Number 253 - 22 April 06
Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 13,000 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 .
The failure of Scottish justice minister Cathy Jamieson to give an assurance she would act to jail bosses for workplace deaths has caused dismay among some trades unionists and safety campaigners (Risks 252). Ms Jamieson told the Scottish Trades Union Congress conference she could offer only the vague promise of 'progress' by the summer on bringing forward a new law on corporate homicide, as recommended by an Executive-appointed group of experts last year (Risks 234). The report was welcomed at the time by the justice minister as 'innovative and radical' and by unions, because it plugged many of the flaws they saw in the draft corporate manslaughter bill for England and Wales - particularly the failure to provide for jail terms for employers who kill. However, the minister appeared at the conference to be distancing herself from the expert group's findings, with her statement that 'it is essential that any legislation we bring forward is within the competence of the Scottish Parliament, both in terms of its overall substance, and its detailed provisions' seen by some as an indication that the more radical proposals could be dropped. Gordon Martin of North Lanarkshire Trades Union Council said: 'She filibustered for her own agenda because she cannot give us what we want to hear - we want to jail negligent bosses.' Phil McGarry, Scottish regional organiser for rail union RMT, said: 'She has not done enough. I want to see more done, more quickly.' STUC safety officer Ian Tasker said he was 'not disappointed' but added: 'If we do not get the progress we believe needs to be made to get this on to the statute book in this current parliament, unions will be considering their position during the summer parliamentary recess as to how we take that forward.'
A Nottingham head and former president of teaching union NUT is quitting the profession because he can't cope any longer with the stress. John Illingworth, 55, broke down as he told the NUT annual conference how his life had been changed by serious mental health problems caused by stress of work. He got an emotional standing ovation from 1,000 delegates as he urged them to back a motion calling for action to cut teachers' workload. Mr Illingworth, the head at Bentinck Primary and Nursery School in Radford, said the motion had come ' too late ' to help him. Close to tears, the teacher of 33 years, said: ' The illness has changed my life. It has been caused by cumulative stress of work over many years which became beyond my capacity to manage. ' Mr Illingworth - a head since 1993 - said one in three teachers was likely to suffer mental health problems, and praised the ' great people ' who had helped him cope with his condition. ' But in the end the best way to deal with unmanageable stress is to remove the cause of it, ' he said. ' I'm doing just that. I'm removing the cause of stress by leaving teaching. I think I have been a good head and a good teacher, but for me, enough is enough .' Delegates unanimously backed the motion, urging the NUT to consider balloting for national strike action over workloads and calling for national union guidelines to curb excessive workloads.
Headteachers who observe staff too intensely are in effect bullying them, teaching union NASUWT has said. Union delegates passed a motion at its conference this month saying that excessive and inappropriate lesson observation was unprofessional and 'yet another form of management bullying'. CCTV and even two-way mirrors had been used to monitor teachers, it heard. General secretary Chris Keates said she had heard of these extreme measures being used in secret in classrooms. The conference was told that teachers are entitled to sufficient warning of any lesson inspection and they should not be subjected to excessive observation without designated objectives or feedback. Figures released at NASUWT's conference showed the union had won a record £7.6m compensation last year in personal injury payouts and employment tribunal awards. Over £1.8m was awarded to members in personal injury claims last year, the union said, including £129,600 for a teacher in Preston who was hit on the head by a brick thrown by a pupil and £27,500 for a teacher from Manchester who was attacked by a 12-year-old (Risks 232). Other substantial awards went to the head of art, craft, design and technology at a school in Nottinghamshire who received £145,600 after developing chronic rhinosinusitis (inflammation of the lining of the nose) as a result of exposure to wood dust (Risks 219).
The leader of the train drivers' union ASLEF has said safety needs to be a higher priority in Britain's boardrooms. Keith Norman, writing in the April edition of the ASLEF Journal said 'safety must be top of every working person's agenda; and... it must be as important a consideration in the boardroom as on the footplate.' He added: 'Our safety reps sum up everything that trade unions represent. They give their time freely. They wade through legislation and regulations that make the rest of us head for the hills. They are seldom praised or even thanked. They carry out their duties not from a desire for recognition, but from a sense of personal decency and collective concern.' He said a 'specially monitored drivers' system, where drivers were given penalty points for alleged driving errors, was a major concern for safety reps and 'is almost entirely discredited. Safety reps have told us that it is being used by managers to retain drivers - because it is less likely that they will be able to move to another company if they have points on their record. They also say it is also being used for issues not linked to driving - like uniforms and appearance. It seems that what began life as a safety mechanism is, in some cases, being transformed into a discipline tool.'
Bosses of the engineering giant Balfour Beatty have been accused of 'dancing on the graves of the dead' after the company revealed they received £600,000 in bonuses. A report last week in the Daily Mirror said the awards were dished out in the same year that the firm was fined £10 million after it admitted breaching safety standards prior to the Hatfield train disaster in 2000 which claimed four lives (Risks 228). Bob Crow, general secretary of rail union RMT, said: 'This is a company that has been charged with manslaughter and is attempting to increase the pension contributions of staff. They are dancing on the graves of the dead and attacking the pensions of the living.' The annual report revealed chief executive Ian Tyler picked up £626,317 last year, including a £147,000 bonus, up from £476,769 in 2004. Four directors also got six-figure bonuses. A company spokesperson told the Daily Mirror the figures reflected its financial performance and added that bonuses were reduced in 2004 in anticipation of being fined. The annual report, titled 'Balfour Beatty: Create care', says profits were partly offset by 'the Group's admission of breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act following the Hatfield derailment in October 2000 for which the associated fine had already been provided.'
The supermarket chain Asda has been forced to pay £12,000 after a Merseyside worker suffered burns from a damaged electric cable hanging outside a metal-framed window. Kim Postlethwaite, who works at Asda's Aintree store, was off for 12 weeks after receiving an electric shock from a frayed lead in the staff canteen. Asda executive's admitted at South Sefton Magistrates' Court breaching a health and safety regulation. Nicola Watson, prosecuting for Sefton council, said: 'The standard of safety in the staff canteen was well below that which might be expected from a national company. Furthermore, the inspector from the Health and Safety Executive concluded the accident resulted from the use of an unsafe temporary electrical installation, and the store had failed to adhere to basic practice.' She said the failure to repair the faulty socket was likely to have exposed other staff to danger for some time. She added: 'The condition of the cable confirms Asda's scheme of preventative measures was insufficient to prevent danger to members of staff.'
The firm responsible for a scaffolding collapse in Milton Keynes that killed one and injured over 20 (Risks 252) was removed from a job four years ago for breaching safety regulations. North Notts Scaffolding was issued with a prohibition notice by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) at a site in Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire, in 2002. It has also emerged the Mansfield-based company is not registered with the National Access and Scaffolding Confederation. The scheme to train and certify scaffolders is voluntary. One of three workers seriously injured in the Milton Keynes incident at the site of the new Jurys Inn Hotel last week has since died. John Robinson, 49, died in hospital on 14 April. It has since emerged that his son Mark was also seriously injured in the accident. HSE to undertake an investigation. Last week the site was cordoned off by the police as a crime scene. Alan Ritchie, general secretary of the construction union UCATT, said last week the tragedy 'shows us once again that more needs to be done to make the industry safe to work in.'
A woman from Kent who lost her husband to an asbestos-related cancer has now lost her new partner to the same disease. Speaking last week ahead of Les Alford's funeral, Avril Grant, from Hoo, said she wanted to raise awareness of mesothelioma. The death of the mechanic happened five years after her husband Chris, who was an electrician, died. 'I can't believe I've yet again been with somebody who's got this cancer,' she said. Mr Alford inhaled asbestos fibres during his 30-year career as a lorry driver and mechanic. Asbestos was used in brake and clutch linings, and mechanics could face high asbestos exposures when these were changed. It was common practice to blow out dust from brake drums with a compressed air line, a practice Ford Motor Company discovered in 1970 created dust levels hundreds of times today's legal exposure limit. Mesothelioma can take between decades to develop. Over 1,800 people in the UK die of the disease each year. Asbestos victims' organisations in February lobbied the government for more effective support, research and treatment (Risks 246). The TUC has launched an asbestos labelling and awareness campaign in a bid to avoid a new generation of asbestos victims.
The widow of a nuclear physics researcher who died from cancer after working with asbestos has appealed to former workmates for help with her compensation claim. Julia Holmes is preparing a case against her husband Michael's former employer, Rutherford Laboratories of Didcot. He worked as an experimental officer at the laboratories from 1963 until his retirement in May 1989. He was 67 when he died from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma. An inquest decided his death was as a result of an industrial disease. The family's solicitor, Brigitte Chandler, said it was believed his job involved cutting insulating boards that contained asbestos, as well as working with asbestos tapes and steam pipes that had been lagged with the material. She urged former workmates to contact her and said all calls will be in confidence. 'We are particularly keen to trace Len Appleby, Trevor Smith, Harry Lane, Terry Harper, Ray Haylehurst and John Nesbitt, as Mr Holmes worked closely with them,' she said.
The son of a Doncaster man who died after being exposed to asbestos at work is appealing to his father's former work colleagues for information about his working conditions. Tony Richards, from Kirk Sandall, died on 19 September 2003 at the age of 60 from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. He is thought to have been exposed to asbestos dust whilst working for J Ibbotson in Bentley Road, Doncaster, between 1958 and 1960. He joined the company as an apprentice painter and decorator aged 15. His son, Anthony Richards, said: 'This terrible illness took my dad away from us so quickly. It is such an aggressive disease that causes so much pain and suffering. He suffered greatly in the last months of his life and he left behind a family who miss him terribly.' His solicitor, Helen Ashton of law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: 'As with so many cases of mesothelioma, Mr Richards had only a matter of months to live once he had been diagnosed and this came as a terrible shock to his family who are still trying to come to terms with his death. In order for them to obtain some justice, it's vital that people who worked alongside him come forward to assist us with our enquiries.'
The government's bid to get rid of red tape could introduce a threat to safety and other rights. Journalist John Pilger says the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill has already passed its second parliamentary reading. 'It is presented by the government as a simple measure for streamlining deregulation, or 'getting rid of red tape', yet the only red tape it will actually remove is that of parliamentary scrutiny of government legislation, including this remarkable bill.' Pilger's concerns are shared by some health and safety campaigners. A spokesperson for the national Hazards Campaign said the legal shift 'might allow the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) to be reformed and weakened without any reference to parliament, with the changes justified as purely administrative measures designed to reduce red tape.' She added: 'HSC's enforcement arm, the Health and Safety Executive, is seeking to meet drastic targets to reduce the number of safety inspections as part of the government's 'war on red tape.' This bill might encourage subtle changes in its brief which result in HSE morphing into a mildly souped up advice agency, with a massively curtailed enforcement role.'
A study into cancers at a Scottish microelectronics plant has not started after years of delays, with just eight months to go before it's supposed to finish. Top boffins from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) promised five years ago to undertake the study at the National Semiconductor in Greenock, says health and safety campaign group Phase II. A spokesperson for the group said: 'This study was committed to in December 2001. It's disgraceful that, five years down the line, they're just talking about starting it.' An earlier study had found excesses of four cancers, but the campaigners said HSE's methodology was flawed and had under-estimated the true extent of the problem (Risks 32). The new study was expected to last 18 months, but this week HSE bosses admitted it had yet to start. An HSE spokeperson said: 'Once final ethical approval has been obtained, HSE will make an announcement.' TUC criticised HSE last year for a 'massive under-estimation' of the occupational cancer problem. It said HSE's estimate of 6,000 deaths a year was based on a discredited 25-year-old US paper. TUC's estimate, published in a special feature in the magazine Hazards, put the true toll at between 12,000 and 24,000 cases a year.
A hospital with a history of safety offences related to workplace violence has been fined £10,000 after staff were threatened by a violent patient wielding a chair. The George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, was also ordered to pay £3,500 costs after it pleaded guilty to a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act. Nuneaton Magistrates Court heard the patient became aggressive with staff and threatened them in November 2004. A routine audit by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2005 found failings relating to violence and aggression. Commenting on the case, HSE inspector Angela Eley, said: 'This case demonstrates the importance of proper assessments of risks from patients presenting at hospitals, and the need to implement precautions such as adequate individual assessments and emergency procedures to prevent the escalation of a situation whereby it may cause injury to members of staff or other patients.' The George Eliot Hospital was served an improvement notice in 2001 for failings relating to violence and aggression. This improvement notice was complied with. However in 2005 during a routine audit a number of failings were again identified which related to violence and aggression. The hospital trust released a statement that read: 'The Health and Safety Executive acknowledged that the trust had addressed the issues concerned and that generally proper attention is now being given to health and safety including violence and aggression, this was reflected in the outcome and level of fine received.'
A press operator who quit after his boss punched him on the nose has won his constructive dismissal claim and £13,550 compensation. Cornelius Flannigan, who worked at Press Check Engineering in Motherwell, claimed boss Peter Swinfen had been acting irrationally with behaviour such as putting bibles down in front of him and dressing up to go fishing. The 56-year-old told a Glasgow employment tribunal how Mr Swinfen was acting strangely on 7 July last year when he arrived for work and told him: 'Your face is annoying me get out'. Mr Flannigan asked what he had done and said his boss turned round and punched him on the nose. Mr Swinfen was charged with assault, pleading guilty at the local district court. Sentence was deferred until May this year. After the incident, Mr Flannigan felt it was impossible for him to continue and resigned. He told the tribunal that his nerves were shattered and he had been signed off sick since the incident. Tribunal chair Ian McPherson ruled Mr Flannigan was entitled to resign from his job as his boss had acted unreasonably towards him. The tribunal also found his subsequent unfitness to work was directly linked to the criminal assault. It awarded Mr Flannigan £12,450 for his unfair dismissal and a further £1,100 for the employer's failure to comply with a statutory duty to provide a written statement of employment particulars.
A bar worker who lost her job after she suffered an asthma attack has been awarded almost £6,000 for disability discrimination and unfair dismissal. Carly Simpson began feeling unwell while working in Patrick's Bar in Perth in August last year, a Dundee employment tribunal heard. She said she then went to get some fresh air and her manager found her outside wheezing. The following week she noticed her name was not on the staff rota. Simpson said her manager suggested it might be better for if she found another job in a different type of employment. The manager told the tribunal that he wanted Simpson to consider working in the bar's coffee shop with a view to managing it. But the tribunal preferred Simpson's version of events and awarded her £3,000 for injury to her feelings, £150 interest and a further £2,790 compensation for her unfair dismissal on the grounds of her disability.
Tom O'Donnell's father died nine years ago aged 76 from lung cancer caused by asbestos. He had worked for nearly 25 years at a now defunct Johns-Manville plant in eastern Toronto that was called a 'world-class occupational health disaster' by a 1980s royal commission investigating the plant's use of asbestos. Tom, 48, has never worked in the industry, but he is dying of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. An older sister and older brother succumbed in their 50s to the same cancer. Their deadly exposures came from traces of asbestos dust carried unwittingly home on their father's work clothes. Cases such as Tom O'Donnell's, once thought to be extremely rare, are starting to crop up more frequently in Canada. There are enough cases that they have been given the formal name of 'bystanders,' people who never worked with asbestos yet are at risk of its illnesses. The bystander cases can be especially cruel. Many of those exposed to asbestos as children are dying young, robbed of far more years than were their fathers, who were exposed as adults and had a crack at reaching old age because of the latency period. 'It's a tragedy that this material could so adversely affect not just the wage earner's health, but the health of their family. It's pretty unique,' said Jim Brophy, executive director of an occupational health clinic in Sarnia, Ontario which has been overwhelmed with mesothelioma cases. He calls these bystander cases 'a major injustice'. He contends that Canada, because it continues to mine and promote the use of asbestos abroad, is one of the few industrialised countries that has no national registry of workers with asbestos-related illnesses, primarily mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis; even less information exists on the spouses and children suffering from indirect exposures. 'We don't keep track of this stuff. It's a huge public health issue,' he said. Tom O'Donnell, after seeing others in the family die because of asbestos, knows what lies ahead. 'From my point of view, compensation is not the same thing as justice,' he said. 'There is no equivalent trade for your life.'
Plans by the Indian government to lift a ban on asbestos mining will worsen the 'asbestos timebomb' facing the country, a top environmental campaigner has warned. Gopal Krishna, coordinator of the Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI), said: 'The reality is that the country's most powerful parliamentarians bless the asbestos industry,' he said. 'It is not difficult to notice why the entire political establishment wears blinkers when it comes to acknowledging the fact that currently over 40 countries including Europe have banned all forms of asbestos including chrysotile (white asbestos) due to health hazards.' He added: 'With asbestos firms being owned by politicians or the state itself, the government seems to be following a classic ostrich policy.' He condemned a 'virtually blasphemous' statement to the Indian parliament on 27 February 2006 by Namo Narain Meena, the minister of state for environment. Speaking about the risks posed by white asbestos, the minister said: 'No complaints have so far been received regarding its carcinogenic content and its hazard to health and environment.' According to BANI's Gopal Krishna: 'The rationale to support the continued use of this killer fibre, used in over 3,000 products, is glaringly hollow. It continues to devastate workers and consumers, but the extent of the tragedy remains largely uncovered in India.'
Survivors of the Bhopal disaster have called off a week-long hunger strike after India's prime minister promised to clean up the disused chemical factory, provide fresh drinking water for local people and build a £13m memorial to the dead. A leak of methyl isocyanate gas from a pesticide plant operated by the Indian arm of the US firm Union Carbide killed more than 3,500 people in December 1984. At least 15,000 others have died since from cancer and other diseases, and deformed children have been born to survivors. For more than 20 years, victims have been fighting to get the site cleaned up. This year, to highlight their struggle, a group of 40 campaigners and survivors spent 33 days walking the 500 miles from Bhopal to New Delhi, arriving late last month. A week ago, six began a pavement hunger strike, taking only sips of water - an act of defiance that turned out to be a potent political tactic. Prime minister Manmohan Singh this week conceded several of the campaigners' demands, and the protest was halted. A local court had ordered a clean-up of the site last summer, but that was halted when 150 workers needed hospital treatment after being overcome by fumes. 'They tried to do it cheaply, without masks and gloves. It was a mess,' said Satinath Sarangi, a protest organiser. 'That's why we want assurances that the work will be done properly.' Campaigners criticised the government for failing to recover compensation or clean up costs from Dow Chemicals, which took over Union Carbide after the disaster. 'We are ashamed and outraged that the prime minister of the world's largest democracy has openly admitted to his inability to pressure an American multinational,' said Satinath Sarangi, one of the six hunger strikers.
An official report into the health impact from the Chernobyl catastrophe has 'hugely under-estimated' the magnitude of the problem, says Greenpeace. A report from the environmental group, 'Chernobyl catastrophe: Consequences on human health', which includes input from 52 scientists around the world and has been published in the run up to the 26 April 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, is highly critical of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) figures. The report cites evidence putting the real toll in the region of 250,000 cancers, including 1,000 deaths. It challenges the IAEA Chernobyl Forum's prediction of 4,000 additional deaths attributable to the accident as a 'gross simplification of the breadth of human suffering'. Greenpeace spokesperson Ivan Blokov said: 'It is appalling that the IAEA is whitewashing the impacts of the most serious nuclear accident in human history.' He added: 'Denying the real implications is not only insulting to the thousands of victims, but it also leads to dangerous recommendations and the relocation of people in contaminated areas. The IAEA cannot remain as the world's nuclear watchdog if it cannot at least admit that nuclear power is responsible for the impact on those whose life it scarred forever'. The Greenpeace report says radiation from the disaster has had a devastating effect on survivors, damaging immune and endocrine systems, leading to accelerated ageing, cardiovascular and blood illnesses, psychological illnesses, chromosomal aberrations and an increase of deformities in foetuses and children. Global chemical workers' union federation ICEM is highlighting the Chernobyl disaster as part of its 28 April Workers' Memorial Day activities. It said: 'For those who survived, the situation is bleak today with little or no job security and a largely indifferent government.'
Ronald Reagan's lasting contribution to US workplace safety policy, a system of 'Voluntary Protection Programmes (VPP)' introduced as a business-friendly alternative to official enforcement, has once more attracted criticism. A Florida plant of Tropicana Beverages, which had been designated by safety watchdog OSHA a 'Star' member of the VPP scheme, has just agreed to a $146,250 (£82,500) penalty after two workers were serious burned in a flash fire. The Star programme is reserved for those companies with an exemplary health and safety system, and guarantees them only the most cursory attention from OSHA. Before 1988, OSHA says it inspected the facility 41 times and issued citations for 265 violations. After entering the VPP scheme in February 2000, and prior to an accident last October, the site was inspected just 13 times and cited for only four violations. But when you don't look, you don't find. It took a serious accident to reveal Tropicana's systems were not up-to-scratch - infact, were in serious disarray. An OSHA investigation started in October 2005, and resulted in two citations for 'wilful' safety violations. The company, part of PepsiCo, also received 10 serious citations for failing to establish and implement: a 'management of change' programme; employee safety training; written procedures to maintain the integrity of equipment; and safety assessments to prevent employee exposure to chemical, hot work, confined space and electrical hazards. The UK Health and Safety Executive, which has examined the US model, is considering a range of voluntary alternatives to enforcement.
Unions worldwide are using innovative ways to highlight the deadly toll exacted by hazardous workplaces. An extensive listing on the Hazards website gives an idea of the range of events, protests and stunts around the world that will take place on 28 April, Workers' Memorial Day. Among the most creative are the activities in Korea, where unions and safety campaigners are going beyond the usual day of protests, ceremonies and rallies. The whole of April has been designated the 'Month of Struggle for Workers' Safety and Health.' On 28 April 'Killer Company Awards' will be allocated to companies 'that have killed a lot of workers' through accidents or occupational disease. The 'champion 2006' is GS, one of the biggest construction companies in Korea. Nine workers were killed and five injured in an October 2005 incident on a GS construction site.
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