Risks 526 - 8 October 2011

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

Union News

Coastguards believe government cuts risk safety

Coastguard staff believe the government's latest bid to cut their jobs and close stations will put the public at risk. In a consultative ballot conducted by PCS, of the union's 570 members in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), 86 per cent of respondents said they had no confidence the proposals will protect the public's safety. In what the union describes as 'a further blow to ministers and management', 99 per cent said they supported the union's demand for full and open consultation on the plans, something so far in little evidence as the government cooks up its proposal behind closed doors. PCS is currently finalising its submission to the latest consultation by the MCA over proposals to cut more than 140 jobs and close eight coastguard stations around the UK in bid to meet government budget cuts. Public outrage over the government's initial plans for far more extensive cuts led to a partial climbdown (Risks 515). But the union argues the MCA has still failed to make its case and says the new proposals will lead to chronic understaffing and a dangerous loss of local knowledge, and so should be scrapped. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: 'Coastguard staff and the public have roundly rejected these cuts, and we have very serious concerns they will put lives at risk. The government should heed these concerns, scrap the plans and sit down with us to talk about how to develop a safe, reliable and professional coastguard service for the future.'

Warning on 'dangerous and unregulated' site work

Almost one in every five workers is now classified as 'vulnerable', a report for construction union UCATT has found. Based on a review of the current enforcement regime and interviews with construction workers, 'The hidden workforce building Britain' says many are working in 'slavery like' conditions, wait in car parks to get work as day labourers and are typically employed in dangerous and unregulated work. In one case history, an illegal immigrant reports working in London for £4 per hour and being required to use chemicals without any protective equipment. 'Me and other people who used this chemical used to get nose bleeds and itching when we used it,' he told the researchers. 'No one warned us about the effects or told us what to do to protect ourselves. Some of the other guys left because of this but I stayed because it was hard for me to find work anywhere else.' The report warns that workers in the construction industry have a lower level of protection than workers in the food-related sectors covered by the Gangmasters Licensing Agency (GLA). It calls for the creation of a single independent labour inspectorate, which would be based on the GLA model but would cover all industrial sectors. The report argues that this beefed up body, which would police all employment standards, should have sufficient resources to dramatically increase its levels of proactive inspections. UCATT says this would 'ensure that there is a major crackdown on exploitative employers.' The union's acting general secretary, George Guy, commented: 'It is time that the government and the employers accept the unpalatable truths about how the construction industry operates. Only effective regulation by a strong enforcement regime will end exploitation in the construction industry.'

  • UCATT news release and the full report, The hidden workforce building Britain: Exposing exploitation and protecting vulnerable workers in construction [pdf].

Union support for piracy victims

A support organisation for victims of piracy at sea has been launched this week, thanks to major backing from a UK-based trade union charity. The new Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP) is intended to help seafarers and families cope with the physical and mental trauma caused by torture and abuse at the hands of pirates. The initiative is co-funded by the ITF Seafarers' Trust charity and brings together an alliance of shipowners, trade unions, managers, crewing agents, insurers and welfare associations representing the entire shipping industry, from crews to owners. ITF - the International Transport Workers' Federation - is the global union federation for the transport sector worldwide. Its charitable wing supports projects to benefit the welfare of seafarers. Roy Paul, of the ITF Seafarers' Trust and who is the MPHRP programme manager, commented: 'Until now, there has been little coordinated help for those who are suffering. Now that will change. With the help of those in the industry who want to do their best for those involved, we intend to build up a network of first responders and get psychosocial help for affected crews.' He added: 'We have already been listening to seafarers and recording their experiences. Those will lay the foundation for new guides for seafarers, families and employers, for training in their use, and for building the networks of human and medical help that are now desperately needed.' ITF says over the last eight years it is believed that some 4,000 seafarers have been attacked by pirates or have been victims of armed robbers while at work onboard.

Sellafield worker injured by faulty equipment

A nuclear power worker needed surgery for a knee injury caused by a piece of faulty equipment at work at the Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing Facility. Unite member Peter Straughton, 39, suffered the injury on a turnstile at the Seascale plant that management knew was broken, but had failed to repair. Mr Straughton, a manufacturing team leader, had to use the security turnstile to make his way from changing rooms to the main work area. A magnet in the turnstile should have stopped it rotating further than 90 degrees, but was broken so the turnstile kept rotating and caught his leg. He was taken to hospital, where they found he had suffered a soft tissue injury to his right knee, severe bruising to his left knee and soft tissue injuries to his right elbow. He needed right knee surgery two months later. As a result of the injuries, he had to take four weeks off work and was on light duties for six weeks after returning to work following the knee surgery. Sellafield admitted liability and agreed an undisclosed out-of-court compensation payout. Unite regional secretary Paul Finegan commented: 'Sellafield's Seascale site plays an important role in the decommissioning of the UK's nuclear waste. With the obvious risks which come with the job at the plant, health and safety should be top of management's agenda. It isn't good enough to manage just nuclear health and safety risks and overlook basic maintenance which, as here, has the potential to injure employees.' Lyndsay Milligan from Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm brought in by the union to act in the case, added: 'No attempt was made by Sellafield's management to replace the faulty magnet in the turnstile even though the risk had been reported.'

Other news

Work stress soars with job insecurity

Stress is now the number one cause of long-term absence across a workforce increasingly affected by job insecurity, a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) survey has found. The CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey concludes that for the first time stress is the most common cause of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual employees. A link between job security and mental health problems is also revealed in the survey. Employers planning to make redundancies in the next six months are significantly more likely to report an increase in mental health problems among their staff, it found, with 51 per cent reporting problems compared to 32 per cent who are not planning redundancies. For manual workers, stress is now level with acute medical conditions and has overtaken musculoskeletal problems to become the top cause of long-term absence. Among non-manual staff, stress has moved ahead of acute medical conditions. Job insecurity is also reported as a more common cause of work-related stress in the public sector this year, where the 24 per cent stress reporting rate is about double that for the private sector, mirroring the relative redundancy risk identified in the survey. Commenting on the CIPD findings, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'These figures show that the cuts, job losses, restructurings and pay inequalities are having more than just an economic effect. They are having a serious impact on people's health.' He added: 'Unfortunately there is still a tendency amongst many employers to think of it as 'just stress' but this is a real issue which can devastate people's lives and tear apart families. Stress is also avoidable and the TUC endorses the view of the CIPD that more needs to be done at both senior and line manager level to prevent it.'


New warning on upwards work deaths trend

Last year's sharp increase in deaths at work looks set to continue and could be accelerating, latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics suggest. HSE figures published online this week show 51 people died at work across the UK from April to June 2011, up 20 per cent on the quarterly average in 2010/2011. A total of 171 workers died that year, up from 147 workers in 2009/10. David Urpeth, head of workplace injuries at personal injury law firm Irwin Mitchell, said he was 'incredibly concerned' about the latest figures. 'This figure of 51 people dying at work in the early part of the summer is a very troubling increase, significantly above the average death rate. We have to hope that the pattern is not repeated for the rest of the year. However, already since June, we have seen the heartbreaking case of the four Welsh miners who died - we can only hope that no more lives are lost needlessly at work.' Urpeth added that cost-driven changes to HSE's enforcement approach risk putting even more workers' lives in jeopardy. 'The HSE is in a difficult position - we understand it is under pressure from government ministers to reduce the regulatory burden on business, but it cannot ignore its primary function and that is to enforce strict standards of at-work health and safety.' Ministers have instructed HSE to conduct a third fewer proactive 'surprise' inspections, with entire sectors now effectively exempted from official HSE policing (Risks 512). Even before these changes took effect, HSE was only investigating 1-in-19 major injuries, and fewer than 1-in-50 major injuries was the subject of any HSE enforcement action (Risks 507).

Cameron makes safety his whipping boy again

The prime minister's inclination to blame safety for the ills of the economy and society has surfaced yet again. After first blaming health and safety for August's riots (Risks 521), David Cameron has now decided 'the shadow of health and safety' is holding back Britain. In his keynote address to this week's Conservative Party conference in Manchester, he said 'one of the biggest things holding people back is the shadow of health and safety.' This was followed by one of his more widely reported soundbites. 'This isn't how a great nation was built. Britannia didn't rule the waves with arm-bands on,' he said. Safety professionals' organisation IOSH reacted with disappointment to the speech. IOSH head of policy and public affairs Richard Jones commented: 'We think it's a shame that the prime minister's speech mistakenly cites health and safety as 'holding people back' - the opposite is true! Good health and safety enables enterprise and volunteering to happen successfully and so helps ensure sustainability and growth. It's all about good sense and proportionality and we simply don't recognise the negative picture being painted here - it isn't real health and safety.' The TUC found the whole tenor of David Cameron's speech and the Tory conference 'disappointing'. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'If the prime minister really felt the nation's pain, he would change course.' He added: 'If we judge people by what they do, rather than what they say, ministers believe that unemployment will be solved by getting tougher with the jobless and that they will restore economic growth by increasing the number of unfair dismissals."

Safety minister again snubs safety victims

The government's health and safety minister has been accused of treating the families of those killed at work with contempt as he yet again ignored a request to meet them. Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) has requested meetings with DWP minister Chris Grayling three times in recent months so it can explain its grave concerns over cuts to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the government's push to further reduce regulation and enforcement. On each occasion, Mr Grayling has ignored or declined to meet the group. Over the same period, however, he has agreed to meetings with all the major business groups and with insurers to hear their concerns about workplace safety (Risks 520). On the final day of the Tory Party conference in Manchester this week, a delegation of FACK members attempted unsuccessfully to doorstep the minister to raise their concerns. FACK founder member Linzi Herbertson, who lost her first husband in a work-related incident 13 years ago as a result of the criminal negligence of his employer, was one of the snubbed relatives. 'I just want the minister to listen to us, the people who have lost everything through an employer's negligence and utter ignorance of health and safety law. We just want to meet with the minister to tell him the awful truth of what families have to face.' She added: 'The business lobby that met Grayling have millions of pounds to donate. We the families only have our blood.'

Oil giant challenges official safety notice

A North Sea oil company is challenging a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) improvement notice issued because the safety watchdog said workers were living in overcrowded conditions on an offshore platform. The improvement notice was issued to Talisman Energy (UK) Ltd after an inspection of the Tartan Alpha platform. HSE ordered that changes be made to the accommodation area. Talisman challenged the notice and a tribunal hearing has been scheduled for the end of October. A spokesperson for Talisman said: 'Talisman Energy (UK) Ltd can confirm that it has lodged an appeal against an improvement notice served by the Health and Safety Executive, in respect of the numbers of personnel that can be accommodated on the Tartan platform. As the matter will now be subject to an employment tribunal hearing it would be inappropriate to make any further comment at this stage.' The standard of Talisman's offshore accommodation has attracted HSE's attention previously. An HSE improvement notice in August 2010 said on one North Sea rig, Talisman had 'failed to maintain the accommodation and its plant to adequate standards of hygiene. In particular, the sewage drainage system is subject to leakage and blockages which result in sewage spills.' There have also been more grave incidents. Talisman was fined £600,000 in 2008 after a worker was killed on one of its North Sea rigs (Risks 378). The company is part of Canadian multinational Talisman Energy Inc, whose current president and CEO John Manzoni took up the post after resigning as head of BP's refining operations in 2007. His resignation from BP came in the wake of intense criticism following the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion in which 15 workers died and 170 were injured (Risks 309).

Three seriously hurt in recycling firm blast

Three workers remain in hospital following an explosion and major fire this week on a Surrey industrial estate. Eight people were injured in the blaze at Hobbs industrial estate in Newchapel, near Lingfield, on 3 October. The fire is believed to have started in a unit which recycles IT and electrical items and printer ink cartridges, and spread to neighbouring units. Two air ambulances were among the emergency vehicles sent to the scene, while 12 fire engines and three water carriers tackled the blaze. Those injured were treated for burns, respiratory problems and head injuries. Reports say over 100 people were moved from surrounding businesses following the fire and explosion, which local residents said was so loud it shook their homes. Surrey police said officers are assisting Surrey Fire and Rescue Service and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in investigating the cause of the blaze.

Waitress suffers fractured pelvis

A waitress broke her pelvis after she slipped on a wet restaurant floor. The 26-year-old from Basildon was finishing her shift at an Outback Steakhouse in October 2007 when she slipped on water on the floor near the restaurant's dishwasher. She landed heavily on her right side and fractured her pelvis in two places. The waitress, whose name has not been released, was working her notice at the restaurant after securing a full time position in human resources. As a result of injury she was unable to walk unaided for nearly five weeks and was in severe pain for eight weeks. She suffered intermittent pain in her pelvis for several months. Investigations by lawyers from person injury firm Thompsons, who acted for the waitress, found the area around the dishwasher was often slippery but on the night of the incident no wet floor warning signs had been put up and no attempt had been made to dry the area. Outback Steakhouse denied liability, but eventually settled the case out of court for £6,000. Kam Singh from Thompsons Solicitors commented: 'Spillages are common hazards in busy working kitchens where employers should train staff in wiping them up straight away and putting up hazard signs.'

Site firm pays £318,000 for asbestos death

The widow and family of a victim of an asbestos cancer have been awarded personal injury compensation of £318,000. Elizabeth Wolff, 69, from Kilmarnock, lodged a claim for damages after her husband William, 66, died from mesothelioma in March 2007. Diagnosed with the terminal disease just one year into his retirement, William Wolff died seven months later. Contractor Weir Construction Ltd admitted to negligently exposing Mr Wolff to asbestos while he was employed by the construction firm. At the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Judge Lord Doherty said the Mr Wolff and his wife had started dating as teenagers and had been married 44 years when Mr Wolff died. They had four children and three grandchildren. Lord Doherty said: 'He had been her only boyfriend. They were a devoted... loving couple who had been life-long companions. She was, and is, bereft at the loss of the deceased. She feels robbed of his love, companionship, help and guidance.' The judge granted the widow £258,520, including £65,000 for the 'exceptional pain' her husband experienced. Mr Wolff's three daughters were also given compensation awards totalling £52,317, with an additional £7,084 being awarded to a granddaughter. Claims made by other family members have already been settled.

Car parts firm guilty after crushing death

A County Durham engineering firm has been fined £100,000 after a worker was crushed to death while clearing a jam on a production line. Father-of-two Paul Clark, 52, was a multi-skilled fitter at Tallent Automotive Ltd-Gestamp Automoción. He died on 8 July 2009 after becoming trapped between a moving carriage and its tracks. At the time he was working for the German multinational ThyssenKrupp (Risks 504), which sold the firm to Gestamp Automoción in July this year. Durham Crown Court heard that Mr Clark had been working in the press shop, which manufactures components for the car industry. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found Mr Clark was attempting to clear a jam in a pneumatically-powered carriage after it had stopped halfway along its tracks. He had opened the interlocked safety gates to gain access within the fenced enclosure of the machine. This isolated the equipment from the electricity supply, but did not isolate and make safe the pneumatic power element of the machine. The carriage moved suddenly and trapped Mr Clark against the support structure at the end of the tracks. He died as a result of traumatic asphyxia due to crush injuries. HSE inspector Martin Baillie said: 'It is vitally important that safe isolation procedures are developed and used before attempting to make repairs to equipment. In this instance, Tallent Automotive Limited-Gestamp Automoción has instead relied on the training and experience of individuals without providing a safe system of work or adequate information for them. This was a significant cause of the incident which led to Mr Clark's death.' Tallent Automotive Limited-Gestamp Automoción pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £100,000. The company was also ordered to pay £44,000 costs.

Forklift fall could have killed

A worker could have been killed when he fell off a forklift truck while trying to climb onto its roof, a court has heard. The 29-year-old man from Tyldesley, who has asked not to be named, struck his head on the ground and was knocked unconscious for several minutes in the incident at Moss Industrial Estate in Leigh. His employer, Serviceplan Contracts Ltd, was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for failing to make sure the work was planned, supervised and carried out safely. Trafford Magistrates' Court in Sale was told the worker had been trying to climb on the roof of the forklift to carry out work to the lifting equipment on 3 August 2010. He suffered severe headaches, a painful swelling to his head, and was off work for one week as a result of the fall. The HSE investigation found it was common practice for Serviceplan's employees to service the lifting mast and chains on a forklift truck by climbing on top of it. However, they should have been given a stepladder or mobile steps to reach the equipment safely. Some of the work could also have been carried out from the ground. Serviceplan Contracts Ltd admitted a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and was fined £1,000 plus £1,000 costs. Emily Osborne, the investigating inspector at HSE, commented: 'One of Serviceplan's employees was knocked unconscious and suffered a head injury as a result of the fall but it could have been a lot worse - possibly even fatal.'

Box factory fall caused severe head injuries

A cardboard box manufacturer in Kent has been fined after an incident in which a delivery driver suffered severe head injuries in a fall. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) brought the prosecution against WE Roberts (Corrugated) Ltd. The incident took place on 27 August 2009 when the worker was delivering flat-packed cardboard boxes to an address in Eastbourne. The man, whose name has not been released, was trying to pull a pallet of cardboard boxes across his trailer from the driver's side to the curb side. The pallet strapping snapped and the worker fell nearly three metres backwards and 1.5m down onto the pavement. He suffered severe head injuries, which have had life-changing effects and have meant he is still not able to return to work. After the hearing, HSE inspector Michelle Taylor said: 'The company failed to adequately consider the risks that delivery drivers face when they are not on site. This led to this severe and entirely preventable incident which has had such a long-lasting and devastating effect on this worker.' She added: 'The outcome of this case reinforces the responsibility that employers have to all of their workers, wherever they are, not just those on site under constant supervision.' At Dartford Magistrates' Court, WE Roberts (Corrugated) Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of safety law and was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay costs of £12,190.

International News

China: Seventeen die in coal mine blast

At least 17 workers have died in a coal mine explosion in southwestern China. The official Xinhua News Agency says 28 miners were in the shaft when the blast occurred at 7.53 am on 4 October at the Anping Coal Mine, the Lihua Township in the county of Libo, Guizhou province. Eleven were rescued and were taken to hospital. Xinhua did not give a cause for the blast. China's coal mines are the most dangerous in the world, although the industry's safety record has improved in recent years as smaller, illegal mines have been closed. Annual fatalities are now about one-third of the high of nearly 7,000 in 2002.

Global: Secretive PR firm pushes asbestos

A major US public relations company is attempting to derail a move to ban asbestos in Malaysia, but has refused to reveal who is funding its activities. Washington DC-based APCO Worldwide, whose previous credits including working for the tobacco industry to frustrate US government cancer prevention efforts, 'is seeking to undermine an initiative to protect people in Malaysia from cancer caused by asbestos,' said Kelle Louaillier, president of Corporate Accountability International. 'This is irresponsible corporate behaviour and must stop.' Kathleen Ruff, a Canadian human rights expert who this year as named as a Public Health Hero by the Canadian Public Health Association for her work in opposing the asbestos industry, added: 'APCO refuses to say who has hired them to try to kill the proposed ban on asbestos.' She said: 'APCO states in its mission statement that it will act with transparency. Where is the transparency in APCO's covert lobbying to destroy this public health initiative?' The criticism came to light after it was discovered APCO had organised meetings in Malaysia pressing for the exclusion of chrysotile asbestos from country's proposed ban. Chrysotile asbestos is now the only form of asbestos traded. 'We have discovered that APCO's client is the International Chrysotile Association,' said Barry Castleman, a world expert on asbestos. 'It is scandalous that these international influence peddlers representing foreign asbestos companies are blocking public health decisions in Malaysia.'

Japan: Overwork suicide payout is upheld

Japan's Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal filed by two companies against a work-related suicide compensation award. A court order now requires the firms to pay compensation for the 1999 death of a 23-year-old temporary worker who killed himself because of overwork-induced depression. Multinational camera and optical products giant Nikon Corp and a Nagoya-based temp agency will pay a total of ¥70 million (£590,000) to the mother of Yuji Uendan, who took his own life while working at a Nikon factory in Saitama. The Tokyo High Court ruled in 2009 that Uendan's suicide was due to depression caused by overwork and that both the temp agency and the company where he worked failed to exercise due care. According to the ruling, at the time of his death Uendan was in charge of electronic products inspection and was working irregular and long hours in a windowless 'clean room'.

USA: When they slam 'regulations', they mean 'safety'

US Republicans are putting the blame for the country's faltering economy at the door of 'regulations'. But observers are increasingly saying it is an approach long on rhetoric, but remarkably short on evidence. The New York Times' Paul Krugman, a winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, commented this week: 'The truth is that we're in this mess because we had too little regulation, not too much. And now one of our two major parties is determined to double down on the mistakes that caused the disaster.' Steve Benen, writing in the Washington Monthly, says there are certain regulations particularly galling to Republican politicians - those covering workplace safety. Republican-proposed federal budget cuts put forward this week 'would scuttle several worker safety protections put forth by the Department of Labor,' he writes. 'Among other anti-regulatory measures, the budget would block the department from moving forward with its Injury and Illness Prevention Program, which would require employers to develop written plans to address workplace hazards and reduce worker injuries. Under the Republican plan, no Labor Department funding could be devoted toward the program.' Planned measures to protect roof workers and to reduce the toll of repetitive strain injuries are also 'gutted' in the Republican plan, he notes. Benen concludes: 'What, in Republican lawmakers' eyes, will boost the economy? Workplaces in which Americans are more likely to be injured. That's the plan.'

Events and Courses

TUC courses for safety reps

COURSES FOR SEPTEMBER 2011 TO DECEMBER 2011

European Week for Safety and Health at Work, 24 -28 October

European Week for Safety and Health at Work, 24 -28 October, is edging closer. For a second consecutive year, the theme is maintenance work. 'National inspection day', which has been strongly promoted by the TUC and has in recent years spurred a mass outbreak of workplace inspections by union safety reps countrywide, is on 26 October.

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