Risks 94 - 22 February 2003

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issue no 94 - 22 February 2003

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 6,000 subscribers and 1,500 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 and Privacy statement. The TUC website lists future health and safety events in What’s On - new events are covered below.

Please relieve me, let me go

TUC is calling on Britain’s bosses to show some respect and allow their staff paid time off to spend a penny. It has teamed up with campaigning magazine Hazards to launch a 'Gotta go' campaign and is calling on the government to plug a 'loopy' legal loophole that requires Britain’s bosses to provide lavatories for their staff, but doesn’t require them to let workers use the facilities when they want. TUC adds that some employers are working their staff so hard that they don’t even have the time to visit the gents or the ladies, with a recent survey finding that 54 per cent of British workers were too busy to take toilet breaks and a quarter of those questioned saying the poor condition of workplace loos put them off going. And a dossier compiled for the campaign reveals a shocking range of loo abuse, from pay-per-pee schemes to pee break performance appraisals. The 'gotta go' campaign is calling for workers to have the right to go when they want, without the loss of any wages. TUC general secretary elect Brendan Barber said: 'It’s incredible to think that in the twenty first century, workers are still being penalised for going to the loo. Employers clinging to Dickensian bathroom break policies should understand that if they trusted and respected their staff, and treated them as adults, not naughty children, they would end up with a healthier, better motivated, more productive workforce.'

  • The TUC wants workers to send in their loo break laments so it can shame bad bosses into providing better toilet breaks. Examples of disrespect can be sent by email to badbogs@worksmart.org.uk or posted to 'Got to Go' at TUC, Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS

Drink and work - a potent cocktail

People are drinking more now than ever before, but too few employers have alcohol policies in place or are dealing with the underlying causes including stress and overwork, a TUC report has warned. The report, A potent cocktail, is the TUC's response to a Cabinet Office and Department of Health call for ideas to tackle problems arising from alcohol use. The TUC submission points to a recent Chartered Institute of Personnel Development survey that found a large proportion of employers (43 per cent) didn’t have alcohol policies and most (84 per cent) didn't run health awareness programmes for their staff. The TUC submission says workplace factors may also be driving us to drink, with stress, bullying, long hours and working away from home all possible root causes. TUC general secretary elect Brendan Barber said: 'The TUC would like to see the government, unions and employers all coming together to deal with the issue in a sensitive and understanding way.' The TUC submission suggests the government should fund research looking at the extent of alcohol problems at work and should offer financial incentives to those employers offering counselling and other types of employee assistance programmes. Employers should draw them up alcohol policies in consultation with unions in the workplace, TUC says, with an emphasis on confidentiality and assistance for workers with alcohol problems.

Women’s work is back breaking

Employers need to pay more attention to health hazards facing women workers and should ditch out-of-date assumptions about the nature of 'women’s work,' concludes new research from retail union Usdaw. The Usdaw study on back pain, which looked at a cross-section of its female membership, 'showed a high incidence of discomfort among workers involved in lifting, repetitive tasks, and poor working conditions or methods.' Usdaw general secretary Sir Bill Connor said: 'It appears many of our members are soldiering on under very difficult conditions. This is very commendable, but if the risk factors in the workplace that cause back pain were removed, the workforce would enjoy a better quality of life and higher productivity.' He added: 'One thing is clear from our survey and that is, old fashioned notions of ‘women’s work’ and the assumption that it carries no health risks is way out-of-date and plain wrong.' The report concludes many of the problems could be solved by improved maintenance of equipment or slight modifications to the way work is organised. TUC is pushing for a 'gender dimension' in workplace health and safety and for more gender-sensitive HSE research (Risks 87).

Union calls for an end to all work violence

UNISON Scotland has welcomed a call for a new offence of assaulting emergency workers. The proposal comes as an amendment being put forward by member of the Scottish parliament (MSP) Paul Martin to the Criminal Justice Bill. It calls for the creation of a new offence of assault on an emergency service worker - in particular firefighters and emergency medical teams. UNISON says it supports the move, but says it should be extended to cover all public service workers attacked in the course of their work. 'A positive step forward like Paul Martin's amendment should be supported by MSPs,' said Matt Smith, UNISON's Scottish secretary. 'But, vital though protection for our firefighters and ambulance crews is, violent attacks are increasingly suffered by many other public service workers during their work.' He said social care staff, accident an emergency unit staff, traffic wardens and many others are experiencing serious assaults at the hands of their customers or clients.

Office workers concern over discarded needles

Civil servants working at a Liverpool civil service office say they risk injury and serious illness every time they step out the door. They say drug addicts sleep at the rear of the building every night, leaving behind cigarette butts, makeshift bedding and used needles filled with their blood. Frank Lawton, health and safety convenor covering Graham House for civil service union PCS, said: 'You would think with it being a government building it would be something of a flagship for the city and looked after properly. Smokers have to go outside the building now to have a cigarette and it means they are standing among the syringes. I dread to think what would happen if someone was to stand on one of them.' He added: 'The council have said they are going to secure the rear of the building by caging it off, but we are still waiting for this to happen.' A council spokesperson said the area was visited regularly to remove any disgarded needles.

Tube staff strike over union official's sacking

Workers on a section of a London Underground line are to stage a one-day strike to demand the reinstatement of a sacked colleague. The Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT) said it expected the Jubilee line walkout on 28 February in defence of union activist Andy Whitecross. According to the union, Mr Whitecross used an emergency button to stop an escalator after seeing a colleague stumble as he stepped onto it. 'It is unacceptable that a union activist, who is also a long standing and loyal employee, should be sacked on a trumped up charge,' said RMT organiser Bobby Law.

HSE report backs 'corporate killing' law

A corporate killing law would provide 'powerful deterrence' and prevent workplace deaths, a report for the HSE has concluded. The HSE backed research report says new corporate manslaughter legislation 'should act as a powerful deterrent to help prevent needless injuries and deaths whilst at the same time punishing the grossly negligent.' The report, The role of managerial leadership in determining workplace safety outcomes, concludes HSE’s success as an enforcement agency 'is likely to be strengthened further by the [proposed] legislation on corporate manslaughter.' David Bergman, director of the Centre for Corporate Accountability, commented: 'This is further evidence why the government needs to bring a bill before parliament that would allow the enactment of a new offence of corporate killing.' He added: 'There is a current gap in the law so that company directors have no duty to take reasonable steps to ensure that their companies comply with health and safety law. This allows them to insulate themselves from safety issues in the company.'

Inquest into Enron deaths

The families of the three men killed in the Enron explosion have heard for the first time details of the routine maintenance work that ended in tragedy (Risks 14). Operator technicians Darren Higgins, 28, and Andrew Sherwood, 36, died from horrific burns at the scene of the blast at Teesside Power Station in August 2001 an inquest was told. Engineering and maintenance manager Paul Surtees, 40, died in hospital the following morning. The inquest closed this week, having reached a verdict of 'accidental death.' Detective Sergeant Ian White, of Langbaurgh CID, said he had found no evidence of corporate manslaughter and the investigation had been handed over to the HSE. Ian Waugh, HSE head of operations for the North, said: 'Until the inquest was over we couldn't finish our investigations. We have got to consider what we already know and what we have heard before we can consider whether any legal proceedings are appropriate.' The company had been prosecuted on two previous occasions for serious safety breaches. In 2001 the plant was given the RoSPA gold award for safety.

Killer boss wriggles free

A roofing company has been ordered to pay a total of £25,000 in fines and costs after admitting breaches of health and safety regulations that led to the death of a worker. The firm's contracts manager, Alan Swift, was ordered to pay a total of £12,500. Manslaughter charges were dropped after he agreed to plead guilty to safety offences. Maidstone Crown Court heard how an experienced tiler, Alan Mannerings, died from head injuries a week after falling from scaffolding at a house in Maidstone which was being extended for Alan Swift's own use. At the point where Mr Mannerings fell, there was no handrail in place and the scaffolding was just one board wide. Prior to the plea bargain, Alan Swift, 35, and Swift Roofing Contracts Ltd, of Dartford, were charged with manslaughter and with offences under the Health and Safety at Work Act. Swift Roofing Contracts were fined £5,000 and £15,000 respectively, for the offences, plus £5,000 towards costs.

Accident verdict on foundry worker’s death

A father-of-two who was crushed to death at a Black Country foundry died as a result of an accident, an inquest has concluded. A police and Crown Prosecution Service investigation lasting over two years had already decided there was not a 'realistic chance' of a successful corporate manslaughter prosecution against company directors. Sukhdev Singh Chonkaria was killed instantly when he was pinned between a 20-ton scrap metal hopper and a furnace at the Darcast Components foundry in Smethwick on 14 February 2000. Workers at the plant told the three day inquest that on the night he died he had been drafted onto the firm's electric melt platform to cover for a sick colleague, despite not being trained to work on the furnaces. The HSE has yet to announce whether it will pursue any prosecutions.

OK for second legal challenge against coroner

Solicitor General Harriet Harman has given permission for a second legal challenge to a flawed inquest into the death of Stephane Aineto, 28, who was killed in Brighton in July 2001 when he was run over by a Council refuse truck. At the first inquest held in December 2001, the coroner concluded that Stephane’s death was an 'accident,' adding that 'why this happened one cannot say.' However experts from the Centre for Corporate Accountability say the inquest process was fatally flawed because it was: without a jury - when there should have been one; without the involvement of the HSE - although the HSE is now conducing a criminal investigation; without hearing evidence from the council - although it is responsible for the refuse collection in the city; and without hearing evidence that the GMB trade union had raised concerns about the safety of the vehicle involved in the death. Stephane Aineto’s family has already been granted permission to bring a judicial review. The two sets of legal proceeding will now be heard together.

Civil service likely to be made a priority for HSC

Minister for health and safety Nick Brown MP has announced that he is likely to add reducing sickness absence in the civil service to the HSC’s eight priority programmes. "I am very close to deciding public services are a ninth case for special intervention," Mr Brown said. Unions said they would support such intervention by the regulator, claiming previous government attempts to "chivvy" sick civil servants back to work had failed. Unions believe the HSE could offer advice to staff on issues such as rehabilitation, rather than simply exhorting them not to take time off. TUC head of safety Owen Tudor commented: 'We would welcome this move because sickness rates are far too high in the public services. We want people to be back at work, not off sick.' Civil service union PCS says the high rates of sickness absence are easily explained by low morale, chronic understaffing, high levels of stress and unresolved health and safety concerns (Risks 91).

Drivers asleep at wheel who kill 'should be jailed'

Drivers who kill someone because they have fallen asleep at the wheel should automatically face at least two years in jail, courts have been told. The independent Sentencing Advisory Panel said judges should consider imprisoning every motorist who causes death by dangerous driving. Falling asleep at the wheel - which until now has been considered a mitigating factor - should actually make the crime worse and lead to a longer sentence, the panel said. Panel chair Professor Martin Wasik said: 'Falling asleep is more likely to aggravate than mitigate the seriousness of an offence because drivers do not normally fall asleep without warning. The proper course of action for a motorist who feels drowsy is to stop driving and rest. It should be regarded as an aggravating factor and we recommend should be sentenced with two to five years imprisonment.' However, fatigue is also a big problem for professional drivers, who are compelled by their employers to drive for long shifts. Transport unions in the UK and worldwide have campaigned for safer driving hours and work patterns ( Risks 76 ) and courts have in the recent past recognised that an employer can bear the responsibility for accidents involving over-tired drivers ( Risks 85 ).

Safer work is the best insurance

Three leading safety organisations are calling on the government to make radical reforms in the way insurers provide cover to compensate employees injured or made ill at work. The move comes hot on the heels of a joint Association of British Insurers and TUC call for better rehabilitation to cut the insurance and other costs of work-related accidents and disease (Risks 91). Now RoSPA, safety officers’ organisation IOSH and the British Safety Council (BSC) have joined forces to press for 'closer links between Employers’ Liability Compulsory Insurance (ELCI) and promoting higher standards of health and safety management.' The initiative comes in response to a government review of ELCI (Risks 84). The Engineering Employers’ Federation and the Federation of Small Businesses have also called for reform, saying employers’ liability premiums grew by an average of 50 per cent or more in 2002. TUC head of safety Owen Tudor said: 'The TUC backs a radical review of how we deal with compensating workplace injury and illness victims'. He added: 'Despite the squealing, British bosses are getting insurance at bargain basement prices well below the global average - and the taxpayer and the victims are subsidising them. If premiums are not to rise even higher, employers need to prevent more and complain less. More rehabilitation and less prevarication would also cut legal costs, so that everyone benefits.'

PM bans smoking

Prime minister Tony Blair has banned smoking in cabinet meetings to set an example in the drive to stop smoking in the workplace, according to a 20 February report in The Independent. 'I am reliably informed that smoking does not take place there,' said the health minister Lord Hunt. 'Which begs the question - if its good enough for you PM, why not allow 3 million people exposed to second-hand smoke at work the same privilege?' says anti-smoking campaign group ASH.

Balancing disabled people’s needs and workers’ backs

A court has ruled that blanket bans on lifting patients discriminates against disabled people under the Disability Discrimination Act. Two disabled women claimed that their Council was breaking the law by refusing to allow staff to lift them at all. Welcoming the judgment, Disability Rights Commission (DRC) chair Bert Massie said: ' This is a clear victory for thousands of disabled people who have been denied their most basic of human rights. There is an obvious need for care workers not to be put at risk of injury in their jobs but this must be balanced with disabled people's independence and quality of life.' The court backed HSE guidance on manual handling, and UNISON’s Hugh Robertson commented: 'The judgement makes it clear that policies must preserve the dignity of the client and the health of the worker. That means looking at alternatives to hoists if required, but these alternatives can include other equipment, or, in exceptional circumstances agreed in advance, having sufficient staff available to allow physical handling safety. This is in line with the HSE guidance and the advice that UNISON has always given.' But he added: 'every year, thousands of care workers have their backs injured through inappropriate manual lifting and it is important that this judgement is not seen as a green light for managers asking workers to lift another adult person on their own.'

  • HSE guidance 'Handling Home Care: achieving safe, efficient and positive outcomes for care workers and clients' HSG225, ISBN 0 7176 2228 2 price £9.50 is available from HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury Suffolk CO10 2WA. Tel 01787 881165 Fax 01787 313995

Australia: Unions welcome 'first step' on bullying

New official guidance on the prevention of bullying and violence at work has been welcomed by unions in the Australian state of Victoria. The Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) said the guide from safety watchdog WorkSafe Victoria was 'a positive first step in addressing this serious workplace hazard.' VTHC secretary Leigh Hubbard said bullying 'was not an issue confined to school playgrounds but happened all too often in workplaces, making the daily lives of many workers intolerable. A recent Morgan poll found that 46 per cent of Australians had been verbally or physically abused by someone they worked with.' He added: 'The most effective way to stop bullying and to prevent it becoming a problem is to create a climate or culture in the workplace that makes it clear to any potential bully that their behaviour will not be tolerated.' A recent VTHC online poll found the 'overwhelming majority' of the 5,000 respondents 'wanted the government to formally act on this serious health and safety issue and introduce a Code of Practice,' he said.

European Union: Bigger Europe will be safer too

Europe’s top safety officials say the expansion of the European Union will lead to safer and better workplaces. Commenting on the safety implications, European Commission Employment Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou said: 'Enlargement brings a host of new challenges for workplace health and safety - particularly reducing the existing gap in occupational safety and health levels between the current and the new Member States. All the candidate countries have made enormous efforts to ensure that their administrations and legislation meet European standards.' She added: 'If we continue our joint efforts, I am convinced that enlargement will help to improve the quality of working life in the new Member States and that we will succeed to make Europe a safe and healthy place to work - for all.'

Finland: Bad bosses and poor laws stall safety gains

The long-term decline in work-related accidents and diseases has ground to a halt in Finland, and a lack of management know-how could be to blame. Jyrki Liesivuori, professor of occupational and environmental toxicology at the University of Kuopio, said: 'Only 20 per cent of the occupational safety staff of enterprises have participated in basic occupational safety courses'. He added: 'Since enterprises lack basic knowledge, the results of new studies and other relevant information that are nowadays also available in abundance on the internet cannot be utilised.' The professor adds that employers must bear most of the blame because 'they do nothing to improve occupational safety unless they are forced to.' He says that penalties for safety crimes 'are at best modest,' with involuntary manslaughter prosecutions ending with a fine so why 'bother to minimise risks when the legal consequences of accidents are no worse than this?'

New Zealand: Hospital staff demand swift solution to violence

Violent attacks and outbursts directed at hospital emergency department staff are on the rise - partly fuelled by an increase in the use of street drug methamphetamine, a health official has warned. Hutt Valley District Health Board emergency department clinical director Don Mackie said violence by patients or their family members was a big problem at Hutt Hospital, much of it due to methamphetamine (speed) use. 'We are seeing more people coming in with problems that are related to speed and anecdotally it is associated with more uncontrolled behaviour that can spin off into violence. It's part of the pattern that goes with the drug - aggression and physical violence.' A spokeswoman for South Auckland's Middlemore Hospital said violence was a huge problem for emergency department staff and aggression toward staff across all hospital services was being affected by methamphetamine use.

New Zealand: Company guilty after explosion death

A New Zealand engineering company has been found guilty of breaching industrial safety law after an employee was killed in an explosion. Roy Hall, 58, was killed after the tank he was welding exploded in a workshop of Triple R Engineering on 20 September 2001 and died a month later. Abrasive Blast Cleaning pleaded guilty to four charges last year and was fined $27,500, with a $17,500 contribution going to his widow, while Triple R Engineering defended two charges. The company will be sentenced on 27 February. The New Zealand safety authorities have called for much higher penalties on dangerous employers to address the country’s 'appalling' work fatality record (Risks 79).

Asthma at work: rep without a course?

The TUC is running courses for trade union safety reps 'that will help to ensure compliance with existing laws and the new Approved Code of Practice on the control of asthma caused by substances at work.'

New UNISON guide on asbestos at work

Public service union UNISON has produced a new guide and stickers as part of an asbestos awareness campaign. UNISON wants to draw attention to new regulations, the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, which became law on 21 November 2002. The new regulations 'aim to reduce the risk of exposure to asbestos and place greater duties on employers to protect workers liable to be exposed to asbestos,' the Asbestos - still a risk! information sheet says. It adds that employers must take extra care before any work is carried out which may contain asbestos; carry out a risk assessment to identify the type of asbestos involved; assess the nature and degree of exposure; consider the level of control measures needed; consider the results of any monitoring; identify the steps to be taken to reduce or prevent exposure; consider the results of any health surveillance; and record the significant findings of that assessment.

Unions talking safety

Unions BECTU and Prospect have made their latest and very informative health and safety bulletins available online. Both guides contain information of interest to any union rep, regardless of their job.

TUC Revitalising health and safety update

The TUC has issued its eighth report on what unions are doing to deliver the Government and HSC Revitalising health and safety strategy. The report, which is issued after consideration every quarter by the TUC Executive Committee, has an expanded section on partnerships.

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!

International RSI Awareness Day, 28 February

International RSI Awareness Day is held each year on the last day of February - which this year is 28 February. Unions and workplace health campaigners worldwide use the day to highlight the work hazards that cause strain injuries, and to undertake workplace activities on strains prevention and push for preventive action by employers and governments.

International RSI Awareness Day conference, 28 February

The RSI Association are holding a conference in Nottingham to celebrate international Repetitive Strain Injuries awareness day (the last day of February is the only non-repeating date of the year). The HSE will be launching their new guidance on Display Screen Equipment at the conference which features keynote speeches from HSC musculoskeletal priority programme champion Owen Tudor and Professor Peter Buckle from the Robens Institute. Further details on the conference.

Women’s health and safety, 6 March

Northern TUC Safety Forum is to run a women’s health and safety course in Gateshead on 6 March 2003. It says the course will 'focus on the practical aspects raising awareness on work related stress, women's health and the law, RSI and work-related upper limb disorders, violence and bullying in the workplace.' The Forum adds that delegates will be able to discuss and make practical recommendations on health, safety and gender issues. There is no charge to attend the training day, which is open to Forum members, members of the Northern TUC and union safety representatives. 'And we actively encourage safety reps to bring a manager as a guest,' say the organisers. Find out more or register.

‘Don’t choke on the smoke’ conference, 9 April

The TUC, anti-smoking campaigners Action on Smoking and Health and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health are holding a national conference at Congress House to call for the implementation of the long overdue Approved Code of Practice on passive smoking. Registration costs £30 for trade unionists (email the TUC to reserve a place and book a registration form). TUC deputy general secretary Frances O’Grady, National Asthma Campaign chief Donna Covey, former BMA chair Sir Alexander Macara will join MP Barry Sheerman, Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen and Lord Faulkner of Worcester. There will be examples of good practice and a review of the civil, criminal and disability law. More news on union approaches to workplace smoking.

International Workers Memorial Day, 28 April

This year the theme will be corporate accountability for workers’ health and safety. The TUC will be co-ordinating a series of events around the country. A background briefing on the 2003 theme is available on the page of the TUC website devoted to Workers’ Memorial Day. Order a poster from the TUC (single copies free) or bulk copies at a good price from Hazards. TUC general secretary elect Brendan Barber has issued a personal message.

Hazards Conference, 5-7 September

The Hazards Conference will be in London. Margaret Sharkey at the London Hazards Centre is the co-ordinator of the London end of the organisation. You can contact her via e-mail at margaret@lhc.org.uk or on 020 7794 5999.

European Work Hazards Conference, 18-20 September

The next European Work Hazards Conference, where union health and safety reps and union safety officers, specialists and advisers come together to discuss approaches and strategies, will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, from 18-20 September 2003. European Work Hazards Network

European Week for Health and Safety at Work, 13-19 October

The theme for the Week in 2003 will be ‘dangerous substances’ (EU Agency press release). The TUC will be stressing the hierarchy of control, and especially the need for substitutes and general toxic use reduction strategies. Key hazards dealt with will include asbestos, asthmagens and solvents. Future years’ themes have also now been decided.

Visit the TUC http://www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/ 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

NEW COURSES FOR APRIL TO JULY 2003:

Midlands, North, South East and East Anglia, Yorkshire and Humberside

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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