Risks 475 - 25 September 2010

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
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Hazards at Work

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

Union News

TUC alert on chemicals shake up at work

The TUC says union safety reps should make sure their employers are ready to meet new legal duties on workplace chemicals. The union body, which this week published new online safety rep guidance on the REACH regulations, says two important implementation deadlines are approaching. These require many of the high volume and most hazardous chemicals to be registered with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) by 30 November. There's also a 1 December deadline for notifying ECHA of the revised classification and labelling of hazardous chemicals. TUC adds that some chemical safety data sheets may have to be updated. It says: 'If any employers your union deals with manufacture, sell or use chemicals they may be affected, and unions are encouraged to ensure that their employer is complying with the new regulations. If they fail to do so they could face enforcement action.' TUC says safety reps in firms using chemicals should check with the employer whether: Their classification should be changed under the new rules; they are labelled in line with the rules; all uses are covered by updated safety data sheets; and the required risk assessment measures have been implemented. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson commented: 'REACH has the potential to make a major improvement to the health of workers. Exposure to chemicals is one of the biggest causes of death. They are used in most industries and workplaces. That is why safety representatives need to make sure that their employer knows what their responsibilities are and that they are ensuring workers are not exposed to anything that might harm them.' European trade union bodies ETUC and EMCEF this month launched an 'extensive' information campaign, calling on 'elected representatives in companies in Europe to raise awareness on employers' obligations' under REACH and related classification, labelling and packaging regulations on chemicals.

Ferry boss flounders over 'fat' jibe

Unions have criticised 'slanderous' comments made by the boss of ferry giant Stena Line after he said British workers were 'fat' and not fit for the job. Stena Line North Sea director Pim de Lange's comments appeared in a Dutch newspaper, where he was quoted as saying it was hard to find seafarers in the UK 'unless you want types with fat bellies and covered with tattoos'. He has since backtracked, saying he was quoted out of context and has apologised. He claimed he simply meant it is difficult to find young fit people to hire because 'they don't want to go to sea these days.' Paul Moloney, assistant general secretary of ships' officers union Nautilus, said the fat and unfit jibes were 'slanderous', adding they were a disgraceful attack on 'the professional, hard working men and women who go to sea, who take full responsibility for the lives of those onboard and who deliver an unparalleled safety record.' Steve Todd, head of maritime at transport union RMT, called for a fuller apology from the Stena boss. He said: 'RMT is demanding a full retraction of all the statements he has made and a full apology to all British seafarers for his behaviour.' RMT has been pressing the company to use a higher proportion of UK staff on its vessels. It says Filipino workers are paid £2.20 an hour, a far lower rate than that paid to British workers. Stena has pledged to use more UK seafarers on its new superferry, the Stena Hollandica, than employed on its sister ship, the Stena Britannica.

NUT critical of schools asbestos assurances

The government and its safety watchdog have 'misplaced' confidence in the ability of schools to safety manage asbestos, teaching union NUT has said. The union was commented after a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) online survey and follow up inspection programme found 'the majority of local authorities in England with 'system build' schools have procedures and precautions in place to manage asbestos safely.' HSE said the initiative, carried out in conjunction with the Department for Education (DfE), found that out of the 152 councils in England that have responsibility for providing education, it was 'satisfied' from their online assurances that 110 have systems in place to meet their duties under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006. The other 42 authorities were visited by HSE inspectors to ensure that they were also managing the risks from asbestos. Of the authorities inspected, ten - 24 per cent - received a total of 18 enforcement notices, including one prohibition notice. NUT general secretary Christine Blower welcomed the publication of the survey findings, but warned HSE's confidence in the findings was 'misplaced.' She said: 'Apart from the fact that the survey was restricted to asbestos management in system built schools, the NUT questions how it can be claimed that the majority of local authorities meet legal requirements in terms of asbestos management when only 42 were actually visited by HSE inspectors. The other 110 simply completed an on-line survey, making the survey essentially a paper exercise, reliant on local authorities admitting to failings in their system of asbestos management in order to trigger a visit from the HSE.' She added: 'We fear also that the findings of this limited survey will be used to justify the abolition of a recently-established DfE steering group which was set up with the aim of improving asbestos management in schools.' Michael Lees of the Asbestos in Schools campaign said 'the questionnaire cannot claim to be definitive as, unsurprisingly, few authorities responded 'no' when asked if they are complying with the law. Evidence shows such confidence is often misplaced.'

RMT aims to block 'safety risk' Chunnel trains

Rail union RMT has warned that tests using a Deutsche Bahn ICE (Inter City Express) train in the Channel Tunnel next month could be a first step towards a 'major dilution' of current safety standards. The RMT warning came after Deutsche Bahn senior managers were reported to be seeking major changes to the rail safety regime to accommodate the new trains. Under current safety regulations trains running through the Channel Tunnel must be at least 375 metres long - the DB sets, known as the ICE-3, are only 200 metres long. Current regulations also stipulate that trains must have inter-connecting fire doors to enable in-tunnel evacuation. 'The DB trains do not, creating an immediate and obvious safety risk,' says RMT. 'The trains also fail to match up with the escape system operational in the Channel Tunnel. DB's proposal to simply couple two trains together would compound the problem - making evacuation from one end to the other, essential in tunnel emergency procedures, impossible as the power units would be bang smack in the middle blocking the evacuation route.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'When Deutsche Bahn complain about red tape stopping them running their trains through the Channel Tunnel what they really mean is specific safety regulations designed to save staff and passenger lives and which have proved successful in recent serious incidents.' He added: 'Their trains are the wrong length for the escape routes, do not have escape doors running throughout and do not have the same smoke and fire resistance times. These aren't petty measures, they are life savers and this attempt to bully the UK and European authorities should be resisted to protect safety standards for travellers and staff deep below the English Channel.'

Hospital staff penalised for going sick

Staff at Manchester hospitals who take more than an agreed number of days off sick are to lose out on annual pay rises. Central Manchester University Hospitals Trust will refuse rises to workers who have taken more than 18 days off sick or had four separate sick absences. Health service union UNISON said the measure, due to take effect on 1 October, is in breach of workers' contracts and will be met with a legal challenge. The union's health organiser, Paul Foley, said: 'The union and staff are outraged by the Trust's punitive action. It is unbelievable that a trust whose duty is to care for the sick and vulnerable should be so uncaring as to financially punish its loyal and hardworking staff. A situation could arise where a member of staff with a serious illness will not only have to battle with their sickness but will also suffer a financial penalty imposed by their employer.' The union was concerned that ill staff would be forced to attend work which could put patients at risk of infection, he said, adding that 'far from saving money for the Trust, this ill thought out policy is likely to cost the Trust thousands of pounds in legal action. Money that should be used for patient care.'

Payout for prison officer injured by inmate

A prison officer at who was injured while trying to restrain an inmate has received £47,500 compensation from the Ministry of Justice. Keith Brown, 55, who still works at HM Prison Dorchester, was put in an unsafe position when he was required to attend the cell of two known violent and disruptive prisoners while working the night shift. In breach of prison procedures and without consulting Mr Brown, the night orderly officer opened the inmate's cell door in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2006. Mr Brown was charged by one of the inmates, and while trying to restrain him sustained a fracture to the base of his right thumb. The tearing fracture did not heal fully, resulting in fibrous scar tissue developing which continues to limit Mr Brown's use of his thumb. This has restricted his role as an officer in the prison service. In a compensation case backed by his union, POA, lawyers argued that the Ministry of Justice, as the employer, was vicariously liable for the night orderly officer's failure to comply with prison procedure and therefore for the injuries Mr Brown suffered as a result. The Ministry admitted liability and agreed to an out of court settlement. POA national chair Colin Moses said: 'The POA will continue to support its members in their fight for justice and to work in safe, secure environments.' He added: 'The constant drive to save money and reduce staff is a false economy as it will result in increasing numbers of Prison Service staff being injured or made ill as a result of their work.'

Union condemns use of no toilet trains

A train company has been branded a 'disgrace' by the rail union RMT after it emerged some of its expanded fleet will have no toilets on board. RMT general secretary Bob Crow condemned 'greedy money-grabbing' bosses on Southern Railways after 13 new trains with no toilets were introduced on the busy Brighton-to-Portsmouth commuter route. 'Southern are a disgrace - there is no corner this crowd won't cut to jack up profits,' he said. 'First it was security cuts leading to a surge in assaults on our members (Risks 474) and now they are axing on-train toilets. All of this is about screwing passengers and staff and maximising the profits of the parent Go-Ahead group. It doesn't take a genius to work out that, if you close on-train toilets, some people will take matters into their own hands turning the carriages into stinking cattle trucks and creating appalling conditions for both passengers and staff.' The union leader added: 'RMT will continue to campaign for Southern and the rest of the rip-off rail franchises to be taken back in to public ownership to end this profit-driven madness.'

Other news

BP price surges as spill concerns dissipate

The share price of UK oil multinational BP soared this week after it indicated the leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico had been 'killed'. The company has spent five months attempting to seal its Macondo well, after a 20 April explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and triggered an environmental catastrophe. The share price surge came as more optimistic analysts predicted legal claims arising from the disaster could be significantly below the $20bn (£13bn) set aside by BP and a leading US campaign group, Public Citizen, has ended its call for a boycott of the oil company. BP said the disaster, which involved a spill of 4.9m barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, had so far cost the company $9.5bn. Jason Kenney, an oil analyst at ING Barings, said BP's sale of non-core assets to pay for the disaster could, ironically, benefit the company. 'They're still investible; they're still credible; they're very much alive and they could come out of this reinvigorated,' said Kenney, who believes BP is unlikely to face criminal charges for the explosion. 'I think, in time, we'll look back at this and the US will be quite happy with a record financial penalty and not necessarily look at charging BP on a criminal basis.' The outcome of two official US investigations is likely to determine whether BP is judged grossly negligent. Outgoing BP chief executive Tony Hayward last week defended the firm's safety record in the North Sea, insisting recent criticisms had not exposed 'any fundamental weakness'. In his first UK appearance since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Hayward told a committee of MPs that disaster had been personally 'devastating' because he had made safety the firm's top priority - but he was forced to explain to the Energy and Climate Change Committee why inspections on BP's North Sea installations found some did not comply with guidelines over regular training for operators on how to respond to an incident (Risks 474).

Fire risk alert on timber frame construction

Firefighters, construction workers and the public face a 'significant risk' at sites using timber frame construction methods, fire chiefs have warned. The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) is calling for an urgent review of the Building Regulations following a spate of major blazes at sites using this construction technique. CFOA warned: 'Large timber framed buildings under construction pose a significant risk to firefighters, construction workers and members of the public.' It added: 'The use of timber frame as a method of construction, together with other innovative construction products and techniques has increased markedly in recent years as an alternative to traditional building construction methods. The CFOA is increasingly concerned that a fire involving a timber framed building under construction may result in loss of life.' It added that the government must commission and publish 'as a matter of urgency' research into the problem. CFOA vice president, chief fire officer Peter Holland, warned that contractors should also make sure construction sites are secure from arsonists. He said: 'They need to ensure their security arrangements are robust to reduce the risk of fires being started.'

Call to stop trade in toxic e-waste

The international system intended to stop illegal hazardous waste exports is not working, the head of a UK watchdog has warned. Environment Agency chair Lord Smith called in a speech last week to INTERPOL for a European alliance to tackle the toxic trade in electrical waste into Africa. He said better cooperation and exchange of intelligence across national borders was necessary to stop a crime that poses a 'growing and persistent risk to human health and the environment'. He said the Environment Agency currently provides criminal intelligence on illegal waste exports to 46 countries but has so far received intelligence from only 10 countries in return. The Environment Agency said the illegal export of electrical waste - such as TV, laptops and mobile phones - is the single biggest growth area in environmental crime. Despite 50 million tonnes of e-waste being generated annually worldwide, it says only 10 per cent is being recycled. 'Electrical waste contains toxins including mercury, arsenic and lead, and the health of children in the developing world is being put at risk when this waste is illegally exported and then burnt to recover the valuable metals inside,' Lord Smith said. 'Not only are children being exploited and their health put at risk when they carry out this work, but the toxins are also contaminating air, land and water.' Lord Smith indicated the INTERPOL E-Waste Crime Group would only work if there was more effective exchange of information across borders.

Director fined over mixer death

A building materials manufacturer and its director have been fined a total of £20,000 after a worker was killed by an industrial mixing machine blade. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Bury-based Building Chemical Research (1984) Ltd (BCR) and company director Stuart Reich, 62, following Paul Palmer's death at the company's premises in Radcliffe. The 44-year-old father of one had climbed into the machine - a powerful, slow speed mixer - to clean it on 30 August 2005, when the machine was switched on by another employee. The former soldier suffered horrendous injuries, dying before he could be released by the emergency services. Bolton Crown Court heard the machine was designed so it should not operate if the hatch lid was open, but the system was defective and a switch isolating the power supply had not been turned off. It was the second work related tragedy to strike the family. Mr Palmer's brother, Ted Palmer, said: 'My other brother, John, died from an asbestos disease a few years before Paul, and their deaths have really devastated our family. Paul was just a happy-go-lucky chap. Not a lot fazed him; he just took everything in his stride. It just seems wrong that he survived over a decade in the army and then was killed by a machine in a factory.' He added: 'I can't understand how manufacturing companies can become complacent over health and safety in this day and age. I just hope highlighting Paul's death will stop it happening to someone else.' BCR was fined £16,000 and ordered to pay £8,000 towards the cost of the prosecution. The company's director, Stuart Reich, was fined £4,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2,000. Both admitted criminal safety offences.

Firms fined after ferry drowning

A Sussex port and an Italian shipping company have been fined a total of £185,000 for health and safety failings after a worker drowned at Newhaven Docks. Croydon Crown Court heard that the Sardina Vera ferry, which was owned by Forship S.p.a, had docked at Newhaven late on 12 January 2005 when the incident happened. Sardinian crew member Luigi Feola, 38, was responsible for bringing fresh water on to the ship and was seen carrying a hose along a narrow strip of quay alongside the ship. An hour after the ship had docked someone on board heard a splash in the water and raised the alarm. A search was mounted immediately, but Mr Feola's body was not found until the next day. A post-mortem examination revealed he had suffered a head wound before drowning. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the quayside where Mr Feola was working had insufficient edge protection, was not properly lit and the risks of the job had not been properly assessed. The investigation also showed that Mr Feola had been working almost 100 hours a week for Forship S.p.a. After the incident, HSE issued Newhaven Port & Properties Limited with an improvement notice, requiring the company to maintain the quay at Newhaven Docks in a safe condition. However, the company had still failed to comply with the notice by the end of April 2005. HSE inspector Paul Vinnicombe said: 'The lack of proper planning, combined with the appalling state of the quayside at the port, led to the unnecessary death of Mr Feola. On top of that, the risks involved in the job he was asked to do had not been assessed, and he was not give a suitable lifejacket, torch, or radio.' Newhaven Port & Properties Limited pleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches and was fined £85,000 and ordered to pay costs of £34,000. Forship S.p.a pleaded guilty and was fined £100,000 plus costs of £43,782.

Fabric roll crushed agency worker's arm

A Peterborough fabric manufacturer has been fined after a worker's arm was so badly crushed he had to have metal plates inserted to help support his broken bones. Agency worker Robert Dunn, 32, was operating a fabric winding machine on 4 November 2009 when his left arm was drawn into a roll of material and crushed, breaking all three arm bones. He also suffered ripped cartilage in his left knee, caused by the sudden movement. E-Leather Limited was fined £13,500 and ordered to pay £5,000 in costs at Peterborough Magistrates' Court after admitting criminal breaches of the provision and use of work equipment and management regulations. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found inadequate safety guards and that no sufficient and suitable risk assessment was in place. HSE inspector Alison Ashworth said: 'Robert Dunn suffered a terrible injury because of an incident that was entirely avoidable. Proper safety guards play an important role in protecting workers from dangerous moving parts and the company had a responsibility to ensure suitable guarding was in place. Had a suitable and sufficient risk assessment been carried out then this issue would have been highlighted straight away.'

International News

Australia: Young worker died on insulation project

A construction firm has been fined after a teenage worker died working on a government-backed home insulation scheme. Arrow Property Maintenance Pty Ltd was fined $135,000 (£82,200) on charges relating to the death of 16-year-old insulation installer Reuben Barnes. He was electrocuted while installing fibreglass insulation in the ceiling of a private home in November last year. During the hearing directors of the company said they considered the teenager 'a friend'. Queensland Council of Unions Rockhampton secretary Craig Allen said he thought the comments from Chris and Richard Jackson in court were 'insensitive'. He said if they were friends they would not have allowed Rueben to work without training, at heights, in a house that was electrified and in a situation that was unsafe. Barnes was one of four people who died during the rollout of the government's controversial home insulation programme, which was also blamed for nearly 100 house fires. Unions warned last year that the energy efficiency scheme, part of a government stimulus package, was being compromised by the use of contractors without the skills, training or experience to undertake the work in a safe manner (Risks 435).

Australia: Migrant victims of cut-price industry

Myung Yeol Hwang, a tiler from South Korea, died on 27 August, the day after he walked into the Sydney office of the country's biggest construction union, destitute and in dire need of medical help. Mr Hwang was emaciated and had not washed for weeks. He had no money for a private doctor. He was afraid to go to a public hospital in case authorities discovered he had been working here illegally. He had been moving from one cash-in-hand job to the next in the city's construction industry for 12 years. Three months ago Mr Hwang fell victim to severe respiratory illness, most likely from his tiling work. At first other undocumented workers provided some support. But when his health deteriorated to the point where he could no longer wash or eat, one of the men who had been sheltering him rang the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) for help. The union's Korean liaison officer, Chikmann Koh, brought Mr Hwang in to see the union state secretary, Andrew Ferguson. The pair hurriedly arranged an Immigration Department meeting to try to get the sick man a bridging visa and some medical treatment the next morning. He died before he could make it to those meetings. He was 51. Mr Ferguson said the case was not just an individual tragedy but symptomatic of a deeper malaise in the building industry, where small contractors turned to cut-price and sometimes illegal labour in the growing effort to undercut one another. He said it was almost impossible to hold to account any of the employers who hired Mr Hwang illegally because there was no paper trail. Often the pattern was for such workers to be hired by small subcontractors working for larger employers who did not ask hard questions.

Global: Denim workers fear silica ban won't work

This month's decision by Levi Strauss and H&M to ban the use of a deadly process using silica to sandblast jeans, will not end the practice because many manufacturers will continue the practice in poorer nations. The fabric treatment, which can cause lung-destroying silicosis, has been banned in Turkey (Risks 474). But Abdulhalim Demir, a Turkish denim worker who has been battling the disease since 2007, says many firms made new deals with subcontractors in Pakistan, Egypt and Syria after the Turkish health ministry prohibited the practice. The reason this method has not been abandoned, despite the fatal threat to workers worldwide, is the huge profit sandblasting brings as experts say the price of denim rises in proportion to the amount of sandblasting done. 'It's a very profitable job because it adds a value of 50 per cent to a product,' Professor Zeki K?l?çaslan, a chest physician at Istanbul University, told Hürriyet Daily News. K?l?çaslan said enormous amounts of money were earned by some companies as their workers sandblasted thousands of items for export. 'These denim workers, unaware of the risks, sandblast between 2,000 and 3,000 items of clothing a day over 12 hours,' K?l?çaslan said, noting that some workers were continually exposed to the danger as a result of sleeping in their workshops.

South Africa: Union mobilises a safety 'army'

A mining union has marked last week's anniversary of the 1986 Kinross disaster by launching a R2.7 million (£244,000) health and safety programme and setting out to create an 'army' of union safety activists. National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) president Cedric Gina said South Africa's worst mining disaster 'reaffirmed to many that the safety and lives of workers were secondary to management's pursuit for profits.' A total of 177 miners died when foam used as a sealant caught alight during welding at the Eastern Transvaal mine. Gina said Numsa was still unhappy about working conditions at mines. He said labour department inspections in March last year of 2,410 iron and steel workplaces throughout South Africa found that 1,171 did not comply with health and safety regulations. 'In simple language, close to half of companies that inspectors visited were breaking the laws of the country,' he said. The tragedy, he said, was that employers did not go to jail for negligence or violation of these laws. By the end of October, Numsa hoped to reach 6,000 shop stewards through workshops, manuals, DVDs and posters. It planned to ensure compliance with health and safety regulations, with shop stewards reporting any violation. They would be seen as an 'army of health and safety reservists,' said Gina. The union says it will also make sure that every workplace had a Numsa-negotiated health and safety policy and an emergency plan.

USA: Whistleblowers need a new protector

An official US government report critical of the lack of protection provided to workplace safety whistleblowers has led to calls for a new agency to protect workers. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had neglected its whistleblower protection role. In response, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and other whistleblower support organisations have called upon Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to create a separate office to take on the job. PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said OSHA has not yet implemented any of the eight recommendations from a critical 2009 GAO report on the whistleblower programme. He said: 'The bottom line is that millions of American workers remain vulnerable to retaliation as a result of official malfeasance and indifference.' In a statement responding to the GAO report, OSHA head David Michaels said he has undertaken a 'top-to-bottom review' of the programme. 'With our available resources, OSHA is working hard to ensure that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation,' he said, adding OSHA had begun taking action on some of the GAO's recommendations, and was studying others. The OSHA assurances did not satisfy PEER. 'The world's biggest whistleblower programme is in need of real reform, not redecoration. As long as it remains inside OSHA, whistleblower protections will be marginalised,' Ruch said. 'OSHA has too much on its plate and should free itself of the functions that it has demonstrated that it cannot do.'

USA: Chemical giant denies brain cancer link

A high profile legal case is to cast doubt on industry evidence claiming that vinyl chloride exposure is not linked to brain cancer. Joanne Branham says she believes environmental exposure to the chemical is the cause of the brain cancer that took the life of her husband, Franklin, six years ago. She blames the vinyl chloride that they were exposed to for nearly four decades while living in the village of McCullom Lake, Illinois, a mile downwind from a chemical plant operated by Philadelphia-based Rohm and Haas. His death was one of an unexpectedly large number in the vicinity of the plant, with 31 cases scheduled to go before the courts. Commenting as the Branham legal case started this week in a Philadelphia court, a Rohm & Haas spokesperson said the company 'believes that these claims are factually and scientifically unfounded, and for this reason, will continue to vigorously defend these cases.' There is a precedent, however. In what is believed to be the only successful lawsuit in the United States alleging that vinyl chloride exposure caused brain cancer, a jury in 2006 awarded $1.2 million (£770,000) to the widow of 57-year-old Donald Lattin, who had worked at a Shell Chemical plant near Trenton, New Jersey; the case was subsequently settled for an undisclosed sum. Mr Lattin succumbed in 2003 to a type of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. Aaron Freiwald, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, believes he can prove that an industry-funded study on which the company is expected to rely is flawed. His investigation indicates that the study of more than 10,000 workers at vinyl chloride plants, begun in 1973 and updated most recently by epidemiologist Kenneth Mundt in the 1990s, failed to include as many as two dozen fatal cases of brain cancer. 'Instead of the Mundt study being something that Rohm and Haas and other chemical companies can point to as casting doubt on the link between vinyl chloride and brain cancer, it would become very strong evidence of that link,' Freiwald said.

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