Risks 378 - 18 October 2008

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Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 16,000 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

Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at healthandsafety@tuc.org.uk

Union News

Payout after work-related heart attack

A social worker who suffered a heart attack after becoming stressed at work has received £175,000 in compensation. Unite member David Walker, 63, was employed as a team manager by Northumberland Care Trust between 1995 and November 2004. He worked on an under-staffed project for young people with disabilities. He frequently worked 12-hour days and most of the weekend but, even working those extended hours, he was unable to cope with the workload. Relentless pressure caused him severe stress and anxiety and he suffered a heart attack in November 2004. He recovered, but remained seriously depressed and was not able to return to work. He took early retirement at the age of 60. After court proceedings started in February 2006, the Northumberland NHS Care Trust admitted it had been negligent in exposing Mr Walker to stressful working conditions. However, it was not prepared to admit the heart attack and depression were caused by its negligence. The case was due to be heard at Newcastle County Court last month, but the proceedings were dropped when the NHS Trust came forward with compensation of £175,000. Mr Walker said: 'I and my family feel that this is a just settlement.' He added: 'Mentally, now I'm just coming out of it. It's taken away three-and-a-half years of my life.' Unite regional secretary Davey Hall said: 'I'm extremely pleased for Mr Walker. Now that the lengthy case has eventually been resolved, it gives Mr Walker, and indeed his family, peace of mind. Had the case been advanced by a private firm of solicitors, it would have cost Mr Walker thousands of pounds in costs. However, being a member of Unite, he incurred no legal costs and he has justly received full compensation.'

Violence up against police staff

UNISON is calling for a crackdown on violence against police staff in the wake of new statistics showing that almost 15 per cent have been subjected to violence at work. The latest union survey shows that custody officers are most at risk, with a 'shocking' 21.8 per cent needing medical treatment following an attack. In addition, more than half of custody staff have been subjected to an assault not requiring medical help, and 71.5 per cent have been threatened with physical violence. The survey shows staff are particularly at risk in five key areas - custody, forensic services, Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), police station enquiry clerks and traffic wardens. Ben Priestley, the union's national officer for police staff, said: 'Because of the nature of the police service, staff will come up against some pretty hard and sometimes dangerous characters. It's hardly surprising that members come in for abuse and even violence, however that risk can be reduced if staff are given the right training and equipment to protect themselves, the public and other members of staff.' He added: 'Staff must have training to handle potentially dangerous situations and be given the necessary personal protective equipment to their job safely and effectively - and that means having stab vests.' He said some forces were clearly failing in their duty of care. 'Police forces around the country need to take a long hard look at these figures and agree an action plan with the union to better protect their staff,' he added.

Apology call after exoneration of rail workers

Rail union RMT is to seek an apology from transport police after two track workers arrested in connection with the Grayrigg train crash and kept under caution for eleven months were this week cleared. The union said at the time of the arrests that it was mystified by the move. It added that systematic management failings, lack of resources and imposition of unrealistic workloads were at the heart of the fatal derailment that took place at Grayrigg, Cumbria, in February 2007, causing the death of an elderly woman (Risks 322). 'Our two members and their families have been living under the shadow of suspicion for the best part of a year and the very least they deserve is an apology for arrests that should never have been made,' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said. 'We said last November that we were completely mystified by their arrest, which I am convinced amounted to nothing more than a fishing exercise and intimidation. Neither of the men was directly involved in maintenance on the points and neither has been involved in any disciplinary following the crash - and in fact no-one has been disciplined for anything directly connected to the tragedy.' He added that a report by the rail watchdog RAIB and Network Rail's own report 'have pointed clearly to management failings and lack of resources, and it is those structural failings that still need to be addressed.'

Housing chief 'must go' after asbestos scandal

Construction union UCATT has called for the sacking of the managing director of Carlisle Housing Association, after it was revealed that its workers and tenants had been needlessly exposed to asbestos. BBC's Inside Out North East programme last week revealed that workers and tenants of Carlisle Housing Association had been put at risk. Problems included workers being refused masks when drilling into asbestos, a failure to supply the appropriate protective clothing or to train the workforce and unsafe disposal of hazardous materials. UCATT is furious that the company's managing director, Patrick Leonard, said the workers themselves 'shared responsibility' for the problem. UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie said: 'Patrick Leonard's comments are absolutely disgraceful. Workers and tenants are left fearing for their health and he has the audacity to try to absolve himself from blame. His position is entirely untenable and he must be replaced immediately.' UCATT was 'deeply concerned', he said, 'that after complaints about Carlisle Housing Association were made to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) the body failed to properly investigate the serious concerns of workers and tenants.' The said 'the HSE limited their investigation to simply talking to management and then giving the association a clean bill of health.' Mr Ritchie added: 'There has been a huge loss of confidence in the HSE. It is their role to ensure that workers health is not placed at risk. The failure to hold a credible investigation into what are potentially very serious health concerns has meant that our members in Carlisle have no confidence in that body. An urgent inquiry is needed into how they conducted this investigation.'

Verbal abuse hits retail staff

Over half of shopworkers have suffered verbal abuse from customers in the past year, according to a survey by shopworkers' union Usdaw. Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: 'The issue of abuse against shopworkers is a serious one. Our latest survey of members shows that the majority (56 per cent) of respondents were verbally abused at sometime in the last 12 months, with 4 per cent claiming they are verbally abused on a daily basis.' There had been an improvement, however, as a result of Usdaw's Freedom from Fear campaign, he said. 'These figures are lower than last year, thanks to our annual campaign. For example, many customers who signed our petition last year to respect shopworkers said that it would make them stop and think before 'sounding off', so it seems that the message is hitting home. However, the incidents of verbal abuse are still unacceptably high, with shopworkers never being sure whether the next customer is going to kick off or be offensive so it is important that we continue to highlight the pressures they face on a daily basis.' Usdaw's 'Respect Week' highlighting the problem of retail abuse and violence will be taking place all over the country from 3-7 November.

Minister backs union safety reps

Trade union safety reps have been crucial to securing improvements in Britain's safety record, the government's health and safety minister has said. Lord McKenzie of Luton, speaking at the launch this week of new guidance on worker involvement in health and safety, said: 'Thirty years ago this month the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations (1977) became law. For many people workplaces are safer, the number of serious but non-fatal injuries reportedly falling by 70 per cent, workplace deaths have fallen by 76 per cent and an estimated 5,000 deaths have been prevented.' He said the two key safety tenets are 'the importance of leadership from the top of every organisation and secondly the real involvement of workers in managing health and safety. We are here today to promote and celebrate the latter.' The minister added: 'Worker involvement in health and safety is one of my priorities for this year. I see it as one of my tasks to take every opportunity to go out and meet with employers, workers and their health and safety representatives to understand the health and safety issues facing people at work and to promote worker involvement as widely as possible.' HSE chair Judith Hackitt said: 'This guidance will help all organisations to decide how to implement a culture in their organisation which genuinely values employees' contributions leading to higher commitment and productivity.' TUC general secretary Brendan Barber commented: 'The TUC welcomes the production of new guidance in an updated and more accessible form. We also welcomed the recognition from the minister for health and safety, at the launch, of the pivotal role that safety representatives play in transforming workplace culture.' Mr Barber said TUC 'hoped the new guidance will help encourage those employers not engaging with trade unions on health and safety to do so, and that more will be done to ensure that those employers who do not consult with their workforce fulfil their legal requirements.' The TUC will be publishing a free version of the 1977 safety representatives' regulations and accompanying guidance to use in training.

Other news

Company guilty over electrocution

A Scottish engineering company is facing a substantial fine following the death of an electrician on a construction site in Dundee. Mitie Engineering Services (Edinburgh) Ltd has been found guilty of breaching health and safety laws. Michael Adamson, 26, from Bo'ness, was killed in 2005 while working on a live wire which had been marked 'not in use' at a JJB fitness centre. Mitie Engineering Services will be sentenced at Dundee Sheriff Court next week. Last week, three of the company's senior employees walked free from court after being told they had no case to answer over Mr Adamson's death. In a statement, the electrician's family called for lessons to be learned. It said 'to all who can make a difference to health and safety standards - be you a director, manager, supervisor or fellow employee and in whatever industry you operate - we urge you to take action before it's too late. Because, no court case or penalty imposed by the courts will bring Michael back from his final journey to a far too early grave. And, be in no doubt that today marks the start of the longest journey for us - the rest of our lives without the loved one who should have outlived us all.' It was ruled last week that senior employees William Mitchell, Scott Wallace and Ian Storrar had no case to answer regarding Michael Adamson's death.

Union anger as bosses again get off

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has welcomed the guilty verdict in the Mitie Engineering prosecution but said individual managers should be held to account after deaths at work. Assistant secretary Ian Tasker, commenting on the court case that followed the death of electrician Michael Adamson, said: 'Yet again we witness a bereaved family left cheated by a justice system that appears powerless to punish those who take management decisions which place the lives of their workers at risk. During these proceedings we heard the accused company described as 'the invisible man in the dock', following the collapse of the charges against three individuals in this case. This is a clear example of how decision makers can hide behind the corporate veil, deflecting liability on an inanimate body such as a company.' The union safety specialist added that STUC 'believe statutory duties, not guidance, is required to ensure company directors and senior managers take their responsibilities seriously. The STUC remains concerned that not a single director or manager in Scotland has been convicted under Section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work Act in the last five years while 61 breaches of this regulation have been successfully prosecuted in England and Wales.' Mr Tasker concluded: 'We hope the recent announcement by the Lord Advocate proposing a specialist division to prosecute health and safety cases will lead to far more consistency in prosecuting such cases across the United Kingdom [Risks 377]. However, this does little to help the family of Michael Adamson deal with their loss, and this is now compounded by a deep feeling of injustice, a feeling that is replicated time and time again following workplace deaths.'

£1.2m fines over offshore worker's death

Fines of £1.2m have been handed down to two companies over an incident on board a North Sea support vessel that killed one oil worker and injured another. Pipefitter Matthew Grey and his colleague Norman Jackson were struck by falling steel clamps on the Bleo Holm floating production and storage installation when a lifting operation went wrong on 6 January last year. Mr Grey 59, was killed while working in the cargo tanks of the vessel, which was 72 miles north east of Aberdeen, and Mr Jackson was flown to hospital with injuries to his arm. Talisman Energy UK Ltd and contractor Aker Kvaerner Offshore Partner Ltd, for whom the men worked, were fined £600,000 each after admitting breaching health and safety rules. A pneumatic hoist was being used to lift various items out of the tank through a small hatch at main deck level. Two steel beam clamps weighing 21.5kg were among items falling from the load and striking the men below. Following the case at Aberdeen Sheriff's Court, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) principal inspector Colin Richards said: 'This tragic incident should remind everyone in the offshore industry and elsewhere that lifting operations are hazardous and must be carried out in a safe manner.' He added: 'In this case visual signals were being used in conditions which made that inappropriate and when the permit-to-work stipulated the use of radios. The companies involved had not ensured that radios were supplied and used.' The fines for both companies were discounted by 25 per cent as a result of their guilty pleas.

Recycling firm fined after lorry fall

A recycling company has been fined £2,500 after an agency worker suffered serious injuries in a fall from a lorry. European Metal Recycling Ltd was also ordered to pay £2,454 costs by Lincoln magistrates after pleading guilty to a breach of the work at height regulations. On 17 December 2007, the agency worker was repositioning fridge and freezer units on a curtain-sided trailer at one of the Warrington firm's Lincoln depots. He was standing on a fridge unit, attempting to move another unit on top of it to prevent it sticking out of the side of the vehicle, when he lost his balance and fell around ten feet to the ground. He dislocated fingers on his left hand, broke his left wrist and fractured vertebrae in his neck. He was in hospital for five days and had to wear a neck brace for three months. HSE inspector Judith McNulty-Green said: 'Three million people work on or near vehicles as part of their regular job. Getting on and off a vehicle to carry out loading or unloading, and working at height on the vehicle, are often viewed as incidental to the main job. Because of this, the risks involved may not be properly considered by either workers or their managers.' She added: 'All companies must assess the risks from work they are undertaking at height and ensure that the work is planned properly and appropriate measures are taken so that workers are not at risk of falling. This incident could have been avoided, and a man might not have been seriously injured if the company had sufficient procedures in place.'

New law introduces stiffer penalties

The Health and Safety (Offences) Bill became law on 16 October, when it received Royal assent. The Bill, put forward by Labour MP Keith Hill cleared it last hurdle earlier this month, when it passed a third reading in the House of Lords. Under the new legislation, the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008, the maximum fine in magistrates' courts will be raised to £20,000 for most offences and imprisonment will be made an option for a wider range of breaches. The Act, which applies throughout the UK, makes most offences 'triable either way', which in effect means unlimited fines. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said the realising the benefits of the new law would require the courts to treat safety offences as serious crimes. 'The TUC welcomes the fact that this bill has finally made it on to the statute book,' he said. 'The need to increase fines was first recognised by the government over eight years ago and trade unions have been campaigning hard for stronger penalties to be available for those who are convicted of criminally putting the health or safety of their workforce at risk.' He added, however, 'these increased penalties will only make a difference if courts actually impose fines that act as a meaningful deterrent rather than just a slap on the wrist as is so often the case today.' Health and safety minister Lord McKenzie said: 'These changes will ensure that sentences can now be more easily set at a level to deter businesses that do not take their health and safety management responsibilities seriously and further encourage employers and others to comply with the law.' The minister added: 'Furthermore, by extending the £20,000 maximum fine to the lower courts and making imprisonment an option, more cases will be resolved in the lower courts and justice will be faster, less costly and more efficient. Jail sentences for particularly blameworthy health and safety offences committed by individuals, can now be imposed reflecting the severity of such crimes, whereas there were more limited options in the past.'

Arthritis support is missing at work

People with arthritis are being forced out of work because employers are not providing the necessary support, a new report has concluded. Health charity Arthritis Care presented its finding to MPs on 15 October, spelling out the extent of avoidable arthritis-related unemployment in the UK. Its survey of over 1,100 people with arthritis found 70 per cent of those no longer working cited their arthritis as the main reason they left employment. Almost 9 out of every 10 still in work (85 per cent) were concerned they may have to leave work because of their arthritis. The charity said it findings show 'arthritis was a major factor in people leaving work prematurely - 44 per cent of survey respondents were no longer in work, of these 70 per cent described arthritis as being the main reason for them leaving their job.' Workers with arthritis are being failed by employers and government, Arthritis Care said, despite pledges to help people with disabilities to stay employed, or to get off benefit and back to work. It added that the cost to the economy is huge - 'but better understanding of arthritis and minor adjustments by employers could make a huge difference, helping many more people stay at work.' The charity is calling for measures at workplace level including more sympathetic sick and disability leave policies and a commitment to make 'reasonable adjustments' to help people with arthritis stay in work. It also wants the government to do more to enforce the Disability Discrimination Act and ensure that employers meet their obligations to support disabled employees, particularly in the provision of reasonable adjustments.

Work cancer victim's call for witnesses

A West Yorkshire cancer survivor is urging his former work colleagues to come forward to provide information about his exposure to chemicals at work. Michael Savage, 65, from Halifax was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2005. Michael, who is now in remission, has been advised he faces a 90 per cent chance of the cancer recurring. He is now calling for his former workmates to come forward to help his lawyers piece together information about his working conditions over 30 years ago in the chemical industry. Michael was employed as a maintenance fitter by ICI, at the Leeds Road, Huddersfield site from 1972 to 1977. He worked repairing and servicing equipment and was based in a building known as 824 Beta Nap. One once common industrial chemical, beta naphthalamine, is a potent cause of occupational cancer. Michael said: 'I never expected to be diagnosed with cancer, I have always been fit and healthy, so the diagnosis came as a terrible shock. Although I am now in remission I have been told that the cancer could come back again and that is a big weight on my mind. I am lucky that the cancer was caught when it was but I have no idea what the future holds for me.' Marion Voss of Thompsons Solicitors, who is representing Michael, said: 'Exposure to certain chemicals can increase the risk of bladder cancer. Fortunately Mr Savage's condition is now in remission. However, it's important that we trace his former workmates so we can build up an accurate description of his working environment.'

  • Thompsons Solicitors news release.
  • Anyone who worked with Mr Savage at ICI Huddersfield during the 1970s or who was employed in the 824 Beta Nap building should contact Marion Voss on 08000 224 224.

Justice committee backs plaques payouts

Scottish victims of an asbestos-related condition have received the support of an influential body of MSPs in their fight for compensation. People with pleural plaques - a scarring on the lungs that is benign, but is associated with an increased future risks of developing the asbestos cancer mesothelioma - should be able to claim damages, the Scottish parliament's Justice Committee has recommended. Committee convener Bill Aitken MSP said: 'Given that people with pleural plaques have been negligently exposed to asbestos and given that for the last twenty years they have been awarded damages, it is appropriate that damages should continue to be awarded. However, the committee is concerned that the figures provided by the Scottish government in the Financial Memorandum might not accurately reflect the full costs of the bill. Equally worrying to the committee is the potential impact on the Scottish budget if UK government departments, such as the Ministry of Defence, pass their liability onto the Scottish government.' He added that it was 'essential that these specific matters are resolved prior to the bill being approved by the Parliament' in the next stage of the process. The insurance industry has said Scottish government figures greatly underestimate the true cost of the measures. However, community safety minister Fergus Ewing has accused the insurance industry of being 'alarmist' and massively inflating the costs figure in a bid to block the legislation (Risks 373).

International News

Kazakhstan: Unions and ArcelorMittal in safety push

A global agreement to improve health and safety across a steel giant's operations worldwide is being pressed into use in Kazakhstan. The Joint Global Health and Safety Committee of ArcelorMittal met in Kazakhstan earlier this month to assess conditions at the local facilities and discuss the implementation of a global agreement on health and safety signed in June this year (Risks 359). So far in 2008, five fatalities have occurred in ArcelorMittal's Kazakhstan steel plant and a further 38 in the local coal mines serving the plant, making it the company's worst safety performer. The committee met with local union representatives and management and toured the steel plant and a nearby coal mine. It noted some improvements have been made at the site, such as the establishment of a local union health and safety committee and an equipment modernisation programme, but that overall the rate of change could be quicker. The committee called for greater availability of protective equipment, a company-funded union health and safety programme, and joint union-management projects to improve working conditions. While meeting in Kazakhstan, the trade union members of the committee prepared a survey to be filled out by union leadership at every plant globally, to assess the current state of play and levels of implementation of the global agreement on health and safety. At the next meeting, to be held in Brazil in November 2008, the committee will plan its activities for 2009 and also consider proposals for the company's global health and safety day.

Mexico: Action call after killings of journalists

The Mexican authorities must carry out a full investigation into a series of murders of journalists, international unions have said. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its regional organisation, the Federation of Latin American and Caribbean Journalists (FEPALC), made the call after journalist and editor Miguel Angel Villagómez Valle, was found dead with six bullet wounds the day after he was kidnapped. His body was found on 11 October just a few kilometres from Lázaro Cárdenas, a town where he founded the newspaper La Noticia de Michoacán four years ago and which covers extensively the issues of drug trafficking, corruption and organised crime. In another deadly incident, journalist David García Monroy, a freelance working with La Jornada and El Diario de Chihuahua, was killed on 9 October when professional killers burst into the bar where he was drinking and opened fire. 'Only a week ago Latin American journalists launched a campaign from Mexico City against the brutal and targeted killings of colleagues,' said Paco Audije, deputy general secretary of the IFJ, 'and these latest murders demonstrate just how urgent is the need to challenge impunity, find the killers and bring them to justice.' The media unions are demanded the government of Mexican president Felipe Calderón enact legislation to ensure federal investigation of murders of journalists. 'If this is not done, press freedom will suffer as investigations of media killings disintegrate in the face of local corruption,' said Audije.

Papua New Guinea: Workers 'paid to die' in dust

Workers in Papua New Guinea (PNG) have been 'paid to die' instead of being supplied with protective gear against volcanic ash fallout, a top government official has said. David Tibu, secretary of PNG's industrial relations department, has ordered five businesses in Rabaul to close immediately for not complying with recommended safety standards. Two-thirds of Rabaul was destroyed in 1994, in the last eruption of Mt Tavurvur. The volcano belches a continuous plume of ash, making it a popular tourist attraction. Cambridge University professor Peter Baxter earlier this year recommended workers wear protective masks to protect themselves from the volcanic ash. In an interview with PNG's Post-Courier newspaper, David Tibu said: 'Safety is a paramount requirement. It is simple and not rocket science for business houses to be equipped with simple or the minimum safety equipment as specified under the legislation.' He said local businesses had failed to buy safety equipment such as dust masks, gloves, overalls, goggles, respiratory masks and hats. Some businesses were paying risk allowances instead of providing safety wear, so in effect their workers are 'getting paid to die,' he said.

USA: Unions criticise mines drug test plan

US unions this week criticised proposed federal rules to expand drug testing to include more than 116,000 coal miners, declaring them a 'distraction' from serious safety problems and asking for sweeping changes to the proposal or for it to be dropped. Mine operators, by contrast, praised the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for tackling what they consider a major safety problem across the country. But the unions argue MSHA has failed to make the case that drugs are a problem in the industry or that their use has contributed to deaths and injuries. 'MSHA has not shown that the proposed rule is necessary,' United Steelworkers safety director Mike Wright said during public testimony. 'In this rule, MSHA is relying on limited anecdotal and sometimes irrelevant information.' The proposed rules would prohibit the possession and use of drugs and alcohol at coal, copper, gold or any other type of mine, would test all job applicants and randomly test existing miners. Wright labelled the proposed rules unconstitutional. Federal courts have held mandatory drug testing for workers is an illegal search except to protect national security, Wright said. He added that MSHA has not demonstrated a threat to the public or national security. 'This proposal is unconstitutional and unnecessary. It's a distraction from real worker safety and it should be withdrawn,' Wright said. United Mine Workers union (UMWA) officials also urged MSHA to drop the proposal. UMWA also accused the federal regulators of trying to prevent miners from testifying about the proposed rules to expand drug testing in the industry.

Resources

Organising for health and safety

You know the job's dangerous, but the company doesn't seem to care. Or those bags of chemical nasties have been linked to cancer, but the boss is a 'like it or lump it' sort of guy. The difference between knowing something is bad for your health, and getting something done about amounts to a big 'O' - Organisation. That's why TUC's safety strategy has union organisation at the centre. Four new guides, available in print and online, set out 'to show how union organisers, at both national and local level, can use health and safety as a tool in a campaign for union recognition as well as to develop activists and grow the union in already organised workplaces.' The 'Organising for safety' series explain how union members' skills and experiences can be used to strengthen and expand the union movement. The publications include new guidance and a training course for union organisers, a new training course for union safety reps on using their expertise to develop the organising approach at branch and workplace levels and a revised TUC workplace resource with practical exercises for use by safety reps and branch organisers. The guides, which are free to affiliated unions, can be used separately or as part of a comprehensive approach to developing health and safety at work as an organising tool.

  • TUC publication alert. TUC health and safety organisation webpages. TUC affiliated unions and union reps can obtain print copies from Jo Adams in TUC's Organising and Recruitment Team.
  • Organising for health and safety: A workplace resource [pdf].
  • Organising for health and safety: Safety reps course [pdf].
  • Organising for health and safety: Union officers course [pdf].
  • Organising for health and safety: What makes health and safety a good organising issue? [pdf].

Events and Courses

TUC courses for safety reps

COURSES FOR SEPTEMBER TO DECEMBER 2008

European health and safety week, 20-24 October

European Health and Safety Week is next week, running from 20-24 October. The TUC has produced a guide to risk assessment as part of a package of materials for the risk assessment-themed week of activities. Thirteen courses on risk assessment will run at various locations in England between October and December this year. The Wednesday of safety week, 22 October, is National Inspection Day, when safety reps will be encouraged to undertake inspections - and a TUC guide is available to help with this.

Useful Links

  • Visit the TUC 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.
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