Sunday 13 October 2013

What Pericles Knew about Health and Safety

Pericles always protected his head

Some big construction companies in the UK, notably Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, have this week issued an apology to the thousands of building workers who, for at some point raising a single health and safety issue, were each named on a secret and wholly illegal blacklist shared by the corporations.

The apology and proposal to implement a voluntary compensation scheme are but cynical and self-interested preemptive measures against hundreds of potential legal challenges and huge enforced payouts to men who haven't got work for years.

The blacklist systematically excluded from building sites the very people with the sense to identify danger and the guts to speak up. Their presence might have helped diminish the horrific number of fatalities on British sites: 48 in 2011-12, 39 in 2012-13 but ALREADY  up 60 % on that so far this year.

Concrete Bob
The founder of Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd (a major Conservative Party donor and contractor of the Olympic Stadium) was a Scot sent down the mine at the age of 10. He should have known a thing or two about lethal danger in the workplace. Referred to in the trade as "Concrete Bob", he is also believed to lie behind Bob the Builder. 
Hard-Hatted Bob

But that would be unfair to the fictional Bob, who insists on observing safety rules and would weep at the terrible injuries sustained by Michael O'Donovan (while labouring for McAlpine's macho multi-millionare descendants on the Arsenal Stadium), or the electrocution of a worker on The City of Glasgow College campus earlier this year.

Propylaea from which Pericles' workman fell
Even the ancient Greeks were aware that building work was dangerous and that bosses needed to behave responsibly. According to Plutarch, when Pericles (who famously himself wore a hard hat round the clock) wanted to rebuild the Athenian Acropolis, he hired the voluntary labour of free poor citizens rather than coercing slaves. 

When one--an energetic and committed employee--fell from the top of the Propylaea, incurring horrible wounds, Pericles was devastated. The doctors gave up on the patient, but Pericles received medical instructions from Athena in a dream. He personally saw to it that her instructions were implemented. The man recovered fully and Pericles set up a beautiful statue to Athena the Healer on the Acropolis itself.

Cullum McAlpine, Blacklist Operator
I am sure Plutarch's picture of the powerful man personally concerned with the safety of manual labourers contains elements of fantasy. Many thousands of workers--mostly slaves--must have been killed in the ancient construction industries. But the very existence of the narrative, and of that statue symbolising the duty of bosses to look after the health of workers in their employment, shows an understanding of basic human decency conspicuously lacking from the companies who compiled that cynical blacklist. I will be sending a copy of Plutarch's Life of Pericles, together with a hoplite helmet, to Cullum McAlpine, charisma-free current Director of the company, later today.

PS Would the unknown individual who hacked into this blog this week and deleted it entirely, from a location in Plymouth, Massachusetts, please explain the reason?


  1. Some excellent points in this article.. and I hope whoever deleted your blog apologised!?

    Laura, Work Claims Solicitors

    1. Thanks for bothering to write and approve, Laura. No, I have not received any further information about my invisible self-appointed censor...