A Tribute to Alan Dalton
Fearless campaigner who took on deadly industries.
Alan Dalton, the veteran safety and environmental campaigner and under-their-skin irritant to dangerous industries and their friends, has died aged 57.
Trained as a chemist, Dalton initially worked in the pharmaceutical industry, but soon decided health was not something made, bottled and sold, but was something won by informed and organised struggle.
He paid a price for promoting this approach. Over the years Dalton was sued and bankrupted for attacking the asbestos industry, “greylisted” by the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for exposing its shortcomings and secrecy and fired from the board of the Environment Agency for failing to embrace a cosy but unhealthy consensus.
His transformation from chemist to campaigner began early. By the late 1960s Dalton was the workplace safety and environmental campaigner for the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS). While there, he was one of a small group behind a new grassroots safety magazine, Hazards Bulletin, created as unions for the first time were given legal rights to participate in workplace safety.
Dalton knew that the new generation of union safety reps with legal rights also needed union arguments and support to convert rights into influence. It was part of a grassroots political awakening that was cautious of the “information is power” mantra that spurred the emerging global environmental and workplace movement’s “right-to-know” campaigns.
Instead, Dalton subscribed to a more political philosophy. As Canadian labour academic Bob Sass described it at the time: “Information isn’t power. Information is information. Power is power.”
If he wanted proof of this, it soon came. Leading the BSSRS asbestos campaign through the 1970s, Dalton knew the asbestos industry had money and influence and had resisted successfully attempts to impose stricter, more protective workplace exposure standards. The industry was also doing a pretty good job of putting a healthy gloss on what was already emerging as the most effective industrial killer of all times – responsible for more lost lives than the Black Death. From the mid-1970s the UK’s national newspapers were carrying full page adverts telling us “We need asbestos,” a claim criticised even then by the Advertising Standards Authority.
The industry campaign was aided by the co-option of its scientific and medical critics. Many ended their careers hundreds of thousands of pounds richer as a result. Standing up to the asbestos industry could, by contrast, be costly.
Asbestos killer dust, Dalton’s 1979 campaigning book on the industry’s charm offensive, landed him in court when he was sued for libel by Dr Robert Murray OBE, a doctor, one-time Manchester University lecturer and government medical inspector criticised in the book for his pro-industry views and advocacy of asbestos “safe use.” Dalton lost, although more as a result of England’s generous libel laws than any errors of fact, and Murray was awarded £500. Murray’s £30,000 legal bill, however, left Dalton and Hazards Bulletin bankrupt.
Murray, later to become a paid asbestos industry consultant, is now dead and discredited and Dalton’s charges have been repeated as fact in leading, peer-reviewed medical journals. This moral victory was not much comfort to Dalton, who saw the asbestos industry secure more breathing space for its breath-taking product. It was two decades after the publication of Asbestos killer dust that asbestos was banned in the UK. The global asbestos trade remains, using the same PR techniques and arguments to push its products to the developing world.
Bankruptcy didn’t silence Dalton. Hazards Bulletin was replaced, seamlessly, by Hazards magazine, and continued to provide a vehicle for Alan’s worker-friendly arguments. Throughout the 1980s, as a journalist at the Labour Research Department, a trade union safety tutor and later as a lecturer in occupational health at South Bank University, he continued to champion grassroots workplace and environmental activism.
His lecturing techniques caused some consternation among the more blueblood parents of university undergraduates – course work included placard-waving attendance at safety protests outside the Health and Safety Executive and dangerous workplaces.
By the mid-1990s, Dalton was health, safety and environment coordinator for the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), where he nurtured a new network of union safety reps and forced environmental issues to the centre of the union agenda.
While at TGWU, he had little time for the prevailing “consensus” and “partnership” approach to safety that asserts safety is in everybody’s interest. A committed trade unionist, he believed people joined unions because they stood up for workers’ health and safety, not because they compromised all the way from government committees to the shopfloor. In his January 2000 book, Consensus kills, he argued there was a straightforward issue of profit versus safety. He said unions and their members have to fight for safety - safety is a major reason people join unions, stay in unions and one of the top reasons they will take industrial action.
Dalton had many run-ins with government safety and environmental institutions. Sometimes he attempted to bludgeon them into submission – and he frequently succeeded. A three-year stint as a “community representative” on the board of the Environment Agency ended in 2002 after he rocked the boat so effectively and unremittingly he was fired.
He had many, many successes. When he became frustrated at the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) lack of openness about its enforcement record against Britain’s workplace safety criminals, he demanded the information under its “open government” policy. Open government came at a cost – he was told the charge for the information would be £226,399.41.
HSE was stung by the extensive press coverage arising from this less-than-freedom of information policy, particularly when Dalton reinforced the message with a string of successful Ombudsman’s complaints. HSE now publishes an annual online “naming and shaming” dossier of its enforcement record.
Long before Enron brought a general expectation of corporate accountability, Dalton was arguing for jail sentences for dangerously negligent employers. At an HSE press conference in the late 1980s he quizzed HSE top brass about why it was possible to get jail time for non-payment of a TV licence fine yet no employer had ever been jailed after the death of a worker – construction alone was killing 150 workers a year at that time. HSE officials laughed and said it was not possible under existing laws.
Over a decade of campaigning later, several directors have served jail time under those same laws, and the business-friendly Labour administration is promising a corporate manslaughter law.
Dalton could be tough on his friends as well as his foes - “keeping our feet to the fire” - making sure we remembered what we were doing and why.
Most of his real work was away from the public gaze – supporting workers facing victimisation or work-related disease; as an inspirational trade union safety tutor; providing support to bereaved relatives with hard information and soft words.
In the age of mobile phones and wi-fi, where a journalist could conduct an entire career from a Starbucks, Dalton believed in face-to-face contact and backed it up with information and support, in many instances for years.
His influence crossed many borders. The Kentish Town house he shared for 30 years with his partner, Eve Barker and their girls, Liza, Claudia and Nicola, was a global stopping off point on the international labour movement circuit.
His three decades of campaigning were recognised last month when he become the first recipient of the Construction Safety Campaign's Robert Tressell Award and was elected as a Fellow of the Collegium Ramazzini, the world's most prestigious occupational medicine society.
Always forwarded looking, his latest project was DIRT, a grassroots environmental campaign tabloid. He was working on issue 2 until three weeks before his death.
Alan James Patrick Dalton, born May 30 1946; died December 11 2003.
December 12, 2003