Risks 520 - 27 August 2011

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards magazine
Hazards at Work

Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 18,000 subscribers and 1,500 on the TUC website. To receive this bulletin every week, click here. Past issues are available. This edition contains Useful links TUC courses for safety reps Disclaimer and Privacy

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

Union News

Unite organises for good, safe work

Improving health and safety at work requires organisation, solidarity and political awareness, the union Unite has said. General secretary Len McCluskey said these 'three pillars' apply to all of Unite's activities. In a foreword to the a comprehensive new health and safety guide from the union, he explained the pillars 'provide the rationale for our approach to health, safety and welfare: organising around day to day workplace issues and extending our claim for good work; campaigning for work security and a more just society and engaging internationally with workers and their organisations for the realisation of our shared values.' He added 'we need not only to tackle the causes of accidents and ill-health in the workplace but work towards eliminating the causes, in both workplace and society, of poor health caused by social inequalities. The bad news is that, far from becoming more equal as a society, we are becoming more unequal, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and, in consequence, suffering the effects of increasing health inequality.' McCluskey says addressing this injustice is an international challenge. 'Working people the world over face many similar issues: from insecure employment to ill-health caused by work or lack of it. This is why Unite has made and will continue to forge links with unions with unions and like-minded organisations throughout the world.'

  • Unite health and safety guide [pdf].

NUJ welcomes release of Rixos journalists

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has welcomed the release this week of journalists covering the conflict in Libya who had been unable to leave the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli. The union had called on the British Foreign Office and other authorities to assist in safeguarding the journalists, many of them NUJ members, who had been forced to stay in the hotel under the supervision of the Gaddafi regime while covering events in Libya in recent months. In recent days armed guards loyal to Gaddafi had been patrolling the corridors at the besieged hotel, which was running short on food and water. NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: 'All journalists will share the relief of the families and friends of those who have now been able to leave the Rixos after some very tense days as a result of the current events in Tripoli.' She added: 'In common with organisations across the world concerned with freedom of information, the NUJ had called for action by the authorities to safeguard the Rixos journalists. We had been working with our colleagues in the International Federation of Journalists to protect the interests of all foreign journalists in Tripoli. We now look forward to their safe return.'

Warning on dangers of rail cable theft

Train drivers' union ASLEF is warning that the lives of rail workers and passengers are being put at risk as a result of cable theft on the railway system. The union is backing an epetition calling on the government to reform the laws governing the scrap metal trade. It says rail staff have been confronted by angry passengers, frustrated by train delays. The union adds that more delays lead to more red lights on the line, which in turn could lead to more Signals Passed at Danger (SPADS) - with a consequent risk of serious casualties in train collisions or derailments. According to the union, workers assisted passengers leaving stranded trains could find themselves at risks of disciplinary action or prosecution. A national campaign aimed at combating the 'growing crime' of cable theft was launched last month by Network Rail, British Transport Police and the train operating companies. Dyan Crowther, director of operations for Network Rail, commented: 'In the first three months of this financial year we have seen nearly 300 crimes which caused nearly 2,000 hours of delay to passengers and cost £4.3m in compensation costs alone. This campaign is just part of a much wider programme which seeks to better protect our cables, get trains on the move more quickly when a theft does occur and - crucially - supporting British Transport Police with the detection and prosecution of the people who steal from our railway.' ASLEF says the amendment to the Scrap Metal Merchants Act 1964 to prohibit cash transactions called for in the epetition 'would be a significant component in reducing metal theft.'

Lifting a box was bad for the back

A garden centre employee who damaged his back at work has warned employers to make sure employees are trained in manual handling techniques. GMB member Mark Lee, 41, was off work a month following the injury suffered while working for Whitleys Garden Centre in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, in 2008. He was attempting to lift an unmarked 30 kilo box when he felt a sharp pain in his back. He suffered from muscle strain and even when he returned to work he was on light duties because he still suffered from pain. Whitleys did not admit liability but faced with a GMB-backed compensation claim settled out of court for £4,500. Mr Lee said he decided to pursue compensation because he was concerned about his loss of wages. He also felt his employers should have taken more care to avoid the injury. 'I decided to pursue compensation because I was concerned about my colleagues,' he said. 'I now know the box should have been marked so I knew how heavy it was and I should have had someone helping me to move it.' GMB regional secretary Tim Roache commented: 'Back injuries can be painful and debilitating. Employers must ensure staff are trained in lifting techniques or work out ways to avoid situations like the ones faced by Mr Lee.'

Office worker laid low by an insect bite

A tax office worker has received compensation after she suffered a septic insect bite at work when her employer failed to keep her office clean. The PCS member from Washington, Tyne and Wear, was forced to take four weeks off work after she was bitten by an unidentified insect whilst working for the HMRC. The bite initially looked similar to a regular bite but soon started to swell up. By the following day it was so bad the tax credit adviser's entire leg was swollen and she was barely able to walk. She was unable to sit down and couldn't touch her leg. The worker, whose name has not been released, was told by her GP that the bite was septic and she needed four courses of antibiotics before it cleared up. She has been left with a black scar the size of a 10p piece. The office is next to Washington Wetland Centre, a popular bird watching spot, which means insects from the park often come into the workplace through open windows. HMRC admitted liability for the bite and settled the PCS-backed compensation claim out of court for £4,000. Peter Lockhart, PCS national officer for HMRC, said: 'Insect bites are a common problem at this workplace, which is located next to a wetland, but this member's reaction to the bite was extreme, meaning she was very ill. Her reaction shows her employers the importance of doing everything they can to prevent this from happening to other members of staff.' Rachel Leach from Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm brought in by PCS to act in the case, added: 'Employers have a responsibility to ensure that its employees are not at risk of infection. The location of this workplace means that they must have a clear and practical plan in place to make sure that the risk of bites and infection is kept to a minimum.'

Too few fire engines, too much violence

This month's riots left London's emergency services stretched to breaking point and shopworkers terrified, affected groups have said. Firefighters' union FBU criticised claims made by Brian Coleman, chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, that other brigades were not needed to assist the London Fire Brigade with the high volume of call outs in the capital. 'The Brigade did not have enough fire engines, and other brigades came in to deal with incidents in Enfield and other places. The control room was overwhelmed with the number of calls, and did not have enough staff to deal with them all,' said FBU London region executive member Ian Leahair. 'Mr Coleman wants to reduce London's firefighters, fire engines and fire stations, so he has to pretend we had enough to cope with our busiest few days in recent history. But we did not. The London Fire Brigade was stretched to breaking point.' The British Retail Consortium (BRC) echoed last week's comments from retail union Usdaw, saying the riots were 'terrifying' for retail staff. BRC's Tom Ironside said: 'The scenes of violence and looting which broke out two weeks ago were frightening even for the majority of us who were watching them on television or reading about them in the papers. To have been in a shop as it was attacked or set on fire must have been terrifying.'

Other news

TUC concern at HSE's bizarre bans list

A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) list citing the most 'bizarre' uses of 'safety' concerns to cancel activities or events in the past year has prompted a stiff rebuke for the safety watchdog from the TUC. HSE's list, published online this week, featured a number of non-work-related bans including action stopping kite flying on a beach, sack races for children and the use of pins to secure commemorative poppies. The workplace safety regulator said complying with health and safety regulations was often used as a 'convenient excuse' for organisations to justify unnecessary decisions. In response to the HSE report, safety minister Chris Grayling, who has said repeatedly he wants the 'burden' of safety regulation lifted from businesses, said members of the public should 'challenge health and safety myths' and over-zealous practices. But TUC general secretary Brendan Barber responded: 'Health and safety law is all about preventing illness and injuries at work and controlling the workplace risks to employees. Every listed in the HSE top ten relates to public safety or insurance issues and has nothing to do with health and safety as it applies to workers. The failure to find one example from a workplace shows that the idea that the UK has an 'over-zealous' health and safety culture in Britain is a total myth. The opposite is in fact the case.' He added: 'Many employers fail to do even a basic safety risk assessment and so are putting the safety and well-being of their staff in jeopardy. Official statistics show that 1.2 million people currently at work have health problems caused by their jobs. The problem is not employers using health and safety as an excuse but the government using myths like this as a reason for cutting back on regulation, enforcement and guidance.' Roger Bibbings of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) commented: 'Over zealousness about trivial risks gives health and safety a bad name but there are actually many more cases where people are under-hitting.'

Minister takes workers for a deadly ride

While safety minister Chris Grayling felt no need to comment on a sharp increase in workplace fatalities in his first year at the helm (Risks 512), or this month's £1 fine for criminal safety failings linked to a worker's death (Risks 519), or even the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) failure to investigate 95 per cent of all reported major injuries (Risks 507), one thing did compel him to take up the ministerial pen. And that was the decision by holiday firm Butlins to instruct staff to stop customers crashing into each other in dodgem cars. Jeremy Pardey, Butlins resort director at Bognor Regis, said the company made the decision because there have been injuries in the past, including broken bones, due to people bumping into each other. But in his letter chastising Butlins managing director Dermot King, Grayling called on the company to 'make it clear publicly that its decision to ban bumping in dodgems has no basis in health and safety rules and that it has absolutely no obligation to take what I suspect will prove to be an extremely controversial decision.' He added: 'Given the public interest in this issue I am releasing this letter to the media.' The April 2011 letter got a second airing this week, when HSE included the dodgems story in a list of the 'Top 10 bizarre health and safety 'bans'.' HSE also broke with its usual practice, after discussions with the DWP press office, and this week posted the minister's letter to its website. In a letter to Chris Grayling, campaign group Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) said the minister has got his priorities seriously - dangerously - out of kilter. Pointing to the failure of the minister to speak out on serious workplace safety issues, a FACK spokesperson said: 'He must stop his attacks on our legal framework, recognise the real cost of workplace health and safety failures to society and who is responsible.'

Minister ignores work's 'inconvenient corpses'

An investigation by Hazards magazine has discovered the government minister responsible for workplace safety deliberately misled MPs on 'the terrible human and economic cost of health and safety failings at work'. The 'Firm Favourites' report says Chris Grayling was 'spoon-fed' a £20bn figure by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in a 'suggested reply' to a parliamentary question from Labour MP Ian Lavery. But HSE's briefing to the minister, obtained by Hazards using a freedom of information request, also advised the minister the estimate 'does not include the costs of long-latency disease,' adding: 'These costs could be considerable.' This advice, not included in HSE's model reply, was not made known to MPs. Hazards estimates the contribution from just one asbestos cancer, mesothelioma, would add at least £5 billion to the bill. The real costs figure, if mortality and morbidity from other occupational cancers, work-related heart disease and other conditions were accounted for, would be several times the total Grayling passed on to MPs. The magazine concludes: 'Grayling's creative accounting, aided by a compliant HSE and combined with an industry-blind spot on the substantial cash benefits to society of not killing or sickening workers, creates a regulation averse fiction to justify less health protection at work. It is an approach that experts are now warning can cause serious harm to real businesses and real-life workers.' The report also warns that the minister has exhibited a serious bias towards the industry lobby, while ignoring the concerns of those facing risks in the workplace. While the minister has had 'face time' with two insurance industry bodies and 10 business lobby groups in recent months, he is still refusing to meet with Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK), whose membership is composed entirely of individuals who have lost a family member in often horrific and always devastating workplace fatalities. Hazards suggests these 'inconvenient corpses' are something the deregulation focused minister would rather ignore.

Food firm fined for forklift fatality

A food firm has been fined £100,000 after a worker was run over and killed by a forklift truck in West Lothian. George Hardie, 60, died at the Vion Food Group-owned Halls of Broxburn meat factory two years ago after being hit by a badly loaded forklift truck. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the driver had been carrying two large crates that obscured his view. At Livingston Sheriff Court, Vion Food pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of safety law. The court heard Mr Hardie was walking across a yard on 2 June 2009 to drop paperwork off at another part of the Broxburn site. At the same time a colleague was driving a forklift carrying two large empty containers across the yard to be washed. The containers were stacked on top of each other on the front of the forklift, and the top of the load was approximately 160cm (5ft 3in) from the ground, making it hard for the driver to see over them. As the driver approached the container wash, he felt his truck go over something. He stopped, climbed out and saw Mr Hardie lying on his back. Mr Hardie was taken to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, but was found to be dead on arrival. An HSE investigation found Vion Food Group subsidiary Vion Food Scotland had not properly assessed the risks of moving the containers around the yard or made arrangements to make sure the containers were moved in a safe way. The investigation also found the company did not have a safe traffic management system or adequate supervision in place to keep pedestrians away from vehicles. After the hearing, HSE inspector Peter Dodd said: 'If Vion Foods Scotland Ltd had taken simple steps to keep their employees safe, Mr Hardie would still be alive today.' He added: 'The company should have taken steps to make sure the containers were being moved in a safe way, and managed the traffic in the yard so that people and vehicles were not sharing the same space.'

Warehouse worker run over twice by forklift

Construction materials giant SIG has been fined after a worker was seriously injured when he was run over twice by a forklift truck. Livingston Sheriff Court heard a SIG Trading Ltd forklift driver was moving a large metal coil inside the company's warehouse. The court was told the metal coil was loaded on the forklift and as the forks were in the raised position, the driver's vision was restricted. The driver was unaware two other employees were in the warehouse but as he drove the truck forward two or three metres, he became aware of a colleague shouting and indicating to him to reverse. Unaware he had already hit one of the workers, knocking him to the ground and running over his right leg, he then reversed the truck over his co-worker's leg once again. The injured man, whose name has not been released, needed major surgery after the 31 March 2010 incident, including six pins and two steel plates in his shin, and screws in his ankle and toes. He has been left with a permanent limp, scarring and constant pain. HSE inspector Matthew Ramsey said: 'The company failed to carry out a risk assessment for the movement of vehicles and segregation of pedestrians from traffic or put in place a workplace transport plan. Coupled with the lack of training and poor work practices this led to the serious injuries sustained by the employee.' He added: 'After the incident, corrective measures including barriers, walkways and high-visibility garments were put in place and employees received training. The total cost of these simple measures was less than £4,500 but unfortunately they came too late for the injured man in this case.' SIG Trading Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of safety law and was fined £36,000.

Timber firm fined for lost thumb

A Lincolnshire timber company has been fined after employee Ben Clipston had part of his left thumb severed while using a circular saw. The injury occurred when the 20-year-old production operative at Kestrel Timber Frame Ltd in Market Deeping was cutting insulation foam. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), prosecuting, told Spalding Magistrates the employee was using a table mounted circular saw when his hand was caught in the blade. HSE told the court it had become standard practice for employees to remove the guard as the height adjustment mechanism on the saw was broken. In addition, the table saw was not big enough to adequately support the foam being cut, so it was necessary for him to support the foam with his hands rather than using a push-stick. Mr Clipston was off work for seven weeks after the 11 May 2010 incident but has since returned to his job. Commenting after the hearing, HSE inspector Emma Madeley said: 'The company neglected its legal duty to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the safety of their employees. The injured man's employers failed to provide equipment which would allow the job to be done safely and, as a result, a young employee suffered serious injury in a completely preventable incident.' Kestrel Timber Frame Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £6,700 and ordered to pay full costs of £4,117.

Move towards reporting of fewer work injuries

A move proposed by a former Tory cabinet minister to slash the number of workplace injuries employers are required to report has been given the backing of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) board. Lord Young's report to David Cameron recommended last year that the current system, where injuries leading to more than three days off work must be reported to the authorities, should be changed (Risks 479). The seven day plus reporting requirement suggested by Lord Young would reduce the overall number of injuries reported by an estimated 30 per cent. Unions (Risks 492) and safety body RoSPA (Risks 503) had been critical of the proposal, saying the RIDDOR workplace injury reporting system was already missing most cases as a result of under-reporting, and needed a shake-up to make it reflect the real, much higher, levels of injury in UK workplaces. TUC also said the proposed changes only considered the cost to business, and not the impact on injured workers and safety. But the majority of responses to an HSE consultation supported a move to seven day plus reporting. HSE's August board meeting agreed to recommend the change to ministers. The tack was opposed by union members on the board, however, who argued the data from over three day incidents were necessary to allow both employers and safety representatives to identify trends. Unions also warned that the changes would increase confusion as there would still be a requirement to record injuries in the workplace after three days. HSE has said it will look at wider issues surrounding RIDDOR 12 months after the current amendment comes into effect, which slated for 6 April next year. The decision on any change to the reporting requirement will be made by ministers.

Action over radon risks in Scotland

Simple measures to reduced radon exposures in workplaces could save dozens of lives every year, latest figures suggest. The Health Protection Agency says radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas released by certain rocks and which can seep into buildings, accounts for about 1,000 deaths a year in the UK. Almost one in five of these deaths is thought to be linked to exposures in the workplace. Announcing a new map revealing radon risks across Scotland, Dr John Cooper, director of the HPA Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, said: 'We know that radon exposure leads to more than 1,000 lung cancer deaths in the UK each year. However there are practical measures that can be taken to substantially cut the level of radon exposure.' Michael Matheson, the Scottish government's public health minister, said: 'Every year between 100 to 200 Scots die from lung cancer which is linked to their exposure to radon.' As well as measures to protect people in their homes, he said the Scottish government will 'encourage all local authorities and NHS boards to ensure that any public buildings - such as schools or hospitals - in radon affected areas are properly tested and to take the appropriate action as required.' Public sector union UNISON says all employers in areas affected by radon should ensure they regularly monitor radon levels within all buildings. It adds: 'Action to remove radon is relatively simple. A sump and fan will reduce radon levels by an average 90 per cent and is relatively cheap to install. Sealing cracks in floors, introducing positive ventilation or under floor ventilation can also be effective in considerably reducing levels of radon.' HSE's 2010 overview of the occupational cancer burden lists radon as one of the substances making a 'major contribution to attributable deaths and/or registrations' from lung cancer. According to HSE's estimate, radon exposure from natural exposure in Great Britain's workplaces accounts for over 200 lung cancer cases and 184 deaths a year.

Busy mums more stressed out by work commute

Commuting for work is a cause of stress in women not observed in men, even though men typically spend more time getting to and from work. Researchers, who studied data from the British Household Panel Survey, suggest the reason could be that women have more responsibility for day-to-day household tasks, such as childcare and domestic chores. Study co-author Professor Jennifer Roberts, from the University of Sheffield, said: 'We know that women, especially those with children, are more likely to add daily errands to their commute, such as food shopping and dropping off and picking up children from childcare. These time constraints and the reduced flexibility that comes with them make commuting stressful in a way that it wouldn't be otherwise.' The research, published in the Journal Of Health Economics, found women with pre-school age children were affected the most, with a four times greater psychological impact from commuting compared to men with pre-school children. Study co-author Paul Dolan, of the London School of Economics, added this caveat: 'Men also experience competing demands on their time, so it may simply be they are less affected by the psychologicalcosts of commuting.'

Coroner criticises recovery trucks dangers

Equipment used by recovery truck drivers should be reviewed after a mechanic was killed trying to restart a car in Hampshire, a coroner has said. Terry Booth, 58, died when he was hit by a car on the A31 near Ringwood, in June 2008. At an inquest into Mr Booth's death, coroner Keith Wiseman said Mr Booth was not able to park his truck in a safe position while using jump leads. The driver of the car that hit him, and who was thought to have fallen asleep at the wheel, was jailed for two years in 2009 for causing death by dangerous driving. At the inquest at Southampton Coroner's Office, Mr Wiseman recorded a verdict of unlawful killing. The inquest heard the broken down car was on a grass verge next to the road and Mr Booth had parked his Boarhunt recovery truck partly on the verge and partly on the road. The central issue examined by the hearing was whether Mr Booth's decision to park alongside the broken down car - rather than behind it in the so-called 'fend position' - was influenced by the fact he did not have a portable jump start pack and would have had to use jump leads attached to his truck. Mr Wiseman said that on the balance of probability the risk to Mr Booth was enhanced by the fact he was not parked behind the Peugeot. He pointed out that the RAC and the AA already use long jump leads so their vehicles can park in the safest position. He said: 'It is not entirely clear to me why this is not the standard way of dealing with roadside breakdowns.'

International News

China: Firms must keep work health records

Authorities in China have told employers they must retain health records of all employees who are exposed to health hazards. The records, which should show the results of health checks at the beginning of, during, and at the completion of employee contracts, could be used by workers as evidence in occupational disease compensation claims. China Labour Bulletin director Han Dongfang welcomed the State Administration of Work Safety directive, describing it as 'it is a positive move, one that shows the government is very much aware of the problem of occupational disease and is willing to listen to the views of civil society in trying to resolve it.' SAWS wants health reports completed by at least 80 per cent of all employers by 2015, and is calling on local authorities to close those firms exposing workers to wood dust, asbestos and crystalline silica that fail to meet safety standards. Labour expert Chang Kai, quoted in China Daily, said the government needed to take the lead in a wide-ranging campaign to improve health and safety and to make it easier for workers to claim compensation. 'Many workers who get sick or are injured do not know which government agency they should turn to. And those departments, when their help is sought out, sometimes shirk their responsibilities,' he said. He added unions should also be given a stronger voice. A 2010 research report from China Labour Bulletin called on the government to require firms to keep records of employees in hazardous industries. It said better records would lead to an improved compensation process and better disease prevention.

Korea: Samsung is ordered to make chip plants safer

Samsung Electronics, the world's leading maker of computer memory chips, has been ordered by the Korean government to come up with detailed plans to improve safety at its semiconductor production facilities. A report in the Korea Joongang Daily says Samsung is being required to disclose information on toxic chemicals to its employees, as well as hire doctors to deal with workers' health issues. Suspected occupational cancer cases among Samsung workers have garnered unwelcome coverage for the company worldwide, with campaigners linking over 20 cases to exposures in the firm's Korean plants. The paper reports that the government move came a week after employment and labour minister Lee Chae-pil visited Samsung plants. It says the ministry asked Samsung to come up with plans to support retired assembly line workers that now suffer from leukaemia and to replace toxic chemicals used at the plants with non-toxic ones. It also demanded that the company expand monitoring of chemicals to all assembly lines and assign doctors who specialise in industrial medicine to each of its units. The ministry estimated that its requests will cost Samsung 11 billion won (£6.3 million) by 2012. 'The government will form a team of labour ministry employees and civilian specialists on behalf of the public to help Samsung implement the plans and monitor the implementation of them,' the minister said. The ministry said it would try to ensure workers were informed of the chemicals used in workplaces. Samsung responded: 'There are already eight doctors working for the health research institute founded in 2010 and the number will be increased to 23 by 2013. A plan to support retirees suffering from leukaemia will be announced next month.'

Resources

Hazards - the workers' health and safety magazine

The new issue of Hazards magazine is out now, and is packed with workplace health and safety news and campaign resources. Want to know about the perils of behavioural safety? It's in there. Need hard facts to challenge the government's assault on workplace safety protections? There too. As well as news and features, there's a photofile on the persistent and deadly menace of child labour, and a stunning pin-up-at-work poster encouraging more women to become union safety reps.

Events and Courses

TUC courses for safety reps

COURSES FOR SEPTEMBER 2011 TO DECEMBER 2011

Useful Links

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  • What's new in the HSC/E and the European Agency.
  • HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2WA. Tel: 01787 881165; fax: 01787 313995
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