Number 236 - 10 December 2005
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Company directors should be subject to explicit new legal safety duties, the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) has decided. A 6 December meeting of HSC, the body that advises the government on health and safety, backed the position argued by unions and safety campaigners and will now be recommending there are positive legal duties on directors to ensure their organisations comply with safety law. The decision was supported by the three employer representatives on HSC. It was also agreed there should be more authoritative guidance, more enforcement, greater penalties and more use of director disqualifications. The decision goes beyond the recommendations of a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) paper considered at the meeting, which did not call for new legal duties. HSE civil servants were instructed by the meeting to explore possible ways of 'imposing duties on directors' of private sector and public bodies. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said: 'The TUC is delighted that the HSC has taken this view. We must make sure that new and effective legislation is drawn up at the earliest opportunity. We recognise that this achievement would not have been possible but for the campaigning by both the trade unions and groups such as the Simon Jones Campaign and the Centre for Corporate Accountability.' CCA director David Bergman said: 'We are delighted that the Commission has unanimously supported the need for changing the law and imposing positive duties on directors. It is now for the HSE to produce a paper setting out the legislative options and we look forward to being part of the discussion on the nature of the legal change.'
No individuals will face charges over the 1999 Ladbroke Grove rail crash, which claimed 31 lives. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said there was 'insufficient evidence' to provide a realistic prospect of conviction of any individuals. But it said the company Network Rail (formerly Railtrack) would face criminal charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Louise Christian, the lawyer for many of the families of the people killed in the disaster, said the decision was devastating for the bereaved and accused the CPS of losing its nerve. 'I think that the reason this decision has been taken is because of the judgment of the judge in the Hatfield case [ Risks 228 ], which was on the particular facts of that case that that prosecution didn't succeed, but the CPS has now had a failure of nerve and has decided that it would be criticised if it brings another unsuccessful prosecution.' The CPS said the result of the Hatfield trial earlier this year 'further, and fatally, weakened the potential case.' It added this had 'demonstrated how difficult it is for the prosecution to establish gross negligence to the criminal standard of proof.' The crash happened when a Thames Trains train went through a red signal and hit a London-bound Great Western express. Thames Trains and Railtrack were both criticised in a public inquiry report by Lord Cullen. Thames Trains pleaded guilty to health and safety offences in relation to the 1999 crash and was fined £2m in April 2004 ( Risks 151 ).
The failure to prosecute rail executives over the Ladbroke Grove rail crash, which killed 31 people, has highlighted the need for a new Corporate Manslaughter Bill according to the union TGWU. The union's general secretary, Tony Woodley, has written to the home secretary Charles Clarke this week to press him to give a timetable for when the long awaited bill will be put before parliament. 'Legislation on corporate killing was originally proposed by the government in the 1997 manifesto and again in 2001 and 2005,' he said in the letter, adding: 'The TGWU believes that the Corporate Manslaughter Bill has the potential to make a significant impact on saving lives and reducing accidents in the workplace, particularly if the appropriate amendments are made with duties being placed on directors to make them responsible and all crown bodies and unincorporated bodies are brought within its scope.' The union leader pressed the home secretary to confirm the 'absolute' assurance by Fiona MacTaggart, a minister in his department, that the bill would be on the statute book by the end of this parliament ( Risks 234 ). 'The TGWU looks forward to receiving confirmation of the response given by the home office minister and in addition an indication of the timetable of when we can expect the Corporate Manslaughter Bill to be put before parliament,' he added.
Workers at jobcentres across the country are being balloted for strike action in response to staffing cuts which their union says are already leading to increasing assaults and spiralling stress. Some 90,000 members of the civil service union PCS are expected to vote in favour of a two-day walkout next month. The union has warned that jobcentres, benefit offices and pension centres were facing 'meltdown' because of the loss of 14,500 jobs from the Department of Work and Pensions in the past 18 months, part of an ongoing plan to slash the size of the civil service. Another 15,000 jobs are set to be axed in the next few years. Mark Serwotka, the union's general secretary, said there had been a 62 per cent increase in assaults on jobcentre staff this year, as clients become increasingly frustrated with the deteriorating service. Mr Serwotka added: 'The cuts have left an incredible stress on people and they are not able to cope. The problem is being made worse because under a draconian application of sickness absence policy, people are being sacked for being off work with stress.' He said: 'We have no option but to ballot for a strike because staff are being treated in the most disgraceful way.' The union leader met work and pensions secretary, John Hutton, last week, urging him to call a halt to the job cuts and launch a review, but the minister refused.
Government minister Ben Bradshaw has agreed that poultry workers at the sharp end of the food processing industry are ideally placed to keep tabs on whether or not avian flu has come through the system. At a meeting with food and agriculture union TGWU, the Defra minister agreed to invite TGWU reps on to the stakeholders' Avian Influenza Group. 'The minister listened carefully to what we had to say and agreed that poultry workers are ideally placed to detect changes in the birds they deal with,' said Chris Kaufman, the union's national secretary for food and agriculture. 'Involving our people is a positive move for them but also a significant confidence boost for the consumer. It means they can be sure production workers have their finger on the pulse of food safety.' Union leaders from the UK's three main poultry processors, Moy Park, Grampian and Bernard Matthews, said it was imperative that key workers in the processing plants were involved in monitoring and consulted on preventive measures. The minister also agreed it was right that the industry should work closely with its workforce to put in place measures to provide flu jabs or whatever inoculation was deemed medically appropriate. Unions in the US and Australia have also been pressing for greater consideration of workplace risks in their government policies. And global foodworkers' union federation IUF has criticised global agencies including the World Health Organisation for taking no account of the risks to workers in their bird flu strategy ( Risks 231 ). Two poultry workers in China have died as a result of the disease ( Risks 234 ).
The union Amicus has reacted angrily to a news report suggesting an agreement has been reached between the police and RAC which would see RAC employees acting as look-outs in crime riddled areas. The union was responding to an article in the Mail on Sunday, in which RAC was said to have agreed to placing their drivers in areas where crime is rife. Staff would then alert police to anything suspicious, it said. However, Amicus, the union which represents RAC drivers, said any agreement had been made without consultation with the trade unions and threatened the safety of its members. The union's Harry Howard said: 'If this article is correct, and the RAC seem to have corroborated it, I will register my very grave concerns at what appears to be the reckless endangerment of my members' safety.' He added: 'All responsible citizens would report any criminal activity to the police but to ask RAC mobile patrols to sit in brightly coloured vans in these areas and to operate in a quasi police role will put our members at real physical risk and is, in my opinion, tantamount to a criminal act in itself.' Amicus has written to Nigel Paget, operations director for RAC Motoring Services, to voice its concerns and requesting an urgent review of the practice.
A nurse at Newquay's minor injuries unit has been awarded compensation after slipping on a wet floor and breaking her knee. Alison Romback, who was working at the unit in June 2005 when the accident happened, received an undisclosed sum. She was represented by Thompsons solicitors, who were acting on behalf of her union UNISON. Her legal team argued that the hospital was negligent in that too much water was used to mop the floor. There were no cones or warning signs to indicate that the floor was wet because the warning signs policy had been contravened and the floor had been left unattended. Ms Rombald suffered a knee fracture which forced her to take three months off work and she now suffers ongoing discomfort following exercise or standing for long periods. 'I am grateful to UNISON for the legal support they provided through Thompsons,' she said. 'Without its help I may never have been compensated for lost time at work. The doctor also suggests that I may need surgery in the future but I have been compensated for that eventuality also.'
The TUC is warning that the recommendations of a top Commons committee would have a damaging impact on workplace compensation claimants and on prevention. The Constitutional Affairs Committee this week issued a report which called on the government to include all personal injury damages claims for up to £2,500 under the small claims procedure. Currently only claims worth up to £1,000 are covered by the scheme, under which legal cost are not available. The TUC believes that between 30 and 50 per cent of all claims could be affected if the rules change. The claims most likely to be hit by the proposals would be those that the Health and Safety Executive is also targeting as prevention priorities, including injuries caused by slips and trips and many musculoskeletal disorders, says the TUC. 'The recommendation is perverse,' said TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson. 'Personal injury claims are likely to involve medical evidence and need proof of negligence. It is not reasonable to expect a victim to take a case without legal support.' He added that because workplace injury and disease claims usually involve suing the employer 'workers are more vulnerable to pressure and need support from an outside agency.' A reduction in the number of cases pursued would reduce the pressure on employers and insurers to improve workplace safety conditions, he said. The TUC says it is to campaign for the retention of the £1,000 small claims procedure ceiling.
Major retail chains have been fined for criminal breaches of safety law. Sainsbury's Supermarket Ltd was prosecuted following an incident which left a Cheshire bakery manager with serious neck and back injuries. The employee slipped on water which had leaked from a dough prover onto the floor of the bakery, in March 2004. Environmental health officers from Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council discovered that the store's managers had been failing to control a risk which could easily have been prevented by putting down matting or regularly mopping the area. Sainsbury's was convicted of safety offences and fined £10,000 and ordered to pay costs of £11,040. Swedish multinational IKEA was fined £16,000 on four safety charges and costs of £1,019 after a member of staff was scalded by water from an oven. Nottingham Magistrates' Court heard the problem with the oven had been flagged up 17 months before - but had not been dealt with. Heather Gillott had moved from her role working in the restaurant to the kitchen, but was not given appropriate refresher training for using new equipment, the court was told. Both Asda ( Risks 226 ) and Tesco ( Risks 213 ) have also been prosecuted this year after workers were injured. The government is currently piloting a self-regulation approach in the retail sector, where top companies in the scheme are not visited by official safety enforcement officers ( Risks 225 ). Unions in the US have warned that similar voluntary schemes there have resulted in an accident cover up ( Risks 222 ).
Investigations by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into work-related deaths and injuries are being compromised by the presence of employer solicitors at interviews of employees by HSE inspectors, the Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA) has told the Law Society. CCA's warning came ahead of a 2 December meeting of the Law Society's Rules and Ethics Committee, where it considered proposed guidance which would say it is ethically wrong and a potential conflict of interest for employer solicitors to 'sit in' on interviews which the HSE are conducting with an employee, even when the employee consents to their presence. CCA believes the Law Society has come under pressure from a group of employer solicitors not to accept the guidance, and as a consequence has already delayed consideration of the new rules. CCA director David Bergman said: 'It is so clearly wrong for employer solicitors to be present at these interviews. Employees feel pressured into allowing an employer representative present in the room and then, with the solicitor in the room, feel unable to tell the investigator information that criticises the employer. This can seriously impact upon the ability of the HSE and other regulatory bodies to carry out proper investigations into the conduct of employers.' The Law Society committee decided further revisions of the guidance were required, and will discuss a new draft at its February 2006 meeting.
A company making concrete weights in north Wales has been fined £10,000 after a court heard how a worker had his foot amputated after an accident, Lee Small, 17, was injured when his heel became stuck on a concrete mixer track after he slipped off a moving table. The incident happened at Passell UK Ltd in Saltney Ferry, Flintshire. Passell was fined after admitting a charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act to Flintshire magistrates. Employees had been instructed not to stand on the moving table - as Mr Small did before slipping and getting his foot stuck - but it had become common practice to do so. There was nothing to prevent access to the track and insufficient training was given, Health and Safety Executive inspector Sean Benbridge told the court. Defending barrister Simon Hilton said that the incident had happened within a few months of the company beginning manufacturing. He said that the managing director, who was responsible for health and safety, had not been aware of the workers' practice of standing on the table. He told the court that if he had been, he would have put a stop to it. The company was fined £10,000 and order to pay £2,296 prosecution costs.
A former chief coal examiner died of an industrial disease caused by dust exposure, an inquest has heard. Edward Harold Ford, 77, whose job was to collect samples of coal from around the region and carry out quality tests, died of respiratory illnesses related to coal dust. Mr Ford, who was based at the Edwinstowe preparation laboratory, Nottinghamshire, worked in the industry for 25 years. The inquest at Nottingham Coroners' Court heard he died of respiratory failure due to chronic obstructive airways disease. Coroner Nigel Chapman recorded a verdict of death from industrial disease. A government compensation scheme set up in 1998 for miners and ex-miners affected by chronic obstructive airways disease - bronchitis and emphysema - received over half a million claims and had, as of 23 October, settled 275,000 claims. Obstructive airways disease is also known to be common in other dusty trades, including construction and steel, but these sectors have no parallel scheme so the true extent of the problem remains hidden.
The true extent of Britain's asbestos disease epidemic is becoming fully apparent as more and more workers with incidental exposure to asbestos are being struck by asbestos cancers. An inquest last week heard that teacher Barbara Dover died from lung cancer caused by asbestos from a boiler room next to her class. She did not smoke and was 'a picture of health' before being diagnosed. Mrs Dover, 71, of Lechlade, Gloucestershire, had worked at the same primary school for 24 years from 1969. The asbestos was removed in the 80s. Her lung was encased by a tumour and 'significant' levels of asbestos were found in tissues. The inquest returned a verdict of death by industrial disease. Also last week, former shopfitter Michael Tinker, 71, of Greenacre, West Bridgford, was found by an inquest to have died of an industrial disease, the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. Notts coroner Dr Nigel Chapman said: 'It's difficult to know where he may have been exposed to asbestos.' Fibres were found in his lungs. Recent reports of asbestos related deaths have included hairdressers, shopworkers, nurses and cleaners.
Safety enforcers and a major brewer have added to the criticism of the government's proposed partial smoking ban in pubs and clubs. Graham Jukes, chief executive of CIEH, the professional body representing the environmental health officers which would have to enforce the ban in pubs and clubs, told a health select committee last week that government plans to introduce a partial smoking ban were needlessly complex and a potential waste of public money. Jukes told MPs it would divert environmental health officers from other more important public health priorities. 'We believe that any exemptions are a complete and utter waste of public funds and resources. We should be spending those resources trying to deal with some of the fundamental issues of inequalities in health and other issues the government wishes us to tackle, for which scarce resources are currently available.' CIEH is calling for a ban on smoking in all indoor workplaces to protect all workers and minimise enforcement costs. Tim Clarke, the chief executive of the pubs group Mitchells & Butlers, described the proposed smoking ban in food-serving pubs as a 'retrograde step' which would force the group to stop selling food in 400 outlets. He said: 'There are about 20 per cent [of pubs] where, regrettably, if this laughable proposal were to go through, it would be commercially advantageous for us to take the food out and revert to a drinking and smoking offer only. It's the last thing in the world we want to do, but we are a commercial company, not a charity.'
On-call time must be included in working time calculations, according to a European Court of Justice ruling. In a case brought by French unions, the court ruled that night duty carried out by a teacher in an establishment for people with disabilities must be taken into account in its entirety when ascertaining whether the rules of Community law laid down to protect workers - in particular the maximum permitted weekly working time - have been complied with. The working time directive lays down minimum safety and health requirements. Under the directive, workers are entitled to minimum rest periods and adequate breaks. It also fixes the maximum weekly working time at 48 hours, including overtime - although the UK has negotiated a system where at least for now employees can 'opt out' of the working week limit. According to HESA, the European Trade Union Confederation's health and safety thinktank: 'The judgment is particularly important now due to the fact that the European Commission tries to waterdown the provisions of the Directive on the definition of working time. The Commission proposal contains a definition of 'on-call work', which allows employers to force employees to be present in the workplace at the employer's disposal, without having to count that time as working time.' HESA adds: 'This provision violates international labour standards as laid down by the International Labour Organisation. Workers could end up shouldering the whole burden of irregular work organisation stemming from customer demand or production flow.'
The father of one of the girls killed last week on a level crossing has said safety improvements should be made at the station where the accident happened. Olivia Bazlinton, 14, and her friend Charlotte Thompson, 13, died on 3 December when they were struck by a train at Elsenham station in Essex. Network Rail this week said it would look at possible safety improvements. Mr Bazlinton said: 'Why is it not possible to use locking pedestrian gates, which react at the same time as the signals?' He said his daughter was not the only one who had tried to cross the track with the pedestrian signals still at red, as most days commuters could be seen running across in an attempt to catch their train. Rail union RMT called for level crossings to be gradually replaced in a bid to avoid further accidents. General secretary Bob Crow said it would cost around £1m to build an underpass or bridge at each crossing. Rail unions have expressed concern about a lack of action on rail safety, including the failure to introduce available technology to warn of obstructions on the line at unstaffed crossings ( Risks 231 ).
The death toll from the 27 November colliery blast in China's Heilongjiang province has risen to 171 ( Risks 235 ). At least two officials connected with the mine have been arrested for dereliction of duty. Confirmation of the death toll came as a spate of new disasters hit the country's notoriously hazardous coal mines. The owner and several managers of a Chinese coal mine where 42 miners were trapped by flooding have disappeared, the state news agency reported last week. Police in Henan issued a call for the arrest of Jin Changsong, owner of the Sigou Coal Mine, after the 2 December incident. He and several of his managers have gone missing, Xinhua reported. Meanwhile, 16 people were killed in a gas explosion on 2 December at the Zhonghe mine in Liupanshui city in the southwestern province of Guizhou. Chinese officials say some 6,000 coal miners died last year but non-government groups say the true figure is far higher. This year, 3,000 deaths have been reported in the country's mines.
A European Union-wide campaign will start next year to highlight the safety of young people at work. The European Agency, which is behind the initiative, says official Eurostat data shows the risk of work accidents is at least 50 per cent higher among those aged 18-24 years than in any other age category. 'Young persons are less likely to recognise the risk of accidents and even when they do, they may be less able to take appropriate action,' said Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, director of the agency. 'And sometimes they are simply assigned to tasks beyond their capabilities or are not provided adequate training or supervision. We must take steps to ensure young people have a safe and healthy start to their working lives, and to promote risk awareness and risk prevention in enterprises, schools and colleges.' The agency has launched an online information resource on young people and their safety and health. Topics covered include accident prevention and integrating occupational safety and health into education.
The majority of cases of occupational disease are being missed in Malaysia, a survey has found. The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) investigated patient admissions over 24 hours in a health clinic serving a large worker population from the Penang free trade zone. Out of 63 patients from the industrial area, seven cases were recognised as victims of industrial accidents, but the remaining 56 patients were diagnosed as having problems unrelated to work. However CAP researchers, using guidelines set by the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health on the 10 leading work-related diseases, revealed that 22 of these 56 patients were suffering from work-related diseases. It says the doctor at the clinic detected none of these. CAP says clinic doctors have their impartiality compromised as their appointment and continued employment is subject to employer approval. The group is calling for independent occupational health services in government hospitals and the mandatory appointment of occupational health nurses at larger firms or firms carrying out hazardous activities. In response to recent critical press coverage of occupational health provision in Malaysia, government human resources minister Datuk Seri Dr Fong Chan Onn reminded doctors that they are missing workers who suffer from occupation-related diseases.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has declared safety the top priority for journalists working in Asia following the shooting last week of journalist Nasir Afridi in Pakistan. 'Afridi's murder brings to light the extent of the safety crisis for journalists across the region with close to half of the murders this year occurring in Asia,' said IFJ president Christopher Warren. On Sunday 4 December Nasir Afridi was shot and killed while driving in his car in Northern Pakistan. Afridi was killed by a stray bullet from a battle going on between the Bazi Khel and the Mala Khel tribes, according to IFJ's affiliate in Pakistan, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). A truck driver was also killed in the attack. The death of Afridi brings the global death toll of journalists and media workers during 2005 to 105, and the total for Asia to 43, with 25 of these occurring in South Asia. 'Safety continues to be the biggest issue facing journalists in South Asia, with an increase in number of journalists being killed, attacks and kidnappings occurring across the region,' said Warren.
Amid growing evidence that some of the tiniest materials ever engineered pose potentially big health, safety and environmental risks, momentum is building in the US Congress, environmental circles and in the industry itself to beef up federal oversight of the new nanomaterials, which are already showing up in dozens of consumer products. A report in the Washington Post, however, says it remains unresolved who should pay for the additional safety studies that everyone agrees are needed. Nanomaterials are already being integrated into a wide range of products, including sports equipment, computers, food wrappings, stain-resistant fabrics and an array of cosmetics and sunscreens. The particles can pose health risks to workers where they are made and may cause health or environmental problems as discarded products break down in landfills. According to Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council: 'I think it's absolutely necessary that we have enforceable regulations and that we don't put these materials in commercial products unless we know they can be used safely over the full life cycle of the product.' At a House Science Committee hearing on 17 November, environmental and industry representatives alike said federal spending on environmental, health and safety implications should be about 10 to 20 per cent of the government's nanotech development budget for 2006. In the UK, the TUC has called for a precautionary approach to nanomaterial use ( Risks 167 ).
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