The steelworks at Port Talbot. Photo: Getty Images
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The government and Tata Steel are sleepwalking into the first steel strike in decades

The emphatic ballot in favour of industrial action at Tata Steel must serve as a wake-up call.

The Port Talbot steel works in my constituency is owned by Tata Steel, a Mumbai-based company that employs almost 17,000 steel workers across the length and breadth of the UK. There are 4,000 steel workers in Port Talbot, and more than twice that number of jobs in my constituency depend on the steel works through its supply chains. The Port Talbot steel works has been the beating heart of our community for generations, and its output is of critical importance to the local, Welsh and British economies.

On Saturday 9 May a thousand steel workers from the Tata works in Port Talbot gathered in the Princess Royal theatre in central Port Talbot. The auditorium was packed to the rafters, and I was proud to have the opportunity to address the rally from be on the platform, alongside Aberavon Welsh Assembly Member David Rees and trade union representatives of the workforce. There was just one item on our agenda: Tata Steel’s proposal to close the British Steel Pension Scheme. Following the rally I joined the workforce and their families on a march through the centre of town. It was a strong show of unity from a community whose fortunes are intimately bound up with those of the steelworks.

This display of strength sent a clear and defiant message to the leadership at Tata Steel: hands off our pensions. Unfortunately that message was not heeded, and so the trade unions were left with no choice but to ballot their members.

On Friday the ballot papers were counted, and the result could not have been more emphatic: in total 88 per cent have voted in favour of strike action nationally, and that number went up to 96 per cent in Port Talbot itself. National turn-out was 76 per cent, and in Port Talbot that number went up to 84 per cent.

The workforce is not planning to strike over pay or conditions, but over the withdrawal of a pension deal that the older workers have been promised for decades.

If the resounding vote in favour of industrial action is a first in the steel industry since the 1980s, it should come as no surprise that the move was so popular. The proposal to raise the pensionable age for Tata employees from 60 to 65 shows a lack of understanding of the reality of what it takes to produce steel. The fact is that the tough physical labour involved in steel working makes it incompatible with advancing age.

Tata Steel employees, working long shifts in challenging conditions for decades, have always been able to look forward to the prospect of retirement at 60, should they wish to take it. Those workers rightly feel let down by Tata Steel’s proposal to close the pension scheme that has formed the basis of their retirement plans since they joined the company.

The typical steel worker works a 12 hour day, often in precarious settings whether at the top of a crane or in extreme heat. Caster operators have to wear heat proof jackets, gloves and face shields for the entirety of their shifts in case they come into contact with the high temperatures or asbestos which was used as a heat proofer in the original construction of the works.  They operate around dangerous chemicals; instances of lung cancer are higher among steel workers than in the general population. The mental strain of much of the work is just as serious as the physical strain; industrial accidents are often the result of momentary lapses in concentration and can mean death. This is high-risk work, which deserves certain pension guarantees. Allowing these workers to choose to retire at 60 is not only reasonable, it’s necessary if Tata are to avoid injuries and potential deaths among the workforce. I will open myself up to accusations of ageism here and say that there is an age at which is too old to safely work in certain positions at a steel plant.

The Port Talbot steel works is one of the largest in Europe, and is central to the UK’s manufacturing sector. It is therefore vital to our national economy that this conflict is resolved, but unfortunately there is a real risk that Tata Steel will continue to sleep-walk into the first steel strike since the 1980s. My fervent hope now is that this thumping vote in favour of industrial action will act as a wake-up call that will bring Tata Steel management back to the negotiating table in good faith.

The Tata Steel workforce has demonstrated its readiness to compromise, including a cap on future earnings growth in exchange for keeping the early retirement clause. This represented a real sacrifice on the part of the younger workers who have already been barred from the pension scheme that includes the early retirement clause.  But it was a sacrifice that I know the younger workers in Port Talbot were happy to make, in solidarity with their older colleagues.

Steel underpins a vast range of other industries, and as such it is truly a Foundation Industry. Just look around you: from power generation and transmission to rail, shipbuilding, construction, white goods, automotive, consumer products, all depend on steel. It is no exaggeration to say that the quality of our national infrastructure and economic growth goes hand-in-hand with the future of the steel industry.

Our steel industry is also crucial to our prestige as a nation; without a steel industry would we even qualify as a leading industrial nation? What would the loss of this strategic industry mean to our membership of the G8?

I therefore urge the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to act now. The PM should be encouraging the leadership of the Tata Group in Mumbai to engage more actively with this crisis, and the Secretary of State should be exhorting their colleagues in Tata Steel Europe to return to the negotiating table. There is still time to pull this conflict back from the brink.

Sustainable industrial strength in the 21st century requires us to have a motivated, healthy, confident and productive workforce. The Port Talbot steel works is a beacon of high quality manufacturing. It is British industry at its best.

Let’s resolve this conflict and get back to business.

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Tetris and sleep deprivation: how we can help emergency workers cope with trauma

First responders are at serious risk of developing PTSD during events like the Paris attacks. 

Some people seem able to deal with anything. They save a stranger from bleeding out in a bombed restaurant, protect passers-by from heavily armed gunmen, pull dead and dying people out of collapsed buildings, and they keep going because it is their job. These people are first responders.

When trauma goes on for days, as it has recently in Paris, however, the odds of them bouncing back from the violence, death and injury they are witnessing rapidly diminishes. They are at greater risk of developing a severe stress reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One study found that the worldwide rate of PTSD among first responders is 10 per cent, much higher than the 3.5 per cent rate among those not involved in rescue work.

Tetris to the rescue

So how best to address the problem? Research is in its infancy, but there are some promising studies. Emily Holmes’ group at the University of Cambridge has been looking at the benefits of playing Tetris, a video game, after a traumatic experience. The idea is that this could block the consolidation of traumatic memories so they don’t “flash back” later on.

For the study, her team first traumatised people by showing them distressing footage from public safety videos. The next day they invited them back into the lab to reactivate the memories with still images taken from the videos. One group then played Tetris for 12 minutes while the other sat quietly. Over the following week, the group who played Tetris had about 50 per cent fewer unwanted memories from the films compared to the group who didn’t.

The team concluded that playing Tetris helped individuals because it soaks up their visual processing capacity, making it harder for the brain to consolidate the visual parts of a traumatic memory.

Since it takes about six hours for the brain to cement a memory, the key is to play the game soon after trauma or within six hours of re-activating the traumatic memory. How long the helpful effects of playing Tetris will last and whether it will translate into helping people after real-life trauma is still unknown.

Talking it through

Other techniques, such as “updating”, taken from a highly-effective talking treatment for PTSD, may be more practical and easier to implement.

Like a detective, updating is a technique that focuses on finding new information and linking it to the case, the past memory. This is necessary because when the brain and body are in survival mode during trauma, the mind finds it difficult to encode all the relevant facts. Often key pieces of information that could make the memory less traumatic are lost. Updating links new information to someone’s memory of their trauma to make it less upsetting.

But can updating help to reduce unwanted memories after trauma?

We carried out a study, published in PLOS ONE, in which we traumatised people by showing them terrifying films of humans and animals in distress. We then divided our participants into three groups. One group watched the films again but were given new information about how long people suffered and whether or not they lived or died – essentially, they were updated. The second group watched the same films again but without the new information. And the third group watched films of humans and animals who were not in distress. The updated group had fewer traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms than the other two groups.

Updating is now being used by some UK emergency services. First responders will gather after critical incidents and update their memories of what happened before they go home.

Sleep deprivation

There are other techniques that may be helpful. One study found that depriving people of sleep may be useful in the aftermath of trauma.

But the same study found that a week after the trauma, people who had been deprived of sleep had the same number of unwanted memories as people who had slept well afterwards. Consequently, it remains unclear whether there would be any long-lasting benefits using this method. There are, however, certainly health risks linked to lack of sleep.

Still looking for a solution

To develop preventative interventions, we need to study newly-recruited emergency workers who haven’t yet suffered on-the-job trauma and follow them over time, spotting which “coping styles”, present before trauma, may predict their reactions afterwards.

For example, some people naturally react to stressful life events by dwelling on them, thinking about why they happened for hours on end. This strategy, called rumination, has been linked to PTSD in people who survived car crashes.

If rumination predicts PTSD in first responders, then preventative interventions could train people to spot when they are dwelling on an event and refocus their attention to the task at hand.

When we have identified which factors heighten emergency workers’ risk of developing PTSD, programmes can be developed to target those vulnerabilities. Only then can an intervention, directed at first responders most at risk of developing PTSD, properly protect them in their line of work.

The Conversation

Jennifer Wild is a Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.