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Risks is the TUC’s weekly Union Health & Safety newsletter for union members, reps and activists. Sponsored by Thompsons Solicitors.

Union News

Union warns government about EU law cull

The union representing Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors has written to the business secretary raising deep concerns about the government’s plan for a mass cull of EU laws at the end of the year. The letter from Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy to Kemi Badenoch, the secretary of state for business and trade, highlights dangers from the forthcoming Retained EU Law Bill, including the impact on the regulation of hazardous industries and on employment rights. The letter notes that “fundamental workers’ rights such as the right to paid holiday, limits to working time, parental leave and maternity rights would be due to sunset under the proposed legislation. Also included are essential health and safety provisions, including in the nuclear sector, where we represent over 12,000 workers.”
Prospect news release and letter.

Train driver tragedy prompts safety recommendations

An official investigation after the death of a train driver who it is believed may have got out of his cab to urinate and was hit by another train has called for safety improvements on the network. The train drivers' union Aslef, which described the report a ‘wake up call’ for the industry, had previously raised concerns that the model of train he was driving has no toilet and the West Worthing timetable did not allow drivers time to use a toilet between services. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), in its report on the tragedy on the evening of 1 February 2022, called for all train staff to have access to toilets. RAIB also said the train driver, Michal Olesiak, may have slipped or tripped on a wooden board that had been left detached on the track for many years, and said companies should remove trip hazards from their lines.
RAIB news release and report. BBC News Online. Sussex Express. The Argus.

Don’t forget lessons of Tebay tragedy - RMT

Rail union has warned of the dangers of ignoring the lessons of the Tebay tragedy. Four RMT members died and another 5 were injured in the 15 February 2004 collision, when they were hit by an out of control 16-tonne steel wagon. Two managers of the rail maintenance company, MAC Machinery Services, were subsequently jailed for manslaughter. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch warned “despite these tragedies and others, we are having to resist further attacks on safety with 50 per cent planned reductions in scheduled maintenance tasks, hundreds of job losses and more unsocial shifts.” He added: “The cost cutting agenda posed by Network Rail's plans under so called modernising maintenance, represents a threat to safety standards, our members wellbeing and to the travelling public. Make no mistake, RMT will resist threats to safety standards on our railways.” 
RMT news release.

Unions call for action on ‘dangerous’ schools

Seven unions have written to the government demanding immediate action to address the “shocking” state of school buildings in England, some of which are in danger of collapse. The action followed a call from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for full disclosure over exactly which school buildings are most at risk, and for urgent intervention to shore up those buildings most likely to structurally fail. Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the teaching union NEU, said: “It is disgraceful that over the last decade of austerity our school buildings have been allowed to deteriorate to the extent that some are at risk of collapse, and the government does not even know which buildings fall into this category.” The other unions signed up to the letter are Community, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, UNISON and Unite.
NEU news release. NASUWT news release. Morning Star. The Guardian. Construction Enquirer.

Schools closed due to unsafe buildings

At least 39 state schools in England have been forced to close either partially or entirely in the last three years because one or more buildings have been deemed unsafe, the government has confirmed. In three cases, concerns about building safety were so extensive that the entire school site had to be closed down permanently, with pupils moved off-site to alternative accommodation. The government said the reasons for the closures since December 2019 included structural concerns and general condition issues, such as roofing and boiler failures. The details were revealed by ministers in a written answer to the Liberal Democrats.
The Guardian.

Over half of LGBT teachers face abuse

Over half of LGBTI teachers (52 per cent) experience discrimination and abuse from pupils and parents, new polling by teaching union NASUWT has found. The findings were released as the union’s LGBTI Teachers Consultation Conference met to discuss issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and intersex teachers and to identify solutions. Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary, commented: “With teacher recruitment and retention reaching crisis levels, governments and employers need to be doing everything in their power to make teaching an inclusive and attractive profession. But instead of being valued and respected, 1 in 2 of LGBTI NASUWT members report experiencing discrimination and abuse at work.”
NASUWT news release. Morning Star.

Screen workers welcome mental health report

The creative union Bectu has welcomed the publication of the Film and TV Charity’s Looking Glass ’22 report. The charity’s latest survey of 2,000 people across the film and TV sector found attitudes towards mental health and bullying and harassment are improving, with more workers and employers taking incidents seriously and listening to the concerns of their colleagues. However, just 11 per cent of respondents reported that the industry is a mentally healthy place to work. Head of Bectu Philippa Childs said this meant “there is clearly lots more work to do. Across too many metrics the industry is simply too far behind national comparators, and it’s clear that long hours and resulting poor work-life balance are critical issues that need addressing.”
Bectu news release.

Zero hours contracts hit record high

The union GMB has accused Rishi Sunak of presiding over a ‘tidal wave’ of insecure work after zero hours employment hit its highest rate in history. New official figures show that 1,133,441 people were employed on a zero hours contract in October to December 2022.  This was the highest estimate on record and an increase of 8.5 per cent on the previous three months. Gary Smith, GMB general secretary, said: “Rishi Sunak is presiding over a tidal wave of insecure work and exploitative zero hours employment is higher than ever. The economy is stalling and his answer is to launch a bonfire of workers’ rights while other countries get with ending these contracts for good.”
GMB news release.

Call for swift action to protect threatened journalists

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has called on the government and police to act swiftly and robustly to secure the safety of journalists working in the UK for Iran International and the BBC Persian service. The union was commenting after Iran International said in the face of escalation of threats against its journalists, it had closed its London TV studios on the advice of police. Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, responded: “Whilst an understandable short-term measure, the answer to grave threats from Iran – or any other despotic regime – cannot be to say that output from the UK should be halted, that journalists should remain a prisoner in their own home, or that journalists should not be free to travel and go about their lives.”
NUJ news release. The Guardian.

Other News

Doctors could be told to deny sick notes

The government could tell doctors to sign fewer sick people off work as part of a bid to boost the flagging performance of Britain's economy. People deemed ill enough to get a sick note would instead be “helped” to remain in work under plans reported by the Telegraph and under consideration in Whitehall. This includes changing advice to GPs to encourage people to stay in employment and to stress the “benefits of work.” Official figures in the Labour Force Survey show that 2.32 million people were signed off with long-term health conditions last summer, up from 1.95 million before the pandemic in 2019. The backdrop to the measures is the weak economic performance by the UK compared to its neighbours, partly driven by a shortage of workers.
The Telegraph. The Independent.

Government has got it wrong on labour supply

A drive by Rishi Sunak’s government to push people who have taken early retirement back to work to fix chronic staff shortages is addressing the wrong problem, according to a new report. The sharp rise in economic inactivity – when working-age adults are neither in work nor looking for a job – is more likely to be driven by people waiting for treatment as the health service struggles to cope, as well as by people who permanently live in poorer health, according to the consultancy LCP. “There is a real risk of the government barking up the wrong tree when it comes to the growth in economic inactivity,” the report noted. Steve Webb, the former pensions minister who co-authored the LCP report, said rising long-term sickness was much more significant than early retirements.
LCP news release. The Guardian.

Tugboat giant fined £2m after worker death

A multinational tugboat operator has been fined £2 million plus £136,000 costs for criminal safety offences that led to the death of an experienced worker. Ian Webb, 62, was working as the chief engineer on a tugboat at Tranmere Oil Terminal during a “violent storm” on 27 January 2019 when he slipped into the river from a jetty and was killed. His employer Svitzer Marine Ltd pleaded guilty to two criminal safety breaches. The prosecution came after an investigation by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) identified “serious failings” by the company, which “should have stamped out this unsafe working practice.” Prosecutors said the firm had failed to implement “safe systems of work over a significant period of time” despite issues having been raised by staff on numerous occasions.
Liverpool Echo.

Director penalised over unusable open air toilet

A construction company and its director have been fined after they failed to provide suitable welfare facilities at a North London construction site. ID8 Design and Build Ltd was carrying out a full refurbishment of a two-storey flat. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspection of the site on 29 November 2021 found the toilet provided was not flushable and was in a room without a door or window coverings. There was no sink, no hot water, no soap and no towels – cold water was only available from a pipe in the room next to the toilet. No rest area was provided. ID8 Design and Build Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £1,334 and ordered to pay costs of £,1748. Company director Adeel Bhatti was fined £416 plus £1,622.07 costs.
HSE news release. Construction Enquirer.


Making safety representatives more representative

TUC research found over 90 per cent of union safety reps are white, and 80 per cent are male. According to the union body, safety reps have “the most powerful union rep role, but we know they’re not yet representative of our wider membership. We also know women and Black workers often face more risk at work.” To encourage more of these workers to become union safety reps the TUC has organised four free, one-day, online introductory courses. “These are open to any member of a TUC-affiliated union, but they must be a woman or Black member for each respective course,” the TUC noted. “Please share with any members whom you think may be interested, and existing reps who may wish to encourage and nurture the safety reps of tomorrow!”

Sign up for the women only safety rep online courses on Thursday 23 March and Thursday 11 May; or the Black members only online safety reps courses on Tuesday 21 March and Friday 12 May.

International News

Australia: Union ramps up push to ban engineered stone

There’s a fresh push in Australia to ban the engineered stone commonly used in kitchen benchtops and linked to an incurable lung-scarring disease. The construction union CFMMEU has said it will instruct its members not to work with the product by the middle of next year unless the government stops it being imported and used Australia-wide. Engineered stone, which has extremely high levels of silica which when inhaled as dust causes deadly silicosis, is the asbestos of the 2020’s, according to the CFMMEU’s incoming national secretary Zach Smith. “The companies flooding our markets with this cheap and nasty material know that but to them profits are more important than people’s lives,” he said. Respirable crystalline silica exposures are also linked to cancers, autoimmune and other diseases.
In Queensland. Canberra Times. Insurance News.

Canada: Amazon pays after over 1,300 work injuries

New workplace injury data from Ontario, Canada, shows Amazon was ordered to pay out nearly Can$5 million (£3.1m) in connection with over 1,300 workplace injuries last year. According to health and safety data from Ontario’s Workplace Safety And Insurance Board, Amazon Canada Fulfillment Services ULC has seen a sharp increase in workplace injuries since the start of the pandemic – with related penalties up five-fold from Can$1 million in 2019. David Newberry, legal worker with the Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic, said the spike in injuries reflects Amazon’s hazardous working conditions. “Not only does it show a disregard for the safety of workers,” Newberry said, “it shows that a growing issue is being ignored or improperly addressed, and that workers are increasingly thought of simply as disposable parts.”

France: Union wins night worker breast cancer case

In a landmark case, a night worker in France has had her breast cancer recognised as an occupational disease. This decision was the result of a large-scale union campaign launched in 2017 by a 'breast cancer collective' created by the union CFDT. The successful case involved a hospital worker with a long history of night work, whose breast cancer led her to take early retirement. It was only in 2023, after five years of legal proceedings, that her cancer was recognised as an occupational disease, and she was awarded compensation set at 35 per cent of her salary. In 2020, a review by the World Health Organisation’s cancer research agency IARC reasserted that breast cancer related to night work is a ‘probable’ cause of cancer in humans.
HESA magazine, ETUI, February 2023. More on breast cancer and night work.

USA: Work is a ‘key social determinant of health’

Ignoring the work-related “social determinants of health” (SDOH) is a big mistake, US government occupational health experts have warned. “Work influences many aspects of life that affect health, including income, workplace hazards, social status, healthcare access, housing, economic security, and more,” the experts from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) note, but are overlooked in official analyses. They conclude: “In addition to employment status, occupation and industry, other aspects of work are closely related to health equity. Government agencies, researchers, clinicians, community groups and many others can play a role by collecting additional work-related information.”
Andrea L Steege, Sharon Silver, Amy Mobley and Marie Haring Sweeney, NIOSH Science Blog, 16 February 2023.
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