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Risks 634 - 7 December 2013


Asbestos - the hidden killer Hazards magazine Hazards at Work

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EditorRory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at






Europe gets the ‘Cameron disease’

The UK government is exporting its assault on health and safety laws to Europe, the TUC has warned. Commenting in the TUC’s Stronger Unions blog, Hugh Robertson wrote: “There have been attacks on compensation, reporting requirements, protection for the self-employed and the ban on proactive inspections in most sectors. Unfortunately they are now exporting their anti-worker position into Europe and it is spreading like a bad outbreak of gastric flu.” The TUC head of safety added: “Last month, under pressure from the British, the European Commission embarked on their own version of deregulation under a policy they call ‘REFIT’,” including a block on new safety regulations. “Everything that was in the pipeline to do with safety at work has been blocked, including proposed directives on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and carcinogens, which are two of the biggest health issues in Europe. This is despite strong evidence of the need for new regulation from their own officials and advisers.” Robertson noted: “When asked for the evidence of what they are proposing, the Commission simply points to opinion polls that show that there is a ‘perception’ that there is over-regulation. So the whole of Europe is to be turned into a deregulatory Wild West because the European Commission is unwilling or unable to challenge the leader writers of papers like the Daily Mail.” He warned: “We desperately need a clear and positive strategy from Europe on how they are going to address the epidemic of occupational diseases such as cancers, stress and MSDs that we have at the moment.”

Safety committees work on union power

Management-worker  joint health and safety committees (JHSC) are only effective where “empowerment mechanisms” ensure workers have a real voice, a study has concluded. The review, which considered 31 studies from Canada, the US, Australia and the UK and included input “from various sectors and perspectives including government, employers, and unions”, found union not only improved the effectiveness of committees, they appeared to promote the introduction of legislation that also led to improvements in safety performance. The paper concluded that committees alone were not enough - effective regulation and enforcement is essential. The report, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, states “unionisation and legislative environment are crucial contextual factors,” adding: “We note, although not explicitly the focus of our realist review, that there seems to be a relationship between unionisation and the existence of legislation, as well as other features conducive to health and safety.” The study concluded joint health and safety committees were not a substitute for effective regulation, noting the “only strong conclusion that can be made is that JHSCs cannot take the place of regulation and government enforcement due to the nature of power relations in the workplace.”

Murder verdict highlights betting industry risks

The conviction of a man for murdering a betting shop worker shows the need for better protection of workers in the sector, the union Community has said. Father-of-three Andrew Iacovou, who was working alone, lay dead behind the counter of the branch of Ladbrokes he managed for over an hour before being found by a customer (Risks 608). Shafique Aarij bludgeoned the 55-year-old to death with a hammer in a 25 May 2013 early morning attack at the shop, escaping with £300. Community assistant general secretary, John Park, said: “The circumstances around this case are tragic and lay bare how exposed betting shop workers can be just carrying out their job.” He added: “Community will continue to work with the industry in making betting shops safer. However, we need to see a renewed effort from the industry in engaging with its staff about their concerns to ensure the industry provides more sustainable and safer employment opportunities in the future.” The union said it is continuing discussions with the industry about improvements to the Safe Bet Alliance Voluntary Code of Safety Standards in betting shops. Shops are classified as ‘low risk’ under the government’s light-touch regulatory system, and not subject to official safety inspections. Unions in the sector have said this risk rating ignores the high risk of violence and occupational diseases like musculoskeletal disorders.  A jury at Southwark Crown Court took just 49 minutes to convict Aarij. He will be sentenced on 13 January 2014, and has been warned he will face a minimum of 30 years in prison.

Call for ban on ‘proxy’ purchases of cigs

The leader of the shopworkers’ union has welcomed calls by Labour MP Luciana Berger for a ban on adults buying cigarettes for kids, but has said there must be greater protection for shopworkers who have to police laws on age-restricted sales. While buying alcohol for children is illegal, purchasing tobacco products is not. John Hannett, the Usdaw general secretary, said: “We welcome extending the existing legislation on proxy purchasing of alcohol to cigarettes and tobacco products. The current situation makes a mockery of banning under-18s from buying these products when an adult can knowingly and openly make the purchase on their behalf. However, the enforcement of laws on age-restricted sales falls on shopworkers and all too often the request to prove age can lead to violence, threats and abuse against retail staff. It can be a minor who has been refused an illegal purchase, or an adult who isn't able to prove their age, or is angry they have been asked to provide evidence of their age under policies like 'Think 25'.” The union leader added: “As parliament passes legislation and expects shopworkers to enforce it, they have a responsibility to provide proper protection for retail staff.” The union is backing an amendment to the government’s Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill that would create a specific offence of assaulting workers serving the public. The amendment received cross-party support in the House of Lords on 4 December.

Unite breakthrough on clergy employment rights

A church rector who had to give up his job as the result of occupational stress after a campaign of harassment by parishioners has won a union-backed legal case on employment rights. Worcestershire rector Rev Mark Sharpe, who suffered routine intimidation from 2005 to 2009 (Risks 437), last week won an employment appeal tribunal, which his union Unite says will have big implications for the way that the Church of England (CoE) treats its clergy. The union hailed the decision as “a great victory for the advancement of employment rights of Church of England clergy.” Unite had argued Rev Sharpe was an employee of the church when he sought redress for the loss of his job, however the Church of England contended that he was ‘an office holder’ and therefore not covered by current employment rights legislation. The decision by Mrs Justice Cox establishes that Rev Sharpe’s working arrangements amounted to a contract and that he was effectively an employee. This now opens the way for a further employment tribunal to investigate the substantive issues that he had to endure while rector at Hanley Broadheath, near Worcester. Unite national officer Rachael Maskell said: “This is a very welcome decision that vindicates Mark’s brave stand over the last eight years, not only in ministering to his parish, but fighting for compensation after he unfairly lost his job.” She added: “Unite calls on the Church of England to enter into a constructive and open dialogue with us to ensure that Mark is properly compensated and, on the wider issue, of how employment rights for CoE clergy can be enshrined into the church’s employment practices.” Rev Sharpe, who went off sick with stress in April 2006, said: “I feel vindicated by the stand that Unite has taken on my behalf and hope to move to a swift resolution of the outstanding issues with the church, so that I can move forward to the next chapter of my life.” Unite said the church should have warned him of the nature of the parish and its problems before offering him the post.

New helicopter concerns after Glasgow tragedy

Ongoing inquiries into helicopter safety should also consider the circumstances of last week’s tragedy in Glasgow, pilots’ union BALPA has said. Nine people died – all three helicopter occupants and six pub customers - when a police Eurocopter EC135 helicopter crashed into the roof of the Clutha pub it the city on 2 December. Expressing its sympathy to everyone affected in the Glasgow tragedy, BALPA said the latest tragedy added to concerns raised regarding recent North Sea ditchings. “We hope that ongoing inquiries by the CAA [Risks 624] and the House of Commons Transport Select Committee [Risks 622] into helicopter safety will also have the opportunity to look into the circumstances” of the Glasgow crash, the union said. The call came as it emerged a helicopter leasing company grounded its fleet of Eurocopter EC135’s in April last year, after a crack was discovered in one aircraft’s rotor shaft. An airworthiness directive issued by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) after Eurocopter reported the crack saw leasing company Bond Air Services told to “undertake detailed daily inspections of all its EC135s, including the main rotor blade bolts, as well as visual inspection of the upper and lower hub shaft flange areas.” However, after receiving a safety information notice, which said that cracks had been found in several other EC135 helicopters, Bond Air Services then decided as a safety measure to ground temporarily all of its EC135 helicopters. The same model was involved in the Glasgow crash.

Arts and media unions want a bullying code

An industry-wide anti-bullying code for media, arts and entertainments organisations is needed, the unions for the sector have said. The call came as a report revealed the creative industries are a hotspot for bullying. The Federation of Entertainments Unions’ (FEU) survey of more than 4,000 people found “shocking” levels of ill-treatment and inappropriate behaviour and a culture of silence, with only a third of those suffering bullying and harassment reporting the incidents. More than half of those questioned (56 per cent) said they had been bullied, harassed or discriminated against at work. Eight in 10 women (81 per cent) who reported bullying, harassment and discrimination said their gender was a factor. The high prevalence of freelance workers in the sector was identified as a major contributing factor to the level of bullying and the unwillingness of victims to speak out. Respondents to the survey said they dared not complain in case they earned a reputation as troublemakers. The report said freelances were 14 per cent less likely to report ill-treatment and were often not covered by employers' bullying policies. Christine Payne, general secretary of Equity, said: “The FEU, with more than 2,000 members, has clout and we should be a strong and powerful voice within the creative industries. We need to take the idea of a code of conduct forward. The code will be a part of our campaign's aim of changing workplace cultures to allow creating without conflict.” John Smith, general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, said: “We would need to get the major arts companies on board, but the code would also be suitable for small organisations and production companies. We would publish the list of the signatories and celebrate the fact they have joined.”

Ship union calls for action on abandoned crew

A UK union has urged Panama to meet its responsibilities for the crew of a vessel abandoned in Tyne Port. Tommy Molloy, a ship inspector with Nautilus and the global transport union federation ITF, said the 18 seafarers on board the Panamanian-registered bulk carrier Donald Duckling have been stranded, unpaid and relying on handouts of food since the ‘Mickey Mouse’ ship was detained by the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency on 12 November. The detention followed an inspection that found a number of deficiencies, repeating poor practices seen elsewhere. The 16-year-old ship had been detained for 121 days earlier in the year in Gibraltar, after 21 deficiencies were found by port state control officers, and in September an inspection in Las Palmas found 33 deficiencies onboard. Molloy said the case is one of the worst examples of substandard shipping that he has encountered and he has now written to the Panamanian ship registry authorities to give notice that its assistance may be requested, in line with the requirements of the international Maritime Labour Convention. “By any reasonable measure the crew have been abandoned,” Molloy said. “The owners/operators of the vessel -TMT Co Ltd, Taiwan - do not respond to us or the crewing agents through which the crew were hired, and have made no effort to pay owed wages and repatriate crew, provide food or water, provide fuel for heat and light or effect any repairs, not even to the fridges and freezers.” He said “the situation is becoming increasingly desperate and we hope that Panama – as one of the first countries to have ratified the Maritime Labour Convention – will meet its responsibilities and ensure that these seafarers do not have to face any further problems.”

Four UK firms hold out on garment safety deal

Public sector union UNISON is calling for one more push to get the remaining UK high street brands to sign up to the union-brokered Bangladeshi factory accord. Last month, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, which also trades as Peacocks, became the 115th company to respond to union and public pressure and sign up to the Bangladesh fire and building safety accord (Risks 633). The accord, which was spearheaded by global union federations IndustriALL and UNI, followed the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in April in which over 1,100 workers were killed. Bank, Bench, Mexx and Republic are the four remaining high street brands holding out. UNISON said signing up would commit the firm to supporting a process of independent inspections and other health and safety improvements such as fire safety training and allowing worker representation. “Thanks to the efforts of UNISON members and those of other trade unions, 1,600 factories in Bangladesh are now covered by the accord,” said UNISON head of health and safety Tracey Harding. “That means the lives of many thousands of workers are now safer. However, we can still do more and, even if you have already done so, send another message to the remaining four to sign up.”

Actor was badly injured in on-stage duel

An award-winning actor who was blinded in one eye in a stage duel has won “substantial” damages in a union-backed claim. David Birrell, 47, took legal action after a blank-firing revolver he was using at London’s Donmar Warehouse misfired and he lost the sight in his right eye. The Equity member was injured in an on-stage duel during a production of the Stephen Sondheim play Passion in October 2010. The show was cancelled for several days while Mr Birrell recovered in hospital. In papers lodged at the High Court last year, lawyers argued his eye had been left “shrunken and unsightly” and he was now forced to wear a “cosmetic shell” to disguise his appearance. There was also “scarring and distortion” which meant “the overall effect is of marked asymmetry to the upper half of Mr Birrell’s face”. The actor said: “Without the support, assistance and encouragement of Equity and its solicitors, I could never have hoped to fight this difficult, lengthy and complex case in the way we did had I not been a member. The positive outcome is down to the backing and security their involvement gave me.”

Blacklisting claims held up in the courts

An application to roll all four High Court blacklisting cases into one ‘super case’ has been postponed by a judge until April 2014. Building magazine reports that Hugh Tomlinson QC of Matrix Chambers - acting on behalf of the original claim brought on behalf of 79 workers by solicitor Guney Clark & Ryan - was joined at a hearing in the Royal Courts of Justice by barristers acting for three other newer claims brought by three separate trade unions - GMB, UCATT and Unite - on behalf of blacklisted members. All four are compensation claims made against major contractors that employed the services of blacklisting firm The Consulting Association until it was raided and closed down in 2009. Tomlinson made an application for a group litigation order (GLO) which would permit the four cases to be managed collectively. However, the court’s senior master Steven Whitaker suggested that the two newest cases - which were launched by UCATT and Unite in November – are not sufficiently advanced and ruled that he would make the GLO next April. Several major contractors are defendants in the cases but only one - Skanska - was represented at the 29 November hearing. Speaking ahead of the hearing, GMB general secretary Paul Kenny said: “Many of the lieutenants who organised blacklisting daily for decades are still in senior positions in companies and the public sector across the land. They have not even shed crocodile tears for the victims they blacklisted. GMB will hold these accountable.”

Union alarm as NHS assaults increase

Official statistics show there has been another rise in the number of physical assaults against NHS staff. The new figures from NHS Protect show the total number of reported assaults rose by 5.8 per cent, from 59,744 in 2011/12 to 63,199 in 2012/13.  The number of criminal sanctions following reported assaults was also up, from 1,257 to 1,458 – a rise of 15.9 per cent. Health service union UNISON said not enough was being done to protect staff or punish the perpetrators. The union’s head of health, Christina McAnea, said: “It is absolutely unacceptable that every day more than 173 NHS workers are physically assaulted and that only one in 40 cases results in a criminal sanction. Sadly, this is only the tip of the iceberg as violence on NHS premises remains an under-reported problem. No one should feel threatened at work. Our members work day in day out, providing lifesaving care despite the stresses caused by the government’s attacks on the health service.” She said the union was pleased at the increase in prosecutions, “but much more still needs to be done to ensure the NHS provides a safe working environment. The cuts and resultant pressure on services are causing growing patient frustration especially in hospitals, and have significantly impacted on staff’s ability to cope. We also believe that the more staff are involved in decisions that affect both their safety and patient care, the better equipped they are to deal with violence in the workplace.”


Reptile friendly Crossrail squirrels away injury shame

Europe’s biggest construction project is proving a bigger hit with rodents and reptiles than humans, with accident rates on the site increasing throughout the year. The Crossrail Sustainability Report published on 25 November notes that ahead of construction works, some 8,200 protected reptiles and 150 protected water voles were relocated, a success highlighted in the accompanying news release. But squirrelled away on page 41 or the report and not mentioned in the news release was a less flattering statistic. The report notes: “As the quantity and complexity of construction activities has increased, our accident frequency rate (AFR) has risen higher than expected. This increasing trend is not acceptable to us.” Reported injury rates in both principal contractors and all contractors rose throughout the year, with the increase outstripping significantly increases in the hours worked. By January 2013, the injury rate was more than twice that for April 2012, despite a similar number of hours being worked. One measure of occupational health progress highlighted in the report is the reduction in diesel emissions. Crossrail says “more than 56 per cent of diesel machinery used on Crossrail’s 45 worksites has been fitted with diesel emission controlling technology including retrofitting older machinery to help significantly cut particle emissions.” Diesel exhaust fumes have been linked to respiratory disease and cancers. The Crossrail consortium has been linked to the ongoing blacklisting scandal (Risks 621). Following a high profile union ‘leverage’ campaign, electrician Frank Morris was reinstated in September 2012, a year after his union Unite says he was fired for raising safety concerns.

Port worker falls to his death at coal terminal

A port worker has fallen to his death at a coal terminal at Port of Hunterston in Scotland. The 38-year-old was killed at the Clydeport facility on 25 November. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are investigating the circumstances surrounding his death. A spokesperson for Peel Ports, which operates the site, said: “We are now co-operating fully with an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive,” adding: “Our deepest sympathy goes to the man’s family and to his work colleagues.” A Police Scotland spokesperson said: "We received a report that a 38-year-old man had died after falling within the coal terminal at Hunterston. Health and safety are currently conducting inquiries on the site.” HSE, which is liaising with Police Scotland, controversially dropped docks from most preventive inspections over two years ago.

Joinery director fined for criminal failings

A London joinery firm and a company director have been fined for multiple criminal safety breaches, including ignoring an official Health and Safety Executive (HSE) call for deadly risks to be remedied. Sunbeam Wood Works Ltd and Stephen Morrison were prosecuted by the HSE after an inspection on 10 February 2013 identified serious safety concerns. Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard last week that the company had failed to test the effectiveness of ventilation systems for extracting potentially harmful wood dust and failed to provide suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE), controls or any health surveillance for employees working with hazardous spray paints. It had also failed to control noise, provide the legally required training and supervision and had left workers at risk from exposure to isocyanates, a potent cause of asthma. Two legally-binding improvement notices were served by HSE but a follow up inspection in April revealed both had been ignored. Sunbeam Wood Works Ltd was fined £24,000 plus £1,460 in costs. Company director Stephen Morrison was fined £8,000. HSE inspector Saif Deen commented: “Sunbeam Wood Works, under the lead of Mr Morrison, displayed poor performance over the period of our investigation.”

Acid fountain sees chemical firm in court

An international chemical company has been prosecuted after three workers suffered acid burns when pipework at its plant near Southampton ruptured, sending a jet of sulphuric acid 20 metres into the air. The three men were hit by a spray of the corrosive chemical without warning when 50 year-old pipes that had been allowed to corrode finally gave way. The men were all employed by an on-site contractor at the Polimeri Europa UK Ltd chemical plant in Hythe, Southampton. The incident, on 13 December 2011, was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which prosecuted Polimeri at Southampton Crown Court for serious criminal safety failings. The court was told the three men had all sustained acid burns to their faces but prompt showering on site and first aid treatment by a fellow worker helped prevent more serious injury. All three were subsequently able to return to work. The incident involved pipework, used to carry 96 per cent sulphuric acid, which split close to where the three men were working on an unrelated task. The pressure in the pipe turned the corrosive liquid into a jet spray as it was forced through the small perforation. Polimeri, part of one of Europe’s largest chemical companies, Versalis, did have a plan to inspect their pipework systems in 2008, but initial target dates had been missed. Priority was being given to pipework carrying other hazardous substances, which were considered a greater risk to people on and off site. Polimeri Europa UK Ltd was fined £120,000 plus £18,023 costs after admitting two criminal safety offences. HSE inspector Sally Morgan said: “Polimeri is part of an international chemical company and would be well aware of the legal requirement to ensure on-going integrity of the sulphuric acid pipework, but they failed to do this for many years. The result was a system that gradually and invisibly became more and more dangerous. High hazard sites must ensure that there are rigorous monitoring procedures in place for such systems.”


Brazil: World Cup firm was warned before deaths

The latest deaths during Brazil’s World Cup 2014 preparations came after the firm running a stadium construction site had been warned about the dangers. Two construction workers died on 27 November in the Corinthians Stadium in Sao Paulo after a crane collapsed. Union leader Antonio de Sousa Ramalho said supervisors had pressed ahead with the operation to finish the roof despite an engineer’s warning that the rain-saturated ground was not stable enough to support the weight of the crane and its load. “To his surprise, he was told by the supervisor that nothing was wrong and work should continue,” said Ramalho. Workers had been putting in long shifts for some time in an effort to get the stadium completed on time, he said. Global building workers’ union federation BWI and its affiliates in Brazil said they had warned previously that rushing to meet deadlines was putting workers at risks. The Brazilian authorities have admitted their World Cup preparations are lagging behind agreed deadlines. BWI said the latest fatalities follow the June 2012 death of a 21-year old worker in a fall at the National Stadium in Brasilia and the March 2013 death of another worker in a fall in Amazonia in Manaus. BWI general secretary Ambet Yuson said: “It is sad that this will be the legacy of the World Cup for the Brazilians workers. FIFA, the construction companies and their subcontractors as well as the Brazilian government have to do more to prevent such tragedy.”

Qatar: No progress on World Cup labour conditions

On the eve of the third anniversary of Qatar winning its controversial bid to host the 2022 World Cup, an international trade union delegation to the gulf state has found no improvement in the living and working conditions of migrant workers. Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said governments, human rights organisations and FIFA have all called for fundamental workers’ rights and an end to the country’s Kafala system, which can mean poor migrant workers are effectively captives in the country. The ITUC estimates 4,000 more workers will die before a ball is kicked in the World Cup, unless Qatar introduces reforms and meets international labour laws. During the four-day visit, the 11-member international delegation held worker hearings. ITUC said the delegation was shocked by the increasing numbers of women and children in detention centres and rising discontent and unrest of workers in squalid labour camps. Sharan Burrow said: “What we’ve seen this week can be summarised as how not to design a system for the global workforce on any basis: human and labour rights; goodwill and international reputation; or productivity based on loyalty and efficiency.” She added: “FIFA have called for the improvements of core ILO standards and an end to the kafala system. They will report back in March 2014. We can only hope the Qatar government will make the right choice.”

India: Asbestos pushers told to push off

The government of India must introduce an immediate ban on asbestos, health professionals and campaigners have said. The Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India (OEHNI) coordinated the international response this week to an asbestos industry promotional drive in the country that has seen imports of chrysotile asbestos nearly double in six years. The ban call came as the International Chrysotile Association (ICA) hosted a 3-4 December promotional conference in New Delhi. OEHNI said a 2 December letter condemning this aggressive marketing of chrysotile in the country, signed by over 300 eminent experts from 36 countries, had been sent to India’s health, labour and environment ministers. The letter noted: “The International Chrysotile Association and the Asbestos Cement Products' Manufacturers Association of India (ACPMA) are disseminating deadly, deceptive misinformation about chrysotile asbestos, that will cause suffering and loss of life for years to come.” It said “not a single reputable agency in the world” supports the ICA claim that chrysotile can be used safely. OEHNI’s Mohit Gupta said that “since 1960, India has used over 7 million tonnes of asbestos and that in 2013 usage is predicted to exceed 500,000 tonnes.” India imports more asbestos than any other country, with imports up from 253,382 tonnes in 2006 to 473,240 tonnes in 2012.

Italy: Migrants die in Chinese-run factory fire

At least seven people died and three were injured when a clothing factory in an industrial zone in the Italian town of Prato burned down on 1 December, trapping workers in an improvised dormitory built on the site. Local media said 11 workers had been accommodated in small cardboard sleeping compartments above a warehouse. “This is a disgrace for all of us, because we have to recognise this reality for what it is: the biggest concentration of illegal employment in northern and central Italy,” said Enrico Rossi, president of the region of Tuscany. The disaster has led to questions about the conditions on the site and in a network of similar workshops operating in the area, noted for its large number of Chinese-owned textile manufacturing businesses. The business daily Il Sole 24 Ore reported that about 30,000 Chinese workers in Prato are employed by 3,500 companies. The Guardian reported many of these factories are operating on the fringes of legality. “No one can say they are surprised at this because everyone has known for years that, in the area between Florence and Prato, hundreds if not thousands of people are living and working in conditions of near-slavery,” noted Roberto Pistonina, secretary general of the local section of the CISL trade union, on his Facebook page. A fire official quoted by the Corriere della Sera daily said there were clear violations of safety rules in the factory and evidence of unauthorised building work to put up the dormitories.


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