Risks 456 - 15 May 2010

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Hazards at Work

Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 18,000 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

Only unions mean real worker involvement

Worker involvement is currently the biggest thing in health and safety, says the TUC. But Hugh Robertson, the union body's head of safety, has warned the positive chatter from enforcers and employers is not always translating into meaningful consultation at the workplace. Writing in Hazards magazine, he says companies 'are falling over themselves to ensure they engage the workforce on safety issues' and notes worker involvement is a key part of the Health and Safety Executive's 2009 strategy. But Robertson says the problem is that 'worker involvement' means different things to different people - and in some instances, that can mean problems. 'For unions it is about using consultative processes to empower people to have a genuine say in safety issues - but recognising too that the relationship between the employer and employee is an unequal one and that the responsibility to create a safe workplace lies with the employer,' he writes. He highlights evidence showing genuine union involvement delivers more effective training, meaningful participation and safer, healthier workplaces. But he warns that some employer initiatives do not have such virtuous motives, instead being 'about trying to shift responsibility away from management. Some are intended to undermine the role of unions.' He adds that 'the union safety effect' is well-established and should be expanded so the positive impact of union safety reps is harnessed in non-union and small firms. Robertson concludes 'employers and the government must change their attitude to unions and start seeing unions as an asset that can help make real reductions in both injury and ill-health in the workplace.'

Safety victory for rail union

Rail union RMT says Southern Trains has stepped back from a move that would have undermined rail safety by extending driver-only train operation. The rethink came after RMT threatened industrial action. It says the company had 'slipped a guardless Victoria-Brighton service into its new summer timetable,' despite having told RMT that it had no plans to extend driver-only operation. However, Southern has now confirmed in writing that the service will be run with a guard. The union, which is fighting to defend the safety role of guards at two dozen train operating companies, welcomed the change of heart as an important precedent in its 'Keep the Guard - Keep the Train Safe' campaign. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'This is a significant victory in a crucial campaign to defend the safety of our members and the travelling public. RMT made it clear to Southern that if it attempted to carry out its plan to extend driver-only operation it would put itself in dispute with RMT.' He added: 'Southern's change of heart is welcome news, and will give heart to our members fighting to keep fully safety-trained guards in charge of passenger trains.' RMT guards, drivers and sleeper-train managers have been embroiled in a separate protracted dispute in Scotland, where Scotrail has been trying to extend driver-only operation to the Airdrie-Bathgate line, in what RMT says is a clear breach of an agreement with the union.

Temp's lack of training led to injury

A GMB member who suffered a broken jaw and lost seven teeth in while on placement from an employment agency has received £47,500 in compensation. John McFarlane, 42, from Washington was hit in the mouth by a tool called a warwick after he was forced to work on his own in a new temp placement, after just two days of a promised seven day training programme. The Blue Arrow temp was working at Unipres car parts manufacturer in Sunderland when he was injured in March 2008. He had been told to secure chains to storage pallets in the back of a lorry on his own. He was using the warwick to tighten the chains, as he had been taught to do on the training course. However, the tool wasn't the correct type for the job and when he applied pressure it flipped back, hitting him in the mouth and jaw. For months, he was only able to eat soft food and he lost more than a stone in weight. He has now been provided with dentures but has been told he will face years of painful dental work including a bone graft which will cost around £36,000. Faced with a union-backed compensation claim, Unipres admitted liability and settled out of court. John, who now works as an HGV driver for another firm, said: 'Losing my teeth was the most painful thing I have ever been through. I was also extremely embarrassed having to work and mix with people having no top teeth.' He added: 'I had been advised by the union to keep on my membership despite working on temporary contracts and that was good advice. Without the union's help I would not have claimed compensation.' Michael Hopper from the GMB said: 'Temporary staff should be provided with full training in the job to allow them to carry out each task as safely as possible. Mr McFarlane was rushed into carrying out work before he was fully trained and given the wrong equipment which, with his very limited experience, he was unable to appreciate. His accident has proven costly for Unipres who could have easily avoided this happening had it taken the time to train Mr McFarlane properly.'

London mayor's 'smokescreen' on cuts

Tube union RMT has said London mayor Boris Johnson is throwing up a 'smokescreen' under the guise of a Transport Strategy in a bid to deflect attention away from a massive transport cuts package. The union says the mayor's plan threatens thousands of jobs, ticket office closures and 'a systematic undermining of current safety standards.' It says the strategy, released this week, has airbrushed out 'the attack on staffing levels, ticket offices and safety standards that is already being rolled out by his officials.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'Boris Johnson has made no effort to discuss his 'Transport Strategy' with the people who really matter - the thousands of workers out there delivering transport services in London day in and day out. Instead, all we get from his officials are plans to cut jobs, ticket offices and safety standards that are already leaving stations all over London unstaffed and unsafe in direct contradiction of promises that Boris Johnson made in the run up to the mayoral election.' He said the union had made it clear 'unless we get assurances that staff will not be expected to pay the price for the collapse of Tube Lines and the last knockings of the failed tube privatisation experiment we will push on with plans for action and our ballot of members will go ahead.'

Union asbestos register pinpoints exposure

A former engineer has spoken of his relief in obtaining compensation after being diagnosed with the incurable asbestos cancer mesothelioma in February 2009. Unite member David Marren, 63, from Rugby in Warwickshire was advised by law firm Thompsons Solicitors, the personal injury specialists brought in by the union. Their lawyers proved Mr Marren was negligently exposed to asbestos working for English Electric, now Alstom Ltd, as an apprentice engineer commissioning a turbine on Power Station C at Drakelow Power Station in Burton on Trent between 1963 and 1968. Mr Marren said he was never warned about the dangers or provided with any protection despite working among asbestos on a daily basis. Many years later he became aware of the diseases caused by asbestos when his union launched a National Asbestos Exposure Register. He said it was 'a huge shock' for his family when he was diagnosed with the cancer, but added 'it's a great relief to know the compensation claim has been settled and that my wife and family will not be left worrying about how to make ends meet.' Mick Stevens from Unite said: 'We encourage all our members who believe they have been exposed to asbestos at work to have those details recorded on the union's National Asbestos Exposure Register. The register helps pinpoint exactly where and when members were exposed to the deadly dust.' David Fisher from Thompsons Solicitors added: 'Fortunately Mr Marren had provided an in-depth record of his exposure to asbestos. The information on the union's asbestos register helped us to complete this claim within 10 months.'

Double tragedy for asbestos cancer victim

An asbestos cancer sufferer whose first wife died from the same disease has received compensation from his former employer. Unite member Roland Lakin, 70, from Chorley in Lancashire was diagnosed with the incurable cancer mesothelioma in July 2009. Mr Lakin, who is originally from Birmingham, nursed his first wife, Thelma, through the disease until she died in 2006. His lawyers say she was exposed to asbestos working in an office block in Birmingham. Mr Lakin worked for Darlington Insulation Limited on the construction of power stations between 1964 and 1974 where he came into contact with asbestos. Following Thelma's death Mr Lakin remarried and settled in Lancashire with his wife Margaret. He first became unwell in April 2009 and a biopsy confirmed he had mesothelioma. He has now secured an £169,000 out of court compensation payout with the help of legal backing provided by his union, Unite. Mr Lakin said: 'It was a terrible shock to be told I had mesothelioma and difficult to believe that we could both be struck down with it within a matter of years of each other.' Paul Finegan, Unite North West regional secretary, said: 'It is heartbreaking that Mr Lakin and his first wife both developed mesothelioma. They worked in completely different occupations showing how indiscriminate and lethal asbestos is across all sectors of employment.'

Calling all safety reps!

The TUC wants to hear from trade union safety reps - what you are doing, what concerns you, and what problems and successes you are encountering while wearing your union safety hat. The eighth TUC survey of safety reps is designed to provide the TUC and individual unions with information about their safety reps and their experiences and needs. TUC says: 'We need this information so that the TUC and unions can do more to help safety reps, and so that safety reps' views and experiences are better reflected in public policy debates and the work of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).' TUC adds it will publish the results, and use them to campaign for better safety standards at work - including more rights for safety reps. 'Your response is crucial to ensuring that this survey provides the information we seek,' it says, adding 'we do want to know about any successes you have had in improving health and safety standards.'

Other news

HSE inspections down to once in a lifetime

A decade ago, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) could be expected to turn up at the average UK workplace once every few years. But unpublished official figures obtained by the trade union safety magazine Hazards show workplaces are now lucky to see the pared back watchdog once in a working lifetime. The figures also show HSE enforcement 'has crashed', says a new report from Hazards, which includes examples of 'copper bottomed' cases of employer negligence not ending up in court. HSE's reluctance to prosecute might have had as much to do with resources as the law, it charges. In 2001/02, HSE enforced safety at fewer than 526,000 workplaces. Latest figures show the much diminished inspectorate is now responsible for 884,000 workplaces - with an inevitable decline in inspection frequency. A decade ago, the frequency with which HSE was likely to turn up at your workplace was once every 8.4 years. Last year, with HSE faced with more workplaces and fewer frontline inspectors in its field operations division (FOD), that frequency had dropped to once every 38.4 years. The amount of 'inspector contact time' is falling too. This peaked in 2006/07, and has fallen dramatically each year since. 'Last year's total of 10,474 days is the lowest since 2001/02 - but since then the number of workplaces enforced by HSE has increased by 68 per cent,' says the report. It concludes: 'The impact on deterrence should not be under-estimated. If the safety police aren't patrolling workplaces, then the safety criminals have a lot less to fear. There are certainly far fewer making an appearance in the dock. The number of offences prosecuted by HSE has crashed, down from 1,986 in 2001/02, to a provisional figure of 1,090 for 2008/09.'

More overtime equals more heart risk

The more overtime you work, the greater your risk of heart disease, a study of UK workers has found. The study of 6,014 British civil servants, published online this week in the European Heart Journal and part-funded by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), followed the workers for an average of 11 years. Overall, there were 369 cases where people suffered heart disease that caused death, had a heart attack or developed angina. After accounting for known heart risk factors such as smoking, doctors found those who worked 10 or 11 hours a day ran a 60 per cent higher risk of coronary heart disease. The heart disease risk increased with the amount of overtime worked. Out of the people who worked an hour of overtime or less each day, roughly 5.7 per cent went on to have a heart attack or develop angina. For people who did two hours' overtime on a typical day, the risk was 6.7 per cent. Among people who routinely put in three to four hours of overtime, 8.3 per cent got heart problems during the study. The researchers said there could be a number of explanations for this. People who spend more time at work have less time to exercise, relax and unwind, they suggested. They may also be more stressed, anxious, or have depression. 'Employees who work overtime may also be likely to work while ill - that is, be reluctant to be absent from work despite illness,' the authors added, also noting that having 'decision latitude' in the workplace seemed to lessen the link between overtime and angina rates seen in the study.

  • Marianna Virtanen, Jane E Ferrie, Archana Singh-Manoux, Martin J Shipley, Jussi Vahtera, Michael G Marmot, and Mika Kivimäki. Overtime work and incident coronary heart disease: the Whitehall II prospective cohort study. European Heart Journal, published ahead of print 11 May 2010. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehq124 [abstract and related editorial]. BBC News Online. The Guardian. Los Angeles Times.

Union welcomes detention of fatigue ship

The temporary detention of a passenger ship in Portsmouth because of concerns that senior officers were suffering from fatigue, was welcomed this week by the seafarers' union Nautilus. The Bahamas-flagged cruiseship Prince Albert was held for several hours following a Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) inspection on 10 May. The MCA said it prevented the vessel from sailing until it was satisfied measures had been put in place to rectify the problems. Nautilus says the ship was eventually allowed to leave port several hours after its scheduled departure time. MCA area operations manager Richard Pellew said checks on the Silverseas Cruises vessel, which is managed by V Ships Leisure, had raised two concerns: overloading and the recording of rest hours for senior officers. 'The safety aspect of the ship and those who are on board is always our primary concern,' he said. 'The MCA has a zero tolerance on crew fatigue, it is of grave concern that senior officers on board are seemingly not getting sufficient rest.' The vessel was eventually allowed to sail after further checks on rest hours and staffing levels and action to ensure the ship met stability criteria. Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson said he was pleased to see the MCA acting on its policy commitment to tackle fatigue. 'Excessive hours are a clear health and safety problem,' he said, adding 'it is essential that seafarers are supported by the regulatory authorities so that working time in the shipping industry can be brought into line with other safety critical industries.'

Managing director gets four year ban

A managing director has been disqualified from running a firm for four years after a 23-year old worker from Kettering fell more than nine metres, leaving him paralysed from the chest down. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted SDI Group UK Ltd, Construction Ltd and Richard Mark Berwick, the managing director of RM Berwick Steel Erection Services Ltd, after the incident on 8 February 2007 in Glossop, Derbyshire. All the defendants pleaded guilty at Lincoln Crown Court. SDI Group UK Ltd was fined £80,000 and ordered to pay costs of £20,000. Steel Construction Ltd was fined £50,000 and £22,000 costs. Richard Mark Berwick pleaded guilty to breaching section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £40,000 and ordered to pay costs of £5,000. He was also disqualified as a director for four years. The court heard that Wayne Simpson, now 26, was working at a construction site installing a new racking system when he fell more than nine metres to the concrete floor below. The incident has left Mr Simpson paralysed from the chest down and he is likely to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Following the hearing, HSE inspector Kevin Wilson said: 'It is unacceptable that a young man should suffer such life-changing injuries while just trying to do his job. Mr Simpson has been left with a long-term debilitating condition because the two companies and Richard Berwick failed to ensure his health and safety.' He added that provision of a harness and properly fitted safety nets could have prevented the injuries.

Coroner calls for better falls standard

The death of a young roofer whose fatal fall was a result of 'inadequate' planning and site supervision has prompted a coroner to call on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the industry's trade body to introduce improved standards. Daniel Hollington, 21, plummeted to his death on 30 October 2007 after falling through a warehouse skylight and landing on the concrete floor 40 feet below. He died of head injuries. A jury at the three-day inquest heard Mr Hollington had been sub-contracted by roofing company SR Rich to replace about 300 skylights. Mr Hollington was working at the Northampton warehouse without any safety netting and without any covering protecting the fragile skylights. An inquest jury was told a method statement, detailing what the workers were employed to do, made no mention of covering skylights to prevent falls. Supervisors were also criticised for failing to stop the roofers from working in a dangerous way. Jurors found there was a 'failure to provide an adequate safety system' to stop falls and 'this failure was the result of the preparation of an inadequate method statement and inadequate site supervision'. Tom Osborne, assistant deputy coroner for Northamptonshire, said he would write to HSE and the National Federation of Roofing Contractors to recommend changes to roofing standards. Speaking to Mr Hollington's family, the coroner added 'if there is just a small consolation, one would hope that by holding this inquest, at least at some stage someone is going to take very seriously the problem of roofers working on roofs with roof lights that are very fragile.'

Firm fined after teen has leg crushed

A Wolverhampton manufacturer has been fined £8,000 after a teenage employee was trapped under a load of steel, breaking his leg. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Dranson Ltd after 17-year-old Jamie Meredith was left pinned to the floor in agony after approximately 700 kg of steel fell off a trolley he was pushing. He needed several pins and metal plates in his leg and his recovery has been delayed due to complications with the broken and shattered bones. The company, based in Bushbury, Wolverhampton, pleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches. As well as the fine, it was ordered to pay £3,603 costs. Wolverhampton Magistrates heard how on 4 November 2009 the teenager was helping two other people to push a trolley loaded with lengths of steel into the warehouse. As it was being pushed over a ramp, the trolley wheel became wedged in its lip and toppled to one side, falling onto him, pinning him to the ground and breaking his right leg in several places. HSE investigations at the site found the floor had not been maintained and the trolley being used was not intended for outdoor use. HSE inspector Amarjit Kalay said: 'This was this young man's first job after leaving school and he suffered a nasty injury caused by a poorly-maintained work environment and unsuitable work equipment. Although it had been used in this role for a while, the trolley was really unsuited to this type of work and it was only a matter of time before something like this occurred.'

Nurses back dangerous dogs campaign

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has given its full support to a union's campaign for full legal protection for workers from out-of-control dogs. The union CWU says members who deliver post or repair, maintain and provide residential telephone services have been attacked - and, in some cases, seriously injured - by domestic pets. But, under the present law, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, they have no right of redress. Many RCN members face a similar risk of attack when they enter private premises homes to provide health services to people, while RCN members working in hospitals see at first hand the effects of such attacks. RCN senior employment relations adviser Kim Sunley said that the key weakness of current law is that 'the current Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 does not apply to attacks committed on private property', adding RCN would be responding to a government consultation on dangerous dogs as its members, including district nurses and health visitors, are also affected. She added: 'We want to hear from not only those district nurses and health visitors who have been bitten and attacked by dogs, but particularly those who work in A&E and plastic surgery and see the impact of dog attacks on victims.' CWU national health, safety and environment officer Dave Joyce welcomed the RCN's support, adding: 'RCN members - like so many of our postal and telecoms members - have first-hand experience of the risks involved in providing front-line public services and, like our people, they urgently need full, legal protection against attacks by out-of-control dogs.'

International News

Global: New impetus to end child labour

Amid growing concerns over the impact of the economic downturn, the International Labour Office (ILO) has warned that efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labour are slowing down and has called for a 're-energised' global campaign to end the practice. 'Accelerating action against child labour', a report from the Geneva-based body, notes the number of child labourers worldwide had declined from 222 million to 215 million, or 3 per cent, over the period 2004 to 2008, representing a 'slowing down of the global pace of reduction.' The report also expressed concern that the global economic crisis could 'further brake' progress toward the goal of eliminating the worst forms of child labour by 2016. It estimates 115 million children are still exposed to hazardous work. ILO director-general Juan Somavia commented: 'New and large-scale efforts are needed. The situation calls for a re-energised campaign against child labour. We must scale up action and move into a higher gear.' The report was published on the eve of a Global Child Labour Conference organised by the government of the Netherlands, in cooperation with the ILO. On 11 May, more than 450 delegates from 80 countries attending the conference in The Hague agreed on a 'Roadmap' aimed at 'substantially increasing' global efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2016.

Russia: Ninety feared dead in mine blasts

It is feared 90 workers have died in a tragedy at a Siberian coal mine, after a methane gas blast. Russian rescue on 13 May suspended the search for 24 men still missing after the mine disaster that killed at least 66 because of fears of new underground blasts, the emergencies ministry said. Many victims were rescue workers killed by a second explosion hours after the first one struck late on Saturday 8 May. The second blast ripped apart the coal mine's ventilation shaft and damaged buildings on the surface. 'Our task now is to put out the fires and reduce the gas concentration, and only after this is done will we send people,' said emergencies ministry official Pavel Plat after the search was suspended. 'Unfortunately, conditions have worsened.' The mine, in the town of Mezhdurechensk in the Kemerovo region, is about 3,000km east of Moscow. In remarks shown on state television, President Dmitry Medvedev instructed top law enforcement and security officials to determine what led to the blasts and who may bear responsibility.

USA: President's panel calls for cancer action

Policymakers in the US should abandon a reactionary approach to regulation of cancer causing chemicals and champion a precautionary approach, top advisers to Barack Obama have said. Widespread exposure to these substances at work and in the wider environment poses a serious threat to the US population, causing 'grievous harm' that government agencies have not adequately addressed, according to a strongly worded report released this week by the President's Cancer Panel. The panel reports directly to the president. Its report says the US government has 'grossly under-estimated' the problem because of a lack of research. Much of the suffering faced by people diagnosed with toxin-related cancer could have been prevented, according to the 240-page report. A cover letter to the report co-signed by panel members LaSalle D Leffall Jr and Margaret L Kripke notes 'the public is becoming increasingly aware of the unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures that could have been prevented through appropriate national action... our nation still has much work ahead to identify the many existing but unrecognised environmental carcinogens and eliminate those that are known from our workplaces, schools, and homes.' The report warns that people from disadvantaged populations 'are more likely to be employed in occupations with higher levels of exposure (eg. mining, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, certain service sector occupations) and to live in more highly contaminated communities. The reality of this unequal burden is not just a health issue, but an issue of environmental justice.' It adds that existing regulations are inadequate and inadequately enforced. 'Industry has exploited regulatory weaknesses, such as government's reactionary (rather than precautionary) approach to regulation,' it says. The report recommends: 'A precautionary, prevention-oriented approach should replace current reactionary approaches to environmental contaminants in which human harm must be proven before action is taken to reduce or eliminate exposure,' adding that this new approach 'should be the cornerstone of a new national cancer prevention strategy that emphasises primary prevention.'

USA: More regulation is the solution

Whether the problem is blood spilled in the workplace or oil spilled in the oceans, a series of recent disasters show why more regulation of profit-hungry industries is needed, a US union leader has said. 'Twenty-nine dead coal miners in West Virginia, seven dead workers at an oil refinery in Washington State and 11 dead on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig followed by an ecological calamity, all in the span of a month, illustrate in blood the need for more regulation and stiffer enforcement,' said Leo W Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers (USW). He added: 'Improving regulation and enforcement may cost money. But then, what is the value of the lives of those 47 workers killed in three workplace explosions in one month? What is the value of the oil-polluted Gulf waters and coastline?' He said BP was a 'perfect example' of why it is better to regulate than clean up the mess after disasters. The London-based multinational was found to be at fault in the March 2005 Texas City refinery blast that killed 15 workers and injured 170 more. But lessons weren't learned and more offences, deaths and disasters followed. 'These were not natural disasters, not earthquakes like in Haiti or hurricanes like Katrina,' said USW's Leo Gerard. 'These are man-made disasters.' After the Texas City tragedy, USW met with oil industry representatives in an attempt to write new safety guidelines. 'USW vice president Gary Beevers abandoned the effort because he felt the industry was more concerned about image than safety,' recalls Gerard. 'As this year of fatal explosions has tragically illustrated, less government is a problem. More regulation is the solution.'

Resources

A trade union guide to ethical trade

The TUC has published an online trade union guide to ethical trade. The guide calls on UK firms to sign up to the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) Base Code. As well as demanding firms require their suppliers work towards providing safety and hygienic working conditions, membership looks for UK firms to seek a supply chain that meets eight other key minimum labour rights standards, including freedom to form and join trade unions, no use of child labour, working hours that are not excessive and freedom from discrimination and abuse.

Events and Courses

TUC courses for safety reps

COURSES FOR APRIL 2010 to JUNE 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.
  • HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2WA. Tel: 01787 881165; fax: 01787 313995
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