Risks 487 - 18 December 2010

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

Have a Risks free holiday! This is the last issue of Risks in 2010. We'll be back in the new year.

Union News

Government's 'dangerous' plans for EU law

Government plans to change the way European directives become part of UK law have been condemned by the TUC as 'dangerous' and 'counter-productive.' Business secretary Vince Cable, who chairs the Cabinet's Reducing Regulation Committee, said the government intended to end 'the charge of 'gold-plating' so that British businesses are not put at a disadvantage relative to their European competitors.' He added: 'The new principles are a first step towards working with British business and Europe to make sure that we introduce EU rules in a way that will not harm the UK economy. By cutting the red tape that can reduce competitiveness and making sure that businesses are involved in the process both before, and after through five-yearly reviews, we can get the best deal possible for British companies.' The business secretary does not say that gold plating of EU directives actually occurs, and the accompanying business department news release refers only to 'so called' gold plating. This is something likely to be seized on by critics who believe the government is attacking a non-existent problem to justify a shift towards weaker laws. Three TUC reports this year have comprehensively refuted the government's claim that UK businesses are burdened by red tape, one of these dealing specifically with health and safety. Safety laws in the UK now start out as EU directives, and have been a key target of the government's deregulatory drive. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, commenting on the new government approach to EU directives, said: 'This is a depressing, dangerous and counter-productive policy. For the government to say that it will always settle for the bare minimum of any European policy - whether it's designed to protect consumers, the environment or people at work - is a profoundly depressing position.' He added the government move 'entirely bypasses the UK's democratic processes and for Euro-sceptics must be the ultimate surrender to Brussels as it leaves important areas of UK law to Brussels rule-makers and the UK courts.'

NUT warning on academy dangers

The safety of pupils and staff could be undermined if schools opt to become academies outside of local authority control, teaching union NUT has warned. A guide from the union notes 'there are plenty of strong arguments to be deployed as to why health and safety could be adversely affected by conversion to academy status, arguments which could prove persuasive to both teachers and parents.' The union says schools under local authority control benefit from health and safety cover not extended to academies. 'Conversion to academy status will leave full health and safety responsibility with the Academy governing body, with no routine inspections undertaken, and no advice available from local authority safety officers,' the guide warns. It adds these schools are unlikely to have the necessary safety expertise in-house and won't have recourse to local authority safety training. Unforeseen headaches facing academies include the need to obtain employers' liability insurance and legal culpability for any health and safety breaches falling on the governing body. The governing body of a foundation school was fined £16,500 and £2,500 costs last year after a pupil received serious hand injuries in an art lesson (Risks 428). NUT believes existing authority-wide safety committees provide a forum for recognising problems and remedying them not available to schools acting alone. And while union safety reps from local authority schools can provide safety cover in neighbouring schools, this right is not extended to academies. Where academies are established, NUT says the union should ensure they get their own union safety rep.

Warning on site cold weather dangers

Construction union UCATT is warning construction employers that extra checks need to be made on sites, to ensure that work can be conducted safely during extremely cold weather. The union says site bosses need to undertake additional risk assessments during extreme weather 'to ensure that sites are safe before work progresses.' These should establish appropriate protective equipment is issued and mobile facilities for warming up are available, where warming drinks such as hot chocolate or soup are provided. The union also says workers will need more frequent rest breaks and should be educated in the early symptoms of cold stress or hypothermia. These include shivering, loss of co-ordination, slurred speech, memory loss and pale, cold skin. Alan Ritchie, general secretary of UCATT, said: 'Cold weather brings additional dangers to the construction industry. It is essential that employers ensure sites are safe and proper facilities are provided during cold weather working. If workers do not believe that their site is safe they should stop work immediately until problems are resolved.'

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RMT defends victimised safety rep

The sacking of an RMT safety rep has exposed London Underground's (LU) 'total contempt' for decent employment practice, his union has said. Train operator Eamon Lynch, who was the RMT Bakerloo Line drivers' health and safety rep and who had a 15-year unblemished service record, was 'very clearly victimised for his role as an RMT activist despite management's bogus claims that they sacked him following an 'operational incident',' said the union. The safety rep remains on full pay following the union's victory at Eamon's 'interim relief' Employment Tribunal hearing. RMT said interim relief is only granted where there 'is the clearest possible evidence that an employee has been dismissed on the grounds of their trade union activities.' It added that the company had shown total contempt for the tribunal process and had upheld his sacking. In industrial action in support of the safety rep, all RMT members at both Elephant and Castle and Queens Park Traincrew depots were instructed not to book on for any duty commencing between 21.00 hours on Friday 17 December and 20.59 hours on Saturday 18 December 2010. RMT is taking similar action at Morden Traincrew depot in defence of longstanding RMT activist Arwyn Thomas, who the union says is facing 'trumped up disciplinary charges' it believes are directly related to his trade union role. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'There is not a shred of doubt that the two separate disputes over the company action against both Eamon Lynch and Arwyn Thomas are clear cut cases of victimisation on the grounds of trade union activity.' He added: 'Instead of harassing our members and activists on trumped up charges the London Underground management should be directing their energies into reaching a settlement to the on-going disputes over Tube safety and safe staffing levels.'

Union delivers Tube cuts warning

Tube union RMT has delivered a message to Boris Johnson, warning that cuts in station staffing will turn London Underground 'into a playground for muggers and vandals'. RMT handed the London major a special pre-Christmas delivery of postcards collected from members of the public opposing the cuts to ticket office and station staffing - the issue at the heart of the current dispute with RMT and TSSA. The union reminded Boris Johnson of his pre-election promise to oppose ticket office closures and of his responsibility to Londoner's as chair of Transport for London (TfL) to ensure the Tube network is safe and secure for the travelling public. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'In the past few months we have seen first hand the hard reality of the cuts programme on the Tube with regular breakdowns in the service as the infrastructure fails under the combined pressure of staffing and maintenance cuts. On the network, the reality of the hidden drive towards de-staffing has left many stations without a single member of staff and internal documents show that London Underground is planning for much worse to come.' The union added: 'Boris Johnson opposed the cuts to ticket offices before the Mayoral election because he knew that was what the voters wanted. Nothing has changed since then and there is absolutely no excuse for him to sit back and watch while the tube system is turned into a playground for muggers and vandals.'

Other news

Grieving mum warns safety cuts will kill

The mother of a man killed as a result of employer negligence has warned that workers' families will pay a heavy price arising from a government 'hell-bent' on slashing health and safety protection. Dorothy Wright was speaking to the Morning Star newspaper after the two companies responsible for her son Mark's death were fined a total of £440,000 this week. Mark died after aerosol cans he had been ordered to crush exploded at a site owned by Deeside Metals of Chester in April 2005. He had expressed grave safety fears to his family just days before his death. At Caernarfon Crown Court, Deeside Metals and Jeyes Ltd, the firm from which the aerosols originated, were fined £100,000 plus £10,000 costs and £330,000 plus £50,000 costs respectively after admitting failing to carry out risk assessments or train and monitor staff in the disposal of potentially hazardous materials. Mr Wright's manager at Deeside Metals, Robert Roberts, was also fined £10,000. Dorothy Wright, who with her husband Douglas is a founder member of the campaign group Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK), said government cuts would make justice even more elusive for grieving families. 'This government is hell-bent on removing the already woefully inadequate protection of HSE [the Health and Safety Executive] by reducing their budget by 35 per cent leaving the safety of workers up to the employer's 'common sense',' she told the Morning Star. 'How can you leave the safety of workers to the 'common sense' of people like this? David Cameron's government intends removing all of the so-called 'burden' on employers of safeguarding the health and safety of their employees, but the real emotional and financial burden is borne by the families of up to 1,500 killed every single year by totally preventable incidents at work.'

At Amazon, 'tis the season to be nasty

Britain's biggest online retailer sent home casual staff in the middle of the night, half way through their shift, an employment rights group has revealed. Some workers had to wait at the giant Amazon warehouse near Gourock, in Inverclyde, Scotland, until public transport resumed in the morning, even though they were not being paid. Inverclyde Advice and Employment Rights Centre, which exposed a practice used regularly by the firm, warned that many such casual employees were facing intolerable - but perfectly legal - conditions. Jim McCourt, the centre's manager, said he believed such practices were 'immoral and obscene' after his group was contacted by workers. He said: 'To stop a worker's wages part-way through a shift is unacceptable. Some workers having their wages stopped during the nightshift have no option but to sit on site until public transport starts.' Mr McCourt said some of the workers bussed to Amazon had been forced to take up the post as a condition of keeping their Jobseeker's allowance. He added: 'This is the archetypal poverty trap. These workers appear at this site in the expectation that they will be paid a full shift. Their hourly rate is only just above the minimum wage. We urge Amazon to make a public commitment to honour this.' Amazon employs hundreds of 'pickers' at Gourock, who can walk miles a day up and down the aisles of its warehouse finding goods that its customers have ordered. In 2007, Jim McCourt revealed Amazon's 'brutal' management practices included random body searches and drug tests (Risks 316).

Workers reluctant to claim compensation

Many workers in the UK are reluctant to claim compensation for work-related health problems, new research has found. A survey for the not-for-profit Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) found 30 per cent of respondents would not consider claiming even if they developed a life-threatening occupational disease. Work-related diseases affect tens of thousands of workers in the UK every year. A quarter of those surveyed said they would not make a claim if they were seriously injured using faulty or unsuitable equipment in the workplace. APIL president Muiris Lyons commented: 'Many of us may have suffered an injury through no fault of our own at work but in the workplace there seems to be a real reluctance to make a claim in cases of negligence.' He added: 'Most employees will have built a rapport with their employer over a period of time and if a case of negligence occurs in the workplace, some individuals could feel embarrassed or think that there may be a stigma attached if they are seen making a claim against their employer. Some may fear that if they make a claim, their career may be put at risk or that they might be looked upon as a troublemaker.' The research, commissioned by APIL and undertaken by Opinion Matters, was carried out amongst 1,151 adults living in the UK.

Excavator firm fined for severed fingers

Heavy plant manufacturer Komatsu has been fined after a worker had two fingers severed when his hand was caught in a drilling machine. John Watson, 55, was drilling holes in steel plates at Komatsu UK Ltd in Birtley, when his right hand became caught in the rotating parts of the machine. He needed surgery to completely amputate his third finger and the middle finger between the first and second knuckle. He also had a bone removed from his hand. Mr Watson has worked at Komatsu for nearly 20 years but has been unable to return to work since the injury. Consett Magistrates' Court heard an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had revealed using the drill was not part of Mr Watson's normal work but at the time of the incident on 23 June 2009 he had been asked to make some storage racking for the factory. There was no guard on the drill to prevent access to the rotating parts and it was not the first time the drill had been used without a guard. The gloves Mr Watson was wearing became entangled and drew his hand into the rotating parts. He had not received training in the use of the drill and the precautions needed to reduce the risk of entanglement. Komatsu UK Ltd pleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches and was fined £6,000 and ordered to pay costs of £3,421.10.

Builder fined for ignoring safety warnings

A Burnley builder whose employees were forced to work in unsanitary conditions, with no toilet or washing facilities, has been fined after ignoring a string of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) enforcement notices. Michael Connolly, 46, was prosecuted after repeated failures to improve conditions at the site in Littleborough where he had employed contractors to convert a house into flats and shops. HSE inspectors who visited the site found there were no toilets or washing facilities. They also discovered live wires sticking out of plug sockets, unsafe scaffolding and plaster and rubble scattered all over the site. Inspectors deemed the site to be so dangerous Mr Connolly was immediately served with three improvement notices and two 'stop work' prohibition notices following the visit on 4 November 2009. Despite Mr Connolly's assurances that he had complied with all the notices, when inspectors revisited the site on several occasions over a 10-week period, they discovered he had still not provided adequate washing facilities for workers, including soap and hot running water. HSE inspector Alan Pojur said: 'In failing to provide basic amenities like hot water, especially when workers would have been covered in building site dust and plaster, Mr Connolly showed a complete lack of regard for the welfare of the people he employed. Mr Connolly was given every opportunity to correct this problem over three months, but he chose not to do so. I hope his subsequent prosecution sends out a strong message to other employers.' Michael Connolly pleaded guilty to criminal breaches of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 and of failing to comply with an improvement notice. He was fined £400 and ordered to pay £1,000 costs.

Fencing firm ignored safety notices

A Gloucester fencing company ignored legally binding enforcement orders requiring it to provide access to hot running water for staff and to ensure its local exhaust ventilation system was working. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) served both improvement and 'stop work' prohibition notices on Andy Sutton Fencing Ltd, ordering the firm to properly protect its workers from wood dust and dangerous machinery. The offences came to light following a complaint about the site. Several notices were served on the company following a visit by an HSE inspector in March 2010. Around a month after the compliance date, the inspector visited the site and found two of the improvement notices had not been complied with. Andy Sutton Fencing Ltd pleaded guilty to two criminal safety breaches at Gloucester Magistrates Court. The company was fined £3,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2,369. Following the hearing, HSE inspector Ian Whittles said: 'This firm disregarded notices that were issued to safeguard the health of its own employees. Compliance with prohibition and improvement notices is a legal requirement and the notices cannot be disregarded in this way.' He added: 'Ignoring notices is unacceptable and puts the safety and welfare of workers at risk. Also, as this firm discovered to its cost, it is liable to end up in a prosecution.'

Company fined after man crushed by truck

A Buckinghamshire engineering company has been fined £30,000 after a worker was crushed to death at its premises. Bryn Evans, 52, from Milton Keynes was acting as a banksman at Trevett Engineering Limited and was guiding a reversing heavy goods delivery vehicle towards a doorway when he was killed. As Mr Evans was guiding the lorry into the loading area he became trapped between the back of the vehicle and the building's brick wall. He died at the scene from crush injuries to his chest. Milton Keynes Crown heard Mr Evans had not received training as a banksman. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also showed there was no specific need for a banksman during the reversing process, it had merely become customary at the site. Trevett Engineering Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of safety law and was fined £30,000 plus costs of £11,630. HSE inspector Karl Howes said: 'This tragic case illustrates the risks that are associated with deliveries and reversing vehicles. It is vital that employers fully assess the risks involved in deliveries to site. Banksman should only be used when there are no safer available methods to control reversing and then only when people have been fully trained to undertake that role.'

Print firm fined after lorry incident

A 10-year-old equipment fault at a Bristol stationery supply firm saw a worker sustain serious injuries after he was caught between a reversing lorry and a loading platform. Nathan Ford, 30, suffered a fractured collarbone and forearm in the incident which happened as he was receiving a consignment of paper reels at the premises of his employer, Business Forms Express. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted the company, which supplies commercial stationery products to industry, after an investigation found a flap connected to a dock leveller had been broken for a decade. Bath Magistrates Court heard that on 22 April this year, Mr Ford was standing in for the regular storeman and part of his role was to receive deliveries to a raised loading bay. However, the dock leveller - a device used to bridge the gap between the rear of the truck and the loading bay - was not working. A flap was supposed to automatically rise when the leveller was operated but failed, so Mr Ford instead held the flap up manually. When the vehicle began reversing Mr Ford became trapped between the back of the trailer and the front of the dock leveller, causing his injuries. Business Forms Express pleaded guilty to criminal breaches of the Provision of Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The company was ordered to pay £1,500 in fines per breach, plus £500 in compensation to the injured party, and £2,626 costs.

Firm fined after roofer breaks back

A roofing contractor from East London broke his back when falling through the skylight of a building extension, after safety procedures were overloooked. The worker, now 41 and whose name has not been released, fell while removing tarpaulin from the one-storey roof extension at a London flat on 18 December 2006. London Central Criminal court (Old Bailey) heard James Thompson, who traded as James Thompson Carpentry and Building, was supervising the work on site. However, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found Mr Thompson could have undertaken a number of measures to have prevented the incident, but failed. The tarpaulin had been put in place to provide the ground floor of the flat with weather protection. The worker was removing this when the tarpaulin snagged. The man stepped on some insulating board that had been laid across the skylight, which gave way under his weight. He fell over three metres to the concrete floor below. Company owner James Thompson pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005. He was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay costs of £7,000. The injured worker suffered a broken back as a result of the fall and can now only walk short distances and needs to use a walking stick. HSE inspector Ian Seabrook said: 'The impact on this man's life has been immeasurable. This incident could easily have been avoided, and illustrates there is no room for complacency even when working on small sites. Work at height is the single largest safety hazard on construction sites and needs to be properly managed.'

'Asbestos on shirt' woman dies of cancer

A 44-year-old woman has lost her battle against a cancer she believed was caused by asbestos dust on her grandfather's work clothes. Mother-of-two Debra Stevenson, of Plymouth, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in December 2008. She died on 5 December this year. She believed she could have contracted the lung cancer from contact with her grandfather Jack Duffin, when she was a child. He died aged 86 about 10 years ago from a different disease which was related to asbestos and smoking. Her illness could also have been caused by dislodging asbestos while decorating, she had said. Her husband Paul Stevenson, 41, said: 'Debra was a loving wife and mother. She knew this was going to happen and she was very strong right until the end.' Plymouth has been highlighted as the UK's third worst hotspot for mesothelioma, with about 35 to 40 cases appearing each year. High rates of the disease are found in areas with a history of dockwork all around the country.

International News

Bangladesh: Another tragedy in a garment factory

At least 28 Bangladeshi garment workers are believed to have died and dozens more have been injured after a fire broke out on the 9th and 10th floors of the 'That's It Sportswear Ltd' factory, 16 miles outside the capital Dhaka. Several workers appeared to have suffocated in the 14 December fire, while others jumped to their deaths trying to escape the burning building or were trampled as they rushed towards the exits. First eyewitness reports indicate some exits were locked. The factory was reportedly producing for major international buyers, including Gap. It belongs to the Ha-meem group, one of the biggest garment manufacturers in the country. The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) and other labour rights organisations say they have regularly contacted buyers sourcing from Ha-meem about violations of freedom of association and other labour standards at the company's factories. According to the Ha-meem Group website, their buyers are presently global and major high street retailers Walmart, H&M, Next, JC Penney, Kohl's, Squeeze, Sears, Target Store, Charming Shoppes, Carrefour, Inditex, Miss Etam, Migros and Celio. The tragedy is the latest in a series of deadly fires in the country's garment sector. 'Workers keep dying while the brands, the government and the employers drag their feet and try to shift the responsibility upon each other,' commented CCC's Ineke Zeldenrust. 'We've warned the brands repeatedly that this would keep happening again and again, but they've chosen to respond only in a minimal fashion.'

Global: Asbestos safety reassurances rubbished

A claim by a Canadian minister that a monitoring scheme will ensure safe use of its asbestos exports has been rubbished by campaigners. The exchange is the latest prompted by plans to massively expand asbestos production in the Canadian province of Quebec, a move for which the industry is seeking financial support from the provincial government. An 'Asian Solidarity Delegation' which visited Quebec last week to oppose more asbestos mining and exports, met with Québec minister of economic development Clément Gignac. They say the minister admitted the Québec government's promised 'rigorous safety protections' would apply to only 0.1 per cent of the use of the province's asbestos exports. Minister Gignac had promised that the Québec government will not give the Can$58 million financing demanded by a consortium of investors to open the Jeffrey mine, unless there is a guarantee that a system of rigorous health protections, equal to those of Québec, will be observed in India and the other Asian countries where the Jeffrey mine would export its asbestos. However, he admitted to the Asian delegation that the safety assurances would only apply to the immediate purchaser of the asbestos. 'Why do our lives count for so little in the eyes of the minister and the government of Québec?' asked Omana George, an occupational health expert from India who was part of the delegation. 'Mr Gignac recognised that in our countries, the asbestos exported by Québec is used in ways that are so hazardous as to be illegal in Québec itself. Québec has the resources necessary to protect the lives of its citizens. The minister knows that we do not have those resources in our countries. But does he care?' An editorial in the journal Nature this week backed calls for a global ban on asbestos trade.

USA: Law rejection 'an insult to their memory'

While US lawmakers did not this month see the necessity for improved mine safety laws, the US media certainly did. An 11 December editorial in the New York Times noted: 'Just eight months after the nation was shocked by the death of 29 coal miners in the Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia, Republicans have once again pandered to industry and blocked passage of an urgently needed mine safety reform.' The Bill won majority support - but because of near unanimous Republican opposition, fell short of the two-thirds majority required to pass legislation in a lame-duck session. According to the New York Times: 'Republicans predictably shielded mine owners, citing warnings from the National Association of Manufacturers that the reform might drive up coal prices by expanding government authority and exposing mining companies to greater criminal penalties and damage litigation. That is exactly what this perilously dangerous industry needs. Too many lives have already been lost for the sake of cheap coal.' The editorial concludes: 'We fear reform is even less likely in the new Congress where pro-industry Republicans will have greater power. This year they warned against a 'rush to judgment' about what precisely happened at Upper Big Branch. We know what happened, 29 people died. And Congress failed in its duty.'

USA: Official action on popcorn lung risks

Employers should used stringent safety controls to prevent 'popcorn lung', new guidance from US government safety watchdog OSHA has warned. The guidance from the safety regulator recommends that employers prevent exposing employees to the potentially fatal health effects of butter flavourings and other flavouring substances containing diacetyl or its substitutes. Some workers exposed to diacetyl have become disabled or have died from the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans. 'Illnesses arising from diacetyl exposure continue to place workers at risk,' said OSHA head David Michaels. 'It is vital that employers use preventive measures to protect their workers from the harmful effects caused by these dangerous chemicals.' The OSHA move came days after similar recommendations were introduced unilaterally in California. Cases of popcorn lung appeared originally to be restricted to the US, but recent studies have identified missed or misdiagnosed cases in Europe and elsewhere, including one case affecting a flavouring factory worker in the UK (Risks 345). In the UK, official health and safety advice on diacetyl use at work is scant. The Health and Safety Executive has so far only produced six lines of generic online guidance on diacetyl, which does not appear as formal publication, guide or code, and is buried on the HSE website in a March 2008 news update.

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