Number 244 - 18 February 2006
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 .
Are you over work or overworked? Using a new TUC online resource you can check out whether you have your working hours in check, or whether you are a bleary-eyed overworker. The dedicated TUC website, launched ahead of Work Your Proper Hours Day on Friday 24 February, allows employees to take a quiz to find out if they are a 'desk junkie', 'stay late sheep' or any other of the five types of overworker. Once a worker's long hours problem is diagnosed he or she will be prescribed tailored advice on how to treat their unproductive working patterns. As well as diagnosing their long hours problems, visitors to the site can: Challenge colleagues and friends to test their timing on the addictive '9-5' game, featuring cute puppies who work like dogs if you don't win them their proper hours; compare how much free overtime colleagues are doing; and get tips on how to reduce unpaid overtime. TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, said: 'Work Your Proper Hours Day is a light-hearted way of encouraging staff and managers to think about how they can work together to take on the UK's damaging long hours culture. The website is a fun and informative way of getting this message across.'
A total ban on smoking inside offices, pubs, restaurants and virtually every enclosed public place and workplace throughout England will come into force in the summer of 2007 after a resounding cross-party majority of MPs this week rejected last minute compromises designed to exempt some pubs and private clubs. Commenting on the 14 February vote, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'This is a major victory for the simple union principle that people at work should not have to breathe in toxins. The government was right to make this a free vote, and let MPs have the same debate that has been aired in every pub and bar in the country.' He added: 'Working together with health campaigners and progressive parts of the hospitality business, unions have persuaded MPs that employees should enjoy a smoke free workplace from summer 2007. This is a major victory for unions, and a welcome Valentine gift for everyone who breathes secondhand smoke at work.' TGWU, which represents pub, club and casino workers, said its members could breathe a sigh of relief and could look forward to breathing clean air very soon. 'The MPs have taken the right decision tonight to safeguard the health of thousands of bar staff,' said TGWU national organiser Brian Revell. CWU national safety officer Dave Joyce said: 'If government estimates are correct, this will help over 0.5 million people to give up smoking as a result and, importantly, millions will now be protected from the discomfort and detrimental health effects of secondhand smoke'.
Women truck drivers who use the port of Folkestone are celebrating a breakthrough this week in their worldwide 'Free to Pee' campaign. Following pressure from transport union TGWU, the harbour master at the cross channel port has announced the opening of a women's toilet. The new facility at the HGV parking area will also be protected for women's use by a special key system. The toilet facilities success followed action by the local TGWU branch. Branch secretary Rachael Webb was keen to stress that the women involved in the campaign believed this is not only a 'women's issue'. She said: 'Frequently having to 'hold oneself in' has very serious, even fatal, consequences for men who can develop prostate cancer. Our reasonable demand for toilet and shower facilities for all transport workers is a matter of importance for all of us.' The worldwide 'Free to Pee' campaign arose as a result of a resolution from the TGWU Bristol Passenger Services Branch to a meeting of the ITF Women in Transport meeting last autumn ( Risks 228 ). Pledging to continue the campaign, Ms Webb said her TGWU branch would keep the pressure on employers through the union and the ITF.
Returning train-operating companies to public ownership would double the money available for improving station security and pay for more than 1,600 extra station staff, a study by Britain's biggest rail union has concluded. The RMT report was published as British Transport Police figures showed that violent crime on trains has risen by 43 per cent in the last five years. There were 6,354 attacks on trains in England and Wales between 2004 and 2005. That compares to 4,428 in 1999 to 2000. 'The shocking rise in violence on Britain's public transport has quite rightly prompted calls for better security and an end to the scandal of unstaffed stations,' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said. 'Rail workers and passengers want adequate staff on duty on every station whenever it is open and a guard on every train, but the bottom-line economics of privatisation means ever more stations without staff and constant attempts to undermine the safety role of the guard.' He added that the RMT-backed academic research 'shows that bringing the train-operating companies alone back into public ownership will release more than £200 million a year to invest in safer stations. That would allow projected spending on improving station infrastructure to double, with enough left over to pay for an immediate 1,600 extra station staff.'
Sub-standard safety at discount airline Ryanair should be investigated, unions have said. The call comes after undercover reporters confirmed union concerns about the company. The Channel 4 documentary series Dispatches unearthed evidence of inadequate safety and security checks, dirty planes, exhausted cabin crew and pilots complaining about the number of hours they have to fly. The ITF, the global trade union federation that first sounded the alarm over conditions at Ryanair, welcomed 'Caught Napping', the C4 documentary. Ingo Marowsky, secretary of the ITF's civil aviation section, described the footage of exhausted crews barely able to carry out their duties as 'shocking to the viewer, but not to anyone who's worked for Ryanair.' He added: 'The programme showed exhausted and overworked crews, dirty planes and security lapses - proving what we, trade unions and whistleblowers within the business have been saying for years.' In 2004, ITF launched www.ryan-be-fair.org , a website that allowed Ryanair workers to discuss their work without fear of reprisals from the 'virulently' anti-union firm. Workers described how they worked 12 hour days without breaks, flew when ill, and of how they had to pay for their uniforms, training and even the water they need to drink on flights. Andrew Dismore, Labour MP for Hendon, this week agreed to put questions in parliament on behalf of GMB and its members working at and travelling in and out of airports where the airline operates. Ed Blissett, GMB London regional secretary, said: 'What are the authorities waiting for before they take action to ensure that Ryanair work with safety as their first aim.' GMB has called on the Department of Transport, CAA and BAA to investigate the allegations of the Dispatches Programme.
The government's advisory body on genetics has said new legislation is needed to stop workplace and insurance discrimination on genetic grounds. 'The essential thing is there should be no genetic judgment of whether somebody is appropriate for any job, with rare exceptions possibly,' said Sir John Sulston, the vice-chair of the Human Genetics Commission. He was commenting on a submission to the all-party parliamentary disability group by a group of 45 charities, unions, lawyers and scientists, detailing evidence that insurance companies and employers in the US and Australia have used information from genetic tests to discriminate. They argue that the government should legislate to prevent such discrimination in Britain. 'People should be able to take genetic tests without having to worry about how it is going to affect them financially in the future,' said Helen Wallace, the director of GeneWatch UK, leading the campaign. Prof Sulston described legislation on occupational genetic tests as work in progress, but he said it may be acceptable to use genetic testing in a minority of jobs such as pilots to look for colour blindness or susceptibility to sudden heart attack. 'It is accepted that if you go for certain jobs then you are going to get tested. This is why it is difficult to move instantly to a law because there will be exceptions.' Trade unions are concerned that the genetic privacy of workers should be respected and that decisions about employment should not be based on misleading genetic testing. 'Genes should not be a factor in who gets a job and who does not: we think such discrimination should be unlawful,' said TUC disability officer Peter Purton. TUC a unions FBU, UNISON and NUJ and Hazards magazine, which first called for a ban on genetic tests on supposed 'safety' grounds, are signatories to the campaign statement.
Two workers gassed to death in a workplace pit in June 2004 were the victims of 'unlawful killing', an inquest has ruled. After a four-day hearing at Hereford Town Hall, the jury said that Stuart Jordan and Richard Clarkson - the two employees of metal refining plant Bodycote HIP who died when lethal gas leaked into their work area - died as a result of 'gross negligence' in the way the company enforced safety standards. Case papers will now be sent to the police and Crown Prosecution Service. The Health and Safety Executive is studying the verdict. County coroner David Halpern praised employees of the plant for their 'honest' accounts of how safety standards were routinely flouted and rarely enforced. The inquest heard how company policy made Mr Jordan - as works manager - directly responsible for risk assessment on the site but he had not been given any training in the role. But the inquest heard evidence from other bosses that said no checks were made on works managers to ensure they were meeting risk assessment responsibilities - or were capable of meeting them given their workload. Mr Jordan and Mr Clarkson, a maintenance engineer, were overcome by argon gas that had filled a pit containing a furnace vessel in which metal processing took place. Training in safety procedures came down to word-of-mouth and 'accepted practice' on the shopfloor. Bodycote said it was 'shocked' and disappointed by the verdict and would appeal.
A labourer engulfed by an explosion during slum clearance work in Liverpool has left the Appeal Court empty-handed after failing for the second time to secure a damages payout from his former employers. James William Brown, 41, was part of a gang clearing derelict council houses on 6 November 2003, when an exploding object in a small fire lit on the site left him with horrific injuries to his face and eyes. He was all but blinded in one eye, had to undergo skin graft surgery and suffered permanent scarring. He sued his then employers, Grosvenor Building Contractors Ltd, but his claim was rejected by a judge at Liverpool County Court in May last year. This week Appeal Court judges said they exonerated the company from all blame for Mr Brown's accident, ruling that the incident had not been 'reasonably foreseeable'. Lady Justice Smith dismissed the appeal, saying: 'Mr Brown, who deserves our utmost sympathy, simply doesn't have a viable legal argument.' Reports last year from the TUC ( Risks 217 ) and Hazards magazine ( Risks 207 ) revealed over 90 per cent of those injured at work received no compensation.
A lift engineer who fell 150ft down a lift shaft at London's Canary Wharf has been awarded almost £1m in compensation. Solicitors for Gary Smith, 40, said he had undergone more than 20 operations since the accident in 2001. He was trapped for hours after plunging 11 storeys when a supporting rope on a maintenance platform snapped. Rescue efforts led to him sustaining further injuries. Lift manufacturers Kone admitted liability, after it was agreed he had been working with unsafe equipment and the maintenance platform should have had a secondary braking system. Kone's insurers, Zurich, had earlier sent investigators to video Mr Smith secretly at home and had reported that Mr Smith's injuries were not significant, with one of their experts describing him as a 'malingerer'. Mr Smith was awarded £977,659 in an out-of-court settlement plus the costs of the case. Kevin Finneran, of Michelmores solicitors, said his client - who had been working overnight - was trapped for hours on the wooden deck where a 110lb lift motor had fallen on top of him. Mr Smith suffered serious injuries to both legs and his shoulders, suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, and faces another five operations in the future, Mr Finneran said. 'I am pleased to report that in this case Kone Plc's insurers accepted liability and agreed fair compensation for Mr Smith,' he added. 'The insurers also apologised for secretly videoing my client.'
A Sheffield man has been awarded £47,000 in an out-of-court settlement with his former employer after injuring his back at work and sustaining a permanent disability. Robert Hopkinson, 45, damaged his spine in January 2002 whilst working as a driver for waste disposal company Onyx UK. The claim was settled just a week before trial after Onyx admitted full liability. The injury happened after Mr Hopkinson had to manoeuvre a roll-on roll-off truck across a very rough road, something he frequently had to do and which the vehicle he was driving was designed to handle. But as the wagon bounced, the seat jolted and hit the bottom of Mr Hopkinson's spine. 'When I told the manager about the seat, he laughed and said replacing it would cost more than the wagon was worth and it would therefore stay. I suggested a secondhand seat might be an economical solution but he rejected this, saying the wagon was coming off the road that year and he wasn't spending any money on it.' Mr Hopkinson had to continue driving the vehicle with the faulty seat for over two weeks, but the increasingly painful injury then forced him to go on long-term sick leave. Following 21 months off work on sick pay, Mr Hopkinson was dismissed by Onyx. Commenting on the payout, his solicitor, Sally Rissbrook of Irwin Mitchell solicitors, said: 'Onyx showed a blatant disregard for Mr Hopkinson's health and made him endure agony, which turned an already serious injury into a permanent disability.'
Corus is to face prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation into a fatal blast furnace explosion in 2001 ( Risks 28 ). Three workers were killed and another nine were badly injured at the Port Talbot steelworks. Corus UK Ltd will face prosecution by the HSE for breaches of health and safety law, following the conclusion of its investigation into the explosion at the furnace. The first criminal charge alleges the company did not ensure the safety of its employees and the second charge alleges it did not ensure contractors were not exposed to risks to their safety. The company will appear before Neath magistrates in April. In November 2005, it was revealed there would be no manslaughter charges brought in connection with the case ( Risks 232 ). Corus admitted civil liability for one of the worst accident in the UK's steel industry for 26 years, around 12 months after the explosion. In August 2005, the jury on the four-week inquest returned verdicts of accidental death. The inquest had been told that urgent repairs had begun on the furnace the day before the blast on 8 November, 2001. After it became apparent water was getting into the furnace, a number of workers took part in a meeting to discuss what to do about the problem. Steelworkers' union Community was highly critical of statements made by company bosses at the inquest, saying it 'smacks of a management culture whose first instinct is not a desire to establish the truth, but to protect their own reputations and positions' ( Risks 219 ).
Six people - including five who were believed to be migrant workers - died this week in a head on crash in Lincolnshire. It is the latest in series incidents in which migrant workers have been killed or injured while being ferried to and from work. The accident happened when a minibus carrying the workers hit a bakery lorry after an overtaking manoeuvre on a single carriageway went wrong. The minibus had picked up the workers from Grantham, Lincolnshire, to take them to work in the Mansfield area of Nottinghamshire. All the victims were adult males and the drivers of the lorry and minibus were killed. The crash left five people injured. Police said one of the injured from the minibus was Portuguese and another was Hungarian. Many migrant workers depend on their agencies or gangmasters to transport them to jobs which often involve unsociable hours in remote locations. The north Lincolnshire area is known to have a large population of migrant workers who are bussed between its many food and agricultural factories. Food processing plants, which the government wants to exempt from the new gangmasters' law ( Risks 243 ), typically operate 24 hours a day seven days a week. Audits of gangmasters have found frequent breaches of the legislation on transport. Charging inflated rates for transport has been one of the ways in which unscrupulous agents claw back wages from foreign workers. Since October two accidents involving migrant workers in the Lincolnshire area have left two men dead and 13 injured.
A school worker was found dead in a fume-filled car the day after being suspended from work, an inquest has heard. Support worker David Baines, 57, worked at St Christopher's School, Wrexham, with children with special needs. His wife told the hearing he did not know why he had been suspended and was worried he was being accused of abuse. He left a note saying, 'Sorry it's got to be this way. I can't face another day wondering what or who? My head is exploding'. The hearing in Flint heard how Mr Baines had taken a number of telephone calls from one pupil on a regular basis. The 14-year-old had been feeling down and rang almost nightly and Mr Baines would talk to him to try to cheer him up. His wife Jacqueline said the calls were always above board. But in October 2003 he was told he was being suspended. Six months after his death, Mrs Baines received a letter from Wrexham council. It said that her husband had been suspended because he was receiving telephone calls from a 'particular young person' and that the calls contained breaches of confidentiality that crossed professional borders. She told the hearing that if he had known the reason for his suspension he would still be here today. His best friend Peter Clutton said that Mr Baines was 'a bag of nerves' and said he was so upset he talked about suicide, which was totally against his character. Reports in the last year have linked work factors to the suicide deaths of a former KFC worker ( Risks 237 ) and a worker depressed as the result of a work injury ( Risks 203 ). Hazards magazine reported in 2003 that the work-related suicide toll in the UK was likely to exceed 100 deaths per year, caused by factors including overwork, stress and harassment. None of these deaths will be included in workplace death figures.
A Devon shipping inspector says a ship detained in Falmouth is the worst he has seen in his 28-year career. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) inspected the Panama-registered cargo ship Saruna and found several serious safety breaches, including faulty lifeboats and leaking hatches. The vessel has also been detained in other countries. Tony Heslop of the MCA said: 'It was the worst case I have seen. One of the lifeboats had no working engine and the other could not be lowered. Hatch seals on the foredeck were so bad that water was pouring through.' Andrew Pennington, of the maritime union NUMAST said too many ships were using 'flags of convenience' to avoid safety restrictions. 'It's a scandal that they are allowed to operate in that way,' he said. 'For every one that is caught there are many more that slip through the net. They are a danger to other shipping, to their crews and to the environment and they drag the rest of the industry into the gutter.' The cargo ship's owner, Sammarina Shipping, blamed freezing weather for the failures and said the ship should pass reinspection.
Hong Kong's industrial accident rate is higher than government statistics show because employers pressure workers not to report their injuries, an accident victims' rights advocate has said. Official figures are 'only the tip of the iceberg,' said Chan Kam-hong, the chief executive of the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims (ARIAV). He said this is not just an issue for the people suffering in silence. 'This is public money and we all have to share the [medical] cost eventually.' Many employers discourage employees from reporting accidents because of the risk of increasing their insurance costs, Chan said, citing case histories to support his claim. According to figures from the Labour Department, in 2004 17,533 industrial accidents were reported, an increase of 1.6 per cent from 17,249 in 2003, but 57 per cent lower than the 41,001 accidents in 1995. A spokesperson for the Labour Department noted that employers have 14 days to report non-fatal accidents and seven days to report fatal accidents. They face fines of up to HK$50,000 (£3,700) if accidents are not reported on time.
France's latest attempt to dispose of a 50-year-old warship riddled with asbestos ran aground this week when the country's highest court suspended plans to scrap Le Clemenceau in India ( Risks 239 ). The decision of the State Council, announced by President Jacques Chirac, means that the decommissioned ship - which left France at the New Year and is now marooned off the west coast of India - has now been ordered back to a French dock. Greenpeace and three other environmental campaign groups challenged the proposal on grounds that Indian workers were not properly equipped to dismantle the craft's hazardous lining. The ship left the port of Toulon on January 31 after French authorities reached a deal with the Indian courts to have it dismantled at the Alang yard in Gujarat state, Asia's biggest maritime graveyard. However, India's Supreme Council withdrew its permission several days later when suggestions were raised that the aircraft carrier contained around 10 times more than the 50 tons of asbestos previously thought. The Clemenceau has since been stuck off the coast awaiting the French court ruling. Alang, a run-down port city 300 miles (500km) north of Bombay, is the centre of India's ship-breaking industry, where residents, wearing little protective clothing and exposed to substances such as asbestos, arsenic, biocides and toxic lead paints, are paid as little as £2 a day to rip apart ships with primitive acetylene torches and, often, their bare hands. On 15 February, Guy Ryder, general secretary of global union confederation ICFTU, issued a circular to affiliates worldwide, requesting their 'further engagement on actions to build a world asbestos ban.'
Workers in Rajasthan's marble quarries toil in conditions that often lead to injury, disease and death, but campaigners say neither the mine owners nor the state government has done enough to mitigate their suffering. The quarries, which provided the stone for the Taj Mahal, lead to between five and seven serious or fatal injuries every month, with few of the victims receiving any compensation. The Mine Labour Protection Campaign (MLPC), a network that has been organising mineworkers across Rajasthan, has registered 368 cases of death and injury due to work-related accidents over the past two years. Of these, 87 relate to deaths. According to the campaign's Rana Sengupta: 'The lease-holders of the mines are required to keep `safety pillars' between the various pits so that the top does not collapse. Unfortunately, they don't comply.' Bansi Lal, secretary of the Rajasthan State Mine Workers Union, a federation of small unions across the state, commented: 'Major disasters are waiting to happen. Thankfully, most of the collapses so far occurred at night or in early mornings, before people came to work. One entire stretch of railway track was destroyed when a mine close to the railway line collapsed.' Action by the union has led to 35 mining licences being cancelled. 'Each maalik (mine owner) now has to put up a noticeboard detailing the name of the lease-holder, and the exact size and location of the mine. At least, workers now know who they work for. Safety kits are also provided to workers. We also insisted on metal ladders, in place of ropes, to descend into the pits,' Bansi Lal said.
January's mine tragedy in West Virginia, USA, which left 12 miners dead and one critical, has prompted serious questions about what makes mine safe. It has been revealed that the Bush administration has underfunded MSHA, killed important regulations and appointed industry insiders to run the agency, and has rebranded safety inspectors as 'compliance assistance'. But, according to a report in Slate online magazine, 'the administration's neglect isn't the biggest problem for miners. The real obstacle to safety reform is that miners no longer have a powerful union sticking up for them.' The article's author, Noah Leavitt of Whitman College, adds: 'History shows that when miners have: 1) been organised and angry; and 2) had the strong national leadership of the United Mine Workers of America backing them up, they've been able to push for the legislative changes necessary for lasting advances in safety conditions.' Jordan Barab, editor of the Confined Space safety blog, says 'the fact is that unions save lives.' He adds: 'In 1998, the Louisville Courier-Journal reviewed nearly 25,000 federal health records for Kentucky underground coal mines (96 per cent of which, at the time, were non-union). The newspaper concluded that 'small, non-union mines generally pay less, cheat more on dust tests and don't have union stewards demanding compliance with costly safety regulations.'' It the same month 12 non-union miners died in the US Sago mine, 72 unionised miners were trapped underground by a devastating fire in a Canadian potash mine. All 72 emerged alive more than 24 hours later, and credited this to the training they had received. Their union - Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) -had pushed for this training, and the union had also agitated to allow miners to earn paid time to prepare for underground disasters.
A US union organisation is making sure workplace injuries do not go unnoticed. Job Tracker, an online database launched by Working America, a campaign wing of national union federation of AFL-CIO, lists safety and health violations and related data for more than 60,000 US companies. Visitors to the site can call up details on a company's injury rate and specific violations cited by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as well as any workplace fatalities or catastrophic incidents. The database - which was culled from OSHA records, documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, and material gathered by the website Opensecrets.org - provides safety information dating back to 1 January 2000. The group also tracks companies that are on 'OSHA watch,' meaning they have received letters from the government urging them to remove workplace hazards linked to high rates of occupational injury and illness. Some companies are not happy with the Working America initiative. 'Good or bad, I don't see how a private enterprise's safety record is of anyone's interest other than that company and its insurance carrier,' said John Dunkin, president of Rogue Valley Door, a door manufacturer based in Grants Pass, Oregon. Among the violations listed on the site for Rogue Valley Door are two accidents, one that resulted in a worker losing two fingers and another that required the amputation of a worker's hand.
If you thought knowing about risks and laws was the key to making your workplace safe, think again. The first thing you need to know is how as a union you can get the organisation and influence to put things right. Australian union AMWU gives a 15 point checklist for union reps. Top of the list is this: 'The twin goals of a union health and safety programme are to improve working conditions and to build the union. They are equally important. In fact, you can't do either one well unless you do both.' It adds: 'What you do with the company on health and safety is a form of collective bargaining. Even if you don't see it that way, they do.' And just in case the message isn't getting through, in at no.4 is: 'Health and Safety isn't a technical issue. Technical knowledge helps. But there are plenty of places to get technical information. Strategy and organisation are much more important.' Read the full listing for yourself. And don't be a safety geek, be a safety activist.
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