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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

Safety a victim of public service cuts

Real terms cuts and underinvestment in public services from 2010 to 2020 undermined the UK’s ability to provide an effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with workplace safety among the casualties. A new TUC report notes: “During the pandemic, instead of raising the number of inspections and enforcement notices, they fell to an all-time low, despite widespread workplace linked cases of infection.” Calling for long-term, adequate funding for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to enable necessary recruitment and enforcement, it adds: “To be resilient and prepared for a future pandemic, Britain’s health and safety regulators need reinvestment and rebuilding. Otherwise working people’s health and safety will be left at unacceptable risk, and workplaces could be centres of transmission affecting the wider community.”
TUC news release and report, Austerity and the pandemic: How cuts damaged four vital pillars of pandemic resilience, TUC, 5 June 2023. The Guardian. Sky News.

Ministers cannot be Covid ‘judge and jury’

The TUC has warned attempts by ministers to limit the evidence submitted to the Covid Public Inquiry are ‘deeply worrying’. Responding to the government’s decision to launch a judicial review to block the disclosure of unredacted evidence to the Covid Public Inquiry, TUC assistant general secretary Kate Bell said: “Ministers cannot be the judge and jury over what is disclosed to the inquiry. That’s up to the independent chair to decide. The fact the prime minister is prepared to spend taxpayers’ money to try and block the handover of evidence is deeply worrying.” She added: “Covid impacted every worker and every community in this country. The very least we deserve is transparency from our decision-makers. They mustn’t be allowed to hide from scrutiny.”
BBC News Online.

Inquiry must examine UK’s ‘broken sick pay’ system

The Covid inquiry must take an unflinching look at how the UK’s lack of decent sick pay left the country “brutally exposed” during the pandemic, the TUC has said. The UK entered the pandemic with the lowest rate of statutory sick pay (SSP) in the OECD, an intergovernmental organisation with 38 member countries, and with millions unable access it, the union body said. This “broken sick pay system” massively undermined the country’s preparedness and ability to deal with the pandemic, and resulted in millions facing a huge financial cliff edge if they contracted Covid, it added. The inquiry will take witness evidence from 13 June.  TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “Many workers simply couldn’t afford to self-isolate. This pushed up infection rates, put a huge strain on our public services and ballooned the cost of test and trace.”
UK Covid-19 inquiry and module 1 on resilience and preparedness. The Guardian.

Most wood firms have deadly dust exposures

Many woodworking businesses are endangering workers’ lives by failing to implement the measures required to prevent or control exposure to wood dust, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has warned as it launched a 2023/24 inspection campaign. In 2022/23, HSE carried out more than 1,000 woodworking inspections and found 78 per cent of businesses were not compliant in protecting workers from respiratory sensitisers - primarily dust from hardwoods, softwoods and composite materials such as MDF. HSE, which took 402 enforcement actions in the previous inspection initiative, warned inadequate controlled exposures in woodworking industries can cause occupational diseases including sino-nasal cancer, asthma and dermatitis.
 HSE news release and Dust Kills: Wood Dust campaign page.

Governments must heed wildfire warning

Britain’s governments must heed the ‘stark warning’ provided by a Scottish wildfire visible from space, firefighters’ union FBU has said. The fire started on 28 May near Cannich, south of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. Commenting on 1 June on the fire, which has so far seen two firefighters hospitalised, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “Wildfires, such as the ones we are seeing in Cannich at the moment, are on the rise year on year. All governments must heed this stark warning: the climate crisis is here now. We need urgent climate action to prevent loss of life, and that must also involve serious investment in our fire services.”
FBU news release.

Tube track workers ‘afraid to raise safety concerns’

Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of ‘gig economy’ track workers being used by London Underground would be unhappy about raising safety concerns about their work, for fear of not being offered future shifts, an RMT survey has revealed. The workers who perform vital and safety-critical work on London Underground’s track are engaged through two ‘employment agencies’, Morson and Cleshar, who RMT says put them on ‘bogus’ self-employed contracts that deny them sick pay, holiday, pensions and travel facilities. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “There is no excuse for subjecting these safety-critical workers to the worst employment practices of the ‘gig economy’.  It is morally indefensible, wasteful and as this report shows, it is downright unsafe.”
RMT news release.

RMT warning after Indian train tragedy

Rail union RMT has issued a rail safety warning after a signalling fault was blamed for the India train disaster on 2 June 2023 that killed at least 288 people and injured over 1,000 more. India’s rail minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said an error in “electronic interlocking” sent the Coromandel Express passenger train on to the wrong tracks, where it collided with a freight train at 80mph. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch, who has warned of the impact of funding cuts on UK rail safety, said: “The thoughts of everyone within the RMT are with Indian railway workers, passengers and their bereaved families following this awful tragedy. Whenever there is an accident of this magnitude, it underlines that safety on railway systems everywhere must be a top priority.”
RMT news release. Morning Star. BBC News Online.

Thousands of ambulance workers attacked

Austerity-hit ambulance staff have been subjected to thousands of violent attacks while working in recent years, a GMB investigation has revealed. Crews were bitten, head-butted, spat at and struck with weapons at least 9,565 times across Britain and Northern Ireland between 2017-18 and 2021-22, freedom of information requests found. The research also shows 1,248 sexual assaults were recorded. The true number is likely to be far higher, as only eight of the 13 ambulance trusts nationwide responded to the union’s requests for data. The union paid tribute to her members for campaigning for the Assaults Against Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, which introduced a new offence of common assault against emergency staff and required courts to treat such attacks as an aggravating factor when sentencing.
GMB news release. Morning Star.

Prospect condemns abuse of UEFA referee

Prospect has condemned the abuse faced by referee Anthony Taylor following the 31 May UEFA Europa League final between Sevilla and Roma. Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said: “The abuse Anthony Taylor and his family received travelling back from Budapest following the UEFA Europa League final was utterly disgraceful. No-one should face threats or abuse for doing their job, nor should they have to fear for the safety of their family. Our members working as top-level sporting officials are no different.”
Prospect news release. The Mirror.

Prison officer compensated after attempted murder

A prison officer who suffered horrendous head injuries and psychological trauma after being violently attacked by a prison inmate, has secured a six-figure compensation settlement with the help of his union, the Prison Officers Association (POA). Derek Walker, 48, was brutally attacked by a prisoner at HMP Wayland, near Thetford, in July 2017. The prisoner was convicted of attempted murder in July 2019. The prison officer was injured as he attempted to restrain the prisoner, who was assaulting another inmate with a makeshift weapon. The incident exacerbated the Walker’s pre-existing PTSD, forcing him off work for 18 months and ultimately resulting in him being unable to return to frontline prison officer work.
Thompsons Solicitors news release.

Toilets for drivers a ‘basic human right’

Toilets for taxi and private hire drivers, courier and road transport workers are a ‘basic human right’, GMB’s congress has heard. Delegates heard that a lack of public toilets left drivers forced to ‘go’ anywhere, sometimes leading to prosecution and job losses, or having to urinate in a bottle. The congress called for local authorities to reopen the thousands of public toilets closed to save money. Mike Tinnion, GMB London region delegate said: “This is a health and safety issue for professional drivers.” He added: “If you risk not using a proper facility you can face prosecution and can lose your job. It’s degrading and embarrassing… Access to sanitation a basic human right. Reopening thousands of closed public toilets for all road users must happen as soon as possible.”
GMB news release.

Union win in sight on exclusion of offending MPs

A House of Commons Commission report has brought a step closer the prospect of excluding from parliament MPs accused of serious offences such as rape or other violent crimes. The report, whose recommendations are to be voted on by MPs, proposes having a risk assessment on exclusion for any MP accused of serious crimes. This could be triggered at any point in the investigative process and is not limited to arrest or charge. Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, whose union had called repeatedly for MP exclusions, said “these proposals allow for that to happen at any point in the criminal justice process. MPs must approve these proposals next week to protect staff and restore confidence in a system which has been badly damaged in recent years.”
Prospect news release. House of Commons Commission news release and report.

Public wants AI rules at work

New polling by tech trade union Prospect has found that workers overwhelmingly believe the government should set rules around the use of generative AI such as ChatGPT. Over half (58 per cent) of workers responding to polling by Prospect and Opinium supported regulation. The poll found 71 per cent of workers would be uncomfortable with their employer requiring the use of wearable tracking devices to monitor their location. Over two-thirds (69 per cent) were uncomfortable with camera surveillance, and 59 per cent with keystroke monitoring. Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, acknowledged the potential benefits of AI, but warned “without government setting out clear rules, sinister surveillance and software supervisors could become the norm.”
Prospect news release.

International News

Australia: Cancer risk from welding fumes

Unions in Australia are demanding action to protect workers from cancer- and lung disease-causing welding fumes. The campaign follows figures released last year by the World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation that estimated work in welding was linked to a 48 per cent higher risk of lung cancer. Andrew Dettmer, national president of the union AMWU, which has launched a national campaign, said: "It's not just people who are doing the welding, but people in a welding workplace. If they are exposed and they do get lung cancer or other diseases such as manganism, that can be a death sentence. For Australian workers it's about time we saw some change.” He added: “By lowering that exposure limit it will force employers to provide that safer workplace.”
Nine News.

Global: Investors now concerned about work toxins

Interest in chemicals has skyrocketed among investors in the last year, according to the non-profit ChemSec. Sonja Haider, senior investors adviser with the Sweden-based independent organisation, said in 2010 “only 18 out of 152 asset managers and rating agencies within the realm of Socially Responsible Investments (SRI)” looked at chemical safety risks in their portfolios. But she added: “ChemSec is now coordinating a network of 50+ investors with a staggering US $11 trillion in assets dedicated to reducing the impacts of hazardous chemicals on people and the planet.” She said risks including climate change, chemical pollution and loss of biodiversity “are important for institutional investors to address. Fortunately, more and more investors are becoming increasingly aware of hazardous chemicals’ role in all of this and are now taking action.”
 ChemSec article.

Ukraine: Nuke workers face forced labour

Workers at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine have been subjected to forced labour and coercion to join unions controlled by occupying Russian forces, Ukrainian unions have charged. They warn many workers are being exposed to life-threatening occupational safety and health (OSH) risks, with emergency response and OSH management systems no longer functioning effectively. A joint briefing paper by the ILO and the global union federation IndustriALL outlines the union evidence, as well as information from the International Atomic Agency (IAEA), the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD, and the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine. The briefing paper reiterated the ILO’s ‘grave concerns’ about civilian casualties and the severe impact of the Russian Federation’s aggression.
ILO news release and joint briefing paper by the ILO and IndustriALL.
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