Ever since its formation in 1868, the TUC has campaigned for laws to protect the health and safety of workers. A big breakthrough came in 1974 when the Health and Safety at Work Act was passed.
As a result, for the first time, trade union health and safety reps were given the legal right to improve health and safety in the workplace. We talk to Malcolm Mellow, one of those safety reps, who tells us how an early work-based accident sparked more than 40 years of working as a union safety rep.
You’ve been involved in health and safety since the very beginning of the regulations but can you start by telling us what things were like before?
When I was 15 I started working in a bakery. That was back in the early 1970s, before the Health and Safety at Act. All sorts of things went on. Flour was delivered in 70lb and 100lb bags and we had to carry them through the bakery and up the stairs to feed into an industrial sieve that filtered it back down to the bakery mixers. There were competitions to see who could carry the most – we’d be expected to carry up to 490lb of flour.
That sounds dangerous!
It was. Alongside that no thought was given to the flour and dust we were breathing or the impact the cleaning products and other chemicals might have. Dough would be fed into a moulding machine which would create the loaves, within it there was a conveyor belt with a metal clip joint. There were no guards on the machine and if the dough got stuck we had to put our hands in and pull it out. One day my arm got pulled into the machine and badly injured. I was 15 then and I am 60 now but I still have the scars. That accident sparked my interest in health and safety.
What did you do?
Although I was young I was already a member of a union and knew what to do. My dad worked in the quarries and had always been involved in his union so I grew up in a union family. I became a union rep and worked with the bakery owners to make changes to the safety practices.
And it’s been a bit of a passion for you since.
It has. I left the bakery and followed my Dad into the quarries and I have been working in the industry ever since. I first became a union safety rep in the quarry where I worked in January 1977; I have been my company’s most senior safety rep for well over 30 years. We have over 1000 employees over a number of sites and part of my role is to make sure everyone knows the safety rules, we have effective inspections, safety meetings and access to all the training needed.
And your work has had an impact outside of your company.
Yes. I have produced guidance and training for safety reps to use during inspections. I have also been involved in the development of training packages delivered by the TUC. I am a member of the Quarries National Joint Advisory Committee and I sit on their board and working groups, involved in setting up safety targets for the whole industry.
It sounds like things have come a long way in the last four decades
Things are very different from how they were when I started work, but there is still much to be done. I was at a Unite campaign meeting recently where we learned about workplace deaths amongst young people. Getting the next generation of workers briefed on safety issues and involved in improving safety needs to be a priority.