|Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others. Sign up to receive this bulletin every week. Past issues are available. Disclaimer and Privacy Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at firstname.lastname@example.org.|
Employers should be extra vigilant during the office Christmas party season, when sexual harassment can be a particular problem, the TUC has said. Polling for the TUC discovered 1 in 7 victims of sexual harassment said it took place at a work social event. This number rises to 1 in 5 for women employed by small businesses. The union organisation suggests management send an email to staff in advance of a party spelling out the standard of behaviour that is expected of staff. “Remind them the party is still a work setting so normal company rules on behaviour will apply,” it says. The TUC adds that firms should make sure plenty of non-alcoholic drinks are available and that there are travel arrangements in place to ensure everyone gets home safely. “You might want to think about laying on transport home or providing phone numbers for reputable cab companies,” the TUC says. It says firms must treat any complaints following the Christmas party seriously and take action immediately, carrying out a full investigation if necessary. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said “workers and bosses should remember that they are still in a work setting. Nobody wants to offend another member of staff – or worse do something that might get them sacked just before Christmas.” She added: “Employers must be clear they have a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual harassment and treat any complaint seriously. Anyone worried about inappropriate sexual harassment at work should join a union to make sure they are protected and respected at work. I hope everyone uses their common sense and has a happy evening – and a great Christmas and New Year.”
Ÿ TUC news release and resources: Protection from sexual harassment, TUC, November 2017. Tackling sexual harassment in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, TUC, July 2016. Still just a bit of banter?, TUC, August 2016.
The TUC has called on employers not to force staff to make hazardous journeys into work when the weather turns particularly nasty. The dangers were highlighted this week, when temperatures dipped as low as –13 degrees, with heavy snow in some areas causing flights cancellations and road closures. The union body says that while workers should make every effort to get in, employees shouldn’t attempt to travel if it’s not safe to do so, particularly if they live in isolated areas. The TUC wants employers to have weather policies in place, to set out what is expected of staff and what they should do when snow, ice and a lack of public transport prevents them getting to work. It says policies should also cover what parents should do if schools close and they have no alternative childcare. The TUC ‘strongly advises’ against employers withholding pay or forcing staff to use up their holiday entitlement as this is unfair on employees who’ve been kept away from work through no fault of their own. It adds that employers should keep their workplaces safe during the current cold weather. The temperature should normally be at least 16° Celsius, or 13°C if much of the work is indoors and involves severe physical effort. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “It is essential that employers don’t force staff to make dangerous journeys for the sake of presenteeism. For many employees the bad weather will have made their commute virtually impossible, but thankfully many bosses now have ‘bad weather’ policies so staff know what is expected of them.” She added: “Employers also need to be aware of the difficulties faced by staff whose children have been unable to go to school because their schools are closed due to the weather. Some may be able to take their children to work. Others may be able to work from home. But those who can do neither need support and understanding from their employers.” Civil service unions PCS and Prospect have issued new guidance to members on work in cold weather.
Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union may end up with stronger guarantees of animal rights than workers’ health and safety rights if the government has its way, the TUC has said. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson was commenting after environment secretary Michael Gove announced new legislation to protect animals. The draft bill says the government “must have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy,” and would introduce a much higher maximum prison sentence for animal abuse in England and Wales. “Our plans will also increase sentences for those who commit the most heinous acts of animal cruelty to five years in jail,” up from six months, said the environment secretary. “We are a nation of animal lovers so we will make Brexit work not just for citizens but for the animals we love and cherish too.” TUC’s Hugh Robertson said he hoped the bill succeeded. “However, let’s not forget that the government has also voted down attempts to protect existing employment, health and safety and equality rights. That means that the government is promising to guarantee stronger legal protection post-Brexit for animals than it is for workers!”
Legal action has been launched against Royal Mail Group Limited on behalf of four courier drivers who claim that the former public service does not provide them with basic employment rights. The employment tribunal claims, submitted by the union GMB, argue there has been a failure by Royal Mail to pay its Parcelforce drivers the national minimum wage and holiday pay. They also claim that the couriers should be entitled to other employee rights such as paternity pay, sick pay and employee rights such as protection from discrimination. The couriers are classed currently as self-employed, so not entitled to the same right as employees. A first hearing is due to be held at the Employment Tribunal on 16 February 2018. Maria Ludkin, GMB legal director, said: “Royal Mail is shirking its responsibilities through bogus self-employment. Having enticed long-standing employees to work under so-called self-employed contracts back in 2003, they have then, again and again, cut back their pay and increased their workload. Despite doing the same job as other employed drivers at Royal Mail, these courier drivers currently have no protection against this treatment whatsoever.” Liana Wood, the lawyer with law firm Leigh Day representing the drivers for GMB, said: “We believe that Royal Mail owes the same responsibilities as any other company to its employees. They should be paid the National Minimum Wage, they should be able to take leave when their children are born and they should be able to take time off when they are sick.”
Firefighters’ union FBU has called for one of the key experts appointed by the Grenfell Tower inquiry to stand down because of his support in the past for cuts to fire services and deregulation. Percy Seaward, a barrister representing the FBU, told the newly opened inquiry that Steven McGuirk, a former chief fire officer in Greater Manchester, would be “conflicted” and “compromised” in giving evidence. The FBU, he said, believed the emergency response to the June 2017 Grenfell blaze was affected by previous cuts to the fire service in London. McGuirk, Seaward said, had always been at the “opposite end of the table” from the FBU whenever there had been negotiations over staffing levels for the fire service. “The FBU wants this inquiry to consider the effect of deregulation, closures and cuts to the response on 14 June,” he said. “That’s part of the big question of how this happened in London. We say that Mr McGuirk is conflicted in advising on this team. He has also been the principal adviser to local authorities on fire safety guidance.” Firefighters were also victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, Seaward told the inquiry. “Those who attended and those who took the harrowing calls are victims who were exposed to trauma,” Seaward said. “They were exposed to trauma again and again when they went back in. Nearly all the firefighters were traumatised and some were injured by the traumas. Late-onset PTSD, as in the military, is becoming a recognised condition.” Matt Wrack, general secretary for the FBU, said: “It is alarming that someone who has basically supported cuts to the fire and rescue service, who thinks for example that sprinklers are a replacement for a fully funded service, is going to be on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry panel as an expert witness.” New FBU research has found that firefighters rescued record numbers of people during the period April 2016 to March 2017. In total, 43,000 people were rescued throughout the UK for the period, a new high and a 6 per cent increase on the previous year.
Rail union RMT has demanded urgent action over rodent infestations on Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) after pictures emerged showing droppings in the food preparation and kitchen areas on one of the company’s trains. In a letter to the company, the union had issued a strong warning about the “major” hygiene and health and safety issue on VTEC trains. The union warning came the day after VTEC’s major partner, Stagecoach, announced an 8 per cent increase in profits. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “It is frankly appalling that VTEC, an alliance of Stagecoach and Virgin, have allowed this rodent scandal to fester on their trains regardless of the risks to staff and passengers alike from the exposure to these droppings and the obvious health consequences.” He added: “This franchise is out of control. Only last week VTEC were given what amounts to a taxpayer funded bail-out of £2 billion by the government while at the same time they have forced a major dispute with RMT through their sneering attitude to their staff over pay and conditions. RMT is demanding urgent action over the rodent infestation and an absolute assurance that staff forced to work in these shocking conditions will not be denied the duty of care that VTEC owe them.” The union said passengers “paying through the nose to travel on these trains” will also be angry to hear about VTEC’s attitude to hygiene and health and safety. “RMT wants action and we want it now,” the union leader said.
Staff who feel they are treated unfairly at work are at increased risk of being off sick more frequently and for longer, according to new research by the University of East Anglia and Stockholm University. The new study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, focused on the impact of ‘interactional justice’, which relates to the treatment of employees by managers. Using data from more than 19,000 employees in Sweden the researchers, from UEA’s Norwich Business School, the Stress Research Institute and Department of Psychology at Stockholm University, explored whether times of high uncertainty at work, for example perceived job insecurity, had an effect on sick leave. The team found that lower levels of justice at work relate both to an increase in shorter, but more frequent sickness absence periods, and to an increased risk of longer sickness absence episodes, irrespective of job insecurity and other factors. Higher levels of job insecurity also turned out to be an important predictor of long and frequent sickness absence. Study co-author Dr Constanze Eib, a lecturer in organisational behaviour at Norwich Business School, said: “While shorter, but more frequent periods of sickness absence might be a chance for the individual to get relief from high levels of strain or stress, long-term sickness absence might be a sign of more serious health problems. Our results underline the need for fair and just treatment of employees irrespective of perceived job insecurity in order to keep the workforce healthy and to minimise lost work days due to sickness absence.” Lead author Dr Constanze Leineweber, from the Stress Research Institute, said: “Perceived fairness at work is a modifiable aspect of the work environment, as is job insecurity. Organisations have significant control over both and our results suggest that they may gain by investing or improving their policies and rules for fair treatment of their workforce and by improving job security.” TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said the findings were “hardly surprising”, adding it echoed what unions have been saying for many years. “Employers need to take heed of this research and start treating their worked like human beings. It also reinforces the case for a Dignity at Work’ Act,” Robertson said.
Ÿ UEA news release. Constanze Leineweber and others. Interactional justice at work is related to sickness absence: a study using repeated measures in the Swedish working population, BMC Public Health, volume 17, number 912, published online 8 December 2017.
Workers who are subject to sexual harassment at work suffer more sickness and are at risk of a wide range of serious health problems as a consequence, a new report has said. ‘It’s not OK’, a special report from Hazards magazine, notes: “The consequence of sexual harassment is that workers suffer physical or mental harm. Frequently, they suffer both.” The report cites studies that have shown sexual harassment can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, higher levels of sick leave, psychosocial distress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol misuse, pain disorders, work loss and worsening health overall. “Sexual harassment is an everyday fact of working life for many women, too ordinary to interest the media and too scared or concerned for their jobs to cry for help,” the report says. Citing TUC studies and guidance, it concludes: “When it comes to sexual harassment, workers depend on unions to support and defend them. And unions need to make sure this representation is matched by workplace prevention. Sexual harassment at work is about violence and power. It takes union power to stop it.”
Ÿ It’s not OK: Sexual harassment at work is more blue collar than red carpet, special report, Hazards, December 2017.
Two fifths of women and a fifth of men in the UK say they have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at work, an in-depth poll for the BBC has found. The ComRes Sexual Behaviour Survey for BBC News found two in five women in the UK reported experiencing unwanted sexual behaviour at work but only a quarter reported it. The survey of over 6,000 workers found among men, one in five (18 per cent) said they had been harassed at work. Of those in flexible work - including zero hours contracts, self-employed, freelancer and gig economy workers – 43 per cent had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, compared to 29 per cent of those with permanent jobs. The results confirm the findings of studies that have shown the less power you have to say no at work, the greater the likelihood you will face abuse. Workers in low paid service sector jobs dealing with the public, including restaurant waiting staff and hotel maids, have been found to be at high risk. A poll for the TUC this month found that two-thirds of zero hours workers would rather have a contract with guaranteed hours (Risks 829).
The High Court has declared that secret historical documents that show how much the asbestos industry knew about an emerging occupational disease epidemic must be preserved and shared with parties not involved in the original litigation where their existence was first revealed. The documents held by building products giant Cape – previously an asbestos multinational – were due to be destroyed. The ruling came in a case brought by the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum. Forum spokesperson Graham Dring said: “This decision is fantastic news. Cape, along with Turner & Newall were the two biggest asbestos companies in this country. Their activities and products exposed thousands of workers and their families to asbestos and caused many deaths from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. It is essential we now find out exactly how much they knew about the dangers of their products and when they knew this.” He added: “These documents have been hidden for far too long. Cape owe us all an explanation of their role in the biggest industrial scandal to hit this country, a scandal that has not yet run its course with tens of thousands more men and women expected to die from mesothelioma.” Solicitor Harminder Bains of the law firm Leigh Day, who acted for the Forum, said: “I am very pleased that these critical documents, that the asbestos industry has kept hidden for years, are now in the public domain. I cannot wait to read them, and hope they will expose what Cape knew about the dangers of asbestos.” The judgment noted that as well as providing advice to people with asbestos disease, the Forum “is a pressure group and is involved in lobbying and in promoting asbestos knowledge and safety. Those are legitimate activities and provide legitimate interest.”
Ÿ Leigh Day news release. Graham Dring v Cape Distribution Limited, Cape Intermediate Holdings Limited, Concept 70 Limited (and others) Aviva Plc, 5 December 2017. IBAS case summary. Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum.
An investigation into the Croydon tram crash has found workers feared reporting mistakes and operators failed to take enough safety measures and understand the risk of a vehicle overturning. The tragedy on 9 November 2016 resulted in seven fatalities and dozens of injuries after a tram overturned in Croydon, south London. Investigators say they believe the crash was caused by the driver, who had a good safety record, possibly having a ‘microsleep’ before speeding through a sharp bend. However, the scathing review lays blame with Tram Operations Ltd (TOL) who it says failed to put adequate safety measures in place. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) report makes 15 recommendations, which it hopes will have “a lasting impact on the way that the tramway industry manages its risk.” It calls for a review of how tramways are regulated and the creation of a dedicated safety body. Simon French, RAIB’s chief inspector of rail accidents, added: “There need to be improvements to safety management systems, particularly encouraging a culture in which everyone feels able to report their own mistakes.” ASLEF organiser Finn Brennan said: “The management culture at Tram Operations Ltd meant that drivers were afraid to report mistakes or errors for fear of being disciplined. The result was that the opportunity to learn lessons from previous incidents and avoid repeating them was missed.” He said that drivers “still fear their job is at risk if they report being tired or that they will be disciplined for reporting sick.” The union officer said RAIB’s recommendation that a tram protection system should be installed that can automatically apply brakes to a speeding vehicle “is long overdue.” Dr Rob Hunter, head of flight safety with the pilots’ union BALPA said the lessons applied across the transport sector. “BALPA has worked extensively in this area in terms of aviation, and our members continue to tell us that fatigue is the biggest threat to flight safety. Encouraging a culture of reporting fatigue across the transport industry is vital to the safety of the travelling public.”
The ‘independent’ committee overseeing the government’s approach to regulation is to be headed by a right-wing policy wonk and banker. The three-year appointment of Anthony Browne as the new chair of the Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC) “is a bigger deal than it might at first sound, and I think his appointment to this sensitive role is something we should all be worried about,” said TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson. Brown was until earlier this year the chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association, a post he took up in 2012 after serving as head of regulatory affairs with investment bank Morgan Stanley. Browne also served as director of the right-wing think tank the Policy Exchange, set up by Michael Gove and a couple of other Conservative MPs. He was an adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London and helped set up the website Conservative Home. That, said Robertson, raises questions about the independence of RPC. “This appointment is worrying for two reasons,” he added. “Firstly, it gives a very clear sign of what direction the government wants regulation to go. Banking after all has been one of the loudest voices against any form of effective regulation, and his close links to a number of current cabinet ministers shows that there is no way he can be seen as independent from government.” RPC will have a major role in reviewing all regulations in the run up to Brexit, Robertson noted. Secondly, “it is yet another example of how the government is using the public appointments process to install their cronies into important positions…. This has led to some bizarre appointments, such as an employer being appointed to represent workers on the HSE board.” He said “the whole process stinks. It is basically a power grab that allows the government to claim that appointments are independent when in actual fact ministers are just hand-picking people that they know will be unlikely to challenge their policies or rock the boat.” The implications for workers’ health may be particularly acute, as health and safety has been the poster boy for the government’s entire deregulatory programme.
Chelsea & Westminster NHS Trust and Imperial College London have been fined after the death of a lone worker. Southwark Crown Court heard how Damian Bowen was asphyxiated whilst working with liquid nitrogen at St Stephens Centre Laboratory, owned by Chelsea & Westminster NHS Trust. He lost his life whilst decanting liquid nitrogen which he was using to freeze blood samples for transport. Imperial College London undertook work for the International Aids Vaccine Institute in the rooms it occupied in the same laboratory suite, renting the room and owning the liquid nitrogen store. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the 23 October 2011 incident, found the local exhaust ventilation provided to extract dangerous substances, such as liquid nitrogen, had been switched off. The enforcement agency found that Mr Bowen’s death could have been prevented if the extraction system had been switched on. Chelsea & Westminster NHS Trust pleaded guilty to two criminal safety breaches and was fined £80,000 and ordered to pay costs of £23,069.19. Imperial College London also pleaded guilty to two criminal offences and was fined £70,000 plus £23,069.19 costs. HSE inspector Anne Gloor said: “Liquid nitrogen, rapidly expands as a gas, replacing the oxygen in a room and creating a situation where life cannot be sustained. Mr Bowen was working alone with liquid nitrogen in a small room without any extraction. If the extraction system had been switched on, Mr Bowen would not have died.”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has handed itself a formal rebuke after a worker at its laboratory was injured. On 4 October 2016 the worker at HSE’s laboratory in Buxton suffered serious burns while setting up an experimental hydrogen test rig. He has since returned to work. The incident, which resulted in the watchdog handing itself a ‘Crown Censure’ – a government body cannot be prosecuted - happened when a prototype hydrogen storage vessel was being tested to determine if the design would be suitable for its intended use. While filling the vessel, a connector failed and a quantity of hydrogen escaped under pressure. The hydrogen ignited and the HSE employee, who was close to the vessel, was injured. HSE’s investigation led its inspectors to serve a Crown Improvement Notice requiring HSE to provide a system of work for proof testing and leak testing an assembled hydrogen line and test tank. The investigation found the pressure testing went wrong because of failings to assess, plan, manage and control a well-known risk of death or serious injury. The investigation team found the incident could have been prevented by putting in place recognised control measures available in longstanding published guidance. HSE director of field operations, Samantha Peace, said: “In this case, HSE bear this responsibility as an employer. They fell below the required standard and as the failings exposed workers to the risk of death or serious injury, a Crown Censure is the right course of action. HSE has co-operated fully with the investigation and we are satisfied that action has been taken to put matters right.” HSE head Richard Judge said: “As chief executive of HSE, and on behalf of my colleagues on the Management Board and the HSE Board, I very much regret this incident happened, and especially that our colleague was injured. On this occasion, we did not meet the standards we expect of others and that is deeply disappointing. HSE accepts the Crown Censure.”
Unite has published new guidance to help members negotiate policies around the issue of facial hair and respiratory protective equipment (RPE). It says the guidance is intended to ensure that appropriate measures are put in place to protect members from exposure to hazardous substances. The operation of certain type of RPE is compromised when the user has a beard or stubble. The Unite guide was produced after several reports of firms banning beards in the workplace on ‘safety’ grounds. Unite’s guide notes: “The use of RPE is the last resort or last line of protection. Other steps to protect you must be considered and if possible implemented first.” The union provides an outline on the law covering control of hazardous substances and detailed pointers on ‘suitability factors to consider’ in the selection and use of RPE. It is useful to anyone dealing with the issue of personal protective equipment, however hairy they are.
Ÿ Beards, stubble and respiratory protective equipment, Unite guidance, 2017.
A union in the Canadian province of Ontario has welcomed a change to the law that will guarantee compensation to more workers suffering work-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – but says the proposals should be extended to cover all affected workers. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) commended the provincial government’s decision to guarantee treatment and compensation to more workers suffering from PTSD, but said it still falls short of covering all workers exposed to trauma on the job. The government changed the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act in 2016 to say that PTSD experienced by workers in certain “first responder” occupations would be presumed to be the result of trauma in the workplace. At the time, those occupations included paramedics, firefighters and fire investigators, police officers, correctional officers and provincial dispatchers. The latest change will mean adult and youth probation officers, probation and parole officers, provincial bailiffs, and some health care workers, including nurses, will also be covered. But OPSEU president, Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas said the union “will not settle for anything less than full recognition of all workers living with PTSD. Half-measures don’t cut it.” He added: “Anyone who experiences trauma in the workplace could have PTSD – and they shouldn’t have to prove it is work-related to get the help they need.” He said Ontario should follow the lead set by the province of Manitoba “and extend PTSD coverage to all workers.”
About one hundred workers at Eurotec Electronics in the southern China manufacturing city of Zhongshan went on strike on 6 December in protest at dangerous working conditions. China Labour Bulletin reports that about 80 per cent of the workforce had complained of dizziness, headaches, coughing, weakness and blurred vision since the factory relocated to a new facility in September. They said the production lines were sealed causing them to inhale fumes, which workers suspected were a lingering residue from the factory renovation. Workers bought their own testing devices and discovered that levels of dangerous chemicals including formaldehyde were three to ten times the recommended limit. Workers then contacted the local work safety department on 28 November. After an investigation, the government told the workers on 4 December that their suspicions were correct. According to Article 52 of China’s Work Safety Law, workers have the right to stop any work they deem unsafe. In addition, the company may not retaliate against any workers who stop work over safety concerns, like docking pay or benefits, or dismissing workers who take action. Eurotec Electronics is owned by Music Group, one of the world’s largest audio equipment manufacturers, making products for global brands like Behringer and Midas.
Workers at US meat and poultry processing plants are reluctant to tell federal health and safety inspectors about injuries or workplace hazards because of concerns they could lose their jobs, according to a government report. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has difficulty addressing workers’ safety concerns because many won’t contact the agency for fear of employer retaliation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said. Its report says this means the agency “may not be able to identify or address conditions that endanger them.” OSHA usually conducts worker interviews on site, which prevents workers from remaining anonymous. Employees interviewed by the GAO at plants in five states said bathroom access was a concern and they are afraid of speaking up at work. Requests to use the bathroom are often delayed or denied, and workers also cited concerns with on-site medical care. The report also found that chemicals don’t always undergo a federal review of potential risks to worker safety before being used in plants. Data released in November by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that beef and pork slaughtering has the highest incidence rate of occupational illnesses of any industry. Poultry processing was not far behind, ranked 12th, with an illness rate that is worse than the rates for firefighting and coal mining.
With the rise of the so-called gig economy, workers’ advocates and some US state departments of labour are raising concerns about employees who are forced to sign agreements that free their employers from keeping them safe. Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said: “Workers who work in the gig economy are making money but missing out on other standard benefits of having jobs: health care primarily but also paid sick leave and worker's compensation.” She told NPR’s Here and Now programme: “It's essentially the Tinder economy. When a temp worker is done with his or her shift, the boss swipes left and claims to have no further obligation.” This freedom from liability is a particularly problem as gig working is prevalent in some of the most dangerous industries in the country. Taxi drivers and chauffeurs are killed on the job at a rate five times higher than other workers, according to the National Employment Law Project. Transportation incidents accounted for almost half of on-the-job deaths across all industries, according to a 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Young workers are particularly vulnerable because they are attracted to the flexibility of the gig economy, Martinez said. “These are also the people who are least used to employment and have little experience with job hazards for their work. Temps are reluctant to call attention to safety issues. They have a fear of getting replaced or losing their jobs compared to permanent employees.” As a result of employers classifying these workers as independent contractors, Martinez said many workers unknowingly sign agreements that strip away their rights. “Some, if not most, agreements do not allow workers to pursue civil action if their rights are violated and must go into arbitration” she said. “In some states, there's no really legal legislation that protects temp workers.”
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/