Kings Cross Tube Fire 25 years on

Health and Safety, Fight Club and neo-liberal logic

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Subjects: Modern History (Post World War II), Workers Organisations & Strikes
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Today (18th Nov 2012) is the 25th anniversary of the fire at Kings Cross tube station which killed 31 people and injured over 100 (see . The fire was ‘blamed’ at the time on a lit match which fell below the escalator and began the deadly inferno. The fire and subsequent inquiry led to the banning of smoking in stations, the phasing out of wooden escalators and forced London Underground to invest in heat and smoke detection systems, automatic sprinkler systems, CCTV and improved public address systems.

What is less known about is the campaign by Tube workers to highlight the cuts to the numbers of cleaners of the tube network machinery that had been underway before the fire. Union members were even leafletting commuters at Kings Cross days _before_ the disaster warning them of the dangers to safety of reducing these important staff and their activities. Unsurprisingly this fact and the Union campaign was passed over by most of the mainstream media at the time.

The Kings Cross fire was a sign of the re-introduction of a neo-liberal philosphy which marked a different approach to health and safety. The history of health and safety under ‘free market’ capitalism particularly on the railways in the Victorian era was characterised by reacting to disasters rather than acting to prevent them. The capitalist logic is simple. Reduce or prevent extra cost to maintain profits. In the 19th Century often several similar serious accidents would have to happen before companies were compelled to change their standards and practices. Bridges fell down, trains derailed and crashed before anything was done to prevent forseeable accidents. Regulation was introduced in retrospect, as if safety was something to be discovered rather than designed for.

This flawed health and safety philosophy does not just relate to potential disasters but known problems. As is explained so cynically in the film ‘Fight Club’ even when corporations are aware of real dangers they will often ‘do the sums’ around cost to decide the best course of action _within their capitalist logic_ and despite the human suffering. In the film the narrator explains this succinctly:

Narrator: /A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one./

Business woman on plane: /Are there a lot of these kinds of accidents?/

Narrator: /You wouldn’t believe./

Business woman on plane: /Which car company do you work for?/

Narrator: /A major one. /

This excerpt is no fantasy but based on the actual behaviour of major automobile corporations in the US in the 1950s and 60s which was exposed by activists campaigning for the introduction of seat belts. Design faults in cars (such as badly located and protected fuel tanks exploding in accidents) were not corrected on the basis that the total cost of out of court settlements for the dead and injured was less than re-designing current models and retro-fitting existing vehicles. The owners of the corporations did not sit back when the campaigners pointed these facts out, instead they launched clandestine surveillance on the activists, threats and press smears in order to discredit and silence them. All of this was within the logic of capitalism, rather than being the work of ‘evil’ people.

If you think this is just ‘history’ then I can assure you from experience in the aerospace industry that such practices are alive and well. The combination of deregulation, insurance and cost savings means that most (if not all) manufacturers regularly factor in ‘Fight Club’ sums to determine their business and design practice regardless of the human cost. If they do introduce new safety measures then you can be assured it is not the actions of a ‘good’ capitalist but purely based on this cold logic.

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