Risks 444 - 20 February 2010

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Editor: Hugh Robertson of the TUC. Comments to the TUC at healthandsafety@tuc.org.uk

Union News

TUC issues warning on new Fit Notes

The TUC has warned employers against using the introduction of a new medical statement or 'fit note' to try to force workers back to work before they are ready. The Government plans to introduce the new statements, which will replace the current sick note from 6th April. In some cases the GP will recommend that a person go back to work before they are fully recovered if certain changes are made to their work or the workplace. However there are concerns that employers may not be able to deal with any recommendations that the GP makes. In response to the publication of advice from the Government to employers on the new arrangements, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Good employers already assist their workers who are on long-term sick leave to return to work on a phased or a supported basis. The new 'fit note' arrangements will hopefully lead to more workers being given the support they need to return after an illness or injury. But GPs may not have a detailed enough knowledge of where someone works to be able to make realistic recommendations for changes to an individual's workplace or duties to allow the worker to have the confidence to return before they are able. Similarly many employers lack the occupational advice support needed to act on a doctor's recommendations. If employers use the additional information on the revised medical certificate to work with individuals who want to get back to work, and give them the support they need, the new arrangements could help reduce sickness absence. But if employers see the changes as a green light to force workers back to work before they are well enough to return, in the long run, it will only lead to increased sickness absence and unnecessary conflict.'

TUC issues advice to union reps on new 'Fit Note'

At the same time as the government launched its guidance for employers on the new 'fit note' arrangements, the TUC published advice to unions and workplace representatives on how to prepare for the changes. The guide outlines the new process and explains what it will mean to workers. In addition the TUC provides answers to the kind of practical problems that workers will face. However it says that the key to ensuring that workers are not forced back to work early, or on reduced pay, is for them to have proper union representation and access to grievance procedures. The TUC recommends that union safety representatives and stewards should act now to make sure that they have procedures in place to deal with any issues that arise as a result of the changes to the medical certificate. It advises unions to inform their members about the changes and ensure that your employer also knows about them; Seek agreement that any disputes over changes to work or working time proposed as a result of a medical certificate can be dealt with by the grievance procedures; Make sure that, where necessary, your employer's sickness absence arrangements are updated to take account of the proposed changes and, where there is an occupational sick pay scheme, seek to negotiate a 'no detriment' agreement. Otherwise they should seek an agreement that no-one will lose out financially through losing SSP or other benefits.

Union calls for action on baggage limits

Unite the union have been running a campaign to try to prevent baggage handlers from having their backs damaged by having to move heavy luggage. They are calling on airlines to introduce a maximum individual bag weight of 23kg. The current limit is 32kg per bag. Unite says that baggage handlers are five times more likely to be injured, although the cramped conditions they work under are also a major factor. Unite has had some success in getting the airline industry to introduce the new lighter weight. Thompson Holidays, the UK's largest holiday charter company, has recently introduced a 23kg maximum bag weight for all their customers. Other airlines have also made moves to address the issue, often by charging passengers additional fees when checking in heavy bags, however, while that may increase the income of airlines it can still lead to the handlers having to move overweight bags. but the union believes more needs to be done with a consistently applied and enforceable industry standard adopted. The call is backed by the HSE who were successful in convincing the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to introduce the new lower recommended individual bag weight of 23-25 kilos, introduced in 2009. However most airlines still allow high loads. The European Commission is currently looking into introducing regulations to reduce the amount of muscular skeletal injuries suffered by workers across Europe. Unite will be putting pressure on the government to ensure that the safety of ground handling staff is addressed at a European level.

Rail company issued prohibition notice over staff cuts

Network has been served a Prohibition Notice by the Office of Rail Regulation over a shortage of lookouts to ensure safe track working in South Wales. The notice states that the inspector is 'of the opinion that there is an immediate risk of harm to the trackworkers undertaking foot patrols on the railway line between Cardiff Central and Aberdare, Rhymney, Treherbert and Merthyr Tydfil. I have therefore served Prohibition Notice P/LVM/20100205/01 on Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd, requiring that the activity of crossing structures with no place of safety under RZ(Red Zone) conditions be ceased.' This has been welcomed by the RMT union who have assembled evidence of cuts in numbers and frequencies of essential inspections and maintenance works the length and breadth of the country that mirror the situation in South Wales that has led to the intervention of the Inspector of Railways. RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said 'The Inspectorate has given Network Rail a red card in South Wales and slapped the highest sanction it can on them other than dragging them into Court. That is how serious the shortage of staff has become and we know from reports from our members that we are facing the same lethal cocktail of planned staff cuts and unfilled vacancies right across the country. We are heading for a major disaster out on the tracks if Network Rail doesn't slam the breaks on the maintenance job cuts programme. The Government cannot stand idly by while safety-critical posts are either axed or left unfilled in a reckless gamble with staff and passenger lives.'

Rail unions to ballot on safety fears

Two rail unions are to ballot their member s for industrial action over the threat from Network Rail to axe up to 1500 safety-critical maintenance jobs. The two unions, TSSA and RMT have repeatedly raised concerns over the effect that these cuts will have on the safety of the national rail network (Risks 443). It is claimed that the job losses will threaten the safety of passengers and staff and have compiled a dossier on the impact of current unfilled vacancies. RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said 'We are balloting for a national strike because we know that the threat to axe jobs and compromise safety standards makes another Hatfield, Potters Bar or Grayrigg disaster on the UK rail network inevitable. I have no doubt that the British people will understand that you cannot take reckless gambles with rail safety in the name of 'efficiency' and to hit financial targets on the bottom of a balance sheet. We are calling for an overwhelming yes vote in this ballot but remain committed to talks with Network Rail aimed at reaching a settlement to this dispute that puts the safety and security of passengers and staff right back to the top of the agenda.'

Union warns on attacks against social workers and carers

Trade union UNISON has warned that violence and abuse against social workers and people working in social care, has reached 'chronic' levels, with attacks and abuse becoming a regular occurrence. It follows the release of British Crime Survey data that shows that violence at work increased by 50% last year (Risks 441). A growing number of workers who deal with the public have reported that their work has become more threatening as clients get more desperate at this time of high unemployment and recession. Helga Pile, UNISON national officer for social care, said 'Sadly, being a social worker, or working in social care has become a high risk job. It cannot be right that staff who are working hard, often under difficult circumstances, to keep children and vulnerable adults safe, are coming under regular attacks and abuse. Threats and assaults lead to stress, ill-health, sickness absence, and high staff turnover. With serious skills shortages already hitting many social work departments, it makes sense to tackle this problem head-on. Social workers and social care workers need to see action from the government, to prove that keeping them safe is a priority. A vital first step is setting up a national register of attacks, so that incidents can be monitored and analysed.' To support members, the union has launched a ten-point blueprint aimed at combating the abuse and attacks.

TUC criticises low fines despite new laws

The TUC has expressed concern that courts are continuing to impose ridiculously low fines on employers who are found guilty of health and safety offences despite recent laws that aimed to increase penalties. The health and safety at work offences act, which came into effect last year removed the limit on most offences by allowing them to be tried in higher courts and at the same time raised the maximum fine which could be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000. Yet courts are ignoring their new powers. The most recent example occurred on 18th February when a Derbyshire farmer, John Metcalf, was fined £450 for killing an employee as he was reversing through the farmyard in the vehicle with restricted visibility, when he ran over his employer. The court heard that Mr Metcalf had received a number of previous warnings about driving at speed. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation also revealed a four and a half metre skid mark on the ground where Mr Metcalf had tried to stop the vehicle after hitting the victim. On the same day an international company that supplies food to all major UK supermarkets, Bakkavör Foods Ltd, was fined £3000 after an employee had his hand crushed whilst assisting colleagues in clearing a blockage in a cabbage washing line. Although the machine had a guard to prevent anyone reaching the screw conveyor, it had been disabled to allow the machine to run without it. TUC health and safety officer Hugh Robertson said 'In both these cases, which were heard in separate courts on the same day, the penalty in no way reflected the seriousness of the offence. The farmer had been repeatedly warned by the HSE about his actions, yet because these warnings were ignored a man died. In the other case safety controls were deliberately tampered with by a multinational company resulting in serious injuries to one of the workforce. These were easily preventable and the courts should have been sending out a clear message that employers who put their workers at risk in this way will be dealt with severely. Instead the courts administered fines that amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.'

Other news

Safety campaigners back TUC concerns on sentencing

A range of safety campaigners have backed the TUC's call for greater penalties against companies that kill workers following the publication of sentencing guidelines from the government (Risks 443). The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has said that an opportunity has been missed to ensure punishments have equal economic impact across organisations of different size and to emphasise the need for cultural change in many convicted organisations. Policy and technical director Richard Jones said 'We believe using percentage of annual turnover (or equivalent) in setting fines would have helped ensure convicted organisations of different sizes felt the financial impact more equally,' he added 'Remedial orders should also address the vital need for deep-seated cultural issues to be tackled where these have contributed to the offence,' Meanwhile Families Against Corporate Killers have said that the sentences proposed are too low, are inadequate to be effective deterrents and the failure to link fines to turnover is illogical and will allow large companies and transnational corporations to continue to get away with criminal behaviour. According to a FACK spokesperson 'There is a misapprehension that killing someone at work is not a crime, that organisations that kill workers or members of the public through their negligent mismanagement of work activities, are somehow not 'real criminals', and so the penalties inflicted upon them need not be too severe. These guidelines tell employers and the public that workers' lives are not that important, and they are a slap in the face for families like ours who have paid the real price of employers' failure to comply with health and safety law.'

HSE warns oil industry

The HSE Chair, Judith Hackitt has warned the UK oil and gas industry that they must not allow short-term business pressures to blind them to the real and potentially devastating human and business consequences of neglecting process safety and asset integrity. Drawing on the lessons learned from numerous catastrophes, including the explosion at the BP Texas City refinery in 2005, Judith Hackitt told a conference in London that: "If there is one thing we should have learned from Flixborough, Bhopal, Piper Alpha, Buncefield and Texas City, it is that a lack of injuries and near misses is no guide whatsoever that all is well in process safety terms. Indicators which point to the absence of a problem - so far - say absolutely nothing about what might be about to happen. Short-term business pressures drove BP to cut capital expenditure at its Texas City plant by deferring projects and failing to monitor the subsequent impact of this. This had a dramatic impact on the repair and maintenance programme at the site and was a significant factor in the catastrophic explosion in 2005. Asset integrity is not simply about securing profitability and operational continuity. This is serious stuff. When we cease to be afraid of the potential for human suffering and devastating business consequences of a major incident in any of the industries represented here today, we lose sight of why it really is so important that we take this matter seriously." Unions have campaigned for many years for a tougher line against the oil and gas extraction and processing industry which, they claim has a lack safety culture and are not doing enough to ensure that their ageing rigs are safe.

Compensation for asbestos victim's family

A union has obtained compensation of £230,000 for the family of an Exeter engineer who died from asbestos related disease mesothelioma. The man, who worked for Lucas Industries from 1960 until the 1980's and came into contact with asbestos when carrying out heat tests wearing asbestos gauntlets. He said: 'I used asbestos gloves to protect my hands when I was heating components to high temperatures. I never knew the risks of asbestos and was never given any warning or training.' The member died just a few months after he was diagnosed with the disease. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in August 2009 and was forced to give up work shortly after, dying in December of that year. However he contacted his union shortly after his diagnosis and they were able to take up his claim and his widow settled out of court. Laurence Faircloth from Unite said: 'Sadly many of our members have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace. This member and his widow received the union's full support in claiming compensation when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. The union's legal service has decades of experience of pursuing asbestos claims with the expertise that our members and their families can rely on to deal with tragic cases like this sensitively, efficiently and at no cost.' Ginny Newman from Thompsons Solicitors said: 'The shock of being diagnosed with mesothelioma means it can be difficult for some clients to recall exactly how they were exposed to asbestos, particularly as the events could have happened at work 40 or 50 years ago. This client was able to bring the details to mind as a result of our patient, detailed and careful examination of his work history. This evidence made all the difference to obtaining substantial compensation for his family and emphasises the importance of seeking specialist legal advice.'

Construction firm fined after worker run over

Carillion, a large UK construction company was fined £185,000 after an Oldham worker suffered life-threatening injuries when he was run over by a reversing truck at the Kingsway Business Park in Rochdale in 2008. A Ford Transit truck was reversing on the construction site when it hit Michael Gresty who was helping to build a new track around a large pond at the business park when he was run over by the truck. He lost his left kidney, broke seven ribs, left shoulder and right foot, fractured his spine, dislocated his right hip and required a pin through his right knee. He has lost one inch in height, has four needles in his spine and still suffers constant pain in his back and ribs more than a year later. He is unlikely to ever return to work due to the extent of his injuries. Manchester Crown Court was told that no one was responsible for guiding the truck, which was regularly reversing up to 400 metres to drop off construction materials for the project. A pedestrian walkway to separate vehicles from pedestrians had also not been marked on the track. Carillion JM Ltd, which is part of the multinational Carillion plc group, pleaded guilty to several charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act. In addition to the fine, the company was ordered to pay £9,821 towards the cost of the. HSE Inspector Neil Martin said "Michael Gresty is lucky to be alive following this very serious incident and he will never fully recover. His injuries could easily have been prevented if Carillion had followed basic health and safety procedures."It is not acceptable that a construction company, which employs 50,000 people around the world, did not carry out the right risk assessment or put a system in place for preventing collisions'.

Shorter hours the key to a better future

A UK think tank has said that shorter working hours will be better for workers and the environment - but only if there is greater pay equity. Despite a recent trend to increased working time the new economics foundation (nef) forecasts a major shift in the length of the formal working week as a consequence of dealing with key economic, social and environmental problems. Their report, 21 hours, says many people in the UK work longer hours than 30 years ago. Since 1981 two-adult households have added six hours - nearly a whole working day - to their combined weekly workload. At the same time, nearly 2.5 million people in the UK can't find jobs. Cutting labour to save money without changing working hours means some are burdened with overwork while others lose their livelihoods. The report argues that a much shorter working week could help to tackle a range of urgent and closely related problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life. It would enable many more people to join the workforce and allow for measures to reduce damaging levels of inequality. They say the nine-to-five, five-day working week is an irrelevant relic of the industrial revolution. The shift to a shorter working week would mean stress would be reduced because employees would no longer need to juggle paid-employment with home-based responsibilities and family commitments, the report concludes. To make the plan workable would require a range of actions, including measures to make earnings more equal through a higher minimum wage and restraints on top pay. Anna Coote, co-author of the report and head of social policy at nef said 'So many of us live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume. And our consumption habits are squandering the earth's natural resources. Spending less time in paid work could help us to break this pattern. We'd have more time to be better parents, better citizens, better carers and better neighbours. And we could even become better employees: less stressed, more in control, happier in our jobs and more productive. It is time to break the power of the old industrial clock, take back our lives and work for a sustainable future.'

Refuse company fined after death

The dangers of the waste and recycling industry were again highlighted after refuse company Veolia ES UK (formerly Onyx) was fined £130,000 after a worker was killed near Aylesbury when a 1,100-litre recycling bin fell on his head. Aylesbury Crown Court was told that a recycling bin fell from the bin hoist on the recycling lorry and landed on the head of an employee, David Ives, while he was collecting refuse outside a pub in Easington, killing him. A jury found the company guilty of breaching sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act and it was fined £130,000 and ordered to pay costs of £220,000. Dennis MacWilliam, HSE inspector, said "This was an extremely tragic incident which has now left Mr Ives' widow to continue life without a loving husband. It could have been avoided if only a few simple measures had been in place. Employers are legally required to make sure their equipment is regularly maintained and is fit for use by their workers. If the bin hoist on the recycling lorry had been maintained this incident would never have happened."

International News

Shock tactic in New York asbestos protest

A New York union branch has found a novel way of highlighting both the dangers of asbestos and also the importance of unionisation in protecting the safety of both workers and the public. The union has put a coffin outside the offices of a company that is using non-unionised workers to remove asbestos. Workers rallying against the use of a non-union firm for asbestos abatement put a shiny brown coffin outside of 176 Broadway. It's been sitting there every day since Feb 2nd. David Vila of the local branch of the Asbestos, Lead & Hazardous Waste Labourers Union said the coffin should remind onlookers of the workers' need to feed their families. The union say that it has three coffins that have been used in protests in New York, New Jersey and Long Island over the last few years. The unions New York director of organization, Eli Kent, said that the casket makes an important statement that non-union workers often lack the benefits and protections that organized workers get, but that it also made an important point about safety. Mr Kent told a local newspaper "The point of this is to draw attention to the fact that asbestos kills. If some people get uncomfortable, [but] we can save people's lives, we think that's worth it." The protest certainly seems to be having an effect. A local maintenance worker Eric Soto says the coffin is so disturbing, he'd much rather have the union bring out the "giant rat" balloon often used at protests.

The true cost of a valentine's gift

The US National Labor Committee launched a campaign for St Valentine's Day to protest about the death of over 2,000 India workers, including children who have contracted silicosis while grinding gemstones-heart shaped agate pendants and ornaments, earrings, bracelets for export to countries like the United States. Adult workers earn as little as 17 ½ cents an hour to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and according to the campaign, thirty percent of all gemstone grinders will die of silicosis, as well as six to ten percent of their non-working neighbors and family members who are also exposed to the silica dust. When poor workers borrow money from the 'traders'-who supply the raw stone and control the manufacturing and export of the gemstones-they become 'bonded labor.' If a worker dies, his wife is expected to pick up the work, and their children. Silicosis is totally preventable, but without proper safeguards, over time it becomes fatal, however as the campaign points out, there are easily affordable alternatives. The introduction of simple technologies, a wet grinding process in combination with exhaust ventilation systems can drastically reduce exposure to the deadly silica dust.

Train staff strike after fatal crash

Train workers in southern Belgium went on spontaneous strike in protest against what they believe were dangerous working practices immediately after two commuters crashed at Halle, just outside Brussels, killing 18 people. The strike was widely followed and led to widespread disruption to train services in southern Belgium. It follows what train workers have described as deteriorating working conditions, which they said could lead to accidents such as the one at Halle. An investigation into the cause of Monday morning's train collision is under way, amid suggestions that one train may have missed a red signal although officials have said it is too early to confirm the cause of the crash and a system failure may have been to blame. One of the two drivers was among those killed and dozens of people were injured.

Resources

Workers Memorial Day materials

Now that Workers Memorial Day is officially recognised by the government there is even more reason to make a splash in your workplace. The Hazards movement have produced a range of materials that you can use in your organising for the day including 'forget-me-not' ribbons, car stickers and posters. To order posters please send an e-mail to mail@gmhazards.org.uk Order forms for ribbons and car stickers are on the Greater Manchester Hazards Centre website here.

Events and Courses

South West fit note seminar

South West Region of the TUC have organised a half-day seminar in Bristol on the introduction of the new medical certificate or 'Fit Note'. There will be speakers from the TUC, BMA, a law firm and the regional South West Health and Well-being at Work Co-ordinator.

TUC courses for safety reps

COURSES FOR JANUARY 2010 to MARCH 2010

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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