The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-16795, in the name of Bill Kidd, on international workers memorial day 2019. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament recognises International Workers’ Memorial Day 2019, which will be marked on 28 April to remember the estimated 50,000 people who are killed each year through work-related incidents or illnesses; notes that the day also aims to encourage steps towards ensuring that such tragedies do not happen again, and recognises that this year’s theme is “Dangerous substances, get them out of the workplace”, which focuses on workers’ exposure to carcinogens.
I am very pleased to bring forward the topic of international workers memorial day 2019. I am grateful to those members of the Scottish Parliament who are in the chamber and those members who will participate in the debate for showing an interest. The debate follows on from the event that I held last night on behalf of Scottish Hazards for international workers memorial day. It was an extremely interesting and well-attended event, and I am grateful to those members from across the chamber who came along and contributed.
International workers memorial day has been held on 28 April every year since 1989. This year, it falls on Sunday, and I am therefore grateful to be able to have the debate today. Every year, the day brings us together to
“Remember the dead, fight for the living”.
It is my hope that the debate will go some way towards grasping both aspects of that powerful statement, which has been shared since the first workers memorial day, 30 years ago. We have the opportunity not only to remember those who lost their lives far too early but to affirm the actions that have been taken to ensure that there is no repeat of the mistakes or negligence that led to those premature deaths.
We are lucky to live in a country in which health and safety is taken seriously, but the continuing examples of people who have been made ill or who have died through work show that more needs to be done. For example, it is estimated that, in the UK, 50,000 workers a year die from work-related illnesses such as cancers, lung disease, heart disease and neurological diseases. Added to that tragic figure are the 1,500 workers who die in work-related incidents and accidents. This year, unions and workers’ rights organisations will use international workers memorial day to focus on the impact of dangerous chemicals in the workplace—particularly carcinogens, or materials that cause cancer. By doing so, those organisations will highlight the fact that changes still need to be made and that workers’ rights must be taken seriously.
In the 21st century, we are equipped with knowledge and understanding that we did not have in the past, which enables us to be more responsive in tackling or pre-empting issues that affect the health of workers here, in Scotland. That greater understanding means that we have greater responsibility for ensuring the safety of workers.
As I have said, last night, I was delighted to host, at the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Hazards event to mark workers memorial day on 28 April. Scottish Hazards is committed to improving the occupational health and safety of workers, and it does a huge amount as a member of the Health and Safety Executive’s partnership on health and safety in Scotland—or PHASS. As a complement to the stall that it had in Parliament a few weeks ago, Scottish Hazards used yesterday’s event to communicate important information to MSPs about workers’ rights. The organisation has welcomed the establishment of the Scottish fair work convention and the publication of the Scottish Government’s fair work action plan, particularly the plan’s emphasis on the Government’s commitment to partnership. The contribution of Scottish Hazards to the Parliament has always been very useful, particularly in highlighting, as it did last night, the issue of dangerous chemicals in the workplace and evidencing the threats that such chemicals pose to the health of many workers across Scotland and throughout the rest of the world.
I am also thankful for the work of the Trades Union Congress, the Scottish Trades Union Congress’s partner organisation, which has been working hard to spread information about the dangers of workplace carcinogens. The TUC has compiled empirical evidence of the prevalence and harmful impacts of two of the most dangerous carcinogens that workers in this country face: asbestos—a fibre that, when inhaled, can cause cancer and that constitutes the biggest cause of workplace deaths in the United Kingdom—and diesel exhaust, which is the second biggest workplace killer.
Although the importing of asbestos into the UK was banned in 1999, its dangers are still with us. This year alone, around 5,000 people are likely to die prematurely because of asbestos exposure. For many years, Clydeside Action on Asbestos has worked to ensure representation of those who are affected by asbestos-related diseases as well as raise awareness of those terrible illnesses. Asbestos-containing materials, such as the lagging around pipes and boilers, can be found in half a million non-domestic premises and are likely to be found in workplaces that were built before the turn of the millennium. As a result, people who work in maintenance, refurbishment or demolition can be exposed if fibres become dislodged during the course of their work. Indeed, the HSE estimates that 1.3 million tradespeople are at risk of exposure and could come into contact with asbestos, on average, more than 100 times a year. That risk of exposure reinforces the importance of health and safety regulation and the need to prioritise workers’ safety.
Estimates show that diesel exhaust—the second-biggest workplace killer—can contain up to 14 known carcinogens and 12 chemical compounds that have been found to be probably carcinogenic to humans. Such chemicals can be inhaled in the form of gases or tiny dust particles. Diesel exhaust is produced not only by motor vehicles but anywhere where there is a diesel engine, such as from a generator or pump. The people who are most at risk from diesel exhaust include professional drivers and those who work in warehouses, garages, construction, seafaring and maintenance or underground. Workers who are regularly exposed to diesel exhaust fumes can be 40 per cent more likely to develop lung cancer. Conservative estimates show that prolonged exposure is responsible for 800 cases of bladder and lung cancer a year in the UK, leading to up to 650 deaths a year. Inhalation of fumes can also worsen respiratory diseases such as bronchitis or aggravate existing heart disease.
The issues that I have focused on are the ones that we know to be highly relevant to Scotland and the rest of the UK. However, the United Nations estimates that, across the world, more people are killed in work-related incidents and illnesses than are killed by war. Imagine the headlines that we would see if the same number of people were to die from catastrophe or war. The sobering reality is that those premature deaths could have been—and can be—avoided with the enforcement of better safety standards.
We owe it to the families and friends of workers who have lost their lives to recognise international workers memorial day. We must continue to remember the dead, learn lessons and take part in the fight for the living.
I say to those in the public gallery that it is preferable that they do not show their appreciation, or otherwise, of speeches.
We move to the open debate. We are really pushed for time, so speeches should be of no more than four minutes, please.
I thank Bill Kidd for bringing the debate to the chamber and for hosting last night’s event.
To be able to go to work every day and spend the working day in a safe environment before coming home seems to me to be a pretty reasonable request. To require an employer to ensure the safety of its workforce and the working environment also seems to be a reasonable ask. Apart from anything else, looking after its staff benefits a company’s performance.
I attended last night’s event to celebrate international workers memorial day, and I listened to the discussions that took place around the table. I have to say that the event was a real eye-opener. Of course, we all know that there are employers out there who cut corners—and so put their employees at risk—for profit. That is a false economy, in my view. Hearing about the scale of workplace injury and death was quite disconcerting.
Health and safety at work in general has undoubtedly improved, but the on-screen presentations mentioned an incident in 2002, in which a worker died on the Ardeer site where I worked in the mid-1980s. Back then, my job was to test explosives—I have had an interesting life. As members might imagine, the protocols for handling dangerous chemicals are strict, and the required training is extremely arduous. However, I found it interesting that that was not the case throughout, as I told Bill Kidd last night. The chemicals that we used in that environment were disposed of in what was called the solvent room. We would come down with the stuff that we used and just pour it into huge bottles. The floor used to be swimming in solvents such as dichloromethane and acetone. I remember that, once, my shoes disintegrated. I reported that to my manager at the time, whose response was, “You need to buy better shoes.”
I would hope that, since then, safety protocols and health and safety have moved on—I am sure they have. However, it was rather disconcerting to discover that the incident at the Ardeer factory took place in 2002.
My other interest in the debate lies in healthcare and looking after the safety of workers in that sector. Everyone knows about my interest in health—particularly mental health—and creating an environment in which our healthcare workers can have an active and healthy lifestyle. I am really interested in that area, and not just because my daughter happens to work in that environment.
Although we acknowledge that health and safety at work is improving and that, as Bill Kidd says, we live in a country in which we take the matter seriously, we must also acknowledge that there is a lot more work to be done. The fact that, as Bill Kidd says, 50,000 people are killed each year as a result of work-related incidents or illnesses means that we need to do more work on the issue.
I thank Bill Kidd again for bringing the debate to Parliament. I welcome and support the work that organisations continue to do to ensure workers’ safety and to highlight where poor safety is an issue.
I, too, thank Bill Kidd for bringing the debate to Parliament. It is a great honour to speak in such an important debate. I apologise in advance for the fact that I might, because I speak in the debate every year, repeat some things.
I know that my colleague, Elaine Smith, will agree that it is important that the member who represents Coatbridge and Chryston speaks in the debate, because my constituency has a proud industrial heritage, with strong traditions in the coal, iron and steel industries. As people will know, working in heavy industries was frequently dangerous, with little safeguarding in place to protect workers. Many people in my constituency have direct experience of workplace loss, the effects of which can be felt by future generations.
Like most people from the area, I come from a family with a strong and proud industrial working past. I know that I have mentioned that in Parliament before. I am very proud of that past. My maternal grandfather, for example, worked from the age of 14 in places including Gartcosh, Gartsherrie and the Calder. I know that he was injured at times and would have known others who had the same experience, although it was not highlighted back then.
I have a wee personal story to tell. At the weekend, I took the kids to Drumpellier lochs. There is a wee park there that has one of the last bits of steel work from Gartcosh, in memory of the steel mill. I was able to explain a wee bit about it to my five-year-old. I do not know how much he took in, but it is good that such things are there and that the traditions can be passed down.
The most prominent example of devastating loss in my area was the loss of 47 lives in a fire in a coal mine. On 18 September 1959—nearly 60 years ago—47 men lost their lives, 41 women became widows and 76 children lost their fathers. On the morning of that day, the early shift at the Auchengeich mine in Moodiesburn—48 men in total—clocked in to work as normal and boarded a series of trains and bogies that were to convey them to the coalface hundreds of feet underground, unaware of the deadly sequence of events that was about to take place.
I have taken most of that paragraph from last year’s speech, but I make no apology for doing so—and for doing so every year in the debate on international workers’ memorial day in which I can speak. It is important that we remember those people. This year is the 60th anniversary of the event. There is a memorial service every year, but this year it will be extra special. I know that Elaine Smith and Richard Leonard will attend, and we will all stand in unity for the people who lost their lives that day.
In the tradition of the constituency, this Sunday there will be a workers’ memorial event at Summerlee museum of Scottish industrial life, arranged by the North Lanarkshire trade union council. It is an annual event at which parties that represent the area come together. We will do that again on Sunday—I will go to the event and then straight on to my party conference.
The signs outside Summerlee museum read:
“The past we inherit, the future we build” and
“In memory of all those who lost their lives at work”.
The day is an international day for remembrance of and action for workers who were killed at work, and is an opportunity for reflection and commitment to change. Bill Kidd articulated the purpose of the day well. We should never forget workers and people who lose their lives at work. There is so much more that I could say, Deputy Presiding Officer—as you can probably tell—but I know that you said that we had a strict four minutes. I will end by saying that it has been a privilege to speak again on the subject on behalf of my constituency.
I declare an interest as a member of Unite the union and the Educational Institute of Scotland.
I look forward to the day when we do not have to mark international workers memorial day. I look forward to the day when workers do not die at work and to the day when we have not an economic system that is driven by profit maximisation and which sees workers as a dispensable cog in the machine, but an economy that is based on social need and sustainability. However, as long as we have a system that is based on profit maximisation and fuelled by deregulation, we will see workers being killed, injured and made ill through work, and international workers memorial day will remain a necessary date in the calendar.
Every 15 seconds, a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease, which means that 16 workers will have died during the course of my speech. In February, a 21-year-old roofer, Nathan Craig, died in Edinburgh when he fell through a skylight while working on a roof. He was another son needlessly taken, leaving another grieving family and community. Lives such as Nathan’s should not be merely statistics in a speech; they should be a call for action to prevent future fatalities.
I am proud that the Labour Party, over the course of our existence, has worked closely with our brothers and sisters in the trade unions to deliver huge improvements in health and safety. However, we have a long way to go. That work will continue in the Scottish Parliament, with Claire Baker’s proposed culpable homicide bill and Daniel Johnson’s proposed protection of workers bill. I hope that all members will support them.
It is right that we record today our thanks to a number of people and organisations who have driven or are driving change. I thank, first, my friend and one of my great mentors, Jim Swan, who was a trade union convener at British Leyland in Bathgate, and was instrumental in bringing international workers memorial day to Scotland. Last night, we were speaking with Kathy Jenkins, Ian Tasker and Scott Donohoe from the campaign charity Scottish Hazards. I pay tribute to them, and to Louise Taggart, who previously worked in the campaign.
I also thank Unite campaigners including Steve Dillon and Bryan Simpson; the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen for their work on rail safety; the Public and Commercial Services Union for its recent work on the campaign on seating at National Museums Scotland; Unison for its work in the national health service and local government; the Fire Brigades Union for defending the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service; the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union for campaigning against low pay and exploitation; and all the trade unions that are campaigning to keep their members and the public safe.
This week, a great champion and advocate of Scottish workers, Syd Smyth, retires from Thompsons Solicitors Scotland, which is the law firm that represents many trade unions in Scotland. He represented the trade union group at the Cullen inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster, he fought for justice for miners who were charged during the miners’ strike, he has given evidence to many parliamentary committees, and he represented the victims of the Lockerbie bombing and the Dunblane tragedy. It is right and fitting that he is being mentioned today, and that we pay tribute to his life’s work. I hope that we all wish him well in his retirement. I have lodged a motion to recognise his contribution, which I hope members will support.
This Sunday, in Bathgate, I will stand—as many will—with women and men from my region to remember those who have died or been injured unnecessarily because of their work. I know that many of us will stand collectively to mourn the dead and fight for the living.
As other members have done, I thank Bill Kidd for bringing the debate to the chamber and for hosting last night’s event. I also thank Scottish Hazards and the entire trade union movement for the tremendous work that they do in relation to workplace health and safety.
The figure of 50,000 has already been cited as being the number of people who are killed each year in the UK alone through work-related incidents or illness. That is the equivalent of the entire population of Cumbernauld, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy or Ayr.
There are lots of important words in the phrase “international workers’ memorial day”: “memorial”, because it is important that we remember, and “international”, because there is an international bond of workers, which should be recognised.
What can we do in practical terms? The 28april.org website says,
“Remember the dead, fight like hell for the living”.
From that website, I also recommend a press release from 23 April because, as parliamentarians, we should all listen to what the European Trade Union Confederation says. The press release cites the figure of 200,000 work-related deaths across the European Union each year. It calls on the European Union and, in particular, the new European Parliament that is to be elected in May and the new European Commission that is to be appointed following the election, to
“Set a target of zero workplace cancer” and to
“Introduce a Directive on stress at work”.
People readily understand physical injury that is caused by work, and we are aware of the mental stress and pressure that people feel under at work, including from workplace bullying incidents and—which my colleague, Neil Findlay, referred to—the pressure for profit and the willingness of some unscrupulous employers to set aside the wellbeing of the people who earn them that profit just to generate further profits.
Other things that the European Trade Union Confederation wants to do include:
“Introduce a Directive to tackle back, knee and finger-joint (and other musculoskeletal) pain” and
“Launch a debate on preventing work-related road deaths and work-related suicide with a view to taking new measures in the lifetime of the new Parliament”.
I picked up that press release just this morning: my intention is to ensure that Scottish Green candidates for the European Parliament elections support the measures. I hope that other members will do likewise.
Mention has been made of Thompsons Solicitors. In preparation for the debate, I came across a blog that was written last year by Patrick McGuire. As many people will know, Patrick is a doughty fighter on behalf of workers and in the cause of justice. The one criticism that I have of his blog is that he wrongly chides himself by saying that it is a cause of regret that he has been unable to get proper legislation on the statute book. He talks about the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, which is the UK legislation that is applicable in Scotland. The act came into force in 2008. He says:
“In the subsequent 10 years absolutely nothing has changed. There has not been a single prosecution in Scotland under the Act. Workplaces are not safer. Workplace accidents, injuries and deaths have not decreased. The 2007 Act was and is a waste of time, effort and emotion.”
I think that use of the word “emotion” is interesting.
As other members have done, I commend Claire Baker’s initiative on her proposed member’s bill. It is important that we find common ground on the issue.
However, it is also important to note that we fairly recently had a Prime Minister who commended the slaying of the “health and safety monster”. There is residual cynicism about workplace health and safety that needs to be addressed. If we value individuals, we value the labour that they deliver. As has been said, even if we were to take a more cynical and purely pounds, shillings and pence approach to things, we would see that a safe and healthy workplace is a more productive workplace. It has also been evidenced that a more unionised workplace is a safer workplace. There are lessons for us all, in that.
Like other members, I pay tribute to Bill Kidd for securing this important debate, which commemorates international workers memorial day ahead of the day itself on Sunday.
I also pay tribute to the Scottish Hazards campaign, which members have mentioned.
I want to look back to an incident that happened in Blantyre, which has a strong mining tradition, and is in the area that I represent. On 22 October 1877, there was an explosion at the Dixon’s pit in Blantyre that killed more than 200 people, which had a devastating effect on the area.
A local project in Blantyre that is researching the incident with a view to producing a book later this year has listed all those who lost their lives. Two things strike me about that list. The first is the number of men who are denoted as married, who went to work that day and did not return to their wives and families. The second is the number of boys who died. The ages of the victims are listed, and they include young men of 13, 15 and 16. It was dreadful not only that so many people died but that so many of them were young people.
Sadly, that was not the only fatal incident in Blantyre. In 1878 and 1879, there were subsequent disasters in which people lost their lives. The area has a strong mining tradition, and those incidents drew the community closely together. That is still evident in Blantyre today. There are two distinctive memorials to the incident in 1877, at the cross in High Blantyre and at the Blantyre miners welfare society and social club.
In the century and a half since the 1877 incident in Blantyre, trade union representation has increased and there is improved protection in the workplace, which is to be welcomed. However, John Finnie rightly asked what we, as parliamentarians, can do to tackle the issue of workplace deaths. As Neil Findlay pointed out, there are two proposed members’ bills in this area, one of which is Claire Baker’s proposed culpable homicide (Scotland) bill. Many members have mentioned the fact that, every year, 50,000 people lose their lives as a result of workplace incidents or illnesses. As John Finnie said, there is a lack of protection for people. The progression and implementation of Claire Baker’s bill would strengthen the law and the protection of workers, as would Daniel Johnson’s proposed bill to protect shop workers. Unfortunately, the number of incidents involving attacks on shop workers is increasing, with several being reported recently in west and central Scotland.
We have an opportunity not only to reflect on the issue but to make a difference by supporting the two proposed members’ bills that are before the Parliament. I hope that members across the chamber will take those points on board.
As three members still wish to speak in the debate in addition to the minister, I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[
Motion agreed to.
I, too, congratulate my friend and colleague Bill Kidd on securing this important debate.
“Remember the dead, fight for the living”.
That is what international workers memorial day stands for. All over the world, workers are showing solidarity by conducting events, demonstrations and vigils in an effort to campaign for stricter enforcement and higher penalties for breaches of health and safety laws.
As Bill Kidd mentioned, according to the United Nations, more people are killed at work than in wars. That is an astounding fact. Such deaths do not occur in sudden unexpected accidents; they result from long-term negligence towards worker safety, which leads to fatal illnesses such as mesothelioma, as well as conditions such as asthma and dermatitis. That is disgraceful and it cannot continue.
Tomorrow, I will attend an event to mark international workers memorial day in my Greenock and Inverclyde constituency, at which those in Inverclyde and beyond who have suffered as a result of the negligence of their employers will be remembered.
As others have said, the theme of this year’s memorial day is “Dangerous substances—get them out of the workplace”. Carcinogens are substances that are capable of causing cancer in living tissue. Examples of those are asbestos and diesel exhaust. Asbestos is the biggest cause of workplace deaths and, this year, 5,000 people are likely to die prematurely as a result of asbestos exposure. Although its use has been banned for 20 years, asbestos-containing materials can still be found in around 0.5 million workplaces in the UK.
There is no safe threshold of exposure to asbestos fibres. Even the smallest of quantities over a short period can lead to mesothelioma, several decades after exposure. It is estimated that over 6 million tonnes of asbestos fibres were imported into Britain in the previous century. Most of it is still here in workplaces, homes and buildings, which means that workers will continue to be exposed. That is one reason why I am working to introduce my proposed recovery of medical costs for industrial disease (Scotland) bill.
The purpose of the proposed legislation is to ensure that the NHS does not foot the bill for employers’ negligence, as it seeks to allow the recovery of costs associated with NHS treatment for industrial diseases that are caused by negligence. The bill will not only claw back crucial moneys for the NHS but help to protect workers in the years to come. The proposal was initiated by Clydeside Action on Asbestos. I pay tribute to the group for that and for the dedication that it has shown over many years to help people and their families who have suffered through asbestos exposure.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of James Watt, the Greenock-born inventor who improved the steam engine, which was fundamental in leading the UK into the industrial revolution. Back in 1776, he would not have been able to imagine what industry would be like in 2019. Like him, we have no idea of what will come in 20, 50 or 100 years. Completely different industries will arise, with different occupational hazards and workplace diseases that we do not yet know of. The bill that I propose will ensure that we are ready for the future, with good measures to protect workers as well as the taxpayer and the NHS.
It is important that we mark international workers memorial day to remember all those whose lives were shortened due to their work, but it is also vital that we work to protect workers’ health as best we can. We all deserve to work in a safe environment.
I congratulate Bill Kidd on bringing this debate to the chamber to mark workers memorial day ahead of Sunday’s event.
Neil Findlay mentioned the Cullen inquiry. I remember seeing, as a young boy in Orphir in Orkney, the Piper Alpha accommodation section sitting at Flotta oil terminal. That was a stark reminder of the dangers that people face. The oil and gas sector has seen a number of tragedies, including with helicopters and the like. I hope that improvements have been made, but there is still more to be done.
The debate is important given that, around the world, thousands of people die and suffer from serious injuries while at work. That is a disturbing fact that should give us all pause for thought. We know the history well. Here, in Scotland, we need only look at some of our great buildings and great feats of engineering to find them tinged with the memory of the people who died building them—people who were at work and whose safety often seemed far from the minds of others.
We remember, for example, the Forth Bridge, which lies just a few miles from the Parliament, and the names of the 73 men who are recorded as having died in its construction. The youngest was a rivet catcher, David Clark, who was apparently only 13 years old when he lost his footing and fell to his death. It seems outrageous today, but it took until 2012 before those workers were properly commemorated and, for some, before they were even recognised.
It is always important to understand the working practices that have contributed to deaths and serious accidents. There will always be genuinely unforeseeable risks and genuine accidents, and some jobs will inevitably carry greater risks than others, but those realities must never serve as an excuse for situations in which foreseeable risks have not been managed, accidents are waiting to happen and the safety of employees is put on the back burner.
It is now 45 years since the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 became law. It was not a revolutionary change; there had been a variety of pre-existing regulations and bodies. However, it created an overarching principle that applies across employers. Since then, the approach has developed further across the UK. We have come a long way, but there is more to do.
Bill Kidd’s motion touches on the people who have died from illness caused by their working conditions, which is the theme of this year’s workers memorial day. Thousands still live with work-related illnesses as a result of exposure to asbestos and from work-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancers, and thousands more have died.
Many of those diseases lay dormant for decades but, as this year’s theme points to, there are still cases in which employees are exposed to dangerous substances in the workplace that can have a considerable impact on their health. Quite properly, the TUC has raised a number of concerns about incidents of exposure and the action that can be taken by Government, employers and employees to reduce that risk. We should look forward to a time when substances such as asbestos are not just managed but can be safely removed and cease to present a threat to individuals.
Another issue that has been raised is diesel fumes. They are notably more harmful than other types of exhaust fumes, and employers have plans in place to avoid exposure. Fortunately, we are looking forward to a future of low emissions and an end to diesel vehicles. Of course, that does not lessen the duty of employers in the interim.
I will touch briefly on mental health. Where support is lacking, mental health issues can cause significant problems in the workplace, including long absences. In many cases, we know that those issues can lead to death. It is in everyone’s interests that support and a preventative approach are in place. Unfortunately, our mental health services are often overstretched, and individuals in Scotland can be left waiting for months before even relatively basic support is provided. For too long, warm words about a focus on mental health have failed to lead to genuine action.
Our history of protecting people in the workplace has been one of gradual progressive improvement. Although we mark and remember those who have died at work, we should learn the lessons of the past and the importance of adapting them to a changing and modernising workplace.
I have a declared interest regarding the fact that I have received trade union assistance in the past and I am a member of Unite.
Like other members, I thank Bill Kidd for bringing this motion for debate ahead of international workers memorial day on Sunday 28 April, thus giving us all the opportunity to remember the people in this country and around the world who have been killed in the workplace or by work. It also reminds us of the need to do whatever is in our power to constantly seek improvement in the working conditions of people in Scotland and around the world, and to remember that this is a class issue—Neil Findlay touched on that point in his speech.
As in previous years, events will be held in local communities around Scotland to mark the occasion. I am pleased that, following my request to it in 2008, the Scottish Government officially recognises international workers memorial day.
In a country with a rich industrial heritage, the day has added poignancy, because many communities will have been affected by some sort of industrial tragedy in the past. Given its extensive industrial history, the Central Scotland region, which I represent, is particularly affected by such tragedies. As was mentioned by Fulton MacGregor, 18 September this year is the 60th anniversary of the Auchengeich colliery disaster, in which 47 men lost their lives. That tragedy affected a great many families in the area, including my family.
In the past, I have spoken at the memorial event that is held annually on international workers memorial day in Coatbridge at Summerlee heritage park, which Fulton MacGregor also mentioned. As I have said many times in this chamber, Summerlee is well worth a visit. It has preserved and interpreted the history of the local iron, steel, coal and engineering industries and the lives of the people and communities that depended on them for a living. I urge people to pay a visit to Summerlee if they can. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend this year’s commemoration event at the weekend, but I commend North Lanarkshire trade union council for organising it and I wish it all the best for the event.
It is important to remember that most workers who were killed at work did not die in major disasters. As Bill Kidd noted in his motion, the theme of this year’s international workers memorial day is “Dangerous substances—get them out of the workplace”. The main focus of that topic is workers’ exposure to carcinogens, which are a key cause of cancer. There is a wide range of known carcinogens; Bill Kidd mentioned some of them, and they include tobacco smoke, asbestos fibres—which other members have discussed—diesel fumes and a wide range of chemicals that are used in the workplace.
The nature of the disease means that it is impossible to get an accurate figure for the number of people who have been diagnosed with cancer that was caused by their working conditions. However, the Health and Safety Executive estimates that there are around 13,500 new cases of cancer caused by work every year, with more than 8,000 deaths. I think that that is likely to be an underestimation, as there are many causes suspected but not yet proven, and, as we heard, there are other health problems that are exacerbated, such as asthma and bronchitis.
Although trade unions and organisations such as Scottish Hazards lead the way in campaigning for safer conditions, including the minimisation of exposure to dangerous substances in the workplace, we should all take an interest in safe working conditions and in holding employers to account. This Parliament, as an employer and a visitor attraction, should be setting a clear example in ensuring that no hazardous substances, including lacquer, are used improperly on the premises.
I recently submitted a consultation response to my colleague Claire Baker’s proposed culpable homicide (Scotland) bill, which other members have mentioned, and I encourage others to do so, too, and to support the bill.
I congratulate Bill Kidd once again, as we remember the dead and fight for the living.
The Scottish Government continues to provide its support for international workers memorial day, as we collectively reflect on the impact of lives lost due to work.
Scotland continues to have one of the best occupational health and safety records in Europe, but we would all recognise and agree that one workplace fatality is one too many. Work-related deaths and injuries take an incredible toll on the families of those affected, work colleagues, emergency service personnel called to respond to incidents and, indeed, the wider community.
The community impact was brought starkly into focus by James Kelly when he reminded us clearly about the impact on the Blantyre community of various incidents such as the Dixon’s pit disaster. Fulton MacGregor and Elaine Smith reminded us that this year is the 60th anniversary of the terrible Auchengeich disaster, which directly impacted the area that I represent. In the centre of Condorrat, there is a memorial to the men from there who were killed at Auchengeich—it is a memorial to the six families who were left bereft by the loss of their loved ones in that terrible accident.
Important as it is to remember such incidents, Neil Findlay made the significant point that this is not just a matter of history; it is an on-going struggle. In that context, it is right that we continue to have debates of this nature and continue our efforts.
We, as a Government, believe that the best outcomes are achieved by collaboration and partnership working. The partnership on health and safety in Scotland is a good example of that, as it brings together a wide range of partners, such as representatives of the Scottish health and safety system, trade unions, employer bodies and regulatory bodies, among others.
“A Scottish Plan for Action on Safety and Health” is a long-term commitment to partnership working across organisations and industries to tackle the areas of greatest concern, such as health and safety in the agriculture, waste management and social care industries. We are committed to continuing to provide employers with access to advice on workplace health and safety through our healthy working lives initiative.
There are, of course, particular types of employment and industries that show poorer health and safety outcomes, and those tend to be associated with lower-paid and often poorer-quality work. The large number of people in what we are increasingly calling the gig economy are particularly at risk, especially when we consider that they are often treated as self-employed and do not have access to health and safety expertise and protection. We remain committed to improving unacceptable working conditions, regardless of the status, sector or location, as part of the fair work agenda that we are taking forward, which Bill Kidd mentioned at the outset of the debate.
Collaborative working is central to the promotion of fair work and to ensuring that all employers understand the benefits of an effective employee voice. Engagement with the workforce on workplace health and safety is an essential part of the process; drawing on the workforce’s knowledge and expertise can pay significant dividends in safety as well as in efficiency and productivity. Brian Whittle pointed out the inherent benefits for employers, as well as for employees, of engaging in the fair work agenda.
In the past year, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work ran a campaign that focused on managing dangerous substances, with a strong emphasis on exposure to carcinogenic material—an issue that Bill Kidd, Jamie Halcro Johnston and Stuart McMillan raised. The campaign involved collaboration across European nations to identify the nature of hazards, consider how hazards can be mitigated and share good practice. It illustrates the importance of international co-operation on such matters.
We will of course give full consideration to any proposed legislation. Any proposal must be considered on its specifics and it is incumbent on the Administration to consider it carefully. I give that commitment to Mr Findlay and to all members of the Scottish Parliament.
In a debate on international workers memorial day, we must place the issue in its international context. Most of our domestic workplace health and safety regulation has arisen as a result of co-operation among member states of the European Union over the past decades. The UK Government has apparently said that it is committed to maintaining existing standards. Those of us who might be cynical about that must put aside our cynicism, but the reality is that Governments change, and there is concern that a UK outside the EU runs the risk of being left behind on improving health and safety standards and will not have the ability to share the range and depth of expertise that membership enables us to share.
Yes. I have no hesitation in doing so. It is about not just activity at the inception but the on-going role of trade unions. The Government recognises that role. That is why we strongly support the trade union movement and want to work in partnership with it to implement the fair work agenda, of which health and safety is a critical element.
Stuart McMillan made a useful point when he said that we live in a changing world, with a changing economy. That brings opportunities for us; it also brings many challenges. He referred to the changing nature of work and, in particular, technological change, which will continue to impact on the types of job that need to be done and the workforce that does them.
Our workforce continues to age. Employers need to understand what that means for them and how they can support an older workforce to remain safe, healthy and productive. How we continue to consider the agenda in changed circumstances will be important.
We have a good record on workplace health and safety but, sadly, it is not an unblemished record. As people gather at memorials around the country to mark international workers memorial day, we should reflect on the journey to get to this point and the sacrifices that have had to be made on the way for lessons to be learned.
Despite our best efforts, there is still no guarantee that any individual can go to work and return home safely at the end of the day. International workers memorial day reminds us that the work must go on.
13:39 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—