issue no 202 - 16 April 2005
Risks is the TUCs weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 11,000 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 TUC wants the official rules on the reporting of work accidents, diseases and dangerous occurrences clarified, enforced and turned into an effective early warning system. The TUC call comes as The Health and Safety Commission considers changes to the reporting regulations, RIDDOR. 'TUC wants to ensure that all the information required to gauge the level of occupational injury and illness can be obtained easily and that any new trends can be identified at the earliest possible opportunity,' said TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson. 'The current scheme is both confusing and has some glaring omissions. It is also widely ignored by many employers and not enforced by the HSE.' He said the reporting system should be revised so it is 'comprehensive, understandable and adhered to.' He added that 'whatever changes are made, under-reporting must also be addressed.' The revised scheme should be compatible with the ILO protocol on reporting injuries and ill-health, so that proper international comparisons can be made, he said.
New workplace rules to come into effect later this year and that will protect people with cancer from discrimination must not have any loopholes, say campaigners. The updated Disability Discrimination Act 2005 was passed last week and, among other changes, will make it an offence to discriminate against an employee from the moment they receive a diagnosis of cancer. But some MPs had wanted 'easily treatable' cancers to be exempted from the list of conditions. Union and cancer organisations say this is a mistake, as its not the specific condition that causes potential problems for the employee but the word 'cancer' itself. As a compromise the government says it will wait until later in the year before drawing up the actual regulations, with the Department of Work and Pensions asking for groups to present evidence on the problem, especially any specific workplace issues. 'Were very concerned the government has failed to understand the significant impact that minor cancer can have on someone,' says UNISONs Gloria Foran. 'If the government fails to recognise the discrimination people with 'minor' cancers face, we will continue to have to take people though the tortuous process of proving they meet the complicated definition before we can represent the issue of discrimination.' UNISON is calling on members to provide case histories of any problems they have encountered 'so that we can arm the TUC and the Disability Rights Commission with evidence to win new rights for these workers.'
Thousands of rail passengers could face delays because a rail company has angered its drivers by banning the wearing of shorts, on the grounds that they look unprofessional. Drivers working for the train company One are refusing to work overtime in protest at rules requiring them to wear shirts and ties, which they say will force them to dress up like 'little tin soldiers.' They say elderly suburban trains used by One have poorly ventilated cabs which become unbearably sweaty in spring and summer. Andy Cotogno, district organiser for the rail union ASLEF, said: 'The units the drivers are working on are older units which have no air conditioning.' ASLEF said the dispute was unofficial and that certain staff were refusing to work on rest days in line with their rights. The network used to be part of WAGN but was subsumed into the One rail franchise last year. Drivers said their dark blue polo shirts and shorts had been issued by WAGN and had never before been considered 'unprofessional.' Rail companies have a history of instigating baffling dress codes. A disciplinary rule against bulging pockets was withdrawn after it prompted widespread ridicule.
The boss of a scrap metal yard has been fined £50,000 after one of his employees was sliced in half. Worker Simon Teece was killed in a box shearer strong enough to crush cars while working at Briggs Metal in Newark. The 45-year-old was standing inside the machine when he pressed the wrong button on a remote control. The emergency stop button on the remote control had broken off three days earlier, leaving him helpless. Bill Briggs-Price, joint partner at Briggs Metal, Newark, knew the button was broken, but still allowed workers to climb into the machine, Nottingham Crown Court heard. He also knew some employees climbed into the equipment with the power on - though he told them not to. The machinery had no instruction manual, and the words on the control panel and remote control were written in Dutch. Briggs-Price, 37, admitted failing to carry out a sufficient risk assessment of the machinery, and failing to ensure the safety of his employees. He was fined £10,000 for the first offence and £40,000 for the second, and ordered to pay £6,749.90 costs. Work to make the machine safe would have been easy and cheap, Recorder Colin Goodier said. Mr Teece remained conscious as co-workers fought to free him from the machine's jaws, but was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics. HSE inspector Giles Hyder said: 'Mr Briggs-Price had fallen well short of taking adequate measures to ensure employees' safety when working and operating the box shearer at his premises.' He added: 'We are happy with the fine.'
A 52-year-old man has been killed in an incident at a Corus plant in south Wales. Father-of-two Hywel Thomas, who was from the Pontarddulais area, died on 8 April at the Corus-owned Aluminised Products Plant plant in the town. Police and the Health and Safety Executive have launched an investigation. Production was halted at the plant, which employs around 75 people, after the accident. A Corus spokesperson said: 'The workforce is in a state of shock. There is a very strong sense of community.' The tragedy is the latest in a series of fatalities at the company. Corus UK Ltd was fined £150,000 and £50,000 costs in December 2003 following the death at the companys Scunthorpe steel plant of locomotive driver Michael McGovern (Risks 135). Gary Birkett died at the Scunthorpe plant on 5 November 2002. In February 2003, Corus was fined £10,000 and costs of £1,286 for safety offences related to the death of Bob Powlay, 54, at its plant in Portrack, Stockton (Risks 93). In January 2003, Francis Coles, a 42-year-old maintenance engineer, was killed at the Corus tin plate works in Llanelli, Wales (Risks 88). In November 2001, three workers died in an explosion at the Corus steelworks in Port Talbot (Risks 29). On 26 March this year, a steelworker at Coruss Scunthorpe plant was seriously burnt after falling into a pit of effluent and remains in a 'poorly but stable' condition. In September last year, Corus chief executive Philippe Varin expressed his concern over the company's safety record, particularly the high number of what he called 'contractor incidents.'
A construction firm has escaped a heavy fine over the death of a Grimsby worker because it had already gone bust. Tony Abbott, 35, was killed when he fell 8 feet from a scaffolding platform. The panel fitter suffered a fatal head injury which could have been avoided if safety regulations had been met, the Old Bailey heard. Company boss John Gibbons, owner of JMPI Ltd, admitted health and safety breaches along with contractor TSL Hygienics Ltd. JMPI had been subcontracted by TSL to fit panelling at a Dairy Crest factory in Dagenham, Essex. A Health and Safety Executive investigation found the ladder leading up to the scaffolding platform did not reach high enough above it to provide a handhold and was not properly secured. JMPI was fined £8,000 and was ordered to pay £5,000 costs. But TSL was fined an 'unusually low' £5,000 by Judge Richard Hawkins QC because it has gone into liquidation since Mr Abbotts death on 3 September 2001. The judge said: 'The fine needs to be large enough to bring home the message that a safe environment should be achieved for workers, but it should not be so large as to imperil the company. I must remember there are creditors.'
A water-damaged workplace may lead to a dramatic increase in the rate of asthma and other breathing problems in employees, and could be a substantial source of sick days, new research suggests. In a study of workers at one leaky, mould-contaminated office building, scientists from the US governments workplace safety research body NIOSH found that the rate of adult-onset asthma among employees was more than three times that for the general population. Two-thirds of these cases were diagnosed after the employees had started working in the building. The researchers estimate that up to 12 per cent of employee sick days in a year could be attributed to the health effects of the building. 'We feel our study adds to the evidence that asthma can develop in damp indoor environments,' said NIOSH researcher Dr Jean M Cox-Ganser. The exact triggers of the workers' breathing problems were not clear, said the researchers. Allergic reaction to mould is one possibility, Cox-Ganser said, but damp environments can create a number of exposures potentially irritating to the airways. Writing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the researchers conclude: 'This investigation documents the considerable respiratory illness, adverse effects on quality of life, and absenteeism that have placed personal, social, and economic burdens on many employees and their employers. Building-related respiratory disease warrants increased public health, medical research, and policy attention.'
Compensation companies have been caught touting for business at an accident and emergency department in Derbyshire. The 'no win, no fee' salespeople were spotted handing out leaflets and business cards to patients at the Chesterfield Royal Hospital. Managers said the ambulance chasers had harassed vulnerable people in casualty and damaged hospital property. One sales representative was escorted from the premises by an off-duty police officer and security. Sarah Turner-Saint, from the hospital, said: 'We realise obviously that people have accidents and there are occasions when they may be entitled to claim compensation. But from our point of view we feel that targeting patients in A&E when they've actually had the accident and are waiting to be treated is not the right way to go about marketing and touting for this kind of business.' The TUC and unions have warned repeatedly that even workers winning claims through no-win, no fee firms can end up out of pocket. Last month, Tony Woodley, TGWU general secretary, said: 'People need to know that if they have an accident at work or suffer an injustice that there is someone to fight back for them, win and not charge them. There's a sharp contrast here with some of the so-called 'no-win, no-fee' firms who sometimes make substantial deductions from settlements' (Risks 200).
Rail union RMT has expressed concern at a top Jarvis boss taking the helm of Tube maintenance firm Metronet. The RMT statement came after it was announced John Weight, the chief executive of Metronet, a private firm criticised for its performance in modernising London Underground (LU), had resigned, to be replaced by Andrew Lezala, the chief operating officer of engineering group Jarvis. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'The profit-hungry ethics of Jarvis has already led to them being kicked off maintenance contracts on the mainline following disasters like Potter's Bar and Hatfield.' He added: 'It is unbelievable that Jarvis are now being handed control of the Tube.' In August last year, RMT called for Metronet to be suspended and its maintenance work taken back in-house, after the company was found to have been the principal cause of an 11 May White City derailment (Risks 171). A report concluded the company had failed to comply fully with safety measures laid down by London Underground following an earlier accident at Camden Town. RMT had also criticised Metronet for firing six workers under its zero tolerance alcohol and drug policy, despite company tests confirming none of the workers had consumed either (Risks 163).
A former British Rail employee died of cancer caused by asbestos, an inquest has heard. Derby Coroner's Court was told that Derek Trelfa (66), died on 4 January of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. Dr Rahul Deb, a consultant pathologist at Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, carried out the post-mortem examination. He told the court that there was evidence of asbestos. Deputy coroner Dr Turlough Farnan read a statement written by Mr Trelfa in September 2003. It stated that he worked for British Rail between 1954 and 1964 before working for various other firms. The statement said that he was of the firm conviction that he was exposed to asbestos while working for British Rail. Dr Farnan recorded a verdict of death from the industrial disease malignant mesothelioma. In a second case, this week a widow who emigrated to Australia more than 40 years ago won substantial damages from British Rail following the death of her husband from exposure to asbestos. Rosemary Panting, who emigrated with her husband Christopher in 1963, brought the claim against British Rail after he died from mesothelioma in 2002. She has received £157,000 in an out-of-court settlement. Mr Panting worked as a coach finisher for British Rail as its Swindon works from 1954 until he emigrated in 1963 the only period he was exposed to asbestos in his working life. The deadly condition is now so common in railworkers it is sometimes referred to as 'Swindon Disease', after the Wiltshire rail town. Swindon has an asbestos memorial garden to commemorate victims (Risks 96).
Thirty people are known to have died and hundreds are believed to be trapped in the debris of a nine-storey garment factory in Bangladesh that collapsed on 11 April after what was believed to be a boiler explosion. Nurul Islam, a police official supervising rescue work, said 200 people were feared trapped beneath the mangled Spectrum Sweaters factory near Savar, an industrial town 20 miles north-west of the capital Dhaka. Neil Kearney, general secretary of global textile unions federation ITGLWF, said the cause of the tragedy was a combination of a desperate race for competitive advantage in a liberalised trade environment and the inaction of the public authorities in ensuring safe working conditions. 'Some would say this is the inevitable consequence of the race to the bottom now underway as a result of unregulated trade in textiles and clothing,' he said. 'It is difficult to consider this as anything less than the murder of the workers involved.' Lutfozzaman Babar, a junior home minister who visited the site, said the government had ordered an investigation. Officials said that the factory had been built illegally on marshland; five floors had been added on top of the original four. Spectrum Sweaters produced nearly 80,000 pieces of clothing a day for export, mainly to the United States, Belgium and Germany, an employee, Kaiser Ahmed, said. ITGLWF has also asked the government urgently to examine whether the newly-introduced 72-hour work week was not the direct cause of the tragedy. Among those still missing is a 15-year-old worker who was working overtime at 1 am.
Thirty-one members of a family have been poisoned, leaving one man dead, in a tin smelting accident in Hebei Province, China. The family members suffered from arsenic poisoning when one of them poured water over slag left over from the smelting process. Eleven people, including a five-year-old boy and a pregnant women, were taken to Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing in a serious condition after the incident last week, but they are now out of danger. Family member Zang Shoutang had sprinkled water over the tin slag. He died of poisoning the same day. Reports say poisonous hydrogen arsenide gas, which can cause renal and heart failure, was produced when the water hit the slag. In Xidi village where the accident occurred, many rural residents make money from smelting tin, copper and silver. The slag created is sometimes stored in their own homes.
A marine engineering firm has become the first in New Zealand to receive a safety conviction for work-related stress. Nalder and Biddle admitted the charge and was fined $8,000 (£3,060), and ordered to pay reparation of $1,300 (£497) to the employee. It is the first prosecution of its type under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, for which the maximum fine is $250,000 (£95,640). The Department of Labour's Occupational Safety and Heath (OSH) service charged the company after the female employee was diagnosed as suffering depression and hypertension as a result of work-related stress. OSH national operations manager Mike Cosman said the mental and physical harm the woman suffered was the direct result of work pressures and poor work organisation, which the company failed to deal with despite numerous complaints. 'She was working in an environment where poor communication was the norm, and the work culture was non-supportive,' Mr Cosman said after the conviction. Amendments to New Zealand safety law in 2002 clarified the definition of harm to include any mental or physical harm caused by work-related stress.
The 'immaculate' safety record of a massive San Francisco construction project has been challenged after evidence of an accidents and occupational disease cover-up came to light. Reports in the Oakland Tribune suggest the excellent health and safety record on the new Bay Bridge construction project has more to do with bullying, bribes and other 'behavioural safety' initiatives than good practice. The newspaper says the official accident reports from KFM Joint Venture and their lead contractor Kiewit Pacific Co suggest the site is 'even safer than your average flower shop,' a record which could save it millions in workers compensation insurance. In fact, the site operates a 'Foreman Safety Incentive Programme' in which they dole out $100 to $2,500 (£53-£1,320) bonuses, depending on the number of worker hours logged without a recordable injury. Workers report an injury at their peril. At least three of the eight workers who suffered injuries requiring more than basic first aid in 2004 were suspended for up to a few days without pay. In one case, the worker's 16-member crew was suspended for a day after the man sliced his ear on a ladder. Bob Whitmore, a top official with national safety watchdog OSHA, said punishing injured workers, especially an entire crew, 'is outrageous.' It sounds like 'behaviour-based safety out of control,' he added. And workers health is suffering too. As well as the more usual strain injuries, back pain and heat exhaustion, there are also reports of 'KFM flu' - debilitating manganese poisoning caused by inhalation of welding fume. The low injury rate reported by KFM on the Bay Bridge project could save the joint venture as much as $7 million (£3.7m) a year on its compensation insurance bill, according to industry experts, because insurers discount premiums on companies with safe track records.
Workplace health and safety is the top political concern of US voters, new research has found. The Wall St Journal-NBC News poll found the most important issue Americans think Congress should be involved in is 'rules in the workplace that deal with health and safety issues,' identified by 84 per cent of those polled. It pipped 'environmental laws that involve restricting development to protect endangered species' at 80 per cent and 'discrimination and affirmative action' at 76 per cent. However, Jordan Barab, editor of US safety news service Confined Space, warns there is a danger that safety is not only failing to claim the political priority it deserves, it is also risks dropping down the union agenda, particularly at the national union federation AFL-CIO. Amid animated debate over the future direction of US unions, some union leaders have suggested curtailing safety activities or even abolishing the federations highly respected safety department. Writing in the April issue of top US union activists journal Labor Notes, he says: 'The department plays a crucial strategic coordinating role with the federations various unions, particularly focused on legislation, standards, and enforcement activities.' He adds: 'Forcing OSHA [the official US safety enforcement agency] to issue health and safety standards or to enforce the law is no longer a simple administrative process. To be successful, unions need to organise massive grassroots political action campaigns. It takes coordination from the AFL-CIO and national unions, organising the victims of health and safety problems on the local and national levels, and political action in Washington and in the states.'
Amicus has revamped its health and safety resources webpages, following the merger with print union GPMU and banking union UNIFI. Latest additions include an accident investigation form and hazards and inspection checklists.
The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) is investigating how health and safety law and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) interact and wants to hear your views. DRCs Michelle Valentine says: 'We think that employers really need some good quality, practical advice on how to make adjustments whilst meeting their duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act. However, we want to develop this with people who have to deal with health and safety issues on a day-to-day basis in their workplace.' DRC has prepared a short questionnaire it would like Risks readers and other interested parties to complete and return, identifying examples of problems and good practice.
COURSES FOR APRIL TO JULY 2005
The Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA) and the TUC are holding a major conference on the government's draft bill creating a new offence of corporate manslaughter. Speakers include TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, government ministers, campaigners and union and legal experts.
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