Risks 172 - 4 September 2004

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issue no 172 - 4 September 2004

Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to Hugh Robertson

Risks is the TUC’s weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 10,000 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.

Major survey shows people join unions for safety’s sake

Concern over safety at work is a key factor in the recent increase in trade union membership, a Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) report has concluded. STUC’s 'Unions Work' research indicates that after pay and conditions, concerns about the working environment are the most frequently given reason for joining a union. STUC says there is considerable evidence of the 'union safety effect,' where unionised workplaces have significantly fewer workplace injuries than those without unions (Risks 168). It estimates that 280,000 workplace accidents have been prevented through the work of Scottish trade union health and safety reps since their introduction in the 1970s. STUC assistant secretary David Moxham said: 'Increasingly, workers are looking towards unions to provide expertise and constructive dialogue with employers to reduce the risks. Our ‘Unions Work’ research shows that it is not just workers, but employers, who can benefit from the union safety effect.' He added: 'Unions work on health and safety. We are calling for the widest possible promotion of the undoubted benefits of trade union delivery of health and safety expertise. And we are calling on employers to help. It is in their interest, their workers’ interest and the interest of the wider Scottish economy that we work in partnership for a safer working environment in Scotland.'

Union concern grows after another rail runaway

Rail union RMT has demanded to know how many more road-rail vehicle and trailer runaways there have been since February’s Tebay incident in which four workers died (Risks 144). The call came as a third previously unreported runaway incident came to light, this time in Scotland. RMT says its regional organiser in Scotland discovered that a runaway trailer incident had occurred on electrical renewal work at Shieldmuir, near Motherwell, in the early hours of 5 May. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'This is yet another potentially lethal incident involving private sector contractors that Network Rail has seen fit to keep quiet about. It is unacceptable that Network Rail has tried to downplay the two runaways in August at Stockport by talking about incidents involving ‘a small piece of engineering equipment’ taking place ‘during daylight hours at slow speed’.' Both incidents could have resulted in loss of life, says RMT (Risks 171). 'It is now clear that internal inquiries into at least two runaway incidents were completed by the time of the last Safety Council meeting on August 12, but details of neither were made available at that meeting,' said Crow. 'I have written to Network Rail asking how many more runaway incidents there have been since Tebay that we haven’t yet been told about. Network Rail has already improved the performance and safety of railway maintenance by bringing it back in-house, and the company should now take the same action with renewals - and sooner rather than later.'

Airport staff jam union bullying hotline

More than 150 cabin crew and ground staff at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports have called a new Amicus hotline to report bullying and abuse. The complaints came in over a two-week period, said Amicus. The union said most of the callers were from ethnic minorities - 91 per cent of the total - alleging racist behaviour. Amicus national officer Gordon White said: "Bullying is a disaster for morale, attendance and productivity. We are calling upon employers to get their houses in order for the sake of their staff and their business.' He added: 'We will be writing to employers and we expect them to work with the union to boot the bullies out of airports.' The union says there is still under-reporting, because there is a genuine fear that a bullying report could either lead to further intimidation, or to the whistleblower losing their job. Amicus launched the service in July to give advice to cabin crew, engineers and ground staff (Risks 164). It is writing to all businesses where the union has recognition in the airports, inviting them to work with it to tackle the root causes of bullying. In May, an NASUWT member received an out-of-court settlement of £200,000 after she was bullied by governors (Risks 155).

Overwork crisis must be tackled

Family life is being damaged by long hours working, so the individual opt-out allowing parents to work over 48 hours a week must be abolished, says a report from the TUC and charity Working Families. TUC has long argued that the working week ceiling - introduced Europe-wide as a vital safety measure - must protect UK workers too. More time for families: tackling the long hours crisis in UK workplaces warns that six years after the Working Time Directive was introduced to limit the working week, there are still more employees working excessive hours than there were in 1992. In the UK employees can only work over 48 hours if they sign an opt-out, but many long hours workers are never asked or are forced to do so. A survey for the report found more than four in ten (44 per cent) of the respondents who were working full-time said they regularly had to work more than 48 hours a week, and nine out of ten (90 per cent) of all the parents felt that these kind of excessive hours were harmful to families. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Excessive hours are bad news for everyone and especially damaging for workers with families. Whilst ministers remain wedded to the idea of maintaining the UK's individual opt-out, the children of long hours parents will go on suffering. A clamp down on employers abusing working time rules and the removal of the opt-out would prove very popular with working parents.'

Death charges dropped against Railtrack

Charges of manslaughter against the now defunct Railtrack and one of its senior managers over the Hatfield disaster have been dropped. Lesser charges against two other executives, including Gerald Corbett, the company's chief executive and now chair of Woolworths, were also quashed. In June this year, Railtrack paid out £1 million to the widow of Hatfield victim Stephen Arthur, after admitting liability for the crash (Risks 162). However, this week a judge dismissed safety charges against the company and manslaughter charges against Charles Pollard, 45, director of the London north eastern zone of Railtrack, and a health and safety charge against Christopher Leah, 55, director of safety and operations at Railtrack. The decision by Mr Justice Mackay, an Old Bailey judge, led to new calls for the government to introduce tougher legislation. Solicitor Louise Christian, who represents one of the Hatfield victims has represented other rail crash victims, said they 'will feel incredibly let down and the victims of the [1999] Paddington crash who are waiting to see if charges will be brought in their case, will also be worried now.' The engineering contractor Balfour Beatty and several of its senior executives at the time of the derailment, still face charges of manslaughter due to gross negligence and health and safety offences. Four people died on 17 October 2000 when a Great North Eastern Railways express derailed on a broken rail half a mile south of Hatfield in Hertfordshire (Risks 115). A report in the Financial Times says some legal experts believe the failure of the corporate manslaughter action against Railtrack could finally force the government to bring in new corporate killing laws.

Bid to curb building site deaths

Scotland has a higher figure for deaths on building sites than the rest of the UK. A nationwide campaign aimed at cutting accidents on building sites has been launched in response, and is backed by unions and construction companies. New Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures show six deaths have occurred on Scottish construction sites since April - just under a quarter of all the fatalities recorded in the UK. In the previous 12 months, four Scots building workers died - about 5 per cent of the UK total. HSE boss Stewart Campbell said: 'I am very concerned about the rise in the number of fatalities. Although there is no simple explanation for the increase, it is clear that most of the accidents could have been avoided if simple precautions had been taken.' The initiative and a series of 'Working Well Together' roadshows were launched in Glasgow by George Brumwell, a HSC Health and Safety Commissioner and general secretary of the construction union UCATT. He said: 'During one week in August the industry tragically lost five construction workers: two of these deaths occurred in Scotland. Each workplace death is one too many, especially as incidents are often caused by foreseeable risks. There is no room for complacency.' Roadshow events will be held across the UK, from now until late October.

  • The WWT roadshow tour dates are: 30 Aug-3 September, Scotland; 6-10 September, North East, North West and Yorks; 20-24 September, Midlands; 27 Sept-1 October, Wales and South West; 11-15 October, South East; 18-22 October, London.

Work is breaking our bodies and our minds

Top workplace diseases in Great Britain are musculoskeletal strains and sprains and mental ill-health, according to latest official figures. The Health and Safety Executive’s Occupational Health Statistics Bulletin 2003/04 draws on The Health and Occupation Reporting (THOR) data provided by specialist doctors and other sources. Musculoskeletal disorders, in particular those affecting the back and upper limbs, and mental ill-health - mainly stress, depression and anxiety - each accounted for around a third of the total incidence. Other common types of ill-health with significant numbers of occupational cases reported by doctors or compensated by the government were lung diseases such as asthma and pneumoconiosis; contact dermatitis and other skin diseases; diarrhoeal and other infections; and disorders related to vibration or noise. The annual toll for work-related cancers is estimated at 6,000 cases, put could be as high as 12,000, with asbestos the top cause, says HSE. In 2001-2003 an estimated 23,000 new occupational ill-health cases per year were seen by specialist doctors in the THOR network, while nearly 8,000 per year were assessed for compensation under the Department for Work and Pensions’ industrial injuries scheme. Overall, at the last count in 2001/2, an estimated 2.3 million people were suffering from an illness which they believed was caused or made worse by their current or past work, with HSE having already conceded the situation could have worsened.

UK fails to learn occupational health lessons

The UK safety watchdog has ditched crucial occupational health functions despite its own evidence showing it is failing to meet its targets to reduce occupational ill-health. A new report in the International Journal of Occupational Safety and Health (IJOEH) warns that moves by the Health and Safety Commission, including a decision to axe the post of HSE medical director, 'broke the link with the periodically radical and innovative work of occupational physicians dating back to Sir Thomas Legge in 1898.' The paper, authored by Professor Andrew Watterson of Stirling University and Risks editor Rory O’Neill, says HSC’s new strategy for health and safety to 2010 and beyond 'is an enormous disappointment, and looks certain to fail to deal effectively with what is a very serious public health problem.' It adds that the strategy fails to recognise the importance of informed workforce participation, but instead reflects the views of 'exactly those employers groups that have failed to deliver substantial improvements in occupational health and basic safety records in the worst sectors of industry.' The paper concludes: 'At a time when occupational health and safety needs to raise, not lower, its profile and increase, not reduce, its champions, specifically in the occupational health field, current decisions about occupational medicine seem deeply flawed.' A July report from the Work and Pensions select committee was also strongly critical of the new HSC strategy, and called for more resources for HSE, for punitive penalties on dangerous employers and for greater rights for union safety reps (Risks 167).

Voices loss hits call centre workers

Call centre workers are suffering from a fast emerging industrial disease: repetitive voice injury. According to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, increasing numbers of call-centre workers are being referred to speech therapists because they are losing their voices. Long hours and little opportunity for even a drink of water are to blame. 'It's a growing problem,' said Paul Carding, a professor of voice pathology and national adviser to the college. 'There is increasing evidence of people taking time off because if they can't use their voice they can't work. At its most severe these people can't hold down a job. They have pushed their voice to the absolute limit. In some cases, voices really struggle to recover.' Teachers remain the most common professional group to require speech therapy, but call centre workers have now become the fastest growing 'at risk' sector. The call centre industry denies that 'call centre-itis' is a real problem, saying other jobs can also lead to the condition. Teaching, telephonist and call centre unions have issued guidance to their members (Risks 162). And the government has recognised voice loss can be a compensatable industrial disease. A member of teaching union NUT was awarded industrial injuries benefit in 1996 after developing nodules on her vocal chords that forced her to give up her job. In 2001, banking union Unifi issued guidance to its negotiators on the problem.

Sick building syndrome 'slows down' workers

Poor indoor air quality is affecting the productivity of office workers, researchers have found. Experts from the International Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy measured how sick building syndrome - a problem ranging from sore eyes and throat, to chest problems and flu-like symptoms - could be damaging workers' performance. They found typing and reading speeds in offices with poor air quality were reduced by up to 9 per cent, the equivalent loss of 4.5 hours in an average 48-hour working week. The researchers examined air-conditioned call centres in Denmark, similar to those in the UK, over an eight week period. Among factors that affected the work rate of employees were used filters on air conditioning systems. Fumes given off by products such as new computers also had a profound effect, reducing workers' ability to type accurately and quickly. Experts from the UK Building Research Establishment, the government advisers on indoor air pollution, said the research suggested sick building syndrome could be costing the economy billions by lowering productivity. The government is expected to announce guidance on potential problems with indoor air pollution later this year.

Hospital asbestos blamed for death

A 60-year-old woman died after being exposed to asbestos dust while working as a hospital cleaner, an inquest has heard. The West Yorkshire coroner ruled that Vanda Johansson-Corcoran's death was caused after years of being exposed to asbestos while cleaning a boiler room at Airedale Hospital, Steeton, near Keighley. She had worked as a cleaner at the hospital from 1978 to 1981 and was diagnosed with the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, in August 2002. She was awarded a five-figure payout in a landmark High Court ruling against West Yorkshire Strategic Health Authority a month before her death in October 2002. It was the first time a hospital cleaner had won such a case. The inquest heard how Mrs Johansson-Corcoran had to clean the dust-filled boiler room up to three times a week. She often spent up to 30 minutes at a time vacuuming the dust and would occasionally have to clear it up with her bare hands. Coroner David Hinchliff recorded a verdict of death by industrial disease. The health authority claimed although asbestos was known to exist within the building, the levels were well within the recommended safety limits.

Warning on asbestos refurbishment work

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is warning building and maintenance workers and their employers that they must take proper precautions when working in buildings where asbestos may be present. The warning follows the prosecution of Asahi Glass Fluoropolymers UK Limited (AGFP) of Thornton Cleveleys near Blackpool. The company was fined £3,000 and ordered to pay full costs of £1,396 following a guilty plea to safety offences. An HSE investigation followed an incident when ceiling tiles containing asbestos were removed during refurbishment work contracted out by AGFP at their factory in Lancashire. HSE found workers had been exposed to asbestos over a three day period. As the work progressed, AGFP managers suspected that the ceiling tiles might contain asbestos but still allowed work to continue in the contaminated area. The contractor was not licensed for asbestos work. HSE inspector Peter Gray said: 'This case highlights the need for companies to take a precautionary approach when carrying out maintenance work on materials suspected of containing asbestos. All such work should be carefully planned and risk assessed with prior confirmation of any asbestos content. The work itself should be supervised and executed by competent staff, with contingency measures in place in the event of asbestos being inadvertently encountered. This applies not only to the contractors carrying out the work, but also to the client who has duties to manage the work safely.'

Brewing up worker interest in offshore safety

The Health and Safety Executive’s has launched a new information sheet - Tea-Shack News - aimed at giving offshore workers regular safety updates. The first edition from HSE’s offshore division (OSD) features the safety case regulation consultation, the working time directive, latest safety statistics and OSD’s plans for tackling installation integrity and maintenance management matters. Taf Powell, head of HSE’s OSD, commented: 'Working in partnership with employers and the unions has brought some very positive progress towards better health and safety performance offshore. Tea-Shack News fills a separate need to have a direct pathway between the workforce and HSE for information and advice.' John Taylor, chair of the Inter Union Offshore Oil Committee said: 'The introduction of Tea-Shack News will ensure that important safety information is given direct to the offshore workforce. This will also strengthen the existing strong links between HSE and workers.' HSE inspectors will distribute copies of Tea-Shack News during normal inspections. Unions and industry employers will also distribute the newsletter, which is also available online.

Australia/Holland: Bid to stop asbestos company going Dutch on compo

An Australian asbestos giant that jumped ship to Holland could face court action in the Dutch courts. Dutch justice minister Piet Hein Donner said in answer to questions from federal MPs that his government would consider any request for a judicial treaty with Australia which would allow asbestos diseases victims of the James Hardie company to pursue compensation claims in Holland. 'We do not endorse a situation in which international enterprises can avoid compensation claims by establishing themselves in The Netherlands,' Mr Donner told MPs. He said as yet no request for a treaty has come from the Australian government, contradicting claims from the office of Australian attorney general Philip Ruddock. In 2001, as part of a complex corporate restructure, James Hardie moved its corporate head office from Sydney to Amsterdam, having earlier the same year established a trust to meet its future asbestos liabilities (Risks 169). An inquiry established in New South Wales has heard the trust was underfunded by up to Aus$2 billion (£782m). Australia’s opposition Labor Party has promised to create legal avenues to get at Hardie's overseas assets. Australian unions are liaising with their US equivalents as a large part of James Hardie’s substantial profits originate from US sales.

China: Bosses buried miner to conceal accident

Bosses at a private coal mine in China have been detained by police for concealing a fatal mining accident on 7 July. The cave-in at the Jiujiahe coal mine, in Kaijiang Country, Sichuan, was not reported to authorities. The responsible managers had also refused to pay compensation to the miner's family. In a bid to conceal the accident, bosses asked a miner to bury the body and agreed to pay him a 'hiding fee,' reported Chinese news agency Xinhua on 26 August. The truth was only revealed a month after the death, when miners who had not received their wages told the family about the death. The family then reported the case to the police. On 18 August, the family was told it would receive 39,000 yuan (£2,600) in compensation. A report in Asian Labour Update says this case is not unique. It says one other case involved 'the incineration of miners to conceal an accident.' In another incident, a construction site death only came to light after a dispute over unpaid wages.

Global: ILO report calls for bigger union role in safety

A new report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) highlights the crucial union role in securing safer, healthier work and 'argues strongly for a strengthening of collective voice as the primary means of improving working conditions, and protecting workers’ health.' Economic security for a better world says self-regulation and a weak workforce 'voice' are bad for health and safety, adding that 'strong voice representation is associated with strong protection of workers’ health and well-being.' An accompanying factsheet on work related ill-health says the report 'identifies work-related stress as a 21st-century disease, due in part to labour intensification, competitive pressures, timesqueeze, modern technological innovations and lack of worker control in their jobs.' It adds: 'Evidence abounds showing that more flexible labour relations, notably downsizing, contracting out types of labour and so on, are associated with a deterioration in work security, resulting in higher injury rates, hazard exposures, disease and work-related stress.'

  • Economic Security for a better world, ILO Socio-Economic Security Programme, International Labour Office, 2004. 50 Swiss francs. ISBN 92-2-115611-7. Free online summary [pdf].

Japan: Nuke plant head apologises for fatal accident

The boss of a Japanese nuclear power company has been ordered to apologise for an accident that killed five workers. Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) president Yosaku Fuji was summoned to a House of Representatives' Economy, Trade and Industry Committee meeting to apologise for the 9 August pipe blowout at one of the company's nuclear power plants. 'I can't express how deeply I regret the accident,' Fuji said. 'I apologise for having made the public anxious and causing trouble for the central and local governments.' A coolant pipe burst in the tragedy, spewing superheated steam at the Mihama nuclear power plant in Mihamacho, Fukui Prefecture, killing five workers and injuring six others. The pipe had not been checked for years because it was not included in an inspection list. When asked if he would resign, Fuji said: 'I feel a great responsibility for this disaster. I also feel responsible as a member of the KEPCO group.' Economy, trade and industry minister Shoichi Nakagawa said: 'The government also should take some responsibility as we oversee the company's business. We'll do our best to find out what happened and prevent such an accident from happening again.' The incident is one in a series of nuclear scandals in Japan. In March last year, six nuclear industry executives who allowed workers to use buckets to fill a tank with uranium, resulting in two deaths and widespread radiation contamination, received fines and suspended jail sentences (Risks 96).

USA: Steel union questions accident surge

When a 20,000-pound roll used to flatten stainless steel crushed the life out of Michael Carney at a US steel plant, the 50-year-old became the sixth member of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) to die this year while working in a North American steel mill. So far twice as many union members have died this year as in all of last year - and the union suspects radical changes in the industry during a recent downturn may have made mills more dangerous places to work. Now that demand for steel has increased sharply and the industry has a chance to make money, steelmakers have to produce more with fewer workers and many workers are performing jobs that are new to them. 'There's got to be a correlation there,' said Andrew Miklos, president of USWA at US Steel's coke plant in Clairton. USWA points to problems stemming from dramatic staffing reductions, loss of experienced workers, and runaway mandatory overtime, with some workers on 16 hour shifts. Mike Wright, the USWA's health and safety director, says there's just the gut feeling that safety has been compromised as a result of cutbacks allied with a drive for increased production. He asked USWA members attending an August union health and safety conference in Pittsburgh whether their workplaces are safer than they were two years ago. 'When they stopped laughing, no one thought their plant is safer,' Wright said.

TUC courses for safety reps

COURSES FOR SEPTEMBER TO DECEMBER 2004

Midlands, North, North West, Scotland, South East, South West, Wales, Yorkshire and Humberside

Occupational health in construction conference, Sheffield, 21 October 2004

A one-day 'Occupational health in construction and building maintenance' conference is being run by Sheffield Occupational Health Advisory Service and South Yorkshire Trade Union Studies Centre, for trade unionists, employers and health and safety managers. Speakers from trade unions, HSE and other experts will cover topics including occupational health services for construction workers, worker safety advisers and asbestos. Delegates will be able to attend one workshop from a choice of: bodymapping; noise and hearing loss; dust, fumes and chest problems; and consultation, information and training for safety reps.

  • Occupational health in construction and building maintenance conference, Thursday 21 October 2004, Quaker Meeting House, Sheffield. £20.00 including lunch and an information pack. To book a place or further details contact SOHAS on 01142755760 or email Andy Turner. Further information and online booking form.

TUC conference on the future of HSC, 8 November 2004

A major TUC conference will mark the 30th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act and the establishment of the Health and Safety Commission. TUC says the event, '30 years on - the future of the Health and Safety Commission,' is intended for policy makers, trade unionists, managers, health and safety professionals, academics, and others with an interest in health and safety. Speakers include minister for work Jane Kennedy, HSC chair Bill Callaghan, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and prominent safety academics and representatives of unions, HSE, and campaign and employers’ organisations.

  • 30 years on - the future of the Health and Safety Commission, TUC conference, Monday 8 November 2004, TUC, Congress House, Great Russell St, London WC1B 3LS. Registration fee: Trade unions £25.00; not for profit organisations £35.00; other organisations £50.00. Further details: Contact TUC health and safety unit, Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS.

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.

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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