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Issue date

Risks 633 - 30 November 2013

 

Asbestos - the hidden killer Hazards magazine Hazards at Work

Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others. To receive this bulletin every week, click here. Past issues are availableDisclaimer and Privacy

Editor: Hugh Robertson, TUC. Comments to the TUC at healthandsafety@tuc.org.uk

UNION NEWS

OTHER NEWS

RESOURCES

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

EVENTS AND COURSES

UNION NEWS

United action makes day of action great success

The TUC’s day of Action against blacklisting was judged a great success by the unions who supported it and the Blacklist Support Group. Culminating in a rally in Parliament, the day saw action outside several construction sites in London, Glasgow, Hemel Hempstead, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. There were also events at the Welsh Senedd in Cardiff and the Scottish Parliament.  At the Westminster rally TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady condemned the government for their refusal to hold an inquiry into blacklisting while at the same time setting up an inquiry into unions for defending their members. A statement was also read from Ed Miliband demanding that the Government set up an official inquiry, while Chuka Umunna, Shadow Business Secretary committed the next Labour Government to holding one. Blacklisted workers themselves were out in force on the various protests and four spoke at the Westminster rally, including Dave Smith of the Blacklist Support Group who got a standing ovation after promising that they would not go away until they had achieved justice for themselves but also ensured no other workers would have to face the same treatment in the future.

STUC welcomes Scottish Government announcement on blacklisting

The Scottish TUC has welcomed Scottish Government guidelines which should lead to blacklisting companies being excluded from public sector contracts. This follows a similar move in Wales and a number of local authorities. STUC General Secretary said “The STUC welcomes the Scottish Government’s procurement guidelines, which follow extensive and constructive discussions with unions.  They make it clear that public bodies should only give new public contracts where blacklisting employers have taken appropriate remedial action in a number of key areas including making an apology to the affected workers; issuing a statement on future conduct; and proving compliance with any tribunal ruling made against them in relation to blacklisting. The STUC also welcomes the provision for the potential removal of an existing contract from any firm which is proven to have lied in its tender submission. The STUC is committed to working with the Scottish Government to monitor the use of this guidance and provide further evidence where we believe the practice of blacklisting continues. The Scottish Government approach to industrial relations is in welcome contrast to the opportunistic and wrong-headed stance adopted by a range of UK Tory ministers who seem to believe that trade union bashing can divert attention from their continuing failure on the economy and the cost of living crisis.”

Information Commissioners Office. One step forward – two steps back

After strong union pressure, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have finally agreed to contact some of the workers who were blacklisted by the construction industry. However, in doing so they are giving them incorrect and unhelpful information. Initially only 467 out of 3,214 workers on the list were contacted but the ICO will now write to 1,200 additional potential blacklisted workers telling them they are on the blacklist. Maria Ludkin, GMB National Officer for Legal and Corporate Affairs, said “GMB is pleased that, after almost two years of pressure, ICO has bowed to the inevitable and is writing to 1,200 people whose national insurance number states that they are on the blacklist.” However there are still 1,546 workers whose addresses and details have not been traced and unions are demanded that the ICO and the employers who ran the blacklist do more to trace them. Incredibly the ICO are also providing “misleading and harmful advice” to those workers by attaching a letter to the file which suggests that if people are not a member of a construction union they should contact the Construction Workers Compensation Scheme. This scheme, proposed unilaterally by eight of the guilty companies, has been heavily criticised by unions who have said that workers could receive as little as £1,000 for being blacklisted and would be barred from pursuing any other legal claim against the blacklisting companies. The ICO also claim that the scheme is being discussed by workplace representatives. This is not the case. Steve Murphy, General Secretary of UCATT, said: “The ICO’s advice is like telling someone who is in debt to visit a loan shark. Blacklisted victims will be shocked and stunned when they receive this letter and the ICO’s misleading and damaging advice could compound that misery.” The ICO also state in their letter that they “did not find evidence of other blacklists”. However the ICO wrote to Ian Davidson MP the chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee last month that they had evidence of a separate blacklist with 500 names on it.

Unions demand outside mediator on bullying

Entertainment unions have condemned the failure by the BBC to agree to employ an independent mediator for bullying cases. Following allegations of widespread bullying the BBC set up an inquiry which was conducted by Dinah Rose QC. Initially unions claimed they were heartened by the response of the BBC, but now they believe that without an independent outside mediator the whole exercise could be a sham. One delegate at the Federation of Entertainments Unions conference in London said it was "like the police investigating the police", if the corporation continued to use BBC managers to investigate complaints of bullying by its staff. Luke Crawley, assistant general secretary of Bectu, the union representing technicians, said "We all thought the BBC had finally got it, but we could be heading towards a dispute if it does not bring in somebody outside the organisation to deal with bullying claims." Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, agreed.  She said "The role the BBC plays is critical. Its response to the Rose review will have a ripple-effect throughout the wider creative industry. The Rose review was an opportunity to look at this problem and to adopt in a transparent procedure which staff can have faith in.  It is not enough for the BBC to say it will bring in managers from other departments and division to investigate allegations, an outside body is needed."

TUC gets HSE U-turn on over-compliance

The TUC have welcomed a decision by the HSE to change the wording of a press release which warned of the “risk” of over-compliance with the Workplace (HS&W) Regulations (Risks 632). Following widespread criticism over the original press release after the TUC raised the issue, the HSE changed the wording. The TUC head of health and Safety, Hugh Robertson, said, “To their credit the HSE have put up their hands up and said that it should have happened and I welcome that. However the reason that it happened is the climate of anti-regulatory zeal that has been forced on many public bodies and their staff by this Government. This means that civil servants often try to fit into what they think the government wants them to say rather than thinking what their role is, which is to protect workers, or the public. As a result we have a new “language creeping into everything the HSE and other regulators produce that is like something from the Ministry of Truth in the novel 1984. De-regulation is called a “removing burdens”, improving standards  is renamed “gold-plating” and companies that go above their legal requirement are labelled “risk-averse”.” The HSE’s press release on the dangers of over-compliance with the Workplace (HS&W) regulations came in the same week as it was revealed that Heathrow terminal 5 had been unable to change any of the light bulbs for five years because the building had been designed in such a way that this could not be done safely and easily, despite this being one of the requirements under the regulations.

TUC calls for action on vulnerable workers

As part of their attempt to raise the profile of health and safety in the run-up to the next general election, the TUC has called for a strengthening of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority with an extension to other areas, as well as greater resources to be given to other bodies enforcing employment rights for vulnerable groups such as the HSE. It has also called for a joined up approach so that those who enforce the minimum wage, working time and health and safety regulations work together to ensure that all workers have a safe workplace. This comes after the Equality and Human Rights Commission embarked on evidence gathering of abuse amongst cleaning staff, quick follows from an earlier investigation into the meat industry. The demand is one of ten that were launched by the TUC earlier this year called “Time for Change”. The demands are aimed at challenging the current de-regulatory agenda of the coalition government and ensuring that health and safety is not ignored by political parties. A new TUC briefing outlines the problems that vulnerable workers, including temporary, agency and migrant workers can experience and condemns attempts by the government to remove protection from many self-employed workers.

TUC welcomes whistleblowing report

The TUC has welcomed a report on whistleblowing from Whistleblowing Commission, which was set up by the charity Public Concern at Work to review of whistleblowing policies and practices. The independent group of industry and academic experts has published its report which examines attitudes towards whistleblowing, law and policy, regulatory involvement, rewards and tribunals. Welcoming the report, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said “Whistleblowing is an important way to root out malpractice and wrongdoing in a workplace. But with the blacklisting scandal showing that some people have had their careers wrecked for daring to speak out at work, most people are too scared to say anything for fear of retribution. It’s important that we have stronger legal protections and written workplace procedures for whistleblowers to underpin the important work that union reps do in supporting workers who speak out.” There is growing concern that employers are ignoring the current law, in particular in health care, but also when union health and safety representatives try to expose dangers in the workplace.

OTHER NEWS

HSE Fee money increases

The amount of money raised through the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) Fee For Intervention scheme (FFI) has increased during the latest invoice period. The HSE invoiced for £857,000 which is around £100k higher than the first invoice run and included almost 500 more than those issued during the previous period.
According to the Building Safety Group, the HSE are increasingly focusing on frontline FFI work and well over half of HSE inspections result in the generation of an invoice. They say that this is an alarming "strike rate" and business owners can  “generally expect a proactive HSE inspection to result in an invoice for their time”. The construction sector received nearly 30% of the total number of invoices although this figure is expected to rise sharply as the next invoice run will include the month long "construction site blitz" which resulted in 1 in 5 of the sites visited being issued with enforcement notices. The TUC Head of health and safety said, “Unions need to be assured that FFI is not being used as an alternative to prosecution, but we are also concerned that, because of the changes to inspection policy the fees are being incurred by a very narrow group of businesses and most sectors, including almost all of the public sector are effectively immune from FFI unless they report an incident. Because of this we are also worried that the mix of FFI and no pre-active inspections may be fuelling a growing tendency not to report injuries.”

Wales paves the way on asbestos cost recovery

The Welsh assembly has backed a law to recover up to £1 million of the costs to the NHS of treating Welsh asbestos patients from businesses or insurers.  The bill's sponsor, AM Mick Antoniw, a former trade union lawyer, said it would help people whose lives had been blighted by "this terrible disease". He told the BBC, "It is only right that medical costs incurred by the NHS should be recovered from those who caused the disease and used to give more support to asbestos victims and their families - for example, a cancer nurse costs £50,000 per annum. We could employ an additional 20 cancer nurses or a mixture of cancer nurses and counsellors or additional research into the cause and treatment of asbestos disease. It is my belief this new Welsh law can make a significant improvement to the quality of life of those whose life is blighted by this terrible disease." The Welsh Conservatives opposed the bill while claiming they were “fully behind” the principle of the Bill, but voted against it because of its limited scope. Shadow Health Minister Darren Millar said “We believe it is wrong simply to take out asbestos-related diseases and not apply this Bill more widely to other industrial diseases”.The insurance industry has tried to block the bill, questioning whether the move is within the assembly's powers. The Association of British Insurers wrote to the assembly Presiding Officer and the secretary of state for Wales with a number of what it called "serious concerns" about the bill's lawfulness, but these were rejected. Similar recovery powers exist for some other NHS costs, including traffic injuries.

Second prosecution for Midlands company

A haulage business has been fined £80,000 at Southern Derbyshire Magistrates court after a worker nearly died when he was crushed between an HGV tractor unit and a trailer. Matthew Salmon, an EHO from Amber Valley Borough Council, told a court that widespread health and safety failings by William West & Sons (Ilkeston) Ltd and its sister company William West Distribution Ltd had contributed towards the accident. He claimed that there was not a safe system of work for the manoeuvring of vehicles. Existing risk assessments for the distribution site and trailer fitters were unsuitable and insufficient. Pedestrian and vehicle segregation and site rules were not being implemented effectively. William West & Sons (Ilkeston) Ltd admitted two offences and were fined £40,000 for each offence and ordered to pay £3,419 in costs. William West Distribution Ltd, also admitted to two separate offences and had the same penalty imposed. Steve Hayes, Amber Valley Borough Council’s cabinet member for healthier places to live, said: “The prosecution demonstrates the council’s focus on high risk work activities in order to protect public safety. It was very fortunate that this accident did not result in a fatality and the magistrates recognised this in their comments and the level of fine imposed.” The investigation also established that William West Distribution Ltd had previously been prosecuted by a neighbouring authority (Erewash Borough Council) in 2009 following a forklift truck accident.
 

Amazon workers face health risks

BBC’s Panorama has claimed that Amazon is making its workers ill with stress after an undercover reporter got an agency job at Amazon's Swansea warehouse and filmed what he saw. He took a hidden camera inside to record what happened on his shifts collecting orders from their storage shelves. He was given a set number of seconds to find each product and counted down. If he made a mistake the scanner beeped. It tracked his picking rate and sent his performance to managers. If it was too low, he was told he could face disciplinary action. He said "We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we're holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves. We don't think for ourselves, maybe they don't trust us to think for ourselves as human beings, I don't know." Professor Michael Marmot, who has studied stress and work for many decades, said "The evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness. There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse. And it seems to me the demands of efficiency at the cost of individual's health and wellbeing - it's got to be balanced." Amazon said that official safety inspections had not raised any concerns and that an independent expert appointed by the company advised that the picking job is "similar to jobs in many other industries and does not increase the risk of mental and physical illness". Although Amazon says that their night shifts are lawful this was disputed in the programme. Barrister Giles Bedloe told the programme "If the work involves heavy physical and, or, mental strain then that night worker should not work more than eight hours in any 24 hour period. There was no evidence that the company had taken any action to reduce the levels of stress likely to be caused by the fatigue, lack of control and other factors that the HSE lays down in their Stress Management Standards.

GMB accuses Amazon of “Utter Hostility”

Following allegations against Amazon for causing stress amongst its workers (see above), the GMB Union have accused the company of hostility to any form of effective union organisation. They say that proof of this is that trade union organization in Amazon has been driven underground. Martin Smith GMB National Organiser, said “Amazon’s claim, in response to the investigation, that health and safety is a top priority for them is strange in view of their total hostility to employees having their own safety representatives as the law allows. They are utterly hostile to their employees exercising their lawful rights to have an open trade union organisation which would deal with working conditions in their warehouses. Proof of this is that GMB trade union organisation in Amazon has been driven underground and has to operate like the French Resistance. What an indictment that Amazon cannot work openly with GMB on safe ergonomics in their warehouses like union representatives do every day with more enlightened companies. Maybe the free delivery model is run at the expense of the work force, two thirds of whom are temporary workers many on the state subsidised national minimum wage plus 1p."

New warning over crane danger

The HSE have urged to ensure their overhead cranes are safe and fit for purpose following a fatal injury. The warning was issued after an engineering firm,  Assystem UK of Bamber Bridge, was fined £160,000 and ordered to pay £52,500 costs following an incident that saw 51-year-old Liam O'Neill crushed to death by an overhead crane at a factory in Preston. An investigation found Mr O’Neill had been able to work on a platform in the path of the overhead crane without the power to the crane first being switched off. End stops had previously been fitted to the rails used by the overhead crane that stopped the crane reaching the platform, but these had later been removed. Mr O’Neill was repairing cable when the crane moved and he was crushed between the guard rails around the top of the ladder and the crane itself. After the hearing, HSE Inspector Stuart Kitchingman said “It would have been simple to put a system in place to make sure power to the crane was switched off before anyone climbed onto the platform, or to put up a barrier to prevent access to the platform.” M r O’Neill’s widow, Deborah, added “We hope accidents like this can be prevented in the future so that other families don’t have to suffer as we have.”

RESOURCES

New Legionella advice

The HSE have revised their Approved Code of Practice and guidance on Legionella, the bacterium that causes Legionnaires Disease. The revised booklet is clearer and more accessible. The technical guidance has been updated to incorporate technological advancements and is now separate from the general guidance on the regulations.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Campaign win on Bangladesh workers

UK based retailer Edinburgh Woollen Mill (EWM), which also owns the high street chains Peacocks and Jane Norman, has finally agreed to sign the union-backed Bangladesh fire and building safety accord following a long-running TUC campaign. The move comes almost a year on from the Tazreen Fashions factory fire in Dhaka which killed more than a hundred workers and seriously injured many more. The EWM signing of the legally-enforceable agreement, which aims to improve safety in the country’s textiles factories, means that all but a handful of names on the UK high street have now committed to improving working conditions and safety in their Bangladesh supply chains. Commenting on the signing TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Edinburgh Woollen Mill’s decision is good news for workers in Bangladesh, good news for UK shoppers – who now know one more British retailer has done the right thing – and good news for the company itself. This shows that campaigning pays off and that companies and brands listen to consumers who are worried about how the clothes they buy are made. It shows too that unions can make a difference anywhere in the world, and that better lives for working people are possible – even in countries like Bangladesh where poverty pay and government corruption are endemic.” Edinburgh Woollen Mill joins 114 other corporate signatories of the accord from 19 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia. All the 115 companies are now committed to making garment factories in Bangladesh safe places to work. This includes the use of independent safety inspections (the results of which will now have to be publicly reported), meeting the cost of any remedial work, and guaranteeing workers’ wages while the works are carried out. Whilst welcoming EWM’s decision to sign, the TUC would still like to see the company pay compensation to the victims of the Tazreen Fashions factory fire and their families.

Ontario makes safety training mandatory

In a first for North America, the Ontario Government have said that all managers and workers must complete a basic occupational health and safety awareness training program. There will be a specific focus on small business and vulnerable workers. Once the regulation takes effect, the employer is responsible for ensuring that all workers and supervisors have completed a basic occupational health and safety awareness training program. It will cover everyone unless they have already completed a basic occupational health and safety awareness training program that covers the same content. Once the regulation takes effect, the employer is responsible for ensuring that all workers and supervisors have completed a basic occupational health and safety awareness training program.  John Levesque of Workplace Safety North said “If a Ministry of Labour inspector walks into a workplace once this new regulation is in force, the employer will have to show some record of their workers and supervisors having taken that training or the equivalent. It’s basically legislative awareness, and the course acquaints workers and supervisors with the Act and the regulations.” In addition to the legislation the Provincial Government are providing a range of training and other materials for employers and training providers to use.

Australian firefighters fear mental health damage  

The union for Firefighters in Australia’s Capital Territory (ACT) have demanded changes to the way that their members deal with fire-related calls while across the room ambulance staff respond to other emergency calls. The union says that constantly overhearing the traumatic ambulance calls is damaging their mental health. A series of workplace health and safety notices have been issued by an ACT Fire and Rescue workplace health and safety officer. Dave Livingstone from the United Fire Fighters Union says the call centre is too small. He said "Traumatic exposure happens in this job and we understand that, but let's just leave it to the necessary stuff." In response the employers are threatening to replace trained firefighters with non-operational call centre staff. Mr Livingstone says it is an outrageous response."He's essentially saying that our firies made a health and safety complaint, it's too hard for him to deal with so he's just going to sack them. That's pretty pathetic. It's an extraordinary abuse of power and it doesn't fix the problem. You put any workers in there and they're going to be exposed to unnecessary trauma." Firefighters are currently in the middle of protracted collective agreement negotiations, which have been ongoing for nine months.


US manufactures try to stop carcinogen classification

US industry groups are trying to reverse a decision by the U.S. National Toxicology Program to styrene to its list of substances that are "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer also considers styrene to be "possibly carcinogenic to humans". There is no doubt that styrene is dangerous as high exposure to styrene can cause headaches, lethargy, memory loss, dizziness, confusion and other symptoms. However the industry is trying to deny that it poses a risk to the 90,000 US workers exposed to it every year. The National Toxicology Program classification in part is based on two studies that showed increased risks for leukaemia and lymphoma among some workers, but employers groups are claiming that the findings are based on faulty conclusions and a flawed review process. An industry group, the Stryrene Information and Research Center Inc. filed a federal lawsuit against the decision but this was thrown out, yet two years ago, industry groups persuaded Congress to appropriate funds for the National Academy of Sciences to review the NTP's report. The review's conclusions are due next year. Mike Wright, the director of health and safety for the United Steelworkers union makes it clear that "We think the evidence is good that styrene is a carcinogen. It is not proper for the industry to try to mess with that."

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