Sometimes health & safety is treated as no more than a time-wasting box to tick. However, this International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD), our head of personal injury strategy, Gerard Stilliard, shines a light on the sobering lessons this past year has taught us about our rights, workplace safety and the importance of trade union membership.

International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) is a time to reflect on the real challenges that too many people face at work, challenges that this past year has thrown into sharp relief. We remember those who have died at work or due to work and also reflect on those whose lives have been altered, often needlessly, through injury at work.

This year’s theme for IWMD rightly identifies health and safety as a fundamental workers' right.

A year ago, we were still acclimatising to the first lockdown and watching appalled at the increasing death toll. The media’s attention was rightly focussed on both the inadequate supply of PPE to frontline NHS staff and the crisis facing residents and staff in our care homes. Concealed from us then was the shameful cronyism of Tory ministers who, it seems, were seizing the opportunity of the virus to award emergency supply contracts and tax breaks to their mates. 

This IWMD we will take a minute in silence to reflect on the dreadful number of workers who have died and suffered needlessly in this last, blighted year.

Gerard Stilliard, head of personal injury strategy

Next, many of us were challenged to adjust to working from home - which with poor employers carries its own health and safety pitfalls - while others faced the uncertainty of furlough. Our collective applause every Thursday night paid tribute to the risks being faced daily by key workers in the emergency services, transport, schools and supermarkets.

As the year progressed, the imbalance of hardship and grief became clear as we learnt that people from minority ethnic backgrounds made up a disproportionate share of those becoming ill and dying from COVID-19. We can speculate on the causes of that disparity: poor housing conditions, more precarious and unsafe employment and barriers to accessing healthcare may all be factors. But this and other questions will remain a matter of debate while the government continues to ignore the urgent and growing calls for full public enquiry into its actions through the pandemic. 

A recent TUC study showed, perhaps unsurprisingly but worryingly all the same, that workers in the gig economy have not only faced the precarious pay and conditions for which the sector has become notorious but have also been dying during the pandemic  at twice the rate of managerial, professional and admin workers. For so long as the government ignores the glaring rights gap faced by the lowest paid and least secure workers, especially by failing to ensure that all workers are entitled to a realistic level sick pay, those workers will never enjoy the basic right of being able to stay at home when ill. Indeed, the government, turned the screw further on the most vulnerable of workers, by callously choosing to shut them out from the furlough scheme.

With the seemingly never-ending health crisis and now Tory sleaze continuing to absorb so much attention, the UK slipping out of the European Union has passed almost unnoticed. But the impending double whammy of a struggling economy facing a jobs crisis, and a government obsessed with deregulation and freedom from oversight - whilst it lurches from one scandal to the next - threatens many of the key health and safety laws for which we, and the trade union movement, have campaigned for tirelessly, in Europe and at home.

Workers have fought for years, sometimes at great sacrifice, for the right to be kept safe, for rigorous risk assessments, for health and safety measures designed to protect against avoidable harm and for secure and fair employment. 

Since Harry Thompson founded our firm 100 years ago this year we have always stood on the side of the worker, never representing the employer nor the insurer. We have seen the damage that untrammelled right wing populist governments can wreak and that has only bound us closer to those who really need our help, reaffirming our commitment to the collective power of unions. 

This IWMD we will take a minute in silence to reflect on all those who have died of work-related causes over the years but particularly the dreadful number of workers who have died and suffered needlessly in this last, blighted year. And we will commit to redouble our efforts to support those facing another trying year ahead and for whom health and safety is more than ever a fundamental right to be achieved through the collective support and power of organised labour and the trade union movement.