Number 235 - 01 December 2005
Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 12,000 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 statement .
TUC's new organising strategy for health and safety has won backing from top union leaders. A report in Hazards magazine cites GMB acting general secretary Paul Kenny, who said health and safety is 'an areas where working people trust trade unions to deliver at both a national and a local level.' He added that his union saw health and safety as a key organising and recruitment issue. 'By demonstrating their rights to investigate, inspect and discuss health and safety concerns, GMB safety reps can show the effectiveness of trade union membership and the benefits which arise from it,' he said. Keith Norman, general secretary of train drivers' union ASLEF, said union safety activity also had a big impact in national and international campaigns - like International Rail Safety Day - to raise the profile of key safety issues. 'Working on projects like this bonds members,' he said. 'When the union is proactive on issues like this, it strengthens the relationship between member and union. It shows ASLEF is concerned directly with its members' working day.' TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson commented: 'What is key to the organising approach is that health and safety is not about rules and regulations, it is about good, old-fashioned trade union activism. A safety rep who listens and represents is of far more use than one who can quote every section of the COSHH regulations.' The TUC launched its free online guide to organising for health and safety earlier this year ( Risks 226 ).
Extra security is needed to protect supermarket workers now new licensing laws have come into effect, retail union Usdaw has said. Usdaw said it is concerned that drunk people who are refused alcohol sales might attack shop staff. Under licensing law, staff are legally obliged to refuse alcohol to any customer they believe to be drunk or under 18. Refusing to sell alcohol was a factor in many of the 20,000 assaults on UK shop staff last year, the union said. More than 1,000 pubs, clubs and supermarkets have been granted 24-hour licences to sell alcohol, according to government figures. The big three supermarkets - Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's - are reported to have applied for 24-hour licences at a total of 435 outlets. Usdaw said a recent survey of 600 shopworkers found that asking shoppers for proof of age or refusing to sell alcohol to intoxicated persons was a major flashpoint for incidents of verbal abuse, intimidation and assault in stores. 'We are concerned that ready availability of cheap alcohol will attract drunks to stores and we will be monitoring this situation very closely to see if our fears are realised,' John Hannett, Usdaw general secretary, said. 'Our primary concern is the safety of our members so we will work closely with supermarkets to make sure that adequate security is in place where stores have a 24-hour licence.'
TGWU has urged the Polish prime minister to raise with Tony Blair the miserable treatment experienced by thousands of Polish workers in the UK. The union call came ahead of last week's visit to London by new Polish PM Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz. TGWU says more Polish workers have applied for work in the UK than from any other nation since EU enlargement, adding that the union has uncovered widespread employment and safety abuses. In a letter to Mr Marcinkiewicz, TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley said: 'Those that seek to profit from workers' misery are quick to join forces across nations and continents to meet their objectives. Today, I am calling on you and the UK government to lead the way and do the same - join forces, work together and combat these criminals.' The union says thousands of Polish workers have joined TGWU as a result of poor employment practices, many by British and Polish-run recruitment agencies. Workers have faced sexual harassment, unfair deductions from their wages, sub-standard accommodation and charges for personal protective equipment which should be provided as part of the job. 'The combination of unscrupulous behaviour by some employers and the lack of enforcement of the law by the appropriate UK authorities means the abuse and mistreatment of these workers - your citizens - is widespread yet undetected and certainly unpunished,' the letter said.
A young woman who lost a leg after a horrific trampolining accident at a sports centre has been awarded six figure damages through her father's membership of a trade union. Michelle Hadfield's father Peter sought legal advice for his daughter through UNISON's 'Friends and Family' legal scheme. The scheme provides free legal advice and representation to the family and friends of UNISON members who are injured in non-workplace accidents. Michelle was referred to UNISON lawyers Thompsons Solicitors, who fought for compensation for Michelle even after Medlock Leisure Centre denied liability for the accident. Frank Hont, regional secretary for UNISON, commented: 'Our members are often surprised that this avenue of recourse is also available to their friends and family. Hopefully the successful outcome of Michelle Hadfield's case will encourage others to turn to schemes like these through their union legal services team.' TUC research has shown that more than 80 per cent of unions extend their personal injury legal services to the family of union members.
Rail staff and firefighters have staged a protest against new Tube safety rules intended to replace those brought in after the 1987 King's Cross fire. Organisers reported that up to 500 people turned out at the north London station on 26 November, the 18th anniversary of the tragedy. Unions fear the changes would affect staffing levels, standards of training and fire-resistant buildings and other precautions in the current regulations. Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, said: 'Without these enforceable minimum standards, operators will be invited to cut corners and compromise fire safety.' Firefighters' union FBU said the government had to 'guarantee the same level of safety for the public, rail staff and emergency services' before making any changes. Thirty-one people died in the King's Cross disaster.
Union leaders lobbying MPs to halt the closure of a jet maintenance centre in south Wales have said they believe pilots' lives will be put at risk by the move. Representatives of workers at the Defence Aviation Repair Agency (Dara) at RAF St Athan gave evidence to the defence select committee group. The Commons committee visited the base before holding its meeting last week in Barry. Trade union Amicus told the defence committee it had evidence that repair times on Harrier jets at RAF Cottesmore, where the government has said it will transfer the work, were higher than at Dara. It told the committee the turnaround time at St Athan was about 100 days and due to fall to about 60 to 80 days, but turnaround time at Cottesmore was about 155 days. Amicus official Bryan Godsell said: 'We can identify by aircraft numbers where the flying time is now exceeding the servicing interval and we do certainly believe that this is putting pilots and indeed the public at risk.' In written evidence, the unions - Amicus, TGWU, PCS, and Prospect - claimed: 'The cost of servicing the Harrier fleet at RAF Cottesmore has increased to £17 million whilst the cost for Dara for the same work was £0.5 million.'
Falls from height are the top cause of death in Britain's workplaces and are a top prevention priority for the Health and Safety Executive. But despite 53 people dying in workplace falls in 2004/5, the courts do not seem to regard these preventable deaths as serious crimes. Building firm TS Davies of Glynceiriog, north Wales, was fined £8,000 and £5,290 costs last week after admitting safety breaches related to the death of Robert McGowan. He was working on an old barn when he fell 9ft on 22 January last year. An HSE investigation found the scaffolding did not meet minimum safety standards. The Mall Corporation Ltd (MCL), which operates the prestigious Mall Pallasades in Birmingham was fined £12,500 last week after admitting safety breaches related to an incident where security guard Brian Matthews almost died after crashing through a skylight and plummeting 15ft to the floor. Mr Matthews' employer, Watch Security Limited, which was sub-contracted by MCL, was fined £9,000 after pleading guilty at an earlier appearance to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act. Floorbrite Cleaning Contractors Ltd of Sale, Cheshire, pleaded guilty this week to safety offences that led to window cleaner Nicholas Cook suffering serious injuries in a fifth floor fall. The firm was fined £15,000, with full costs of £6,985. Bus companies Stagecoach Group plc and South East London and Kent Bus Company Ltd (SELKENT) and building firm DW Tilley were all fined last week for offences related to serious injuries sustained by scaffolder James Slater in a fall through a roof light on Plumstead bus garage. DW Tilley was fined £26,400 and £14,000 costs; Stagecoach was fined £12,000 and £9,743 costs; and SELKENT was fined £4,500 and £9,743 costs.
Prolonged standing at work is responsible for the development of serious varicose veins, a new study has found. The report confirms one of the findings of a TUC-backed report earlier this year that found up to 11 million UK workers could face serious health problems including varicose veins, heart disease and other circulatory problems from spending most of the working day on their feet ( Risks 221 ). In the latest study, researchers examined the risk of hospitalisation due to varicose veins in Danish workers standing or walking for at least 75 per cent of their time at work. Over the 12 year study period, men required to stand for their jobs were 75 per cent more likely to be hospitalised with varicose veins and women 82 per cent, with the overall risk 78 per cent higher. More than one in five cases of varicose veins in both men (22.5 per cent) and women (22.6 per cent) of working age were attributed to prolonged standing or walking at work. The authors conclude 'that predominantly working in a standing or walking position was associated with subsequent hospitalisation due to varicose veins in both men and women.' They added the study 'suggests that standing or walking at work should be limited and alternate with other positions such as sitting, preferably with the legs in an elevated position.'
Tony Blair is facing a revolt by Labour backbenchers over plans to allow smoking to continue in some pubs in England. Some 81 MPs - including 50 Labour backbenchers - have signed a parliamentary motion calling for a 'total ban on smoking in pubs, restaurants and public buildings'. They believe the plan to allow tobacco in pubs and bars which do not serve food is a 'recipe for confusion, ambiguity and argument'. Frank Dobson, the former health secretary, warned that pubs that did not serve food were predominantly in working-class areas. He said: 'This partial ban will widen the health gap between the social classes.' Jim Devine, Labour MP for Livingston, urged the government to follow the smoking bans in Scotland and the Irish Republic. Kevin Barron, Labour chair of the Commons Health Select Committee, said: 'One of the conclusions I come to... is that the government doesn't want to do this because it's unpopular. I think they are wrong.' Health secretary Patricia Hewitt has already said she expects the partial ban on smoking in pubs to lead to a comprehensive ban, perhaps as early as 2007. Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson last week revealed he considered resigning after ministers ignored his advice in favour of a blanket ban.
The TUC says the Health and Safety Executive's response to the government's 'better regulation' drive should concentrate on making the safety system more effective rather than just attempting to reduce regulatory burdens on business ( Risks 229 ). Commenting on the HSE's draft 'simplification' plans, published this week, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said: 'Better regulation does not mean less regulation. It can mean simpler regulation, or it can mean more regulation. We hope that the HSE will see this exercise as a way of increasing its effectiveness. For the TUC that means making sure it is fit for purpose and properly enforced.' HSE's initial draft simplification plan 'sets out HSC/E's determination to develop legislation that is easy to understand and comply with to help secure stronger commitment from business,' said HSE. 'It also supports our risk based, targeted approach to enforcement.' The better regulation taskforce aims to bring HSE practice into line with the Hampton Report, which earlier this year called for inspections by government regulatory authorities to be reduced by a third ( Risks 208 ). Julie Kenny, chair of the Small Business Council, welcomed the draft HSC/E plan. 'HSE's draft simplification plan includes measures to achieve credible reductions in the regulatory burden to business,' she said. 'I congratulate the HSE for sharing its early thinking in a clear and concise way and for asking small businesses, what more can be done?' TUC's Hugh Robertson, however, said: 'We are concerned that this may be seen as an exercise in cutting the burden for business but it should be an opportunity to really improve the regulatory regime, have a joined up approach to enforcement and increase the level and type of enforcement.' HSE says it welcomes comments on the initial draft and 'will then develop it further over the next 3 months taking account of stakeholder input and the outcome of a cross-government exercise to measure administrative burdens on business.' It says the draft will go to the Cabinet Office in January.
Geoffrey Podger has taken up his post as the new Health and Safety Executive (HSE) chief executive. He was previously at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and before that at the UK Food Standards Agency after a career as a Whitehall civil servant. Speaking about his new role, he said: 'I am delighted to be given the chance to lead the HSE. I regard the work of both the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) and the Executive as being an important component of a civilised society, providing a considerable service to the community. And I look forward to working with colleagues within the HSE and HSC to continue to deliver improvements in health and safety.' Safety minister Lord Hunt commented: 'As a former chief executive with the Food Standards Agency, he has a track record in risk-based regulation - focusing effort where it is most needed. This fits very comfortably with the approach to sensible health and safety which the Health and Safety Commission and Executive have been pursuing as part of the Strategy for Workplace Health and Safety to 2010. Coupled with his understanding of Europe, from where much new health and safety regulation stems, this makes him an ideal leader for HSE. I very much look forward to working with him.'
Workplace exposure to the common pesticide diazinon appears to increase the risk of lung cancer and possibly other cancers, according to a major study. New findings from the long-running US government-sponsored Agricultural Health Study has 'found evidence of an association of lung cancer and leukaemia risk with increasing lifetime exposure days to diazinon,' said Dr Michael CR Alavanja from the National Cancer Institute and colleagues, reporting in the 1 December issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. Diazinon is an organophosphate, a group of chemicals already linked to neurological disorders and other health risks. The study is the latest in a series linking workplace and environment exposure to pesticides to increased cancer rates. Last week a TUC-backed report called for action on Britain's neglected occupational cancer epidemic, and said official estimates of work cancer prevalence were far too low, in part because the ignored recent evidence of cancer risks posed by pesticides and other workplace substances ( Risks 234 ).
Living or working in a noisy environment could increase a person's risk of a heart attack, a new study has concluded. Writing in the European Heart Journal, researchers say the risk appeared to be related to how loud rather than how annoying the noise was, so current noise safety levels may need to be stricter. Lead researcher Dr Stefan Willich, from the Charité University Medical Centre in Berlin, said: 'We seem to be looking at a threshold at which risk occurs and remains constant above this, and this appears to be around 60 decibels,' around the level common in a busy office. The researchers compared over 2,000 heart attack patients with over 2,000 control patients admitted to trauma and general surgery departments in Berlin between 1998 and 2001. Dr Willich said he plans further work, but said in the meantime the current safety cut-off level of 85 decibels - equivalent to road construction equipment - is too high. 'We should definitely be looking at something lower. The exact value is unclear, but somewhere between 65 and 75 decibels,' he said. 'It is particularly important to focus on people with known cardiovascular disease to improve prevention for them, either by not exposing them chronically to heavy noise or by lowering the threshold for protective wear.' The current action level in the UK is 85 decibels. This will be lowered to 80 decibels in April 2006. Recent research estimates that 170,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions as a result of exposure to excessive noise at work. Hazards magazine warned in 1990 that long-term workplace noise exposure increased blood press dramatically and added 'excessive noise has a proven connection to heart disease.'
The scientific integrity of occupational medicine is being increasingly undermined as a result of pressure from governments and industry, a new report has concluded. Writing in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers say the increasing role of industry sponsorship of research 'raises concerns. At the extreme are instances in which an industry sponsors research with the direct goal of countering existing scientific evidence. Unfortunately, the history of environmental and occupational medicine has been littered with such case histories over the last century.' The report, which looked a case histories involving control of asbestos, lead, tobacco and other hazards, concludes: 'Although environmental and occupational medicine plays an important role in the protection and improvement of population health through control and prevention of environmental and occupational disease, scientific integrity in this field has been increasingly threatened by pressure from some industries and governments.' The report recommends that professional organisations should adopt codes of ethics that require openness and says research funding should not be provided directly from industry to a researcher.
A Merseyside man died as a result of asbestos exposure in an abattoir. Liverpool's Coroner's Court ruled last week that John Jackson, 78, had died of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos from lagged pipes in the building he rented for a pet food business in the 40s, 50s and 60s. In a statement to the court, Edward Barton who also worked in the abattoir, said: 'The pipes were always vibrating, you could see the lagging falling off the pipes. When you looked up you could see bits of dust floating down all the time, but we didn't know about the dangers of asbestos at that time.' He added: 'There were rats everywhere and they were very disruptive, they disturbed the asbestos lagging. They lived in it. They dug holes in it as big as your fist. I never saw laggers removing or replacing lagging during the time I was there.' Coroner Andre Rebello said: 'I've no difficulty in concluding Mr Jackson died from an industrial disease. Mesothelioma can have a 20 to 40-year incubation period.' Joan Jackson, Mr Jackson's widow, said: 'The feeling you are left with is anger really, he was a very healthy man, he was full of life and we were enjoying going on cruises and making the most of his retirement.'
The new issue of Hazards magazine - the award-winning safety reps' quarterly - is now out. The latest issue has investigative features on Britain's runaway occupational cancer and work diseases epidemics, a photofile on the work of the Hazards Campaign, and features highlighting to TUC's new health and safety organising strategy. On top of this there's all the usual news and resources. Hazards is the only safety magazine tailored for union reps and is the best selling independent union magazine in the UK. Make sure every safety rep in your union gets a copy - it's far-and-away the best value around and the more you buy, the cheaper it gets. Hazards relies on union support for its continued success.
A blast which ripped through a colliery in north-east China is now known to have claimed 146 lives. Officials said on 30 November the death toll was expected to rise to 151. A total of 221 workers were on duty when the explosion hit the Dongfeng mine in Heilongjiang province, on Sunday night, 27 November. Authorities say the blast occurred when coal dust caught fire, knocking out the pit's ventilation systems. The mine is run by Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Group, a state-owned conglomerate. The China Daily newspaper said that following a drive to increase safety, 9,000 illegal coalmines had been closed down since September and almost 13,000 dangerous ones suspended. But the paper admitted that the central government's attempts to improve safety were being compromised by local authorities ignoring unsafe mines because they make money. 'We suggest that an accountability mechanism be established immediately for provincial and county inspectors who conduct safety checks at suspended coal mines. Inspectors should be held directly responsible for any accidents that take place due to poor safety in coal mines he or she has approved,' the paper said.
UK merchant fleet officers' union NUMAST is hoping proposals for a new European Union maritime safety package will improve on earlier efforts. Previous packages have been criticised by the union for failing to put sufficient focus upon the importance of human factors, such as fatigue, crew levels, and workloads. NUMAST says it will be making a detailed submission to the European Commission in response to the proposals. Key elements of the new package include strengthening the rules allowing European Union member states to ban ships that repeatedly fail inspections and the introduction of standard procedures for conducting investigations into marine casualties and improved exchange of information on the results of investigations. The plans are due to be discussed by transport ministers from across Europe early this month.
A Canadian construction union leader is threatening to ban James Hardie products ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver unless the company settles an agreement to compensate victims of asbestos-related diseases. The head of the organisation representing construction unions in the Canadian province of British Columbia, Wayne Peppard, met with representatives of the Australian construction union (CFMEU) to discuss the issue and said he will take a resolution back to his trades council. He warned that James Hardie could miss out on Aus$86 billion (£37bn) worth of construction work in the province, in the lead up to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. The company signed an in principle agreement on compensation a year ago, but has so far failed to finalise the deal ( Risks 233 ). 'James Hardie can expect that if their products are being used or installed on the projects that we're involved in that there could be some trouble,' said Peppard, who heads the building trades council for construction unions in British Columbia and the Yukon. 'The pressure's on. Something has to happen, it has to happen quickly, from what I understand there's been a series of negotiations, get your foot off the brake and get going here.'
In the US the day before a national holiday is known by the media as 'take out the trash day', a good day to bury bad news. BP, mired in controversy over its recent safety record, chose last weekend's Thanksgiving break, the biggest holiday in the US calendar, to release two highly critical reports. The Stanley Report, an audit of BP safety procedures conducted by former top OSHA official Jim Stanley, and the Telos Report, a survey of employees conducted two months before the 23 March explosion that killed 15, had both been kept under wraps since June on grounds of 'confidentiality'. They were released only after the Houston Chronicle and the Galveston Daily News sought a court order to obtain them on the grounds of public safety. The Telos report identified 'a consistent pattern of worker concern about safety at the plant', reported the Houston Chronicle, highlighting pressure to keep production going despite safety concerns. The Stanley Report, meanwhile, criticised BP management for poor safety management practices that resulted in 'a tolerance for non-compliance with those processes and procedures.' The audit team also found that BP management failed to learn from previous incidents, audits and peer reviews. That led to 'complacency towards serious process safety risks, driven by a lack of awareness of potential consequences.' The report added: 'The lack of awareness of risk is also reflected in day-to-day operational activity.' BP had attempted to blame workers for the blast and has been accused of 'corporate scapegoating' ( Risks 208 ).
Killing and maiming people at work can be bad news. Faced with the prospect of 'reputational damage', companies are turning to a quick and easy solution - the public relations (PR) expert. Earlier this year Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc, facing damaging revelations of a major accidents and disease cover up on one of the USA's largest construction jobs, recruited ex-White House spin doctor Chris Lehane to put a healthy gloss on its unhealthy practices ( Risks 209 ). And UK multinational BP was accused by unions of paying more attention to PR than prevention after the March 2005 Texas City refinery blast in which 15 died and 170 were injured ( Risks 209 ). Now for the bargain price of just $147 (£85), any company with an embarrassing safety blot on its record can find out how to spin away its dangerous gaffes. Public relations specialist Eileen Wixted of Wixted Pope Nora Thompson & Associates is presenting an audioseminar on 7 December called 'The uninvited guest: How to deal with the media after a workplace incident', because 'unfortunately, most safety directors have no experience with the media until after incidents occur and somebody sticks a microphone in their face.' She highlights 'four-pronged message strategy techniques for crisis': Showing your concern and why this can help you 'save face'; Detailing how you have practiced 'due diligence' in this incident and proving that reasonable actions were taken; how to demonstrate your cooperative attitude and how this benefits you; and showing that you have a resolution. None of which addresses the real problem - how and why people came to be put at risk, injured or killed in the first place.
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