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Work makes you sick

As the planet’s eco-systems cannot cope with the stress imposed on them by capitalist forms of production, human beings are bound to be similarly affected. That is reflected in the fact that 2.8 million people in Britain claim what until recently was called incapacity benefit.

To reflect New Labour’s insistence that work is good for you, whatever the price in human terms, the benefit has been renamed “Employment and Support Allowance”. All new claimants must complete an assessment of their capacity to work and by 2010, all existing claimants will need to “sit the test”. Only those who know they are going to die soon or are so disabled that nobody could expect them to work (even benefits minister James Parnell) will be exempt.

People deemed capable of work could have their benefits cut if they don’t find a job. But only about £3 per person has been allocated to help people retrain and track down a job. Only around 50% of people who are registered disabled have a job and when they are in work they earn on average far less than other workers.

And the big question is how many people currently unable to work are in that situation because of their experience of Britain’s dangerous work environment?

For example, the death rate from asbestos-related mesothelioma and lung cancer is around 7,000 a year and it is still rising. Though asbestos is now banned, there are still millions of tons of the stuff in office buildings, factories, prisons, ships and shopping centres – sooner or later it will have to be removed. Around 250,000 Britons will die from asbestos before the death rate finally begins to decline.

The chemical industry is the UK 's largest manufacturing sector, with a turnover of £41 billion, employing more than 400,000 people. As many as 10,000 commercial chemicals are hazardous, of which 150-200 may cause cancer.

Around 4,000 building workers die each year from accidents and industrial diseases. Hazards they face include asbestos, musculo-skeletal disorders, falls, slips and tips and noise. Diseases they face include dermatitis, asthma, and emphysema.

There are between 1,500 to 3,000 new cases of occupational asthma every year, rising to 7,000 if you include pre-existing asthma made worse by work.

Exposure to noise at work is a significant occupational hazard. Research suggests that 170,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions as a result of exposure to excessive noise.

People exposed to high levels of vibration – such as miners, road workers and people operating a range of machinery – can suffer serious impairments of their hands, arms and backs. A Medical Research Council survey in 1997-98 estimated 301,000 people suffer from vibration white finger (VWF) in Britain.

And finally, since the government implies that many of the people claiming incapacity benefit are simply shirkers, there is the crippling effect of stress at work. In research carried out in 2001-02 it was found that 5 million UK workers suffer stress at work and half a million believed it made them ill. The Samaritans, which counsels people thinking about taking their own lives, says that work is the biggest single cause of stress.

As Karl Marx explained, there is a major difference between work freely done with passion and enthusiasm, for a common end, and work that simply supports the production of profit. The first is “a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life”. But, presupposing private property, “my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life”. Or as William Morris argued, useful work not useless toil, is what a fair, equal, democratic society aspires to provide.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
13 November 2008

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