You may may not be aware of it but today is International Workers’ Memorial Day and for the first time the UK government is to officially recognise it. This official acknowledgement is a landmark for those who have campaigned for the whole country to remember all those killed at work.

The day will also act as a powerful focus to help reduce risks and protect people from injury in the workplace. International Workers’ Memorial Day originated in Canada but, since 1989, trade unions in the USA, Asia, Europe and Africa have organised events on and around 28 April. The intention is to focus and reflect on workplace illness, injury and death and their causes.

John Holden, President of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), said:

“We welcome the government’s intention to formally recognise International Workers’ Memorial Day. Last year, 180 people were killed in workplace accidents in the UK, and around 246,000 workers were injured. In 2007, 2,156 mesothelioma deaths were linked to exposure to asbestos – a figure that is likely to rise over the coming years.”

Over the last decade in the UK, 61 under-19s have been killed at work. Manchester teenager Steven Burke was one of them…

Lack of supervision takes a young life

Steven Burke, from Levenshulme, in Manchester, was like any other 17-year-old, with a lifetime and career ahead of him. He had a love of karate, a martial art he had been practising since the age of five. Steven’s father, Bernard, said: “He used to do karate about three or four times a week”.

Steven also had dreams of one day becoming a fully qualified scaffolder and maybe even opening up his own business. He had recently started working as a trainee scaffolder but, on 30 January 2004, Steven’s life was taken by the workplace.

The 17-year-old’s trainee job had taken him to the Davyhulme Waste Water Treatment Plant, where he was completing the construction of a scaffold inside an empty 20 metre high sewage digester tank.

Steven was in a four-man team completing the birdcage scaffold when he fell 10-16 metres. He died in Wythenshawe hospital as a result of serious head and abdominal injuries sustained from the fall.

Speaking of how he and his family have coped since the loss of their son, Bernard Burke said:

“I coped as well as I could, but my wife had a nervous breakdown and it’s only been about a month since she came off prescription pills because of it. She’s only just recovering, six years after Steven’s death”.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector found that there was a substandard method of scaffolding construction, a lack of safety measures, inadequate supervision and emergency procedures. There was a lack of secure ladders, guardrails and toe-boards on the scaffolding, as well as issues with the safety harnesses, that contributed to the scaffolding being well below industry standards approved by the HSE.

It was also found that the person supervising was no more qualified than Steven, and that the four-man crew were doing work that wouldn’t have been necessary had the scaffolding been built in the correct way.

Steven’s employers were found guilty of various offences under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Challenging employers who cut corners with the health and safety of their employees, especially young workers, Steven’s dad said:

“If Steven’s death highlights anything, it’s that there is a need for more supervision of young workers. There was no supervision, they moved him from one job to another and the job was done to short standards.”

Steven’s mum, Barbara, added:

“Steven was far too young to die and we want employers to act now to prevent other young people being killed at work by their negligence.”

Steven’s family is one of many families campaigning for Families Against Corporate Killing (FACK – and although the Burkes have been shattered by the loss of their son, they want his story to be told to stop other young workers, and those inexperienced in the working world, from being killed simply for doing their job.