Today—28 April—is International Workers Memorial Day when workers and their trade unions round the world, remember everyone killed at work. It’s a day to mourn the dead and demand better health and safety, better conditions and that if the worst happens that employers accept responsibility and pay proper compensation to workers’ families.
The history of fatal and serious accidents for every countries’ workers is very long. In Iceland, the highest numbers of deaths were probably amongst fishers—men and women—who were most likely to drown or die of cold. But farm workers also got killed collecting “scurvy grass” from cliffs, which was needed for its vitamin C. Women, whose work was washing clothes in rivers or geothermal hot water pools, drowned or suffered fatal burns.
Terrible conditions and weather caused accidents and often people assume these are historical events and don’t happen now. But in February this year one man was hospitalised and another died when hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide got into their accommodation through the water supply of the fish factory that employed them in Reykjanes, South West Iceland.
A worker running the Bæjarins bestu hot dogs kiosk in Reykjavik last September narrowly escaped being crushed when a crane from the building site adjacent collapsed against the door of the small building. The timber that the crane was carrying landed in the carp park next to it and Bæjarins bestu’s staff member had to get out by climbing through the window.
And in April last year fisherman Ólafur Jóhannes Friðriksson died when he fell overboard from a fishing boat in Húnaflói bay, Northwest Iceland.
It is easy to say accidents will always happen, but they are much more likely where workers are pushed to speed up, where companies cut corners to save money or small fishing boats lack the latest safety equipment. Internationally there is a growing problem of suicide among workers and small farmers driven to despair by overwork and too little pay.
Trade unionised work places are safer workplaces. But to drastically reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries suffered at work, we are going to have to challenge the system that puts profit before safety and ordinary people’s lives, wherever they are.