Fatal accident bill too important to let fail

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TODAY MY colleague Patricia Ferguson MSP has launched her proposal to reform the law on fatal accidents at work. I’ll be supporting her Members Bill as I believe that existing legislation is outdated and needs to be modernised.

It currently takes far too long for Fatal Accident Inquiries to be held and the emphasis is on finding out what happened rather than making sure that lessons learned are acted upon.

The current process is totally lacking in transparency and families whose loved ones are killed at work can be left in the dark for years about both the circumstances in which their family member has died, and about whether there will be a proper investigation. Their former colleagues may have to continue to go to work without knowing exactly what happened and without lessons having been learned following a fatal incident. Survivors are left without the closure that they need and without the knowledge that others will not be put at a similar risk in the future.

Here in Edinburgh the family and colleagues of Ewan Williamson, the only firefighter to die in the line of duty for Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service, are still waiting for answers about what happened on the 12th of July 2009. Ewan died as he and fellow firefighters were tackling a fire in the Balmoral Bar in Dalry Road.

Although criminal charges have been brought against the new Scottish Fire Service, Ewan’s family and his Fire Brigades Union colleagues still do not know what happened. There should be no delay in identifying what could be learned so that firefighters are better protected in the future.

Patricia’s interest was initiated by the Stockline disaster and she fought for a public inquiry to make sure that lessons were learned from the tragedy.

Nine people died following an explosion at the Stockline plastics factory in Glasgow. Although the company were prosecuted for health and safety failures, the families of the victims had to campaign for a public inquiry to find out exactly what happened. The current fatal accident inquiry system failed them and vital lessons were not learned.

The issue about learning lessons is crucial. In the fatal accident inquiry following the 1989 Bellgrove rail disaster, evidence was led about the problem of trains entering a single track not stopping at signals indicating danger. Although there was a Sheriff’s recommendation to address the issue it was not acted upon. Two years later the Newton rail disaster occurred with more lives lost after a signal was passed at danger. That’s why the introduction of my colleague’s bill is so important.

We need legislation to deliver transparency for families and survivors and clear deadlines for the Lord Advocate to take forward so that vital years are not lost before lessons are learned. Judicial weight is needed to ensure that recommendations for safety improvements are implemented.

I hope the “Inquiries into Deaths (Scotland) Bill” will gain enough cross-party support to be debated and passed by the Scottish Parliament so we can make sure that when a life is lost at work there is a transparent process which ensures not just that we find out what happened but that action is taken to make workplaces safer. The importance of this bill cannot be underestimated.

Sarah Boyack is a Lothians MSP