My first and best lesson in industrial safety happened in 1978, a few weeks after I started work on the production line at the Ford car assembly plant in Wellington (which has since closed).
Workers in the body shop at Fords used spot-welding guns. Hung on a wire from the ceiling, these machines had a pair of copper-tipped jaws, and when you pressed the trigger, the jaws closed over a pair of sheet metal plates in the frame of the car, gave a shot of electric power which sent a shower of sparks flying, and welded the metal plates together. One of these spot-welding guns had developed a hair-trigger, which made it hazardous for the worker operating it and those around him. This worker told the foreman about the problem, and attempted to work with the machine for a little while longer. But then he had a near-miss, and at that point he stopped work.
The foreman told him to carry on working while they found a solution to the problem. The foreman’s sole concern was that there should be no interruption to production. “You give me a safe machine to work with, and I’ll start work,” the worker replied, with folded arms. Soon three or four more foremen came running, as they always did as soon as production stopped. One of them started yelling at the worker and threatening him with dismissal if he didn’t start work instantly. Other workers who had been idled by the production holdup came over to join in the discussion. Some supported the worker at the centre of the dispute by arguing with the foremen themselves and drawing some of the flak from him, while others, myself included, just watched the drama in wide-eyed admiration for the courage shown by the worker. Soon the plant union delegate appeared and took over the argument, relieving the worker of the pressure being brought against him. The delegate was a small guy with nerves of steel known as Danny the Red, one of the many worker-immigrants from Britain and Ireland in those days who brought to New Zealand the best traditions of trade unionism in their home countries.
After a few more minutes, a fitter came running with a replacement spot-welding machine, and work resumed. I have never seen an industrial safety issue resolved so quickly and easily. No accident, no injury, no forms filled out, no ACC claims, no hazard report filed, no Royal Commission of Inquiry, no court case; nothing like that. The worker closest to the situation identified the problem, and supported by his workmates, saw to it that the problem was fixed before any accident or injury occurred.
The key to this speedy resolution was the confidence this worker had that his workmates would stand behind him, and make sure he was not unfairly dismissed over the incident; in a word, his confidence in union. Union really meant something in that plant. The union was not some official in a remote office somewhere, who you could call, and who might act as a kind of low-cost lawyer on your behalf. The union was the willingness of those other workers to step into the breach, form a protective circle around the worker who was taking action to maintain safety in the plant, and prevent any victimisation of him.
Of course, the company was ‘concerned about safety’ too, as they often told us. They had a display in the canteen showing the number of accident-free days, and they insisted that workers wear protective clothing and ear protection. Obviously they preferred to minimise the number of accidents. But when it came to a conflict between safety and maximising production and profit, as it did in this case, they chose production and profit every time.
I was reminded of this incident when I read the report of a speech by a leader of Hancock Forest Management addressing the appalling safety record in the forest industry. Speaking to a meeting of 90 logging contractors, the official used the analogy of the All Blacks’ ‘perfect season’ (winning all their games) to explain how an accident-free ‘season’ could be achieved. Apart from the sheer fatuousness of this analogy, there is an implication that accidents and deaths in the forests are as unavoidable as the All Blacks losing a game now and then.
Nine workers have died in logging operations in New Zealand this year, including two in the past week alone. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when forestry workers were unionised, there was an average of four forestry deaths per year, in a larger workforce. The restructuring of the industry in the 1980s involved contracting out tree-felling to ‘independent’ contractors, with consequent speed-up, de-unionisation of the workforce, and increasing competitive pressures between workers: from 1984-8 the death rate in forestry rose to 6 per year on average, by 1991-98 it had risen to 10 per year. Deaths are, of course, only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to workplace accidents.
No worker has to die on the job, in any industry. There is no industry that is inherently ‘unsafe’ – in every case the risks involved in industrial work can be managed to the point where no worker’s life is put in jeopardy.
But the key to achieving this is to take the question of safety on the job out of the hands of bosses, foremen, the Accident Compensation Corporation, government-appointed inspectors, company-appointed safety committees (with or without ‘union representatives’), and placed in the hands of the workers concerned. As the Ford worker at the centre of the dispute all those years ago commented to me, “It’s not the foreman who’s going to lose an eye if that machine malfunctions – it’s you!”
The struggle for safety on the job was central to the work of building the real fighting unions of the past – the Miners,’ the Seafarers,’ the Watersiders,’ the Meat Workers’ unions. That task needs to be taken up once again.