omicron – will continue to pose challenges in our workplaces. Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said recently that the discovery and spread of the new variant highlights that the world is “closer to the start of the pandemic than the end”. It is not clear how or when we can entirely relax protections.

But some things are becoming clearer – one is that a legacy of the pandemic will be widespread mental ill health. For years now, we have seen rising rates of stress caused by work. HSE figures show that work-related stress and mental health problems work increased by 70% between 2015/16 and 2019/20 – before the pandemic struck. There is a risk that this will be exacerbated by the stressors the pandemic has brought.

Between January and March 2021, around one in five adults experienced depressive symptoms, more than double the rate (10%) before the pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Poor mental health when working at home

Just as COVID itself is not a socially neutral disease, the distress that flows from it is not either.

Younger adults and women were more likely to experience some form of depressive symptoms – 43% of women aged between 16 and 29 years experienced depressive symptoms between January and March, compared with 26% of men of the same age group.

Disabled (39%) and clinically extremely vulnerable adults (31%) were more likely to experience depression than non-disabled (13%) and non-CEV adults (20%).

New world of work

The worry is that this will collide with changes in the workplace which have been emerging for years but have been sped up by the pandemic – whether that’s employers increasingly monitoring their workers and using technology to set work, or changes to working patterns and arrangements.

We’re already seeing an increase in hybrid working and other forms of flexible working because of the pandemic. There are positives and negatives from a mental health perspective associated with homeworking – it can blur the boundaries between home and work life and lead to isolation but can give people more control over how they approach their job – which largely depend on how it is implemented and the degree to consultation with employees and their representatives.

For too long, employers have failed to take responsibility for correcting the working conditions they create or facilitate which cause stress and poor mental health.

While many employers increasingly recognise the importance of mental health, too often they take an individualised approach, treating the issue a problem that resides within the individual – which they themselves must address. But the root causes of work-related stress are to be found in our workplaces and working environments, and therefore so are the solutions.

For too long this has been placed in the “too difficult” pile, but against the backdrop of the pandemic and the changes it will being it is an issue that cannot be ignored any longer.

Like Oaks Colliery, there are warning signs of what might be to come. It is time for employers to work with trade unions to tackle these problems before they become worse.

Reps have shown just how vital there are in curbing the worst effects of the pandemic – and they will be vital in the recovery.