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Monday, September 12, 2005


Legislating against the sun

I wish I were writing about proposals to limit the effect of The Sun on British public life.

Sadly not. This is about the now rejected proposals to include solar radiation in EU health and safety at work legislation. I have very little to say about this, except to point out the tenor of the arguments used to defeat this legislation for worker protection.

First, most reports (as with the Yahoo! News item linked to) presented it as applying to a group of workers unwilling or undeserving of legislative protection, rather than being applied to bosses who expose their workers to a damaging environment. The harm is presented as trivial, being a ‘tan ban’ with pictures of bare barmaids bosoms and builders bums, rather than pictures of malignant melanomas.

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Yes, I would rather see a picture of a busty barmaid, or even a builder’s backside, but that you haven’t seen a single picture like this in the news* demands this picture appear.

No where are there comments from union leaders, or doctors specialising in skin cancers. The comments from outraged bosses and conservative politicians far outweigh the voices of those arguing for the inclusion of exposure to solar radiation at work being included in the aspects of the work environment that bosses have a duty to their workers to offer them protection. Indeed, unless we are thinking hard, we would not even see that this is what the proposed legislation meant. It did not mean ‘legislating against the sun’, as one Liberal Democrat MEP on BBC News 24 idiotically asserted, any more than the provision of safety harnesses in work at height as mandated by health and safety legislation involves legislation against gravity. Indeed, this Lib Dem then argued that the legislation would leave bosses faces compensation claims when workers developed skin cancers, asking ‘how could we tell if the cancer was the result of work or sunbathing on holiday?’ I recall the same sort of argument used against all manner of work-related illnesses. She is part of an ignoble tradition, and I am so glad that I was a member of the Lib Dems for only a very brief spell. A decent society would firstly install legislation to protect workers at work and then ensure that the healthcare and welfare services ensured that all who suffer illness and disability are provided for whether blame can be apportioned in court or not. But no, we will hurtle towards an American model where, with a private, pay-for healthcare system and welfare provision that is the disgrace of the civilised world, lawsuit compensation is a societal necessity.

We have laws that demand that bosses protect their workers from harmful environments. The sun is a source of cancer, the risk it poses will increase, and, given that we spend most of our daylight hours in the workplace, it is in the workplace where we face the greatest cumulative risk. Setting out the boss’ obligation to his or her workforce is conditions where the workforce will be exposed to direct sunlight is not ‘barmy’. It is entirely within the tradition of health and safety regulation which recognises the disparity in social and economic power between the boss and the employee, and works to protect the latter where he or she may be unable to do so themselves.

Of course, you may be of the mind that there should be no such thing as health and safety regulations. As Irish conservative Avril Doyle is quoted as saying, invoking common sense; “If ultimately I get skin cancer through irresponsible choices despite all the health warnings, should my employers be left to carry the can?” Nicely missing the point of the proposed legislation, displaying remarkably adeptness is the political skill of misrepresentation, she switches this into an issue of ‘personal responsibility’. Would she use the same argument against all health and safety legislation? My guess is that she would, at least in her private conversations. But it this legislation is not about that, not at all. It asks the question, “as an employer, am I responsible for assessing the dangers posed by the working conditions that I demand my employees labour in? Am I responsible for putting in place reasonable measures to protect my employees where there is some level of danger?”

Within our European tradition, the answer is emphatically ‘yes’. You might want to change this, and adopting the tactic of deceptively painting the risk posed by sunlight as unlike other workplace risks might be a way of sliding the thin edge of the wedge under our hard-won and labour-politics built institution of employee safety enshrined in law. But you will be deceptive, and you will be my enemy. Though, I will concede, the Lib Dem MEP who I quoted above may simply be dim.

*You may have seen this picture in the context of consumer news, suggesting that we cover up with regards to our consumption of holiday (products), or, perhaps more sinisterly when we consider the grossly misleading ‘personal responsibilities’ gang are in the political ascendancy, with regard to our consumption of healthcare (products). You will not have seen this picture in the context of industrial news – the vastly more important setting that governs the majority of our waking day (never mind our hours of daylight). And they say that the media is left-wing? Bollocks, it is old-style liberal, and those who make accusations of ‘socialism’ either make fools of themselves or hide a very nasty right-wing agenda.

Any idea who the idiot Lib Dem was? Please let it have been Sharon Bowles.
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