Risks 544 - 25 February 2012

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
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Editor: Hugh Robertson of the TUC. Comments to the TUC at healthandsafety@tuc.org.uk

Union News

Unions say don't forget stress during recession

Unions have called on the HSE and employers to make tackling stress a priority as British workers try to cope with growing financial uncertainty. While the emphasis has been on pay freezes and job losses unions have said that stress can have just as devastating effect. This follows new research by the University of Nottingham and University of Ulster which shows that work-related stress increases during a recession, leading to more employees taking time off. A study among tens of thousands of civil servants in Northern Ireland revealed that work-related stress increased by 40% during an economic downturn. It also found that the number of staff taking time off due to job stress increased by 25% and total time off due to these types of psychological problems increased by more than a third during a slump. TUC Head of health and safety, Hugh Robertson, said more attention has to be paid to the effects that cuts and economic hardship have on the mental health of the workforce. The economic crisis does not give employers immunity from complying with the law and the government, and regulators should be taking action to ensure that employers are risk assessing the implications of any staffing or organisational changes. Sarah Page, health and safety officer at the Prospect union, commented: "When workers face reduced job security and an increased workload it is no surprise that depression and anxiety increase, along with absences from work. People feel afraid, uncertain, less supported by managers, and less in control of their lives. "Previous studies of civil servants had shown that if organisational changes occur without consulting and involving the workforce, the effects on individuals are far more damaging. "This is an issue where government, employers and unions can make a difference by working together. Employers have a duty to ensure workers' health, safety and welfare at work, and that includes mental health. It shouldn't be about trying to mop up the mess when it's too late, but about introducing preventive measures and support networks."

Union highlights farm safety during NFU conference

Unite the union has called on the government to introduce roving safety reps and is calling on the National Farmers Union (NFU) to ensure that this and the health and safety of workers is firmly on the agenda during its annual conference which began on 21st February. One in five workplace deaths happen on Britain's farms, which equals almost one-death-per-week and agricultural workers are more likely to be killed at work than in any other industry. Unite is renewing its call on the government to introduce roving safety reps to check working practices as the latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive show that agriculture is by far the most dangerous industry to work in. Agricultural workers also stand the greatest risk of suffering major injuries and work-related ill-health. The Government also took the opportunity to announce further deregulation within agriculture generally. They have already instructed the HSE to end 'proactive inspections' in agriculture even though it has identified agriculture as an area of concern in its policy document 'Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone'. It states agriculture is an industry 'where proactive inspection is unlikely to be effective'. Cath Speight, Unite national officer, said: 'Unite has repeatedly called for the introduction of roving safety reps to visit farms. These shocking statistics are the biggest argument for that issue to be raised again. 'Other high-risk industries, particularly construction, have seen death and accident rates fall over the years. But this has not happened in agriculture and for many years now Britain's farms have been the most dangerous workplaces in the land.

'It is the responsibility of the employer, the farmer, to see that all safety procedures and legislation are followed and that all employees fully understand safety instructions, including casual and migrant workers whose first language may not be English and may have difficulty understanding what they are being told. 'If roving reps could visit and see that farmers are complying with health and safety legislation, we believe this high level of accidents and deaths would be reduced. Unionised workplaces are the safest workplaces.'

Construction union backs HSE clampdown on construction sites

The HSE have started another blitz on construction sites as part of an intensive inspection initiative aimed at reducing death, injury and ill health. Between 20 February and 16 March inspectors from the HSE will be visiting sites where refurbishment or repair works are being carried out. This is part of a national month-long drive to improve standards in one of the Britain's most dangerous industries. Their primary focus will be high-risk activity such as working at height and also 'good order' such as ensuring sites are clean and tidy with clear access routes. The purpose of the initiative is to remind those working in construction that poor standards are unacceptable, and could result in enforcement action. During 2010/11, 50 workers were killed while working in construction and 2298 major injuries were reported. Philip White, HSE Chief Inspector of Construction, said: "The refurbishment sector continues to be the most risky for construction workers, all too often straightforward practical precautions are not considered and workers are put at risk. In many cases simple changes to working practices can make all the difference. "Poor management of risks in this industry is unacceptable. As we have demonstrated in the past, we will take strong action if we find evidence that workers are being unnecessarily put at risk." But Steve Murphy, General Secretary of UCATT, said: 'These intensive inspections are to be welcomed. However, it should be borne in mind that dangerous working practices occur on construction sites every day and the vast majority of sites are never visited by the Health and Safety Executive. After previous intensive inspections, the HSE found that at least a fifth to a quarter of sites were breaking safety laws. That is why we need a higher number of proactive safety inspectors and demonstrates why the Government's cuts in the HSE risk workers lives.'

Unions slate government on schools asbestos policy

The TUC has criticised the government for failing to take action to remove asbestos from schools when they are refurbished. The TUC and the union-backed asbestos in schools group have called for a policy of removing asbestos whenever schools are refurbished. This policy was backed by a recent report by the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health. However, despite ample proof that asbestos removal can be performed safely, the government claim that it is safer for the occupants to leave asbestos in schools for the remaining life of the buildings. This is disputed by most experts and campaigners who claim that for 'safer' the government means 'cheaper'. Many councils have taken a more principled and safer view. For instance at a meeting last week the government's policy was questioned by one county who explained how they have a policy of removing asbestos during refurbishment and maintenance. The removal is carried out safely when the schools are not occupied. However, in a recent article Bristol City Council were open about the fact that cost is the reason they are not removing the asbestos, telling the local paper that 'asbestos is present in about 50 of the city's state primary schools and two secondary schools'. But it says it has no plans to remove all of it because of the likely cost: 'As school buildings are upgraded or replaced then asbestos is carefully removed but there are no current plans to routinely remove all asbestos materials from schools where it is being successfully managed, due to excessive costs."

TUC slams forcing long term ill to work for free

The government is considering forcing long-term sick people to work unpaid for an unlimited amount of time or have their benefits cut. Workers who have been injured at work but unable to return to employment could be deemed fit to undertake limited amounts of work which could further harm their health if the plans go ahead. The new policy, outlined by DWP officials in meetings with disabilities groups, is due to be announced due to legal changes to the Welfare Reform Bill. The policy could mean that those on employment and support allowance who have been placed in the work-related activity group could be compelled to undertake work experience for charities, public bodies and high-street retailers. Those effected could include those who have terminal cancer but have more than six months to live; accident victims; and some of those with mental health issues caused by work. The TUC's Welfare expert Richard Exell commented 'Workfare - making people work at much less than the national minimum wage in return for their benefits - is doubly unfair. It exploits unemployed people, who don't get the going rate for the work they do and it threatens the pay and conditions of employees doing the same sort of work. Forcing long-term sick people into schemes like this does nothing to help them to recover and nothing to help them get jobs.' Neil Bateman of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers said: "This proposal is very worrying. There are completely inadequate legal and medical safeguards - bearing in mind that these are people with long-term health problems and disabilities, often serious ones. "Compulsory, unpaid work may worsen some people's health, with the consequences of the DWP's savings being passed on to the NHS at greater cost. "If jobs are there to be done, people should get the rate for the job, instead of being part of a growing, publicly funded, unpaid workforce which, apart from being immoral, actually destroys paid jobs." Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns at Disability Rights UK, said that it was abusive for people to work without pay. He added: "The idea that disabled people should work but receive no financial recognition for contributing is perhaps a level of abuse in and of itself. Vicki Nash, head of policy and campaigns at the mental health charity Mind, said: "Work placements can be a useful bridge for people in the work-related activity group who are taking steps towards employment, but we are very worried about people being pressured into taking unpaid positions before they are ready."

43% of pilots say they have fallen asleep at the controls, according to the pilot's union Balpa, who gave evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee that is investigating new EU pilot fatigue rules which could legally allow pilots to land their aircraft 22 hours after they woke for the day. The union was clear that the change to 'harmonise' flying hours poses 'a danger to public safety' and must not be adopted by the UK. Its research claims that the proposals will leave pilots 'drunk with fatigue' - as if they had consumed five cans of lager and were four times over the legal limit for flying. Balpa's head of safety, Dr Rob Hunter, told MPs that its own poll showed 43% of pilots had fallen asleep on the flight deck, but said this was 'probably an underestimation'. Asked if the EU changes would lead to more accidents, Dr Hunter replied: 'I would say so.' He added that competition among airlines was so intense it could lead to skimping on safety. 'If airlines spend on safety today, they might go out of business tomorrow,' he said. The pilots' union is concerned that the Civil Aviation Authority, who are the UK regulator appears to be supporting the flying time rules from the EU's European Aviation Safety Agency when it should be demanding an opt-out. They are reported to say they have no problems with the new rules. Before the meeting, Balpa general secretary Jim McAuslan said: 'The government .... need to reject these EU proposals now and keep the current UK rules in place until they have been significantly improved.' Mr McAuslan added: 'Twenty hours of wakefulness is far from the only part of the proposals which give us serious concern. 'Compared with the UK's domestic rules, the EU proposals would see pilots being able to fly further, as far as California, with no back-up crew and, contrary to scientific advice, allow pilots to do up to seven early starts in a row, which is desperately fatiguing. 'We need the government to say it won't support this danger to public safety, and will demand that we either get the proposals to a much safer position, or retain our own domestic rules.' Kris Major, of the Unite union, said the proposals would lead to a 17% increase in pilots' workloads.

Union helps asbestos cancer sufferer

An engineer who was diagnosed with a fatal asbestos related cancer, mesothelioma, only after he sought help from his trade union has received substantial compensation from his former employers. The 59-year-old from Oldham in Lancashire was diagnosed with mesothelioma in February 2011 after suffering from stomach pain and weight loss. The GMB member was exposed to asbestos whilst working as an apprentice and a thermal insulation engineer between 1967 and 1974. His job involved stripping old asbestos lagging from boilers and pipe work. In 2003, the engineer developed pleural plaques, a scarring on the lining of the lungs. At the time it was possible claim compensation for pleural plaques and with help from the GMB and its lawyers he made a successful claim. He chose a provisional settlement which meant that if he went on to develop other serious asbestos related diseases he would be able to reopen his claim. He begun to suffer symptoms of mesothelioma in June 2010 but was unable to get a conclusive diagnosis from medical professionals. The GMB then instructed Thompsons Solicitors to investigate. They arranged for the member's condition to be assessed by a leading independent medical expert who was able to confirm the diagnosis of mesothelioma. This meant he was able to receive appropriate medical treatment as well as obtain full compensation for his illness. The father of four said: 'When I first began to lose weight I had a suspicion that I might be suffering from mesothelioma. My doctor said it was likely but the medical evidence wasn't conclusive. I decided to contact the GMB because I knew that if it was mesothelioma I would have to get my affairs in order. Paul McCarthy from the GMB said: 'Our member had previous experience of asbestos related condition and knew how important it was to have the diagnosis clarified at the earliest possible stage. By providing him with legal support we were able to help him get a clear diagnosis leading to the correct treatment and compensation being sorted out quickly.

Cuts force introduction of potentially dangerous shift system

A new shift system for fire fighters in Bedfordshire and Luton is to be introduced over the next six months starting in May. The system, which is based on a cycle of 24 hours on, 72 hours off, is the first to be introduced into a fire service in the UK.

The change has been agreed by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) following more than 12 months' discussion, but has been described as 'the best of a bad choice of options' by the FBU's Bedfordshire branch secretary, Lee Moon. 'We are disappointed we are changing shift patterns,' he said. 'The majority of our members didn't want it. 'It's an untested system in this country and there are safety concerns. It will pose some fatigue problems.' In addition a total of 24 full-time posts will be lost under the new system - met through natural wastage over the next few years, rather than redundancies. The changes are being forced through because of government cuts. A spokesman for Bedfordshire and Luton fire and rescue service said the new system will help make significant savings in order to address the impact of grant reductions and spending constraints.Under the new system, fire fighters will have a dedicated seven-hour rest period from midnight, where they will only be attending emergency calls.

Olympics to get fairer thanks to TUC and Playfair

The organisers of London 2012 are to introduce new measures designed to protect workers producing merchandise for this summer's Olympic Games, following evidence of exploitation uncovered by researchers working for the TUC and the Labour Behind the Label-led Playfair 2012 campaign. Their research showed child labour, excessive hours and dangerous working conditions amongst a host of violations. Now, after negotiations with the TUC, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) has agreed to get tougher with the factories in its supply chains. Following representations from the TUC and Labour Behind the Label that urgent action be taken, LOCOG has agreed to take concrete steps to ensure that workers making goods for the London Games have their rights respected. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'LOCOG had gone further than any previous Games' organisers in adopting an ethical code and complaints mechanism, but as our research shows this hasn't been nearly enough to prevent abuses from taking place.' However it's not too late to make a difference for workers producing goods for London. We welcome LOCOG's acknowledgement that further action is necessary and its commitment to act immediately to ensure that factory owners can no longer exploit workers in the name of the Olympics. 'We're hopeful that a marker has now been set for all future Games and that the international Olympic Committee will play a leading role in taking this work forward so that the exploitation of workers in Olympic supply chains can become a thing of the past. This groundbreaking agreement should also help lead to better working conditions throughout the sporting industry.' Labour Behind the Label campaigner Sam Maher said: 'Although this agreement is long overdue, we welcome LOCOG's willingness now to take action. We hope to see these good intentions translated into concrete steps that will genuinely make a difference for workers.'

Former fire fighter wins compensation through union

A retired fire fighter who broke his ankle when he fell down a pothole is warning those who suffer an accident to take photographs of the hazard to help them pursue compensation. The 62-year-old was returning home from Appleby Bridge Station, Chorley after a day in Manchester. It was dark and raining and as he stepped off the pavement on Station Road his foot landed in a 10-inch deep pothole. The foot-wide pothole was full of water meaning he had no chance of spotting the hazard beforehand. He suffered a broken right foot which needed to be in plaster for six weeks and then needed a splint for a further period of time. The fire fighter had been a member of the FBU for 25 years and contacted his trade union for advice following the accident and the union's lawyers Thompsons Solicitors were instructed to investigate a claim. Because the member had returned to the place of the accident to take photographs of the hazard it helped provide evidence. Northern Rail Holdings, who were responsible for the stretch of road, admitted liability and settled the claim out of court.The FBU member said: 'I knew it was important to take photographs of the hazard straight away as the hole could have been fixed by the time my claim was entered. I'd urge anyone who has a similar accident to get evidence in this way. It certainly helped my case to run smoothly.' Kevin Brown from the FBU added: 'We provide free legal services to all of our members, including those who are now retired. Our member was injured through no fault of his own, disrupting his life significantly for a number of weeks. It is only right that he was compensated.'

Other news

Court says fine is fair

A courier company has had a claim that a fine of £150,000 after seriously injuring an employee was too high rejected by the Court of Appeal who decided that the penalty was 'stern' but not 'manifestly excessive'.Tuffnells Parcels Express Ltd was prosecuted last year after an employee was seriously injured when his skull was crushed by a reversing lorry. An HSE investigation revealed that a shunter vehicle was defective and a risk assessment undertaken eight months prior to the incident had failed to identify a safe system of work for reversing vehicles at night. Inspectors also found that induction and health and safety training were inadequate and the condition of the yard and loading bay was poor. The HSE concluded that there had been widespread failure in the company's health and safety procedures since 2007. The judge agreed, stating: 'There were, I am entirely satisfied, significant and systematic failures to meet the standards on the part of Tuffnells at West Horndon depot.' Noting that the company's turnover in 2010 had been £100m, or thereabouts, and its operating profit had been £7.7m, and considering the seriousness of the failures, the judge decided an appropriate fine was £150,000. He also imposed costs of £19,000.The company appealed against the fine, arguing that, in weighing up the aggravating and mitigating factors, the judge reached a figure that was manifestly excessive. The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, concluding that the sentencing judge had made no error in weighing up the relevant factors. They also agreed with the sentencing judge that the risk of serious injury was 'not just foreseeable but obvious', and that the company fell 'far below' their duty of care. Said the judges: 'Responsibility for the breach reached at least regional level and, in our view, permeated head office, where ultimate responsibility for implementation of an appropriate health and safety policy rested.'

Nanomaterials dust poses explosion risk

Scientists have reported that dust generated during processing of nanomaterials may explode more easily than dust from wheat flour, cornstarch and most other common dust explosion hazards. An article in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research suggests that nanomaterial dust could explode due to a spark with only 1/30th the energy needed to ignite sugar dust -- the cause of the 2008 Portwentworth, Georgia, explosion that killed 13 people, injured 42 people and destroyed a factory. With expanded industrial-scale production of nanomaterials fast approaching, these dangers are becoming ever more likely. Despite significant research, there is still much for scientists to learn about the risks of dust explosions in industry, especially of so-called "non traditional" dusts (such as those made of nanomaterials), and a constant threat exists. That's why the researchers decided to look at three types of non traditional dusts and see how explosive they were likely to be. The dusts were nanomaterials; fibrous materials used in products like floor coverings; and hybrid mixtures of a dust and a flammable gas or vapour. After reviewing results of previous the researchers concluded that the energy needed to ignite nanomaterials made of metals, such as aluminium, is less than 1/30th the energy required to ignite sugar dust or less than 1/60th the energy required to set wheat dust on fire. These conclusions make it crucial that enforcement agencies urgently review the safety of all processes where nanomaterials are produced or used and where dust is created in the process.

International News

HSE charging regime could go global

The UK government's proposed 'Fee for Intervention' whereby employers will be charged by the HSE for any further visits after they are found to have been at fault is now being looked at by other countries. The Executive Director of WorkSafe in the Australian state of Victoria raised the issue when speaking at a breakfast seminar in early February 2012. He said that HSE is 'under the pump politically [and] I think they're either just, or about to, press the button on inspectors charging £133 per hour for their workplace visits......If they find an issue they will be charging the employer 133 quid an hour and they hope to make £10 million out of that'. He said that given the economic status of the United Kingdom such cost recovery methods are logical, if unpalatable. As cuts begin to bite in other countries it is increasingly likely that governments will look at other ways of funding inspections and enforcement regimes through increased charging, levies and higher fines, as well as simply cutting back on services. 'Firstly, it is reasonable that duty holders that operate in material breach of the law should bear the costs incurred by the regulator in putting things right, rather than the taxpayer. Secondly, it will provide an incentive for businesses to meet their obligations. Thirdly, it will provide a level playing field for those who do comply. Central to the scheme is the fact that compliant businesses will pay nothing and a contravention has to be significant - a material breach of law - to attract FFI. This ensures that the minimisation of costs incurred by any business within scope is in its own hands.' The political attraction is clear - the health and safety of workers is back in the hands of the employer and the employer has an understanding of a base penalty/fee for non-compliance. Of course there have been issues of concern in some UK sectors but these seem to be principally about inspectors applying the non-compliance too heavily or frivolously. HSE believes that FFI is supported by a robust dispute resolution process and will be providing clarification on the matter in a guidance note. FFI is an initiative that should be closely watched in other jurisdictions but must be considered in the current economic context of the United Kingdom.'

Safety inspectors close down NZ mine

The New Zealand Mines Inspectorate has stopped underground mining at a mine following three recent incidents, following a Prohibition Notice issued yesterday by the Department of Labour's Mines Inspectorate, run by 'Solid Energy'. The Department of Labour says it issued the prohibition notice after the Spring Creek Mine, near Greymouth failed to report a recent event, and took no active steps to resolve two others. Acting Chief Inspector of Mines, Gavin Taylor said over the past three weeks a diesel generator caught fire and injected high concentrations of carbon monoxide into the mine; one of the main fans tripped with no alert to management for 90 minutes; and an underground auxiliary fan tripped on two consecutive days, but did not, as it should have, stop the mining machine. "Members of my team met Solid Energy and they determined the events represented failures in management processes. The inspectors were very concerned that the issues had not been fully investigated, yet production had continued. "The inspectors issued the prohibition notice which stopped the mine's operations. "The prohibition notice will only be lifted once Solid Energy has provided an explanation of the events, a thorough investigation has been carried out and engineering controls and management systems have been changed to prevent a recurrence of these issues,'' Taylor said. Barry Bragg, Solid Energy's Chief Operating Officer, said the incidents occurred due to breakdowns in systems at the mine. Spring Creek employs about 230 workers, with about 40 people working underground at any given time. Bragg said the stoppage affected 120 workers who would continue to get full pay.

The price of a chocolate bar

The US Labor Department have issued fines of $283,000 for health and safety violations against a company that operates a plant in Pennsylvania packing Hershey's chocolates, saying it had covered up serious injuries to workers.

This followed a six-month investigation prompted by the protests of student workers on an international exchange program. In August last year foreign students working for a Hershey's subcontractor in Pennsylvania gathered in front of the company's store in Times Square to draw attention to worker injuries. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the company, Exel, intentionally failed to report 42 serious injuries over four years to workers at the plant in Palmyra, Pa., or 43% of all such injuries in that period at the plant. The injuries, which were discovered by safety inspectors during their investigation, required medical treatment, and many were related to lifting and moving big boxes of Hershey's chocolates along a packing line. The findings by OSHA against Exel are another black eye for the Hershey Company resulting from moves by its contractor and subcontractors to hire visiting foreign students as temporary labourers for strenuous work on fast-moving lines, packing Reese's cups, Kit-Kat bars and Hershey's Kisses. The fines, which are high for workplace safety offenses, were levied because six of the nine violations were for wilful failure by Exel to protect its workers. 'It was very clear to us that dozens of injuries had not been recorded,' David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA, said Tuesday. 'Exel understood exactly what the law was on reporting. They were aware of these other injuries, and they just did not record them.' Dr. Michaels said that although Exel had been cited primarily for lapses in its records, the failures were serious because they undermined OSHA's ability to monitor work conditions at the plant. 'It's not just paperwork,' he said. 'It's lives and limbs. The requirement to keep track of injuries is the basis for prevention of those injuries.'

Resources

Health and Safety Day of Action

With just over two months to go before the TUC day of action to defend health and safety on Workers Memorial Day, 28th April, the TUC have reminded all union and safety activists to start organising activities now for the day. The TUC is calling on health and safety representatives, trades councils and safety campaigners to make 28th April a day of action to defend health and safety from the attacks on regulation, enforcement, cuts and refusal to tackle the massive toll that health and safety breaches take on workers. Our health and our safety is under attack like never before and we must defend it, for our sake and that of future generations. There are already a range of resources available for use in the run up to the day and more are to be produced over the coming week. A leaflet, poster and three information sheets can be downloaded at http://www.tuc.org.uk/wmd

Events and Courses

TUC courses for safety reps

COURSES FOR JANUARY 2012 TO MARCH 2012

Useful Links

  • Visit the TUC www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s website pages on health and safety. See what's on offer from TUC Publications and What's On in health and safety.
  • Subscribe to Hazards magazine, supported by the TUC as a key source of information for union safety reps.
  • 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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