Socialist Worker

The growing scandal of firefighter deaths

by Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue No. 2128

Firefighters attended a rally before lobbying MPs to take action to stop the rise in deaths at work (Pic: http://www.guysmallman.com/» Guy Smallman )

Firefighters attended a rally before lobbying MPs to take action to stop the rise in deaths at work (Pic: » Guy Smallman)


A new report commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has revealed a scandalous rise in the number of firefighters dying on duty.

At least 13 firefighters were killed at fires in the five years between 2003 and 2007.

That compares to only one death at a fire in the preceding five year period.

In November last year four firefighters were killed while trying to put out a warehouse blaze in Atherstone-on-Stour, Warwickshire – the worst incident of multiple firefighter deaths in Britain since 1972.

These figures are just one aspect of a wider and more disturbing trend. The number of firefighter deaths at work steadily dropped through the 1980s and 1990s. But that trend sharply reversed after 2003.

Something else happened in 2003 – following the end of the FBU's national pay dispute that year, the government embarked on plans to 'modernise' the fire service by bringing in a host of neoliberal 'reforms'.

Many firefighters say these changes have directly contributed to deteriorating safety at work. In practice they have meant cuts in frontline jobs, fire stations closed or downgraded, and resources diverted away from training and equipment.

Lobbied

Over 1,000 firefighters lobbied MPs at the House of Commons on Wednesday of last week to call for action over the FBU report's findings.

They began the day by laying a wreath to commemorate those who had died, before heading to a rally addressed by FBU general secretary Matt Wrack, TUC deputy general secretary Frances O'Grady and John McDonnell MP, among others.

The FBU is demanding proper funding for firefighter training, a national body to set training standards and a national system for recording firefighter deaths and serious injuries – something that shockingly does not exist at present.

At the rally Matt Wrack drew attention to the number of firefighters killed in road traffic accidents while on duty or on the way to or from work – deaths that are not classified as reportable under current health and safety laws.

'There is clearly a wider issue here of concern to many beyond the fire service,' he said. 'Thousands of working people are required by their employment to drive vehicles on the roads or to travel as passengers.

'To suggest that fatal accidents in such circumstances are not 'work related' must lead to a significant underestimation of workplace accidents and fatalities.'

FBU researchers say this failure to properly track firefighter deaths makes it much harder to learn from fatal accidents and ensure that mistakes are not repeated.

'Despite the rhetoric of modernisation, there are aspects of firefighter safety that have not improved,' the report says. 'This research found some evidence linking the new regime and new ways of working with increased risks to firefighters.

'Organisational failures in risk assessment, command, training and equipment... can ultimately cost lives. There is a national policy vacuum with regard to firefighter safety, and this is reflected in the fatality figures in recent years.'

Firefighters are particularly concerned by deteriorations in levels of training. In a survey commissioned by the FBU, some 53 percent of firefighters said their operational training over the past 12 months was 'less than adequate'.

The survey also registered overwhelming opposition to cuts in frontline firefighter personnel and to government plans to merge fire control centres in England into eight regional centres.

Some 92 percent of firefighters believed regional control centres would worsen the response to incidents.


Only one in three construction firms prosecuted when workers die

Zbigniew Swirzynski, a carpenter, was killed on 15 January 2007 when a tower crane collapsed and crushed him on the site he was working on in Liverpool.

After a 16-month inquiry the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the police have decided that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone involved in the incident.

George Guy, regional secretary for the Ucatt building workers union in the north west, said, 'This decision is a kick in the teeth for construction workers.

'How on earth can they have any confidence in health and safety provisions on sites if the powers that be can't find anyone to prosecute in such a high profile case? Tower cranes do not fall apart of their own accord. Something clearly went wrong and a worker died.'

In 2007-8, 72 construction workers were killed on the job. It is estimated that management failure is a contributory factor in at least 70 percent of construction deaths but companies are prosecuted in only a third of cases. If a company is convicted, fines are often just a few thousand pounds.

Some 229 workers were killed at work in the year to April, while the number of injuries was 299,000. Research published by the Unite union shows that investigation levels into major injuries to workers have declined by nearly a half.

The latest statistics available are for 2006-7. They show that only 10.5 percent of major injuries reported to the HSE were investigated.

The construction sector sees the largest number of deaths at work but only 14.1 percent of major injuries were investigated, a reduction from 20 percent six years earlier.

Workers are at constant risk of injury and death at work. Yet after cuts by the government, fewer incidents are even looked into.

Andrew Dismore MP, chair of the FBU parliamentary group, has tabled an early day motion on the issue of firefighter deaths. Ask your MP to sign EDM 2440, which calls for a 'properly resourced national body with overall responsibility for recording and investigating firefighter deaths'.


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Features
Tue 18 Nov 2008, 19:32 GMT
Issue No. 2128
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