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Remembering Industrial Deaths

One day in 1906, a 26 year-old father-to-be, working as a groom on a farm in a mining area, entered the lower floor of a barn that was used for keeping animals. The upper floor, which was a granary, was full and overloaded. Suddenly, it collapsed, crushing everything on the floor below. The other farm workers did not know he was there, but there was no sign of him anywhere else. After digging for four hours they were able to uncover his remains. The incident was noted in a four-line summary given by the coroner. His wife said that in less than a year she was a bride, a widow and a mother. The unfortunate young man was my great grandfather.

He wasn’t alone in giving his life at work. In the same town, Barnsley, in South Yorkshire, on December 12th 1866 an explosion at the Oaks Colliery disaster killed at least 360 miners and maybe as many as 383. It was the world’s biggest industrial disaster of the 19th century. A second explosion, so violent that it blew the cage out of the second shaft and lodged it in the headgear, killed a further 27 rescuers the following day. But the pit hadn’t finished yet – though there were no more deaths, it exploded a further 15 times over the following days. It remains the worst mining disaster in England; at the time it was the worst in the world, and remained so for the rest of the century. But it remained virtually unknown for 150 years. Even the names of all those who died were not definitively documented – there were no official records kept by management – and the lists produced differed in the names recorded and the proposed number. Around 170 bodies remained unrecovered and bones were being retrieved for many years after the pit reopened – one manager recalled keeping a stock of bones in his office.

The 'little deaths' – ones and twos – went unrecorded for many years. The large ones had inadequate records. Centuries of people giving their lives in the interests of a flourishing economy – a flourishing of which the working class saw very little – and the best we can do is give a rough estimate, if that. This hardly honours their service, and fails hopelessly to recognise their ultimate sacrifice.

The industrial picture remains massively under-reported today. Official government figures saw the workplace death toll for 2018 is 147, down hugely from 650 when the current HSE records began. But as Steve Tombs reported in 2014, although the HSE headline death toll was given as 133, elsewhere the report noted “there were 264 members of the public fatally injured in accidents connected to work in 2013-14.” This excludes deaths recorded by other agencies – such as those of transport workers and truck drivers, who are listed as RTI Fatalities and average 800-1,000 a year.

At this point roughly 100-150 overall deaths becomes somewhere between 1,000 and 1,300. But this is the thin end of the wedge.

Factor in occupational diseases and deaths from work related illness and the picture becomes truly appalling. HSE estimates 13,000 die every year from lung disease and cancer; long term research by the hazards movement suggests that including occupational and environmental cancers, heart-disease deaths with a work-related cause, and credible scientific estimates of other diseases to which work can be a contributory cause, could bring the number to over 50,000. Going back only to the start of the second industrial revolution, we are talking about millions of lives whose sacrifices have been forgotten – they are not even statistics, not even collateral damage.

Failing to honour this collective sacrifice should shame us, living as we do in the society built on the foundations they laid and died for.

Making the award winning documentary, Black Snow, we were reminded of how important this sacrifice was, how central to working class culture, and how its history should be an important part of the education of today’s young people, and a resource for rebuilding the culture of economically decimated communities. In the face of economic, social and political changes which have eroded the class solidarity of these areas, the importance of this cannot be overestimated and the challenge is to build upon and extend this awareness. The film has had exposure in international competition and through various media outlets – press, magazines, radio, and TV – and around seven million people have now seen or heard about the disaster. But this isn’t enough and the message is bigger and wider, about the future as much as the past. It needs a to include all races for a start, and all classes – at the Oaks, whatever their differences, managers showed bravery alongside workers and suffered the same fate.

On the 28th of April annually, the TUC leads the marking of Worker Memorial Day, an international day of necessary campaigning against hazards and safety that lead to global fatalities at work. This is important and vital, but not what we are proposing here. We need a non-political Workplace Remembrance Day.

Social, economic and political successes were achieved on the back of the service and sacrifice of industrial and support workers no less than military victories – wars are fought between economies as much as armies, after all. It’s time that we, as the UK, made an occasion – a day in the year – to simply and with due respect, remember and bestow deserved dignity on those who served and sacrificed in the non-military everyday. Those who, whether managers, workers, or public servants, on land, underground, on sea or in the air, in a single incident or through long-term effects, expended themselves in the national interest and died trying to make a living.

They deserve no less, and should need to wait no longer.

We think it should be on December 12th, and Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley Central, has raised this with the government. On September 21st at the Labour Party Conference, The Black Snow Roadshow will be showing the film, performing music and poetry, and starting the campaign with the support of legendary journalist Paul Routledge. Over the coming year we hope to roll out the message across the country. We need your support.

Stephen A. Linstead is Professor of Management Humanities at the York Management School, University of York

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