Risks 478 - 16 October 2010

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

Union News

Young Review is a 'grave disappointment'

The TUC has branded as a 'grave disappointment' a government-backed report calling for a relaxed system of accident reporting, measures to address a compensation culture the government itself accepts does not exist and changes to the risk assessment process that do already exist. A 10 Downing Street news release welcoming Lord Young's 15 October David Cameron-commissioned report, 'Common sense, common safety', said the prime minister and the Cabinet 'have accepted all of the recommendations put forward by Lord Young, who will continue to work across departments to ensure his recommendations are carried through.' The prime minister said: 'Good health and safety is vitally important.' But, embracing Lord Young's call for safety deregulation, he added: 'We simply cannot go on like this. That's why I asked Lord Young to do this review and put some common sense back into health and safety. And that's exactly what he has done.' He said he hoped the review would prove to be a 'turning point', with a new system being introduced to replace 'unnecessary bureaucracy'. Under the proposals, all accepted by government, the current personal injury compensation system would be dismantled and risk assessment requirements on 'low risk' industries would be revised - although the proposals for immediate action go no further than those provided already in Health and Safety Executive (HSE) risk assessment tools. The government-backed report calls for ministers to 'go back to the European Commission and negotiate a reduction of burdens for low hazard environments.'

Don't base policy on myths and preconceptions

Safety standards at work could be sacrificed if the government implements Lord Young's recommendations on reform of the UK health and safety system, the TUC has warned. Commenting on the David Cameron-commissioned review of health and safety, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'The review's recommendations are predictable but a grave disappointment all the same. The report contains not a single proposal that will reduce the high levels of workplace death, injuries and illness. Every year in the UK over 20,000 people die prematurely as a result of their work and at any one time over two million people are suffering ill-health because of their jobs.' He added: 'Yet instead of looking for ways of preventing people being killed and injured, the report uncritically accepts the myths and preconceptions surrounding health and safety, and focuses on dealing with a compensation culture which the government accepts does not exist. Health and safety is not a throwback to a previous century, or an issue that only affects heavy industry. It is just as much an issue for offices and shops - workplaces that Lord Young dismisses as 'low risk', despite the evidence of high levels of work-related ill-health in these sectors.' Mr Barber said the report 'is a missed opportunity to improve the UK's workplace safety record and by failing to challenge the myths around health and safety it could actually make things much worse.' The call for accidents to be reportable after more than seven days rather than the current three days plus 'does not meet the minimum legal requirements accepted across the European Union', commented TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson.

  • TUC news release.
  • Fighting the cuts to health and safety: Health and safety funding is under threat from cuts proposed by the coalition government. This TUC briefing explains why this must not happen.
  • How to lobby your MP on health and safety: This TUC guide explains how to lobby your MP at his or her surgery on the cuts proposed by the government to the funding of health and safety work performed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities. The TUC is calling on Trades Councils and union branches to lobby MPs in defence of health and safety during European Health and Safety Week, from 25-29 October.
  • The case for health and safety: This TUC briefing puts the case for effective enforcement and regulation of health and safety, and refutes the government's cost-cutting deregulation argument.
  • We didn't vote to die at work: Campaign briefings, posters and resources.


TUC concern at asbestos ruling

The TUC has expressed grave concern at the continued uncertainty facing people dying from asbestos diseases, following a Court of Appeal ruling on compensation payments. Three appeal court judges ruled last week that only some sufferers could recover damages for the fatal harm they sustained as a result of work exposures decades ago. The judges were considering a November 2008 High Court ruling that said employers' insurers at the time of exposure were liable to pay out on claims for the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma (Risks 384). However the appeal court judges found that in some cases the responsibility lay with the employer's insurer at the onset of symptoms, which in some cases is 50 or 60 years after the original exposure. The ruling, in an appeal brought by insurance companies, means mesothelioma sufferers will now have to wait while the case is referred to the Supreme Court. The TUC is concerned that any decision which allows insurers not to pay compensation to people who were exposed, even where there was an insurance policy in place, not only undermines the whole principle of compulsory employers' liability insurance, but also denies thousands of people, and their dependants, justice. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Over the years insurance companies have done all they can to avoid paying asbestos victims the compensation they are entitled to. They were more than willing to take the premiums when the victims were working, but only too happy to rush to court when claims are made.' He added: 'This is the real compensation culture we face in this country. A culture where people can be killed as a result of their employer's negligence and then be denied the compensation they are entitled to.'

'Perverse' ruling is an insult to the dying

Asbestos campaigners and unions have criticised last week's 'perverse' Court of Appeal ruling which has left workers dying of asbestos cancers facing delays to their compensation payments or without recourse to compensation at all. Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum chair Tony Whitston said: 'This is a disastrous decision. Thousands of dying asbestos victims will lose compensation and all will live their last days in uncertainty. As a last resort, the government must overturn any judgment which upholds the Court of Appeal decision.' Unite joint general secretary Derek Simpson said: 'This is the ultimate insult for people suffering or who have watched a loved one suffer a painful and degrading death from industrial disease. Insurers banking premiums and then escaping paying out compensation by relying on policy small print is obscene.' UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie said: 'This decision is disgraceful and perverse. This is not justice. Victims who were needlessly exposed to asbestos, will be prevented from claiming compensation, leaving the victim and their family destitute.' John McClean, national health and safety officer with the union GMB, said the ruling was 'farcical'. He added: 'This is an unbelievable ruling that flies in the face of the concept of justice, and shows nothing but contempt for those suffering from asbestos diseases.'

Tube staff want action on dangerous cuts

London Underground (LU) fleet maintenance staff have returned a 'massive' vote in favour of industrial action short of a strike over safety-critical job cuts. The union said cutbacks have 'ripped up tube maintenance schedules' leaving brakes and other equipment in a lethal state of disrepair. An overwhelming 88 per cent of the Tube maintenance staff voted for action, on a turnout of over 50 per cent. The vote for action comes days after the entire District line fleet had to be withdrawn after cracks were found in key components. RMT released a series of pictures of brake blocks on both Bakerloo and District Line trains worn down to the metal shoe and in danger of welding to the wheel, with what the union described as 'horrific consequences.' It added the cuts have also required management to increase the accepted tolerances on cracks on wheels, which could led to a wheel collapse on a train in service, 'again with dire consequences for the travelling public.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said LU and Transport for London 'are playing fast and loose with safety and will turn the tube into a death trap.' He added: 'The anger of our members, who carry out the safety-critical function of maintaining the tube fleet, at the cuts being imposed from above is reflected in this massive vote for action. Over the past two weeks we have released pictures which show what happens when you slash maintenance schedules and impose cutbacks on safety - you run trains without brake blocks and on cracked brackets and turn the journey to and from work into a lottery. The closure of District Line services has been a damning indictment of London Underground's cuts plans which has rammed home the consequences of ripping up the rule book on fleet maintenance.'

Over a million shopworkers assaulted last year

Over a million shopworkers have been assaulted, threatened or abused in the last year, Usdaw has revealed. The preliminary results from the retail union's annual survey found in the past 12 months, 6 per cent of shopworkers were subjected to violent attack, 37 per cent were threatened with harm and a 'massive' 70 per cent had suffered verbal abuse. The union says while reported incidents of assault are slightly down, incidents of threats and abuse have increased on the preceding year's figures. Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: 'These figures are once again quite shocking and show that Usdaw's Freedom from Fear campaign is needed more than ever. Our campaign, working in partnership with employers, government, police and other agencies has made a real difference and the workplaces where we organise are probably the safest in retail. However, the sad fact remains that every minute of every working day a shopworker is verbally abused, threatened with violence or physically attacked. It is simply unacceptable.' The union leader added: 'Too many people still think working in retail is not a proper job and that this somehow gives them the right to abuse shopworkers with impunity. Shopworkers are mothers, sons, sisters, grandparents, working hard to earn a living just like in any other workplace. They should never have to fear going to work nor face violence, threats or abuse for doing their job.' Referring to Lord Young's health and safety review, launched this week by prime minister David Cameron, he added: 'Shops are not the most dangerous of workplaces but there are over a million shopworkers who can tell Lord Young they are certainly not 'non-hazardous'.'

FBU challenges cuts 'lunacy'

Firefighters' union FBU has condemned the government's cuts agenda in its submission to the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review - and challenged Chief Fire Officers to speak out for investment to keep the public and firefighters safe. Matt Wrack, the union's general secretary, said instead of 'rushing to plan and implement cuts', fire chiefs and politicians should be joining firefighters in 'making the case for investment in our service'. The call comes in the introduction to 'A service to be proud of', the FBU's submission to the government spending review, to be published by the Chancellor on 20 October and expected to include swingeing cuts of at least 25 per cent across most government departments. 'The FBU does not accept there is room for cuts in our service. Talk of cuts in the order of 25 per cent is complete lunacy - a modern, efficient and professional service simply could not be delivered on such a basis.' He added: 'Sadly, there are many in positions of authority within local fire services who have simply accepted the argument about cuts and resigned themselves to the idea that nothing can be done. The FBU cannot afford such an approach. These issues are too important for us to surrender without a fight.' The union says government efficiency targets have been met and exceeded by the fire service, and more rescues were carried out last year than a decade ago. It adds there are now fewer fires, fewer fire deaths and more fire rescues. 'It is a lean, refined service. There is no bloat - no fat to cull,' Matt Wrack said. 'Firefighters have increased their productivity in recent decades - we now do much more with fewer personnel. The FBU, as the voice of firefighters, will fight tooth and nail against the cuts agenda. Our concern is for our profession, for the safety of the public and for the safety of firefighters.'

Other news

Another voluntary safety system fails

Another attempt to run aspects of the health and safety policing regime on a voluntary basis has failed. The British Occupational Hygiene Society [BOHS] last week said 'with deep regret' it was closing the Asbestos Building Inspectors Certification Scheme (ABICS), a body supported by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and intended to ensure asbestos surveyors were certified to have reached the necessary competence standard. It added without a legal duty for asbestos surveyors to be certified, the scheme did not work. Commenting on the failure of ABICS, BOHS chief executive Steve Perkins said that despite HSE support 'we have come to the conclusion - after eight years of significant and unsustainable investment - that a voluntary certification scheme is not viable in the extremely competitive environment of asbestos surveying.' Martin Stear, chair of the ABICS management committee, said the scheme 'is clearly not working' and added: 'Unfortunately, the closure of ABICS means there is now no means for individual surveyors to demonstrate their experience and competence, but without a mandatory requirement built into legislation, this clear need for personal certification, and the high level of interest in ABICS, is not translating into an adequate demand in the form of actual applications from surveyors or specifications from dutyholders.' It is believed only a minority of ABICS applicants demonstrated the required level of competence. There are now fears it will be easier still for incompetent asbestos surveyors to place workers and the public at risk of exposure, with surveyors selected on price rather than any independent assessment of competence. The announcement of the ABICS closure comes on the heels of the HSE's CHaSPI corporate benchmarking tool being been branded 'a costly flop' (Risks 476). Earlier this month it was revealed that interest in the HSE supported CHaSPI corporate benchmarking tool had been so low, each use of the system by a business had cost the taxpayer over £5,000.

Fit to work benefit checks rolled out

Incapacity benefit claimants in north-east Scotland and Burnley are to be the first to be reassessed systematically ahead of UK-wide welfare reform. Those deemed fit enough to work, using a points-based 'work capability assessment' system, will be moved to the jobseeker's allowance. More than 2.5m people claim the benefit or its successor, employment support allowance, costing £12.5bn yearly. Eventually everyone claiming incapacity benefit will have to undergo a medical examination to assess their physical and mental abilities. Those deemed fit for work and placed on jobseeker's allowance could face a reduction in benefit of about £25 a week. Those judged capable of limited work will be supported back into part-time employment, says the government. Employment minister Chris Grayling commented: 'While some of these people will be genuinely too sick to work, there will be others who through no fault of their own were told by the state that they were better off on the sick and then left behind - this stops now.' The tests will be undertaken for DWP by private firm Atos Healthcare. Left Economics Advisory Panel chair Andrew Fisher has charged that the company's assessment decisions may well be target-driven in order for it to keep the profit-making contract. The Prospect members working for Atos Healthcare who are responsible for assessing benefit claimants' capability to work warned last week they were not allocated sufficient time to assess complex cases such as those coping with multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease, but were instead under pressure to complete 10 or more cases an day (Risks 477). Patients' groups have warned the test, used already on new or routinely reviewed claimants, wrongly assesses many incapacity benefit recipients as fit for work (Risks 467).

Hospital guilty for worker's Hepatitis C

A healthcare worker at a Worcestershire hospital contracted the Hepatitis C virus after injuring herself on a needle used to take blood from an infected patient. During the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecution of Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust over the February 2007 incident, City Magistrates heard the worker, who had been training at the Trust for three weeks, was instructed to take blood from a patient known to be infected with the virus. After taking the sample, she had difficulty reaching the sharps bin to dispose of the needle, because other equipment surrounding the patient prevented access for her trolley. Blood continued to seep through the patient's dressing, so the worker placed the used needle on to the nearest work surface while she attended, but as she reached for a tissue to further dress the wound, she caught her wrist on the needle. The HSE investigation found the employee was not made aware of the patient's infection status until after the injury occurred and was not supervised during the procedure. Despite action to counter infection from the injury, she was subsequently diagnosed with symptoms of the virus. The Trust pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and a specific breach of the COSHH regulations and was fined a total of £12,500 and ordered to pay £9,000 costs. HSE inspector Jan Willets said: 'For staff regularly taking blood from patients, the risk of infection with the Hepatitis C virus from a contaminated needle is greater than for any other blood-borne virus.' She added: 'There are lessons for other Trusts who should check they have appropriate arrangements in place including identification of high-risk patients, using sharps disposal containers at the point of use, adequate supervision and training systems, and an implemented policy on the use of safer needles, devices and gloves.'

Safety firm fined after death plunge

A safety testing company's lax rules for its own employees were exposed after one of its senior engineers fell to his death while inspecting the rooftop safety system at a Bradford DIY store. Paul Voller, 31, died after plunging about 30ft through a skylight at the B&Q store on the Euroway Trading Estate, Bradford magistrates heard. The court was told how Mr Voller's employer, Nottingham-based First Testing Ltd, had only just got the safety testing contract for all B&Q's stores and it was the first time any of its staff had been up on the roof. Mr Voller was discovered with his safety harness still clipped to his lanyard, offering no protection from a fall. Family-run First Testing pleaded guilty to two criminal safety breaches and was fined £14,500 and was ordered to pay £5,778.56 costs. The court heard it had failed to undertake adequate risk assessments, check the competency of staff or have staff adequately trained in rescue procedures. District Judge Susan Bouch, referring to First Testing's 'systematic failure' and the 'aggravating factor' of Mr Voller's death, said: 'There was no suggestion by the prosecution these defects were motivated by profit-making. I also accept the company had a good safety record.' However, Patrick Field QC, prosecuting on behalf of Bradford Council, told the court: 'These are things that ought to have been done before this accident rather than as a consequence of it.' He had earlier pointed out even if Mr Voller had been connected to the safety running line and fallen he would still have been left suspended in mid-air and First Testing's 'unacceptable' rescue plan would have been to ring and wait for the emergency services.

Company fined after cutter hits head

The owner of a Bristol lighting company has been fined £20,000 after an employee was injured by machinery that was not properly guarded. Rolf Weber sustained minor head injuries on 5 February 2010, after going into the working area of the machine to remove a finished work piece and inadvertently hitting his head on the cutter, which was still rotating at full speed. Darren Wring, trading as Fineline, pleaded guilty at Weston-super-Mare Magistrates Court to a criminal breach of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998. He was also ordered to pay costs of £1,800. HSE inspector Christine Haberfield commented: 'Fortunately, Mr Weber's injuries were fairly minor, but the cutter on which he hit his head was rotating at 18,000rpm and he could have been very seriously injured or even killed. It is vital that dangerous machinery is properly safeguarded. In this case, the cutting area should have been enclosed with doors that were linked to the operation of the machine to prevent anybody going into the danger area while the machine was running. People can help prevent similar incidents by checking machinery safeguards regularly, to make sure that they are still working correctly.'

Fencing firm didn't fence machinery

A Manchester fencing manufacturer has admitted putting its employees in danger by allowing them to use unguarded machinery. Fencing Supplies Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after the company allowed guards to be disabled on nine fence cutting machines. When an HSE inspector visited the site on 23 July 2009, he served nine prohibition notices banning the use of the machines and an improvement notice requiring changes to working practices. Trafford Magistrates' Court heard that the guards on five machines had been deliberately bypassed. This meant that workers could gain access to them while they were still operating, to carry out maintenance work and remove waste materials. Mike Lisle, the investigating inspector at HSE, said: 'The machines should have automatically shut down before anyone was able to get close to the dangerous parts of the machinery. But as a result of the guards being defeated, the machines continued to operate with workers at risk of coming into contact with moving parts and suffering serious injury.' Fencing Supplies Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998. It was fined £14,000 and ordered to pay £2,774 towards the cost of the prosecution.

Textile firm fined after eight foot fall

A man was left with serious injuries after a fall from an unguarded platform, a court heard during the sentencing of a Huddersfield textile retailer. Fifty-seven year-old Dennis Hunter was left with a broken leg and crushed ankle when he fell eight feet onto concrete while dismantling shelving at the Phoenox Textiles site. The firm was prosecuted after an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the men were working unsupervised and had received no training to dismantle the 30-feet-high shelving system safely. Huddersfield magistrates heard Mr Hunter was on a lower rack while cutting through boarding with a circular saw. The board tipped and sent him crashing to the floor, breaking his leg. The heavy board then fell on top of him crushing his left ankle and badly bruising his face. Mr Hunter underwent two operations and was in plaster for seven weeks before he was able to return to work part-time. Following the incident, HSE served an improvement notice ordering Phoenox to properly assess risks to staff while working at height and to implement suitable controls. A prohibition notice was also served halting any further dismantling work on other poorly-maintained racking at the site. The firm pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £12,000 and ordered to pay £3,056 costs.

New guidance on construction fire risks

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published revised guidance on 'Fire safety in construction.' The guide comes just weeks after fire chiefs warned that the use of timber frame construction techniques was increasing the fire risk on sites (Risks 475). HSE says each year there are thousands of fires on construction sites, potentially putting the lives of workers and members of the public at risk. It adds the guide has a particular emphasis on the risks from timber frame construction, which has been linked to a series of serious recent fires on sites. Philip White, HSE chief inspector of construction, said: 'At worst, fires can and do kill. They can also badly injure and cause serious human suffering and financial loss. Preventing them must be a priority on any building project. We have updated the guidance to take account of changes in the law and recent fires on construction sites. It includes new information on higher risk building such as timber frame and multi storey construction and outlines the extra precautions which need to be taken with these.' He added: 'Our inspectors would prefer to offer advice but if lives and livelihoods are at risk they will not hesitate to take enforcement action.'

International News

Bangladesh: Three more shipbreakers die

Trade unions in Bangladesh have stepped up demands for safer working conditions in the country's deadly shipbreaking industry after three workers died and scores more were injured in an incident last week at a Chittagong yard. Abul Kalam, Mohammad Faruk and Abul Bashar were killed when the heavy iron plate they were trying to pull down from a ship crushed them at the Sitakundu yard. At least 500 workers have died over the last 21 years, excluding deaths from diseases caused by the asbestos, toxic fumes and the dangerous materials workers to which workers are exposed without safety equipment. British union Unite and the United Steelworkers in the US and Canada, which together form the transatlantic Workers Uniting (WU), are campaigning alongside the International Metalworkers' Federation against what they describe as near slave-like conditions endured by shipbreakers in Bangladesh. In March 2009, the Supreme Court in the country directed the government to ensure safety of those working at shipbreaking yards. However, press reports say the government has so far failed to comply with the ruling.

Chile: Miners are rescued, but mines still unsafe

All of the 33 miners trapped deep underground in northern Chile for more than two months have been rescued. The operation, which was completed on 14 October and took 22 hours, ended when the six rescuers sent down to assist the miners were winched up. The rescued miners greeted their families and were then taken to hospital. All have severe dental infections, and some have eye problems. One man has been diagnosed with pneumonia, although his condition is not thought to be serious. Two are said to be suffering from silicosis - miners' lung. The men had been trapped underground since 5 August, when a rockfall caused a tunnel to collapse. They survived an unprecedented shift of up to 70 days underground. Chile's president, Sebastian Piñera, greeted the emerging miners. He also vowed to change safety standards to protect miners. Mining unions earlier this month issued a manifesto called for radical improvements in safety, including new rights for trade union involvement in health and safety issues and improved worker participation. Unions have also accused the government of being unwilling to engage in tripartite dialogue to improve mine safety conditions, including refusing to discuss ratification of ILO's safety in mines convention. The last of the 33 miners to be hoisted to safety from the San José mine in northern Chile - shift leader Luis Urzúa - had a message for President Piñera: 'This can never happen again.' Mr Piñera said Mr Urzúa's words 'touched my soul' and responded with an overhaul of labour safety legislation which he promised would be 'a new deal' for the country's workers. He said the review that would lead to a 'very radical change' affecting the health and safety of workers in the transport, fishing and construction industry as much as mining. The mainstream media virtually ignored the longstanding safety concerns in Chile's mines throughout the miners' incarceration, focusing solely on the human interest story. Only after the miners were rescued did the army of journalists attending the rescue even start to address the issue.

Global: Gerdau fails to report accidents

A global trade union network is keeping up the pressure on steel multinational Gerdau to improve health and safety. A meeting of the network this month expressed concern at the company's practice of 'hiding' accidents by putting workers back on the job before they are able to do their work. The meeting in Spain heard participants describe how Gerdau will only count as an 'accident' any incident where injured workers cannot go back to the workplace. Contract workers injured working for Gerdau or in a Gerdau plant are not included in the company's accident statistics at all. 'Many stories were shared in which workers will be asked to go back to the workplace and sit in a room or walk around without doing any particular task,' global union federation IMF reports. The union representatives 'saw the trick in action during a visit to the Gerdau plant in Reinosa,' said IMF. 'At the entrance of the machining shop there is big sign saying: 'Two years without an accident with time lost.' Clearly, the sign did not say how many accidents had occurred without lost time during those two years.' The unions present at the meeting represent Gerdau workers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Chile, United States, Peru and Spain. Unions held protests at Gerdau plants around the world last month after the 5 September death of a steelworker in Spain (Risks 476).

Korea: Protesters 'die-in' at electronics fair

Members of the public attending a major electronics fair in Korea have found out more about the industry than they might have anticipated - as a 'die-in' by campaigners outside the event highlighted the occupational cancer and other risks blighting the sector. The Korea Electronics Grand Fair 2010 was opened this week by Korea-based industry giant Samsung. But Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry (SHARPS) say Samsung should be directing its energies at a more pressing concern - the Samsung workers it says are suffering from or have died as a result of occupational diseases. SHARPS alleges that across the company 100 workers have suspected occupational cancers, with many more victims of other work-related conditions including menstrual irregularities, spontaneous abortions, skin diseases and musculoskeletal disorders. 'Samsung, however, does not take responsibility for the fate of these workers, nor does the Korean government,' it says, adding that the pattern of ill-health is also seen at other electronics facilities around the work run by other companies. The campaign says Samsung 'should make an immediate apology' to the occupational disease victims, should be open about the hazardous substances used in its plants and should stop using those substances implicated in the work-related ill-health. SHARPS is also calling on the South Korean government to 'compensate those victims and call the Samsung to accountability.' During a parliamentary audit, Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Mi-kyung charged that the reason illnesses among Samsung Electronics factory workers have not been recognised as work-related is because there has been no disclosure of detailed information about the chemicals used at its factories. The National Assembly's Environmental and Labor Committee held the audit for the Ministry of Employment and Labor on 5 October.

USA: Steel giant sued over alcohol tests

The USA's largest steel firm violated federal law when it applied a nationwide policy requiring probationary employees to undergo random alcohol tests and fired an employee as a result of such a test. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit last week that the firm, which employs over 42,000 workers worldwide, required employee Abigail DeSimone to undergo a random breath alcohol test during her probationary period, even though the company had no reasonable basis to believe that she had violated the company's drug and alcohol policy. When the test showed a false positive result for alcohol, DeSimone immediately advised the nurse who administered the test that she had not ingested any alcohol in the past month and that her medical condition might have caused or contributed to the positive test result, according to court papers filed by EEOC. After the company nurse refused her request for an alternative test, on the same day, DeSimone obtained a blood alcohol test from her physician, which registered negative for alcohol. Her doctor later faxed the test results to US Steel at the company's request. Nonetheless, US Steel terminated DeSimone as a result of what EEOC describes as its unlawful medical examination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 'Although an employer may, of course, prohibit the usage of illegal drugs and alcohol in the workplace and hold all employees to the same conduct and performance standards, the ADA strictly restricts workplace medical examinations, including breath alcohol tests,' said regional attorney Debra Lawrence of the EEOC's Philadelphia District Office. 'An employer can only require an employee to submit to a medical examination such as an alcohol test if the examination is job-related and consistent with business necessity. The EEOC is committed to eradicating systemic discrimination in the workplace, including blanket policies mandating medical examinations that violate federal law.'

USA: Prison workers protest at toxic work

A US government-owned company that runs electronics recycling plants at federal prisons is coming under intensive scrutiny for repeatedly exposing prison employees and inmates to excessive levels of lead and other toxic metals. The Justice Department's Office of Inspector General is expected within days to release its report on a lengthy investigation of the recycling operations - including accusations that prison officials ignored basic workplace safety precautions. Separately, the US Bureau of Prisons has quietly paid about $1 million to settle a grievance over hazardous duty pay for employees of an Elkton, Ohio, prison which operates one of the recycling plants (Risks 443). On one occasion, an air test at the eastern Ohio institution found cadmium levels 450 times higher than federal safety limits. 'They didn't put the safeguards in place to do it the right way,' said Bill Meek, an Elkton employee and vice president of local 607 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents Elkton workers. And a union for employees at the federal lockup in the central California community of Atwater also is demanding retroactive hazardous duty pay. Barring a settlement, that case is scheduled for arbitration in December. At issue is the conduct of Federal Prison Industries, a for-profit, government-owned corporation established in the 1930s to provide constructive activity and job skills to inmates. The company, which goes by the trade name Unicor, employs thousands of inmates in a variety of businesses, including recycling factories at eight institutions. Sales from recycling operations last year were about $9.2 million.

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