Risks 432 - 14 November 2009

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

Union News

Meat firm docks wages for loo breaks

Workers at a Lancashire meat firm are outraged at their employer's toilet break policy which stops their pay every time they visit the loo. Unite, which represents workers at the Dunbia a meat processing plant, says workers are being forced to take unpaid toilet breaks during work time. This means workers have to clock off to go to the toilet and then clock on again after - suffering a pay cut for using the toilet. Unite says the company is refusing to sit down and hear a collective grievance, signed by over 100 union members at the site, 'to defend a basic human right, to use the toilet, which should be a right on paid work time.' Unite says it is concerned the restrictive toilet policy is putting the health and dignity of workers at risk, and is urging Dunbia to reverse the policy immediately. Cathy Rudderforth, Unite regional official, said: 'Basically, Dunbia is making money every time a worker visits the loo - and that money is coming out of the workers' wage packets. It's outrageous that in 2009 workers have to endure the indignity of clocking out for toilet breaks.' She added: 'We've made numerous attempts to speak to Dunbia on behalf of our members in recent weeks, only to be given the 'run around' by a company which clearly wishes to avoid any form of challenge to the manner in which it treats its employees. Its workforce, some of whom are migrants, are extremely frightened to be seen talking to the union. They are vulnerable people, and, as with all workers, deserve to be treated fairly and with respect.' Unite said the company was recently ranked 16th in a table of best performing privately owned UK companies, with sales of £466.3 million.

Rail cuts put safety on the line

Drastic jobs cuts on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) will create a maintenance and safety crisis that could lead to new rail disasters, RMT has warned. The rail union says its research has uncovered that nearly half of the maintenance job cuts planned by Network Rail will be on the line, a franchise operated by Virgin Trains and the busiest rail corridor on the UK system. The figures obtained by the union show a total of 1,448 Network Rail maintenance jobs have been identified for the axe, with 650 of these on the WCML. Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, said: 'With the well-documented history of infrastructure problems and failures on the West Coast Main Line it simply defies all logic that Network Rail could even be considering axing 650 maintenance jobs as part of their national cost reduction plan. We should also remember that the Grayrigg disaster occurred on the WCML and that reports into that incident fingered systemic problems with the maintenance regime.' He added: 'Under those circumstances alone it beggars belief that Network Rail could be even considering hundreds of maintenance job cuts. RMT is committed to fighting the national jobs cull across Network Rail and we will be drawing in political and public support across the country for what is an important battle for safety and reliability on the rail network.'

Train drivers say rail chief must go

Train drivers' union ASLEF has said the top boss of Network Rail should be fired after an investigation revealed serious management failings contributed to a level crossing incident in which three people died. The union made the call for the dismissal of Network Rail chief Iain Coucher after an enquiry found the company's 'gross incompetence' had contributed to the three deaths at the Halkirk level crossing in Caithness last month. The initial enquiry at Inverness revealed that while Network Rail had decided two months prior to the incident that speed restrictions should be applied on the line, it had failed to erect notices advising train drivers of the decision. ASLEF says an internal Network Rail risk assessment exercise two to three months before the deaths had proposed that trains should approach level crossings at Watten, Delny, Bunchrew and Halkirk at a maximum of 35 mph. However boards pointing this out to drivers were not delivered or erected by the time of the incident. The day after the deaths someone made the effort to courier them to the location, the union says. The driver involved in the incident approached the crossing at 47 mph, three mph slower than the permitted line speed still in place at that time. 'That 12 mph could have literally made all the difference in the world to the three people killed on the line that day,' ASLEF's Scotland officer Kevin Lindsay said. 'In view of this incompetence by his company, Mr Coucher should go. Or is no one prepared to take responsibility for this massive failure?' Immediately after the Halkirk incident the union advised its drivers to approach all automatic open crossings at 20 mph (Risks 429). According to the union's general secretary, Keith Norman, the only response ASLEF has received is an intimation that the union will be served an injunction to compel it to retract the advice.

Government told to act on fatalities report

The government should swiftly implement the recommendations of a report into construction site fatalities, the union UCATT has said. General secretary Alan Ritchie told a British Safety Council conference this week that the government commissioned Donaghy report was published in July and made 28 recommendations to improve construction safety. These included extending the Gangmasters Licensing Act to cover the construction industry and the introduction of statutory directors' duties. The government has not yet responded formally to the report. The union is concerned the delay could mean any recommendations requiring primary legislation will not be including in the Queen's Speech on 18 November. UCATT's Alan Ritchie told the conference: 'The Donaghy Report should be used as the blueprint for restructuring the industry and making it fit for purpose.' He added: 'The government has an excellent opportunity to change how the construction industry operates and dramatically reduce deaths on construction sites. It is imperative that the Donaghy Report is fully implemented and not left to gather dust on a shelf.'

Work bullying doubles in decade

Over a third of workers have experienced bullying in the last six months - double the number recorded in 1997, according to a UNISON survey. The 7,000 workers who took part in a UNISON poll listed rudeness, criticism, excessive work monitoring, intimidation, exclusion and withholding information among the top bad behaviours encountered. The union found 80 per cent of victims say bullying has affected their physical and mental health and a third took time off work, or left their jobs as a result. Over nine out of 10 (91 per cent) said bullies were able to get away, with it and the same proportion saying they were too scared to report the problem. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis commented: 'The fact that bullying has doubled in the past decade is shocking. Workers have the right to earn a decent living in a safe environment. They need to be treated with respect and not forced to take time off work because bullying has made them ill.' He added: 'We will continue to campaign for specific legislation, which will outlaw workplace bullying, ensure employers develop anti-bullying policies and aid bullied workers through Employment Tribunals. The Health and Safety Executive should take more enforcement action against employers that do not include bullying in their risk assessments.'

Members back bullying whistleblower

Staff at Wrexham's Glyndwr University have voted 'overwhelmingly' for strike action in support of a lecturer who was fired after whistleblowing about management bullying. The University and College Union (UCU) says members at the university also voted for action other than a strike in support of Hamish Murphy. UCU says Mr Murphy's dismissal followed 'a long-running dispute between UCU and the university over management bullying and harassment.' The union says Mr Murphy, a union branch chair, was 'instrumental in exposing the serious problem of management bullying and harassment of staff at the university.' He was dismissed from his post as a lecturer in youth and community studies on 7 October and was escorted from the premises. A recent report by the conciliation and arbitration service Acas 'vindicated' Mr Murphy's claims, the union says. It adds the report 'further highlighted the adversarial labour relations at the university.' Commenting ahead of the strike vote, UCU Cymru's Margaret Phelan said: 'The dismissal of Hamish Murphy was a clear attack on him as a trade unionist and on UCU as the legitimate voice of academic staff at the university. For years the university failed to deal with the problem of bullying and harassment of staff. Hamish was instrumental in bringing these issues to light and we believe that he was targeted for dismissal for this reason.'

Long commute and long hours at work

Britain's workers are facing an exhausting 'double whammy' of long commutes and long hours at work, new figures have revealed. A TUC analysis of official statistics published this week shows UK workers spend 21.8 million hours travelling to and from work every day. The findings, published to mark Work Wise UK's Commute Smart week, are calculated from Labour Force Survey figures and show workers spend on average 52.6 minutes commuting every day. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'UK staff experience a double whammy of working some of the longest hours in Europe and then spending nearly an hour every day getting to and from work. All that wasted working time spent stuck on crowded trains and congested roads costs the economy over a quarter of a billion pounds every day, not to mention the stress it causes staff and the time it means they miss spending with friends and family.' He added: 'With employers focused on getting through the recession, many will have taken their eye off the ball in offering flexible working. But remote working and flexible shifts can reduce commute times, save on office space and reduce energy costs - saving companies money and helping staff enjoy a better work life balance.'

School assistant suffers slipped disc

A school assistant has received a 'substantial' sum in compensation after she suffered a slipped disc while lifting heavy objects at work. GMB member Yvonne Macklin, 48, from Colchester in Essex, was helping a colleague to lift a heavy insulated box containing school lunches when she felt a sudden pain in her back. The classroom assistant at Monkwick Infant School in Colchester has been unable to work since the incident in March 2006, which brought on a degenerative condition in her spine by five years. As a result of the slipped disc and a trapped nerve she has been left in constant pain and now has a limp and must use crutches. After she started a GMB backed compensation claim, Essex County Council admitted liability and settled the claim out of court. Mrs Macklin said: 'I am in constant pain which means at the moment I am unable to work. I try hard to carry on with life as normal but I have a 13-year-old son and I'm aware that there are things I can no longer do with him, like cycling.' GMB spokesperson Rose Conroy said: 'Employers must make sure that every job involving lifting, no matter how small, should be assessed to make sure that it is conducted in the safest way possible. This accident has brought on Mrs Macklin's back problems earlier than expected and as a result she has lost out on years of employment.'

Machine noise caused deafness

A 52 year old engineering worker is suffering two debilitating health conditions caused by noise exposures at work. Unite member Paul Harvey, 52, has to wear a hearing aid and suffers from tinnitus following exposure to excessive noise while working for Avon Vibration Management Systems in Chippenham. He has worked for the car components firm as a machine operator for 30 years. He first noticed problems with his hearing a number of years ago but it has become progressively worse in recent years. His tinnitus means he hears a constant ringing sound and he finds it difficult to hear when there is background noise. He decided to claim compensation after discovering his father had also suffered hearing problems after working for the same employer. Avon VMS admitted liability and agreed a 'substantial' compensation settlement. Paul said: 'I have suffered from hearing problems for a number of years, but put it down to growing older. Recently it has got worse and when I found out about my father's problems I realised that my work had caused my problems and decided to pursue compensation.' Unite regional officer John McGookin said: 'Exposure to excessive noise is a problem faced by many of our members and employers have a duty to ensure their employees are safeguarded against it.'

Other news

HSE withdraws lead safety advice

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has withdrawn advice on the dangers of working with lead after an investigation found it greatly under-estimated health risks that could be affecting over 100,000 workers. The HSE move came after a report by academics at Stirling University said the official health and safety warnings about the dangers of lead were so complacent the watchdog was guilty of 'extreme recklessness' with workers' health. The current UK maximum exposure limit for males is set at 60 microgrammes of lead in 100ml (µg/100ml) of blood, at which level workers must be suspended until their blood lead level falls. But the Stirling University report, 'Dangerous lead', points to substantial scientific evidence that much lower levels - as little as 10 to 20 (µg/100ml), a fraction the current UK standard - can cause chronic, long-term ill health. 'Lead and you', HSE's main guidance for workers on the issue, takes a different line. It says: 'Serious ill-health problems rarely occur unless people have at least 100 microgrammes of lead per decilitre of blood.' After publication last week of the Stirling report, which was also featured on Channel 4 News and in The Guardian, HSE admitted the leaflet is misleading and has since removed it from the HSE website. However, despite a series of recommendations from HSE expert committees that the lead standard should be reviewed in the light of evidence of risks significantly below the currently permitted exposure levels, HSE maintains it has 'no intention' of doing anything about it, the Stirling report says. HSE's attitude was described as 'blinkered' and 'wrong' by Professor Andrew Watterson, whose University of Stirling department analysed the data. 'HSE medical staff identified evidence of the health threats which existed to a significant number of workers several years ago,' he said. 'Yet remarkably HSE policy still remains unchanged.'

HSE pulls 'leadership' case histories

The Health and Safety Executive has removed a 'directors' leadership' case history on BP from its website, after the watchdog was criticised for providing an undeserved public relations push for 'a serial safety offender.' The criticism of BP came in a 2 November letter sent by campaigning magazine Hazards to HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger in the wake of a record US safety fine on BP for failing to remedy hundreds of problems at its Texas City refinery (Risks 431). The plant blew up over four years ago, killing 15.The letter notes that the 'safety malaise' identified by the US safety watchdog OSHA 'goes right to the top of the London-based multinational. The failure of BP's global structures to manage safety effectively has been exposed in a series of official and independent reports.' It notes that BP has the dubious distinction of being the recipient of the two highest ever safety penalties in the US, and in 2002 was the first company to receive a £1m safety penalty in the UK, related to incidents at Scotland's Grangemouth refinery. The Hazards letter calls for HSE to stop promoting a company with a 'woeful' safety management record. 'HSE should remove immediately the BP director leadership case history from its website,' it says. Within days of receiving the letter, the BP director leadership case history, as well as 40 others on the same webpage, had been removed. Only four cut down case histories survived the cull. In a written reply to Hazards, HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger said the case histories were 'time expired' and were to be removed anyway. However, in response to press inquiries the watchdog admitted the move was prompted by 'someone externally' criticising the webpages.

Asbestos victims lose out, bankers cash in

Construction union UCATT has said it is disappointed that the government has 'once again been able to find billions of pounds to bail out the banks but seems unable to find just a few million pounds to compensate pleural plaques victims.' The union was speaking out after the 3 November announcement that the government was to make available a further £33.5 billion bailout for the disastrously mis-managed Royal Bank of Scotland. The union says the swift decision over the bank bailout is in stark contrast to the government's delay in announcing whether it will overturn the Law Lords decision and reinstate compensation for pleural plaques victims, many whom UCATT maintains were exposed in what were then nationalised industries. The right to compensation for the condition ended in October 2007 as the result of a Law Lords ruling. UCATT says instigating a government compensation scheme for pleural plaques would cost just £35 million a year. UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie said: 'It is understood that the banks have to be bailed out for the good of the economy but former government employees whose health has been damaged by negligent exposure to asbestos are equally deserving of assistance.' He added: 'Compared to the banking bailout the money needed to ensure justice for pleural plaques victims is peanuts.'

Factory worker gets asthma payout

A factory worker has received £20,000 compensation after she developed asthma within weeks of being exposed to dangerous fumes. The 42-year-old, whose name has not been released, was diagnosed with occupational asthma after she was exposed to soldering fumes at Turbo Power Systems Limited, Gateshead. She started working for the company, which makes electric generators and motors for the aerospace industry, in June 2007, where she spent up to six hours a day soldering. She worked with rosin-based soldering wire, which is known to cause occupational asthma, but was never given any training or warning about the dangers. She was soldering in an enclosed space with inadequate extraction and within a few weeks began to suffer from difficulty breathing, subsequently diagnosed as occupational asthma. Following court proceedings, Turbo Power Systems admitted liability and agreed to pay £20,000 compensation plus legal costs. In October, the company was fined £3,000 after the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) brought a prosecution for unlawfully exposing employees to soldering flux fumes (Risks 428). Tony Hood from Thompsons Solicitors, who acted for the affected woman, said: 'Rosin-based solder flux fumes are a well known cause of occupational asthma. Employers should have rigorous measures in place to ensure workers are not exposed to the risk of developing occupational asthma or other work related diseases.' He added: 'This successful claim and the HSE prosecution should send as a clear message to employers about the importance of complying with their legal duties in relation to workplace health and safety.'

Formaldehyde causes leukaemia too

The cancer risks posed by formaldehyde, a common workplace chemical, are greater than previously thought, a global cancer agency has warned. A meeting last month of International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) experts determined that sufficient evidence exists to link formaldehyde with leukaemia, a cancer of the blood or bone marrow. The experts also reiterated that the chemical can cause cancer of the nasopharynx and noted that there was also 'limited' evidence linking it to sinonasal cancer in humans. Formaldehyde is already classified in the top 'group 1' for cancer risk, however it does not attract the same level of concern as other group 1 carcinogens like asbestos and tobacco smoke. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council, believes this is in part because of extensive lobbying by industry, which uses formaldehyde in products from glues to plywood, furniture (Risks 416), carpets and particle board (Risks 359). She says the new information from IARC means 'from here on out, formaldehyde's link to leukaemia simply must be considered by environmental and public health agencies, and it increases the imperative that strong protections for the public be adopted quickly.' She adds: 'As of now, protection for the public is running years, and even decades behind the science (and behind common sense). The science increasingly confirms the serious health threats posed by chemicals that are ubiquitous in our lives. Perhaps the new IARC findings on formaldehyde and leukaemia will be the 'final straw' that can break industry opposition to effective laws and strong safety standards to protect public health.' The UK government was criticised last year for spearheading a bid to weaken proposed formaldehyde controls across Europe (Risks 359).

Pet food firm fined £100,000 for death

A pet food manufacturer has been fined £100,000 and ordered to pay £28,380.91 costs at Northampton Crown Court after one of its workers was crushed to death. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Butcher's Pet Care Ltd over the incident in November 2003. The company pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach. On 17 November 2003, John O'Connor, 38, was crushed in a canning machine. Mr O'Connor died after he tried to unblock the jammed stacking machine at the pet food canning plant in November 2003. The tragedy occurred after he entered a palletising machine without first turning it off. Once he had unblocked it, the machine automatically restarted and crushed him to death. The machine should have been fully-enclosed with an interlock system to prevent anyone gaining access until the power is shut off. Last month, Philip Thompson, 50, the firm's operations director, was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £4,000 costs for criminal safety breaches related to the death (Risks 428). Commenting after the latest prosecution, HSE inspector Neil Craig said: 'This tragic loss of life could have been so easily avoided if Butchers Pet Care had fulfilled their duty in law to protect the health and safety of their employees. This was far from this being an isolated incident. The unfenced gap between the stair rails had been there for nearly two years and it had become common practice for employees to nip through it to fix problems on the machine in an effort to keep the production line running. Any of the workers could have suffered the same fate as Mr O'Connor.'

£10 padlock could have stopped death

A Kent rice manufacturing company has been fined £140,000 for health and safety breaches after one of its employees died when his leg became entangled in a machine. Veetee Rice Ltd was sentenced this week at Maidstone Crown Court, after previously pleading guilty at Medway Magistrates' Court to breaches of the work equipment regulations. On 11 September 2006 employee Balwinder Singh Aulkh accessed a rice silo and his leg became trapped in the underfloor screw conveyor - a piece of machinery used to take rice from the silo. He died from his injuries. The company had failed to ensure that dangerous parts of the machinery could not be accessed by members of staff, or that dangerous moving parts were stopped before anyone entered the danger zone. Mike Walters, a principal inspector with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which brought the prosecution, said: 'This incident could so easily have been prevented if Veetee Rice Limited had ensured that a suitable system was in place to prevent access to the silo unless the screw conveyor was electrically isolated. If the company had fitted a simple padlock on the access hatch to the rice silo - which could have cost as little as £10 or £15 - then this tragic incident would not have happened.'

International News

Australia: Low pay causes lorry deaths

Australian lorry drivers and members of the public are being put in deadly peril because irresponsible firms are refusing to accept the need for a 'safe rate' for professional drivers. Tony Sheldon, national secretary of the transport union TWU, said drivers were frustrated little action had been taken since a report into the industry released 12 months ago showed that transport clients were forcing unsafe driving practices through low rates of pay (Risks 381). 'The Transport Workers Union, responsible trucking companies and the federal government are coming to an agreement on what a safe and fair payment system for the transport industry should look like,' Mr Sheldon said. Central Sydney was brought to a standstill on 10 November, as placard waving TWU members pressed for case for safe rates for the job. Tony Sheldon said: 'Whenever we see a person killed at work in a mine accident or on a building site or in the shipping and rail industries, there is rightfully a full investigation into the incident and those who have done the wrong thing are held accountable. But when there is yet another death in the trucking industry, it is just treated as a statistic. We are not second class citizens and our lives - as well as the community's well-being depends on it.' He added: 'Truck drivers should not be forced by client economic pressure to work unsafe hours or drive to unsafe driving plans in order to make a living. We need a system of payments where a driver can receive full cost recovery, including paid waiting times and rising fuel costs.'

Thailand: ITF steps up rail sackings protests

The sacking of Thai rail workers for raising safety concerns has spurred a global campaign for their reinstatement. Managers at the State Railway Corporation of Thailand dismissed six union committee members and said they planned to sack a further eight union leaders in the escalating row over rail safety. The dispute between the State Railway Workers' Union of Thailand (SRUT) and the firm followed a fatal rail smash. Union-organised nationwide industrial action, which began on 16 October, was prompted by the company's failure to implement safety measures. Instead management responded by stating that 'human error' was to blame for the tragedy. Management is also suing the union for 70 million baht (£1.26m) for loss of earnings during the industrial action. SRUT filed charges against management for violating the union's collective bargaining agreement, which obliges management to carry out maintenance and repairs to ensure trains are safe. The union claims that managers failed to comply and instead criticised workers who refused to drive trains that had not been made safe. In a letter to its Thai affiliate, Mac Urata of the global transport workers federation ITF said it supported the SRUT's demand that the employer should implement agreed safety regimes. 'Blaming workers for structural failures in standards is totally unacceptable,' he said. Representatives of ITF and Japanese and Korean rail unions arrived in Thailand on 4 November to add support to the union campaign. There have also been protests by trade unionists at Thai embassies and missions in the Philippines, India, Australia and New Zealand.

USA: Jobs not gender cause work's pain

A study of workers at 50 hotels in the United States has found that women are 50 per cent more likely to be injured than men, and that Hispanic women have an injury rate two-thirds higher than their white female counterparts. The study, which will be published in January 2010 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, said the injury rate was higher for female hotel employees because they worked disproportionately as housekeepers, which is the hotel job most likely to lead to injury. According to the study, housekeepers have a 7.9 per cent injury rate each year, 50 per cent higher than for all hotel workers and twice the rate for all workers in the United States. Other academic studies have concluded that housekeepers have a high injury rate because they do repetitive tasks, lift heavy mattresses and work rapidly to clean a dozen or more rooms. The study, 'Occupational injury disparities in the US hotel industry,' was presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA) in Philadelphia. The study focused on 50 unionised facilities and examined 2,865 injuries over a three-year span. 'This study is stunning evidence of the unequal impact of injuries in the hotel industry, and it calls into question whether discriminatory workplace practices play a role,' said John W Wilhelm, president of Unite Here, the union representing hotel workers.

USA: Making green jobs safe jobs

Not enough is being done to ensure green jobs are safe jobs, a US union health and safety expert has warned. Walter Jones, a safety specialist with the union-run Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America, told delegates to the American Public Health Association annual conference in Philadelphia this week that the shift toward greener buildings hasn't done much to make the construction or maintenance of these places safe for workers. He indicated that designers of buildings don't generally pay much attention to the hazards inherent in building them, and design schools don't tend to include occupational health and safety in their curricula. Jones noted that between 1990 and 2003, 42 per cent of all US construction-related fatalities were linked to design - and green jobs are not exempt. He said when it comes to wind turbines, for example, fall protection is also crucial, and the inside of the tower is a confined space - but designers rarely address anchor points or tower access and ventilation issues. Occupational health and safety advocates are working to get safety issues on designers' radar. The American Association of Safety Engineers has begun working on a standard to protect workers involved in windpower facilities.

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