Following the first fire brigade strike of 2013 over proposed pension changes, a short look at how injury and incapacity unites all manual workers.
Who's watching whose back?
Being a manual worker, the firefighters latest 4 hour strike has been a source of inspiration; maybe a little desperate, a little tokenistic - but when no one else is standing up for the issues around pension age like they are, it still serves as inspiration. Manual workers possibly more than any other workers can identify with the FBU struggle for a reasonable pension age for firefighters. This is not to say those with less physically demanding jobs aren't subject work related injuries - in fact transport workers top the tables for repetitive strain injuries.
Currently, the government is trying to change the pensionable age of firefighters from 55 to 60 years old - and make them pay more for the pleasure. The job is much the same as as other manual workers, in that it demands high levels of physical fitness in order to perform, with no cosy fall back job for when your spinal column looks like cornflakes. Indeed, as a FBU spokesperson forecasted, "...up to two-thirds of firefighters will face the sack in their late 50’s as a result before they can even reach their new pension age."
And it's not just the firefighters facing the sack on capability grounds (an inability to carry out your day to day duties at work), there has been an increase throughout the country of employers using the capability route in preference over early retirement for manual workers who are unable to perform like their former, younger selves.
There's just no getting away from the fact that some jobs will, if carried out long enough, seriously damage your health. Be it firefighting or a huge list of other heavy-lifting jobs where workers may well be incapacitated before retirement age, there is a natural class imperative to fight for the reduction of the retirement age. Bollocks to 60; in fact, bollocks to 55!
And as the firefighters switch from putting their jobs on the line in this struggle against raising their pension age, the world around them is undergoing a phenomenon known as presenteeism, where people show up to work ill rather than go off sick. One study titled Why do employees come to work when ill? reported "...sickness presence was more prevalent than sickness absence: 45 per cent of employees reported one or more days of sickness presence compared with 18 per cent reporting sickness absence over the same period. Three factors, two of which were work related, were significantly linked with higher levels of sickness presence, including:
• Personal financial difficulties;
• Work-related stress;
• Perceived workplace pressure (from senior managers, line managers and colleagues) to attend work when unwell."
Fear of being sacked for having what might be considered a poor sick record has seen a trend in the number of days lost to sickness fall from 2000 to the present. The years 2011/12 saw 27 million days lost to work-related illness and injury, with 7.5 million days lost to musculoskeletal disorders. With the ever-present threat of companies paying off staff, even workers on waiting lists for knee and hip replacements are limping in with heavy colds.
ACAS have boasted that a contributory factor towards presenteeism is managerial improvements in dealing with sickness absence. There is much truth in this, if this is to be considered an improvement. However, ACAS go on to say that the major cause is fear - the fear of being dismissed. And for many, this fear isn't irrational. Employment laws changed for the worse in 2012, tightening the qualification rules for unfair dismissal tribunals, in what is tantamount to an attack on the working class, the laws made to protect those at the bottom are becoming harder to access. Interestingly, the majority of the days lost in work-related illness in 2011/12 was due to stress, depression and anxiety.
We're all in this together
And it's with this fear that we are seeing more and more unfit workers soldier on; not just the building workers I work with, but no doubt firefighters too. And that in itself can exacerbate musculoskeletal injuries; so not only are you killing yourself trying to come in, but when they do finish you on the grounds of capability, you're in a worse state for it. This isn't hypothetical, it's happening now. And as the FBU has pointed out - it is an age thing. A Health and Safety Executive report on musculoskeletal disorders reported that " ...in 2011/12 the estimated prevalence of back disorders was 97 000 cases for males and 79 000 females. There is no statistical significant difference between the gender-specific prevalence rates. For all persons, the age group 16 - 34 has a statistically significantly lower rate of back disorders than the other age groups in 2011/12."
Construction workers represent the majority of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. They far outnumber firefighters, and yet our pathetic unions remain silent. The firefighters struggle isn't a single issue; problems like presenteeism and state law reform in favour of the bosses effects every worker whether they are office-bound or digging the roads.
The firefighters have shown the way - striking over this disgraceful attempt to raise the pension age (and thus raising the amount of sackings due to injuries) is a just cause that all workers should support, and especially those in construction. But with the current public attitude towards workers they perceive as better off than themselves fighting their own corner under duress, being that of outrage and reaction, doesn't bode well as an indicator of future solidarity. Alone and currently only dipping their toes in the water of industrial struggle, the FBU is very likely to wish they never bothered calling a strike. But that doesn't detract from the reality that some workers are treat like beasts of burden - once you're unable to work, you're knackered. All power to the firefighters for just highlighting the plight of all manual workers.