In recent times, employers and governments have been fairly successful in advancing the view that only experts can deal with the complexities of health and safety problems. Theyve promoted joint committees of managers and union representatives, established by law, as the solution.
But these committees have no power except to make recommendations to management. The idea behind them that workers and employers have a common interest and a joint stake in health and safety is simply false. Also untrue have been the claims that health and safety would advance to a new level if a spirit of co-operation replaced an adversarial relationship.
We just need to look at the facts. The number of fatalities, injuries and occupational diseases are on the rise. Since the 1970s, an average of 1,000 Canadian workers have been killed on the job each year. Every year, more than one million workers are injured at work. Around half a million are hurt seriously enough to warrant the payment of workers compensation. An estimated 10,000 workers die each year from occupational diseases. And untold numbers of workers suffer from harassment at work, leading to stress that has real health impacts.
These are staggering figures by any measure.
There have been inroads over the past 50 years, to be sure. But all of them have been due to one thing alone: the front-line struggles of workers over health and safety conditions.
Workers took to the streets, went to the media, and reached out to the community over health and safety issues. These struggles presented health and safety as a very political issue one that clearly demonstrated the deadly results of unequal power relationships in the workplace.
Actions taken by workers forced governments to pass laws that recognized the precarious life-and-death realities of thousands of workers and their families. We won the legislated rights to refuse, to participate and know. And worker health and safety training became a burning issue.
Unions developed their own training programs to make their members more powerful by increasing their level of technical knowledge. They talked about how to translate their knowledge into action; and how to tap the almost unlimited potential of the membership to mobilize around health and safety. Workers have fought to have discrimination and harassment recognized as real Health and Safety concerns when they exist in our workplaces.
They also fought for joint committees, but never envisioned they would be
used by employers and governments to undermine health and safety activism.