Number 237 - 17 December 2005
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Ebenezer Scrooge is alive and griping and can be found in the UK's offices and factories, according to the TUC. Last year TUC asked the nation's workers to email in their stories of stingy bosses at Christmas, and there were no shortage of takers. The most common complaints were about mean employers who forced staff who would normally be in work on the day on which Christmas Day falls, either to lose pay or make up the time at a later date. Others had turned off the heating to save money when only a skeleton staff was working over the Christmas break. There were also plenty of gripes from staff whose penny pinching employers made them use a day from their statutory annual leave to cover the days off over the festive break. But thankfully, says the TUC, this could be the last year that employees have to take the Christmas bank holidays from their annual leave. The government has promised to change the law so that full time employees get the UK's eight bank holidays in addition to the statutory minimum of 20 day's leave. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'It would be nice to think that over the past year the ghosts from Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' have been to see some of our modern day Ebenezer Scrooges to try to persuade them to be a little more generous to their staff at Christmas. But I fear that few of last year's worst examples will have truly mended their ways.'
The TUC has welcomed a Health and Safety Commission (HSC) consultation on possible new penalties for workplace health and safety offences ( Risks 233 ). A TUC response to the consultation notes: 'The current regime is often viewed as having little preventive impact due to both the falling level of enforcement activity and the low levels of fines imposed by the courts.' It adds: 'While recent high profile fines against Transco and Balfour Beatty may be welcome, the reality is, for most offences, the average fine imposed is still under £10,000. It should also be stressed that penalties are only of use where there is a strong enforcement regime capable of imposing them. The current low level of inspection activity, and the recent falls in both prosecutions and enforcement notices, is an indication that more attention has to be given to this area.' The TUC response supports a pilot of 'administrative fines' and 'fixed penalties', spot safety penalties imposed with a need to go to court, which could save inspector time. It also backs 'enforceable undertakings', an instruction to make safety improvements to benefit the workforce or wider community, but only where compliance is monitored effectively and they are used in conjunction with a prosecution or a fixed or administrative penalty. It adds it would support greater use of remedial orders, corporate probation for companies and directors and adverse publicity orders. It says TUC 'believes that the HSE should be more proactive in ensuring that information about organisations who flaunt the law is more widely disseminated. We would welcome a process whereby the HSE automatically notified the local press of all convictions.'
An attempt by official safety enforcers to introduce self-regulation in the retail sector has been criticised as 'misguided' by shopworkers' union Usdaw. It says major retail chains, including Asda, IKEA, Sainsbury's and Tesco, have all been fined for criminal breaches of safety law at the same time that the government is piloting a reduction in inspections ( Risks 236 ). According to Doug Russell, Usdaw's national health and safety officer: 'The idea that the retail sector is divided into a majority of good employers who manage health and safety well and a few rogue businesses that need to be the target for enforcement is misguided and flies in the face of the evidence.' He added: 'It is clear that health and safety is not being dealt with properly in many stores where the management are well-intentioned and think that they are complying with their duties. We need more resources to be given to inspection and enforcement of health and safety in stores.'
Postal workers' union CWU has strongly condemned a Royal Mail proposal to outsource first aid training. The union's national health and safety officer Dave Joyce said the plan was 'barmy', adding: 'This ludicrous outsourcing proposal just isn't cost effective and a training contractor could charge £3,000 to £4,000 per course adding anything up to an extra million pounds a year to annual training costs at a time when the Royal Mail chairman has called on everyone in the business to save money!' He said Royal Mail has about 5,000 legally qualified first aid volunteers, with Postal First Aid Services delivering all first aid training in-house, using a team of 106 trainers, 73 assessors and 17 casualty simulators and coaches. 'First aid is one of those precious fundamental safety net provisions, invisible most of the time and taken for granted by most but it is important to remember that accidents can and do happen at any time and our first aiders deal with life threatening conditions and injuries each year,' Joyce said. 'First aid provision needs to be available at all times people are at work and is something that could mean the difference between life and death to those whom the unsung heroes come to assist in their hour of need. CWU HQ is opposing the outsourcing proposal and fully supporting our first aider members.'
Nissan's use of private detectives to snoop on workers taking sick leave has been condemned by a union. Amicus reps at the company's Washington car plant were speaking out at an unfair dismissal tribunal in Newcastle brought on behalf of sacked paint shop team leader Brian Murphy. He was allegedly receiving payment for odd jobs he carried out while off sick with stress and anxiety. During the two-day hearing earlier this month his former bosses at Nissan admitted hiring private eyes to secretly film employees they believed were moonlighting while off work. But the tribunal was told the Washington car plant has no official policies in place which forbid workers from taking on other jobs in their spare time - even when they're off sick. Michael Sherriff, shop steward for Amicus at Nissan, revealed factory workers are even allowed to advertise their skills and services for hire outside work on the company's intranet website. The tribunal heard that Mr Murphy was secretly filmed doing odd jobs and a dossier was handed on to the company's human resources department. But the employment panel also heard Mr Murphy had told his superiors that doctors had told him to keep busy to help his recovery. Mr Sherriff said: 'If it's not affecting the company business, and your own GP and the company doctor have said it will help in your recovery, then I don't think there is anything wrong with it.' Judgment was deferred until February.
An inquest has decided that a teenager took her own life after being bullied by fellow workers at a KFC restaurant. The hearing was told Hannah Kirkham, 18, was attacked and humiliated. After she left her job she suffered hallucinations and could not even watch KFC adverts on television. Her mother Marie found her collapsed on the bedroom floor on 17 December 2003. She died in hospital nine days later. The inquest jury at Oldham Magistrates' Court said she meant to kill herself by taking an overdose, was clinically depressed and this was 'significantly influenced' by bullying at work. Earlier, KFC had said the staff who bullied Hannah had since left the firm. It said it introduced anti-bullying policies, including a confidential helpline, following her death. In a narrative verdict, the jury said: 'Hannah intended to take her own life after a sustained period of clinically diagnosed severe depressive illness which was significantly influenced by bullying and harassment in the workplace.' Hannah had written a letter of complaint to the district manager at KFC on 4 December but this was only opened more than three months after her death. The company said it had carried out a 'thorough review' of policies with help from Hannah's parents, which had ensured it now had a system to prevent bullying or sexual harassment.
An investigation by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) boffins into workforce participation in non-union workplaces has found most are clueless when it comes to consultation rules and there is very limited participation from the workforce as a whole. A report compiled by scientists from HSE's Health and Safety Laboratory concluded: 'In most cases managers, health and safety officers, employee reps and workers were not aware of the relevant health and safety regulations. Of those that demonstrated some level of awareness, they did not have a detailed level of insight into the regulations, but recognised that there was a duty on the employer to consult. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the impact of health and safety legislation was negligible upon the nature or extent of participatory processes.' Although some level of participation was commonplace - the researchers believed the companies surveyed were better than average for non-union firms - this rarely involved the wider workforce, and there was little apparent enthusiasm for participation. 'Despite reasonable levels of workforce participation reported at most sites, there was no evidence that workers requested or initiated new participatory or consultative arrangements (eg. workteams, safety circles and safety committees),' the report said. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson commented: 'The lesson is simple enough. If you want to get a say, get a union. Union safety reps listen to their members, communicate views on behalf of their members and have the backing of the members to make sure those views are listened to.'
Dozens of MPs have joined legal and safety campaigners to raise concerns about proposed changes to asbestos safety regulations which 'could put workers, home owners and families at risk'. As of 14 December, 70 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion (EDM) critical of Health and Safety Commission proposals and calling for more research. Particularly contentious is a proposed move which would allow untrained, unqualified, unlicensed contractors to remove textured coatings such as old Artex paint which contain asbestos. The EDM says 'this House expresses concern that the new Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2006 will drop textured coatings from the list of materials that only licensed contractors are approved to remove; is further concerned that the Health and Safety Executive has arrived at this proposal without a proper evaluation of the risk associated with the material; believes that allowing unlicensed contractors to remove these materials will put workers, home owners and families at risk; and calls for the proposal and research methodology to be reviewed.' Groups including the Construction Safety Campaign, the Hazards Campaign and the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA) have all voiced serious concerns. ARCA members protested outside the HSE event launching the consultation. New regulations are due to take effect in April next year.
An inquest has found that a 32-year-old father of three was killed as a result of childhood exposure to asbestos in the home. An inquest found the death of Barry Welch was due to asbestos-related mesothelioma and recorded a verdict of accidental death. He is believed to be the youngest ever victim of the asbestos related cancer. Mr Welch died on 27 April 2005, after an 11-month battle against the illness, leaving behind a wife, Claire, and three daughters, Natasha, 12, Samantha, 10, and seven-year-old Letitia. Leicester coroner James Symington heard Barry contracted mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos dust and fibres brought home on work overalls by his stepfather ( Risks 205 ). In recording his verdict, the coroner said that he was not going to record a verdict of industrial disease purely on the grounds of Barry not having been exposed to the asbestos in the workplace, but instead recognised that he had been exposed to the deadly fibres in his home environment. Solicitor for the family Adrian Budgen, a partner with law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: 'The family welcomes the clarity provided by today's decision from HM Coroner, although understandably they were greatly upset by the findings of the post-mortem which revealed in detail the true extent of Barry's illness and the obvious pain and suffering he had endured as a result of this extremely aggressive form of cancer.' He added: 'From a legal point of view we now have the findings of the post mortem and today's verdict will enable us to move forward with the civil case for compensation and it is our intention to issue proceedings very shortly.'
A high profile campaign in north-east of England has won asbestos cancer victims the right to a life-extending treatment on the NHS. The decision by the Northern Cancer Network came only days after the Newcastle Chronicle launched its 'Give us a chance' campaign to make Alimta, a drug for mesothelioma sufferers, available in the region where it was developed. The paper says readers piled the pressure on to health chiefs with a massive show of support for the campaign. The paper collected more than 1,700 signatures in just four days. The campaign also won the support of 13 north east MPs. Sufferers from the region had faced paying £24,000 to a private hospital to get the treatment, or travelling down to Liverpool or London, where the drug is already available. It is also available free across Scotland. Chris Knighton of the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Fund said: 'It's a wonderful day. What an achievement! It's brilliant news that people are being given the chance of the best possible treatment available.' John Kelly, of the North East Asbestos Support Group (NASAG) said: 'It was quite emotional when I was told because it's been a long, long campaign. This is what people deserve. It'll give them a better way of life and help the pain.'
A woman whose search for the true cause of her husband's death has helped protect thousands of workers' health and ensured adequate compensation for victims of asbestos-related disease, has had her work honoured. Nancy Tait MBE, the founder of the Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association (OEDA), is this year's recipient of the prestigious Institution of Occupational Safety and Health/Sypol Lifetime Achievement Award. Commenting on the honour, Nancy said: 'This award recognises the efforts of thousands of people who have shared my conviction that asbestos kills.' She added: 'Today, there is still an asbestos problem that we need to tackle and this is why we're proposing to use Sypol's bursary to try to make people aware that asbestos in their home could kill and that this accounts for the number of mesothelioma deaths that do not qualify for industrial disablement benefit.' TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson commented: 'The TUC is delighted that the award went to Nancy. It is a recognition of the role that campaigners can play in actually making a difference.'
Working nights while pregnant increases the risk of giving birth prematurely by up to 50 per cent, according to a new study. University of North Carolina researchers looked at the working conditions of 1,900 pregnant women. Their findings, published in the December 2005 issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynaecology, found standing for long periods and lifting heavy weights did not increase the risk of premature labour. But working nightshifts in the first three months was linked to a doubling in a woman's risk of early labour. The women, who were all interviewed in the seventh month of their pregnancy, were asked to report details about their jobs, such as how many hours per day they spent standing, and how many times per day they lifted an object that weighed 25 pounds or more. The 9.2 per cent of women (166) who worked nights were found to be at a 50 per cent increased risk of giving birth early. However, the researchers say the reason for the link is unclear, and they stress that relatively few women in the study actually worked nights, particularly as their pregnancy progressed. Dr Lisa Pompeii, who led the research, said: 'The findings from our study are based on a small sample size and need to be interpreted with caution... further studies need to be done to explore whether or how shift work influences uterine activity during pregnancy.'
Insurance industry proposals to speed up and reform the personal injury system could result in more profits for insurers and lower payouts for claimants, lawyers have warned. The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) says it is as anxious as the Association of British Insurers (ABI) to make the claims system more efficient, but says any attempt to remove independent lawyers from the system will leave injured people in the hands of insurers whose first duty is to their shareholders. 'We know from research that initial offers of compensation made by insurers are, on average, only half the final agreed settlement,' said APIL chief executive Denise Kitchener. 'We also know from research that, on average, around two-thirds of defendants fail to admit liability for an injury within the first three months of a case, even though the case is settled in the end.' 'Care and compensation', an ABI report released this week, called for a new arbitration system to hear all personal injury claims worth up to £25,000. It added this should decide all claims within six months, with a court case only as a last resort. ABI's director general Stephen Haddrill said: 'Our proposals are a blueprint for much needed reform of the personal injury compensation scheme. Too many people are waiting far too long to get a fair payout.' ABI also proposed new tax incentives for employers to provide rehabilitation and an extension of the roles of the Health and Safety Executive and NHS to include promotion of rehabilitation.
A ban on running has been introduced at fire stations on Merseyside in a move union officials have branded 'ludicrous'. The edict prevents officers from working on circuit training or running machines during their shifts. Many firefighters take part in such training when not involved in call-outs in order to maintain the high levels of fitness required in their professional lives. The weight of protective equipment and the use of breathing gear has been shown to cause immense physical strain on firefighters' body. However, Merseyside's chief fire officer Tony McGuirk has banned any training involving running - after a career ending injury to one firefighter resulted in a £100,000 court payout. The cost to the fire service spiralled higher still after it brought an unsuccessful legal appeal. Les Skarratts, Merseyside branch secretary of firefighters' union FBU, said: 'This is just an example of the heavy-handed, almost tyrannical approach which management seem to be adopting currently.' He added: 'We have physical training instructors who conduct regular sessions - if you are not fit the entire basis of your job as a firefighter is at risk. This is just ridiculous. They should be making sure the work places are safe, not banning running.' Fire crews in Liverpool work 12-hour shifts, of which 45 minutes is set aside for exercise. Managers said the ban was a temporary measure and they hoped to issue good practice guidelines soon.
European Union ministers have approved a landmark law to control the use of chemicals, after two years of discussion and intense lobbying. The REACH law requires firms to register all chemicals they use, and to get authorisation to use toxic substances. Industry says the law will impose heavy costs, but environmental groups say it is too weak. The ministers' version of the law, however, does not force firms to replace dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives, unlike the text passed last month by the European Parliament ( Risks 234 ). This clause is seen by many safety and environmental advocates to be crucial. As a result of this difference, there will be a second reading next year. 'I think we can now congratulate ourselves on a job well done,' said British industry minister Lord Sainsbury, chairing the meeting in Brussels. EU industry commissioner Guenter Verheugen said the deal was a 'reasonable compromise' between industrial and environmental concerns. The European Trade Union Confederation welcomed the agreement, but said the loss of the substitution requirement was regrettable and amounted to a 'significant retreat compared to REACH's initial ambitions in terms of workers' health protection'. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said 'we want REACH to complement, strengthen and support current chemical safety regulations, not replace or reduce them.' A TUC-backed report last month called for the substitution of dangerous substances to reduce risks of occupational cancer and other diseases ( Risks 234 ).
Changes in society, work organisation and production methods are leading to new types and new combinations of occupational risks which demand new solutions, a European Agency survey has concluded. The Bilbao-based agency says the survey was carried out among a panel of over 60 safety and health experts in fourteen European countries and the US. The top emerging risks include lack of physical activity, the impact on workers of increasing complexity of new technologies, and a greater vulnerability of low-status workers. The report added a new underlying trend is also visible: work health and safety is increasingly affected by multifactoral issues. 'The world of work is changing rapidly and work-related health issues are changing too,' said Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, the agency's director. 'The report clearly indicates that multifactoral and combined risks are a growing concern. The resulting message for policymakers and health and safety experts is that we can no longer treat individual risks separately. What we need is a holistic approach to risk prevention.' The publication is the first report of a risk observatory set up by the European Agency to monitor emerging risks.
A fire in Delhi that has claimed the lives of 12 garment factory workers, including a 10-year-old child, is the latest example of deadly cost cutting measures in the sector, a global union federation has warned. In a letter to Indian minister of labour and employment, K Chandra Shekhar Rao, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation (ITGLWF) has called on the Indian government to undertake an urgent investigation into the accident and to develop urgent proposals to clean up the country's emerging clothing export industry. Commenting on the latest tragedy, ITGLWF general secretary Neil Kearney said: 'The company was operating illegally, without a licence and without a fire permit, in an East Delhi neighbourhood which is a hub of illegal sweatshops. Intended as a residential building, not as a factory, the three-floor factory had only a single exit.' He said such incidents were the result of the failure of governments to ensure that labour legislation and international labour standards are adhered to. 'Unfortunately this will not be the last such tragedy unless international action is taken', he said. 'The World Trade Organisation must begin to look at the social dimension of trade in the textile and clothing sector with a view to ensuring that backstreet manufacturers don't have access to international markets'. Hundreds of workers joined a union protest this week calling for a national safety audit of India's garment industry. A national union federation is calling for a judicial enquiry.
Thousands of workers involved in the shipbreaking industry could have died over the past two decades due to accidents or exposure to toxic waste on the ships, according to a new report. 'End of life - The human cost of breaking ships', published this week by Greenpeace and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), says steps must be taken to ensure that established safety guidelines are observed. 'India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and Turkey are the homes to the world's shipbreaking facilities,' said the report. 'Every year the shipping industry sends around 600 ships of all types to be dismantled on their beaches. The yards provide work, directly or indirectly, to thousands of people. Yet working at a shipbreaking yard is a dirty and dangerous job.' The report says every year hundreds of workers become victims of accidents at shipbreaking yards or fall sick breathing toxic fumes. 'Greenpeace and FIDH estimate that the total death toll of shipbreaking practices in the world over the last 20 years might be in the thousands,' the report said. It added if workers were not dying or getting seriously injured in accidents, they suffered a big risk of falling ill or dying from diseases caused by toxic waste left in the rusting hulls. 'At the yard and in their sleeping quarters, they breathe toxic fumes and asbestos dust,' the report said. 'End-of-life ships should be treated like any other toxic material under the internationally recognised Basel Convention which bans the dumping of such waste by OECD countries in non-OECD countries.'
Unions in Trinidad and Tobago are warning a national strike is a real possibility if the government fails to enact a safety law already agreed by both parliament and the president ( Risks 232 ). The warning came last week from the country's most powerful unions after their members marched through the streets of Port of Spain calling on labour minister Danny Montano to implement the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Among the marchers were family members of five of the 17 workers killed at work in the past year. Robert Giuseppi, president of the government workers' union NUGFW, demanded that Montano 'either bring in the OSHA bill or get out'. He added: 'We are hoping for something positive. The march will highlight our convictions and make it clear what is more beneficial in the future for workers with protection.' Banking Insurance and General Workers Union president Vincent Cabrera said: 'I will float the idea of a one-day work stoppage in the country for us to be united.' All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers Trade Union president, Rudy Indarsingh, said: 'We are fulfilling our responsibility to put pressure on the government. It is not on Cabinet to decide on the law of Trinidad and Tobago and make a mockery of parliament. The act went through both Houses and was assented to by the president. The government is not prepared to accept it, and this is a dangerous signal. They can do it with any legislation leading to anarchy and chaos in this country.'
A BP report into the March fire that killed 15 at its Texas City refinery has acknowledged there were serious lapses in management's safety approach. In a separate move, the government safety watchdog OSHA said last week it was referring the case to the Department of Justice (DoJ), which will decide whether to bring a criminal prosecution against BP or BP bosses. Earlier reports suggest the investigation could lead back as far as BP's London-based global board, headed by Lord Browne, Britain's best paid boss ( Risks 220 ). The company has already paid more than £12m in fines for the incident ( Risks 226 ). US safety law allows OSHA to bring a criminal prosecution if a worker is killed as a result of a wilful violation of OSHA standards. OSHA regional director John Miles said: 'It was a wilful violation that resulted in the fatalities.' He added: 'There was a lot wrong with that plant. They were taking short cuts.' Wilful violations are defined as those committed with an intentional disregard, or plain indifference, to OSHA regulations. They range, in this case, from failing to correct deficiencies in equipment to failure to check alarms for reliability. BP's preliminary report into the blast blamed worker error, and six workers were subsequently fired in a move the union USW described as 'corporate scapegoating' ( Risks 208 ). The final report however acknowledges a lax approach to safety by managers on all levels was a major factor contributing to a series of fatal blasts at its Texas City refinery. It admits work conditions at the refinery had eroded to the point that safety procedures were not followed and managers failed to support proper safe operations. Refinery employees felt 'disempowered' to push for improvements because of a lack of leadership by managers within the facility, the report says.
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