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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

State pension decision is ‘no cause for celebration’

The government’s announcement that a rise in the state pension age to 68 will not be brought forward still leaves worrying questions for workers, the TUC has said. TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “This is a much needed climbdown. But it is no cause for celebration. Life expectancy at retirement has fallen by two years since the last time the state pension age was reviewed six years ago, which is why the government's own review recommended delaying the increase to 68.” He added: “The promise of yet another review after the next election is a worry for workers - it looks like the government just wants to keep asking the same question until it gets the answer it wants.”
DWP news release. The Guardian.

Ofsted to face union court challenge after suicide

Ofsted could face a legal challenge over its decision not to pause its school inspections after the death of headteacher Ruth Perry. She took her own life while waiting for it to be made public that Ofsted had downgraded her school to “inadequate”. The NAHT school leaders’ union has like other education unions called for England’s schools watchdog to pause inspections so a review to cut the risk of harm to school staff can take place. On 31 March, NAHT wrote to His Majesty’s Chief Inspector to demand a suspension of Ofsted inspections. The letter is the first step in judicial review proceedings and cites Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which imposes obligations on public authorities to take reasonable steps where there is a real and immediate risk of a loss of life.
NAHT news release. BBC News Online. The Guardian.
ACTION! Send an e-postcard and tell HSE to act on work-related suicide risks.

Ofsted exhausts teachers, study finds

Teachers who believe an Ofsted inspection is likely in the coming 12 months have a higher work intensity with lower task discretion and are more likely to report always coming home from work exhausted than other teachers, a study has found. The University College London and the University of Cardiff research was funded by the teaching union NEU. Commenting on the first findings, NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “This study will come as no surprise to teachers, it proves what they all know. Teaching is already exhausting work and the run up to Ofsted makes work significantly harder and more exhausting.” She added: “The government cannot go on with a broken system. That is why the NEU is calling for Ofsted to be replaced with a new system that is supportive, effective and fair.”
NEU news release and study first findings.

Education staff facing ‘unmanageable’ workloads

Education staff are facing “unmanageable” levels of stress and workload, the teaching union NEU has said. The union’s survey of almost 18,000 workers revealed 48 per cent said their workload was unmanageable all or most of the time. In contrast, just 1 per cent of teachers said their workload was always manageable. More than a third of teachers saying they are stressed 80 per cent or more of the time. Two-thirds of teachers say they feel this way more than 60 per cent of the time, and almost half of support staff feel stressed more than 60 per cent of the time. High on the list of interventions that would have a ‘big positive impact’ on workload pressures, in the view of teachers, are increased funding (88 per cent), a reformed inspection system (79 per cent), and smaller class sizes (73 per cent).
NEU news release and The Guardian.

Lifeboat falls off low wage P&O ferry

Maritime union RMT has written to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) after a lifeboat fell off the new P&O superferry P&O Pioneer while moored off the coast of the Isle of Wight. The union said accidents involving lifeboats are one of the most common causes of injuries and fatalities amongst seafarers in the shipping industry. All crew working on P&O Ferries are low paid agency crew, predominantly recruited overseas by Maltese crewing agent IFM, set up to supply agency labour to P&O Ferries before the unlawful dismissal of nearly 800 directly employed UK P&O staff last March. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “We are in contact with the MCA and our comrades in the French trade unions to ensure that P&O Ferries cannot sail their new ship without a functional set of life saving appliances on board,” he said.
RMT news release. ITV News.

Electrician fired after raising site safety concerns

A Unite member has been sacked from his job as an electrical contractor after raising safety concerns. Lee Fowler, who has fought for workers’ health and safety for more than 30 years, was dismissed by contractor Bilfinger after he warned about working conditions at food production firm Cargill’s refinery site in Merseyside. Fowler said as well as negotiating a pay rise for four workers “I raised health and safety concerns about the site.” He said he was fired after asking for documents relating to a ‘serious accident’ he suffered on site. The Blacklist Support Group statement said; “The construction industry has glossy posters that encourage workers to speak out, but time and again, workers who are conscientious about safety get sacked. Get your banners ready — another blacklisting dispute is about to kick off.”
Blacklist blog. Morning Star.

Pacific trade pact “dire” for workers - TUC

The TUC has condemned a new trade deal that will allow large companies to sue the UK government behind closed doors if they believe their profits have suffered from changes to laws or regulations and which turns a blind eye to ‘egregious’ rights abuses. Commenting on the UK joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “Time and time again, ministers have turned a blind eye to egregious rights abuses in the pursuit of trade deals. This Pacific trade pact is just the latest example.” He added: “This deal also allows multinational corporations to sue the UK government in secret courts for introducing policies which threaten their profits – this could include an increase in the minimum wage or bringing energy companies back into public ownership.”
10 Downing Street news release. TUC news release. The Guardian.

Strike wins asbestos safety agreement

Strikes at social housing landlord Magenta Living have ended with a deal on safe working with asbestos, Unite has said. More than 100 maintenance and repair workers began the action in February over a change in the organisation’s asbestos policy that compelled them to handle the substance if they came across it in a property. The new agreement stipulates that for those technicians who have opted out there will be no requirement for them to undertake essential tasks with asbestos. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “This is an excellent result for our members at Magenta Living that was achieved by them standing together in their union. The safety of our members is non-negotiable and Unite always supports workers concerned about their health and wellbeing in the workplace.”
Unite news release.

Equality is a firefighter safety issue, says FBU

Equality is a trade union principle and a safety priority for the FBU, the firefighters’ union has said. “Firefighters have the right to work without fear of being mistreated because of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or neurodiversity - or bullied or abused while doing their job. Just as much as fire contaminants and unsafe working practices, this kind of toxic culture is a matter of health and safety in the workplace,” the union said. The union was commenting as its executive council agreed its response to the Independent Culture Review, which in November 2022 revealed serious issues in the London Fire Brigade, including widespread complaints about misogyny, racism, homophobia and harassment.
FBU news release.

Fire service bullying and abuse widespread

Staff at a quarter of fire and rescue services in England have reported alleged racist, homophobic and misogynistic behaviour in their ranks in the past five years, inspectors have said. Roy Wilsher of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said he was “shocked and appalled” by the findings and urged the sector to “get a grip” on how it handles misconduct. The inspectorate’s report found there were allegations of racist, homophobic and misogynistic behaviour in 11 of the 44 fire and rescue services. Matt Wrack, general secretary of the firefighters’ union FBU, welcomed the report's acknowledgement of “the scale of the problem” and promised the union would “take a leading role” in transforming its culture. He said: “It is clear, both from our experience and from the contents of this report, that the failure to address discrimination and harassment in the service goes right to the top.”
FBU news release. Values and culture in fire and rescue services, HMICFRS, 30 March 2023. BBC News Online. The Guardian. Morning Star.



ITUC 28 April social media resources

ITUC has published a collection of free to use infographics and social media resources in English, Spanish and French for use in promoting International Workers’ Memorial Day. The world’s largest occupational health and safety event, which was initiated by unions, is held each year on 28 April.
Global: ITUC 28 April infographics in English, French and Spanish. ITUC International Workers Memorial Day #IWMD23 graphics webpage. Find out what is happening worldwide.
Britain: TUC 28 April resources and events webpages. Get your 28 April event on the map!

Other News

 Firefighter instructors at ‘high risk’ for diseases

Firefighter instructors, who train firefighter staff across the UK and typically face up to five to ten times the number of live fires compared to regular firefighters, have been found to have chronic inflammation leaving them at greater risk of cardiovascular diseases, infection and illness, according to new research by the University of Roehampton London. Dr Emily Watkins, lead researcher on the study, commented: “By evaluating the impacts of fire exposures across a six month period, this is the first research to identify that firefighters, particularly firefighter instructors, are reporting chronic and consistent symptoms of illness and inflammation. Based on this evidence, it’s imperative that fire services carefully evaluate and limit the number of exposures their staff face and review working practices to ensure instructor’s health is being prioritised.”
lan Richardson and others. Inflammatory and psychological consequences of chronic high exposure firefighting, Journal of Thermal Biology, volume 111, 2023, 103399.

HSE backs limits on some ‘forever chemicals’

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is recommending limits on the use of ‘forever chemicals’ in a range of industries. Its 4 April report sets out the extent to which PFAS (Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances) are used in Great Britain. The chemicals are linked to cancer and other health effects and persist for decades in the environment as they are slow to degrade. The HSE report’s recommendations include limiting the use of PFAS-containing foams used by firefighters to put out fires, as well as the use of PFAS in textiles, furniture, and cleaning products. Dr Richard Daniels, director of HSE’s chemicals regulation division, said: “There is evidence of occupational exposure and environmental harm that can come from current fire-fighting foams, and we can understand the concerns among firefighters. We encourage all affected to work with us in the scoping exercise.” The proposals for limits on PFAS are far less extensive than those currently be considered across the European Union.
HSE news release.

Teachers working 12-hour days - leaked report

Almost a quarter of teachers in England are working 12-hour days, according to a leaked government report. The research, commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE), was carried out in Spring 2022 and has not yet been made public. The leaked document - marked confidential and titled Working Lives of Teachers and Leaders - was produced for the DfE to examine issues around teacher supply, recruitment and retention. More than 11,000 teachers and leaders across primary and secondary schools were questioned. Nearly half of those responding said they would rate their anxiety levels as “high.” A 2021 report for the UN agencies WHO and ILO warned working 55 hours or more a week was associated with a dramatically increased risk of heart attack and stroke compared with a working week of 35 to 40 hours.
BBC News Online. Frank Pega, Bálint Náfrádi, Natalie C Momena and others. Global, regional, and national burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke attributable to exposure to long working hours for 194 countries, 2000–2016: A systematic analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury, Environment International, volume 154, September 2021.

Bullying and toxic culture at NHS trust

Repeated cases of bullying and a toxic environment at one of England's largest NHS trusts have been found in a review. The independent rapid review headed by Prof Mike Bewick was initiated after the suicide of Queen Elizabeth Hospital doctor Vaishnavi Kumar, 35. She had struggled with a “hypercritical environment” at the Birmingham hospital before killing herself in June 2022. The review highlighted “a culture that is corrosively affecting morale” at University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB). In a statement, UHB chief executive Jonathan Brotherton said the Trust accepted the inquiry’s findings and added: “We want to develop a positive, inclusive work environment where people want to come to work, in a place that they are proud to work in, to do their very best for our patients.”
independent Bewick rapid review. University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB) statement. BBC News Online.

£600k fine after employee died loading lorry

An East Yorkshire garden landscaping company has been fined £600,000 and ordered to pay £20,848.71 costs after an employee died while loading a lorry. Brian White, 59, was working for Kelkay Limited when he was operating a forklift truck at the company’s site in Pollington, East Yorkshire, on 15 June 2020. He was fatally injured when the lorry he was loading was moved by the driver, pulling the forklift truck over and trapping him underneath. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found Kelkay Limited’s risk assessment failed to take into account the possibility of lorries moving while they are being loaded. HSE also found that the systems of work for ensuring that vehicles were not moved during loading activities were inadequate.
HSE news release.

International news

Honduras: Melon pickers protest unsafe work

Hundreds of Honduran seasonal farmworkers marched on the Japanese-owned billion-dollar multinational fruit company Fyffes on 29 March to deliver a petition signed by more than 1,000 melon pickers demanding their international labour rights. The march came after multiple accidents, including workers being hospitalised from toxic fumes in a Fyffes packing area, and a worker who was recently hit by a truck and died on the job. Sue Longley, general secretary of the global food unions’ federation IUF, stated: “The right to organise is the enabling right that ensures unions can win safe workplaces and that workers have a voice on the job. The IUF calls on Fyffes to respect international labour standards, especially those on freedom of association, collective bargaining and occupational health and safety.”
IUF news release.

Spain: Abusive work endemic on strawberry farms

Abusive conditions are endemic in parts of Spain’s fruit sector, a new report alleges, with workers reporting have been regularly underpaid and forced to live in dilapidated shacks. The  fruit-picking workforce in the region – dominated by migrants from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa – face abuse, are frequently paid less than the minimum wage and are required to work overtime without pay, according to a new report from the organisation Ethical Consumer. Some workers also allege that they are docked up to three days’ pay if they do not meet employers’ demands, are prevented from using the toilet, and have their passports or wages withheld to keep them working. “It’s not the one-off farm, it’s not the occasional supplier – it’s widespread across the major exporting areas,” said Jasmine Owens, one of the authors of the report.
Ethical Consumer agricultural workers in Spain campaign. The Guardian.

Turkey: Relief agencies warn of earthquake rubble risks

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has warned of the presence of asbestos in buildings affected by the devastating earthquakes that hit Turkey in early February and its impacts on health and the environment. “With more than 210 million tons of earthquake rubble, relief teams and victims are both exposing themselves to elevated health risks from asbestos,” the IFRC said. Other materials found in earthquake-affected areas that could cause health and environmental hazards include lead, especially from paint, lithium, fluorescent lights and mercury, according to the IFRC.
Stockholm Center for Freedom report.

USA: Climate change requires new work safety rights

With the climate crisis accelerating, workers in every state will increasingly face natural dangers in the workplace, a new report from the US National Employment Law Project has warned. It argues workers will increasingly need to exercise their right to refuse dangerous work, but this right needs strengthening to make it effective. “In the environment we face now, workers need more than 20th century health and safety regimes to keep themselves safe. There must be a rebalancing of power so that workers can exercise more autonomy over their workplace safety,” it states in a new report. “They must have a real right to refuse dangerous work in the face of natural disasters, and it must be supported with job-protected rights to paid leave, anti-retaliation provisions with meaningful penalties for noncompliance, and expansive unemployment insurance benefits.”
The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work in an Era of Climate Change, NELP, 27 March 2023.
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