Risks 34 - 29 December 2001

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issue no 34 - 29 December 2001

Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to Owen Tudor.

Risks is the TUC’s weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 2,500 subscribers and 1,000 on the TUC website. To receive this bulletin every week, click here. Past issues are available. This edition contains Useful links TUC courses for safety reps Disclaimer Privacy The TUC website lists future health and safety events in What’s On - new events are covered below.

Let your MP know about the campaign for more inspectors

The TUC wants you to write to your MP and ask them to attend a meeting in the House of Commons on Tuesday, 15 January at 4pm. The meeting of the All Party Group on Occupational Safety and Health will hear from Paul Noon, joint general secretary of Prospect, about the union’s campaign to secure £35 million extra in resources for the HSE so that it can employ more HSE inspectors and enforce health and safety laws better. Please urge your local MP to attend even if only briefly to hear about the case (they should all have received a copy of Prospect's campaign pack but if they haven’t, the TUC can supply them with one) and to show their support. You could also ask them to make their support known to the Chancellor, Gordon Brown MP and to Stephen Byers MP, the Secretary of State for Local Government, Transport and the Regions (HSE's sponsoring Department). This is urgent because parliament only comes back the week before, and a good turn-out could be crucial to the campaign. If you get a substantive reply to your letter, please send a copy to Owen Tudor at the TUC.

Casino workers health warning

Long hours and poor working conditions are threatening the health of casino workers, a report says. The GMB union commissioned the study among casino workers in Scotland and found that eight in 10 croupiers suffered from neck ache and backache; three out of 10 women reported sexual harassment; and one in five staff complained of violence at work. The union is warning that unless working conditions improve the casino industry could see an exodus of workers. Sleeplessness and nightmares were blamed on working conditions by 13 workers, with digestion problems, loss of appetite and irritability also cited. A 2001 report in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found a similar pattern of health problems in casino workers, adding that workers are the best people to spot work-related health problems and their solutions, and that the study 'demonstrates the effectiveness of a worker-driven, participatory consultation.'

  • Identifying and prioritizing gaming workers' health and safety concerns using mapping for data collection, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, vol.39, no.1, pages 42-51, 2001 online abstract

Scottish unions accuse bosses over stress

The Scottish Trades Union Congress has accused employers of exploiting weaknesses in the law to avoid introducing measures to combat stress in the workplace. STUC said more than two million working days a year are lost because of stress, causing an emotional drain on individuals and costing the economy millions of pounds through lost tax revenues, health service and benefits costs. It added that one Scottish employee is forced out of work every two hours because of ill-health, meaning there is an additional cost for companies in terms of recruitment and retraining new employees (more). STUC national safety officer Ian Tasker said employers could not be allowed 'to ignore implementing improvements in health and safety practices. We would like to see removal of all legislation which places an economic measure on workers' health, safety and welfare." A TUC poll a year ago identified stress as the top workplace health concern, with London and Scotland identified as having the most stressed workforces (more).

Christmas cheer for sacked workers

Local businesses have thrown a festive party for the sacked staff at the Frictions Dynamics brake pads plant at Caernarfon, Wales. The 87 staff lost their jobs in June after rejecting proposed changes that would have undermined safety, pay and conditions (Risks 9). However, in a show of support companies in Caernarfon threw a Christmas party for the strikers and their families. It is the second time local small businesses have supported the strikers. Several weeks ago they donated £1,000 to the strike fund. Dyfed Edwards of Curiad said: "As companies and employers in the Caernarfon area, we do not exist in a vacuum - we serve the area in which we are established and react to events around us. We are glad to support the strikers at Friction Dynamex, for their fight is part of the struggle to establish a just and fair society - something that is relevant to us all, whether we are employees or employers." The workers, members of the TGWU union, are now awaiting a High Court hearing in the new year.

Antibiotics cause false positives on heroin test

The use of certain antibiotics may cause an unsuspecting job applicant to test positive for heroin at a pre-employment health screening session - even though they've never touched the drug. Dr. Lindsey R. Baden of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and colleagues tested 13 different types of antibiotics, to see what effect they would have on commercial opiate tests. Opiates are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, and several other controlled or medicinal drugs such as methadone, morphine, Demerol and codeine. Most of the antibiotics caused positive results. Cipro, the drug given to thousands of US workers to fight possible anthrax risk, resulted in a positive test in one out of five tests. According to Baden, it is possible that people have suffered consequences of a false positive test, because "a positive drug test is often assumed true, while the protestations of the person being tested are looked at as self-serving." In August, the UK Drug and Alcohol Workplace Service warned against 'crude' workplace testing (Risks 14).

  • Quinolones and False-Positive Urine Screening for Opiates by Immunoassay Technology, Journal of the American Medical Association, vol.286, pages 3115-3119, 2001 online abstract

Shiftwork linked to heart disease (again)

A study in Antarctica suggests shiftworkers are at increased risk of developing heart disease. Researchers looked at 12 healthy night shiftworkers aged 24 to 34 years at the British Antarctic Survey station at Halley Bay in Antarctica. They found that after a meal, night shiftworkers' blood levels of glucose, insulin and triacylglycerol (TAG), a fat which stores energy, were significantly higher than in normal daytime hours. Levels of glucose and insulin returned to pre-shift levels two days after returning to daytime working, but TAG levels were still raised. When TAG levels are high, it is easier for fat deposits to form on the inside of arteries, leading to vascular disease. Researcher Dr Linda Morgan said: "If you're working a rotational shift system, your body clock is probably not adjusting at all." She said it was also important for night shiftworkers to eat healthily - something shiftworkers often do not do.

  • Postprandial hormone and metabolic responses amongst shift workers in Antarctica, Journal of Endocrinology, vol.171, issue 3, pages 557-564, 2001 online abstract

Lord rejects bid to depress asbestos payout

One of Scotland's leading judges has criticised a company's attempt to use a legal loophole to reduce damages to the bereaved family of an asbestos victim. Lord Gill, the recently-appointed Lord Justice Clerk, rejected the bid by lawyers acting for Scottish Lion Engineering Ltd to stop a damages action against the company being heard by a jury. The action, for a total of £450,000, is being pursued by the family of Robert Benson, who died of malignant mesothelioma in February 1996, just short of his 69th birthday. Mr Benson worked for the company as a plumber carrying out repair work on Clyde ships between 1955 and 1979. Rejecting the company’s bid for trial without a jury, Lord Gill said: "They do so, as counsel candidly accepted, for the purpose of depressing the level of damages at which any settlement negotiations will be conducted." A jury will now decide on the damages award, unless the action is settled out of court in the meantime.

China: Toys of misery

A union-backed campaign group has identified widespread labour abuses in Chinese factories producing Christmas toys for sale in rich nations. Toys of Misery, a 58-page report from the New York-based National Labor Committee, alleges that during the height of this year's holiday production of Harry Potter merchandise and other famous name toys, teenage girls worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for several months. Some were sickened by paint and glue fumes. The report says workers slept in tiny cubicles and lined up for hours to get a shower in cramped dormitories. Committee head Charles Kernaghan said the report is based on interviews with workers at 18 factories, conducted by ethnic Chinese investigators from several Hong Kong religious groups. Typically, workers spoke outside guarded factories while on lunch breaks.

China: Sixteen killed in coal mine blast

An explosion at a coal mine in eastern China has killed 16 miners, the official Xinhua news agency said quoting local authorities. Officials of the provincial and Tai'an municipal governments rushed to the scene to begin rescue work. The Xinhua Daily Telegraph reported this week that China has indicted six officials for negligence over an explosion at a coal mine in the eastern province of Jiangsu that killed 92 miners in July. Chinese state media said more than 5,000 people died in coalmining accidents in the first 11 months of 2001, as legislators mulled a new law to curb the number of workplace deaths. China's top legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC), has tabled for discussion a draft law aimed at improving workplace safety and preventing deaths, the official China Daily said. The "landmark" legislation will hold government officials and heads of enterprises responsible for workplace injuries and deaths, the report said. It is thought the true mines toll may be much higher as many miners are migrant workers whose deaths go unreported and who are buried on site.

Sweden: Lung cancer rising in non-smoking workers

Lung cancer may be on the rise among non-smoking men. In a study of nearly 144,000 Swedish male construction workers who said they had never smoked, researchers found that lung cancer rates increased between the late 1970s and early 1990s. From 1976 to 1980, the number of new lung cancer cases among these men stood at just 1.5 per 100,000 people. From 1991 to 1995, that number increased to 5.4 new cases per 100,000, report researchers led by Dr. Paolo Boffetta of the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Boffetta's team suggest that "exposures which affect the population equally," such as air pollution or workplace exposure to carcinogens, could help explain their findings. The team did take the workers' asbestos exposure into account. They note that their results mirror those that have been found in the US.

  • Incidence of lung cancer in a large cohort of non-smoking men from Sweden, International Journal of Cancer, vol.94 pages 591-593, 2001 online abstract

USA: Hispanic farmworkers face cancer risks

Hispanic farmworkers in the US have a higher risk of leukemia and other cancers including those of the stomach, cervix and uterus. A study of members of the United Farmworkers of America union published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine concludes that exposure to agricultural chemicals including fertilisers and pesticides is relatively high since farmworkers "must be in close physical proximity to crops (oftentimes soon after pesticides are applied) and working conditions often preclude the opportunity to wash skin or clothing during work hours." Authors Dr Paul K. Mills and Sandy Kwong of the Cancer Registry of Central California in Fresno add: "occupational exposures, particularly pesticides, may explain the elevated risk of leukemia."

  • Cancer incidence in the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), 1987-1997, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, vol.40, pages 596-603, 2001 online abstract

USA: Fire union says WTC workers are ill

Hundreds of firefighters who worked at the World Trade Center site have developed respiratory problems, and some may have to retire, a fire union official said. Thomas Manley, sergeant-at-arms for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said many who participated in rescue and recovery efforts are easily winded, suffer from a chronic cough, or have symptoms of asthma. Manley estimated that as many as 300 who are on medical leave with lung problems could be unable to continue to fight fires if their health does not improve. More than 1,000 firefighters have filed notices to protect their right to sue the city over inadequate protection from dangerous materials at the trade center site.

USA: Postal workers to say 'no' to anthrax vaccine?

The anthrax vaccine will made available to postal workers at the Manhattan facility where the killer bacteria were found, union leaders have said, but they predict few if any takers. William Smith, president of the New York Metro Area Postal Union, said 2,500 workers out of 7,000 at the Morgan facility were reaching the end of a 60-day antibiotic treatment. He said he knew of no New York City postal workers who wanted the vaccine. The federal government is offering the vaccine to people who have been in anthrax-contaminated buildings. The first shots were given to 48 government workers in Washington. More than 1,100 workers possibly exposed to anthrax at a tabloid publishing company in Florida were offered shots; three people decided to take the vaccine.

Only newly announced events, events next week and very important events will be listed here in future. But there is a comprehensive listing of health and safety events on the TUC website - bookmark it for easy reference!

About time: TUC conference on working time, 5 February

A TUC conference in London for trade unionists, employers, HR and personnel professionals, academics and policy makers.Keynote speakers: Patricia Hewitt MP, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and John Monks, TUC General Secretary. The conference will be chaired by Sheena MacDonald. Application form in text and pdf versions. Union members wishing to attend this conference, please contact your head offices which are co-ordinating numbers from each union due to the limited number of places available for this conference.

HSC Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances open meeting, 14 February

The ACDS advises the HSC on issues like gas safety, major hazards (eg chemical plants), flammable substances (eg petrol) and explosives. The TUC has four representatives on this tripartite Committee (government-unions-employers). Its first open meeting will take place at HSE headquarters, Rose Court, 2 Southwark Bridge, London SE1 9HS from 10.30am on Thursday, 14 February and will include presentations on the work of ACDS and the policy issues it deals with, plus the opportunity to ask members and officials questions. To register for a place, contact Tarla Patel at or at the above address.

Workers' Memorial Day 2002, 28 April

TUC is planning to highlight occupational health, including access to occupational health services, and rehabilitation. Ask your union for details of Workers’ Memorial Day events or organise your own. Hazards magazine round up of Workers’ Memorial Day resources.

Hazards 2002, National Hazards Conference, 6-8 September

The National Hazards Conference will be held in Manchester for the second year running. Further details from Greater Manchester Hazards Centre. There is a financial appeal to keep registration costs down, backed by the TUC.

European Week of Health and Safety 2002, 14-21 October

Next year’s week will take place in Britain from 14 October, on the theme of stress.

Visit the TUC health and safety website or the main TUC website pages on health and safety. See what’s on offer from TUC Publications and What’s On in health and safety.

TUC courses for safety reps

January to March:

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Subscribe to Hazards magazine, supported by the TUC as a key source of information for union safety reps.

What’s new in the HSC/E and the European Agency.

HSE Books , PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2WA. Tel: 01787 881165; fax: 01787 313995.

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