Risks * Number 635 * 14 December 2013
Ministers are misusing an official government website to push the Conservative’s party political anti-workplace safety line, the TUC has charged. The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) safety policy webpages “set out their policy on health and safety”, notes TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, but he adds the content “is clear, concise and simple and is also absolute drivel.” The DWP webpage is prefaced with this statement: “We believe that good health and safety is important, but the burden of excessive health and safety rules and regulations on business has become too great and a damaging compensation culture is stifling innovation and growth.” Dismissing each point, citing official statistics, government-sponsored research, government committees, independent studies and admissions from high ranking Tories, TUC’s Hugh Robertson said: “This government seems to see government websites as the property of the political parties rather than of the state. They are increasingly being used as tools of propaganda rather than being there to give information. But while you would expect a certain ideological spin on anything this government does, this goes further than that. The claim that there is a burden of excessive rules and a damaging compensation culture is, to put it simply, a complete lie.” He said instead of regurgitating unfounded myths, the government should be “trying to show that, as all the studies show, health and safety helps business… That way they would not only get rid of the misconceptions and myths, but also actually do some good by encouraging employers to protect their workers.”
The later retirement date announced by the Chancellor in last week’s Autumn statement might be of little significance to the wealthy, but it could see many others receive little or nothing of their state pension entitlement, the TUC has warned. The union body was commenting on the plans announced in the Commons by George Osborne to push back the state pension age to 68 by the mid-2030s, with further increases after that. It is already scheduled to move to 66 between 2018 and 2020 and then to 67 between 2026 and 2028. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “There has been no new evidence to show that people are living any longer since the last time the Chancellor increased the state pension age, yet today’s young workers are being told they must work until they drop.” She added: “However many decades they work hard and contribute, tomorrow’s 69-year-olds will find themselves being sent for the future version of ATOS assessments if they can no longer work. Barely half of all men are able to work beyond the current state pension age. Raising it further will simply prolong an agonising limbo between their last job and their state pension.” She warned: “This has nothing to do with dealing with unexpected extra pension costs but is part of a long-term attack on the welfare state and the dismantling of our national insurance system.” TUC research found there is already a £67,000 state pension divide due to a widening gap in life expectancies and a rising state pension age. And research published last year by TUC noted that disability and poor health are preventing nearly half a million people approaching retirement from working, a figure that will increase as the state pension age rises.
Unions have said expecting people to carry on longer in arduous work before they qualify for a state pension will be bad news for workers and services. Steve Murphy, general secretary of the construction union UCATT, said: “This is a kick in the teeth to construction workers, many of whom are forced to retire before they reach pension age due to ill-health and injury. More construction workers will find themselves in limbo, too old to work but too young to retire and will be forced into poverty relying on benefits to survive.” UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said the pensions plan was “cruel and unnecessary. It may be OK for the better off to work until they are 70 because they will have some years to enjoy their retirement. But for millions, they will never see their pension because they will die before that age.” He said “does anyone seriously expect a 70-year-old paramedic or nurse attending them in a medical emergency. And should we expect people who sweep our streets, clean our hospitals and schools to carry on doing those jobs?” A statement from civil service union PCS noted: “The reality of such a policy is that two-thirds of Britons will fail to reach the state retirement age of 68 free from disability, according to the 2001 census data analysed by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. The change to 68 ignores the reality of the shorter healthy life expectancy of the poorest people by simply reflecting the increasing life spans of the healthy and wealthy.” The Autumn statement also includes a further £84m cut to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the government ministry responsible for the Health and Safety Executive’s budget.
Transport union Unite has issued “crucial” guidance to drivers as record tides and strong winds battered the country and severely disrupted road and rail travel. The union, which represents 75,000 road transport workers, said the three simple recommendations are aimed at drivers who feel they are at genuine risk as a result of extreme weather across the UK. It said the need for caution was demonstrated by the tragic death of a lorry driver as high winds caused chaos across Scotland. Police Scotland said the man died on 5 December when his HGV was blown on top of two cars in Bathgate, West Lothian. Unite national officer Adrian Jones said: “We are urging our members to take a few simple precautions and to stay safe. Namely to follow all police and highway agency directions at all times and to notify your employer in the event that you feel that your work is becoming unsafe due to the severe weather.” He added: “With the growing frequency of extreme weather events across the UK we will be working with employers to agree guidelines to maximise road transport safety.” The union is urging drivers to follow police and highway agency directions at all times. It also says “if drivers feel there is a genuine risk to their safety or the safety of the public they should find an appropriate place to park and notify their employer immediately. However, drivers should remain available for work.” Finally, “in the event an employer instructs a driver to continue driving when the driver feels it is unsafe he or she should contact their union representative urgently for advice.”
As firefighters and other emergency service workers helped rescue those trapped by last week’s storms, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has said the emergency demonstrated the need for an immediate end to cuts in the fire and rescue service. Speaking in the wake of the 5 December storms, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said it was “a travesty that many of the crews, fire stations and special appliances involved in last night’s rescues are under threat from government expenditure cuts.” He added: “Last night demonstrated the need to maintain and improve our ability to make sure the public is as safe as we can make them in the event of emergencies. Cuts in the fire and rescue service amount to national vandalism, not financial prudence. It is almost incredible that many of the appliances and crews which responded yesterday are themselves being considered for the axe. We have already seen the loss of 3,600 firefighter jobs since the 2010 general election. If the planned cuts continue the firefighters will be less and less able to safely and professionally respond to challenges like the storms and floods.”
Rail union RMT has called for “constant vigilance” on safety 25 years after the Clapham Junction disaster left 35 people dead and hundreds injured. The union warning came ahead of the 12 December 2013 anniversary of the tragedy, when the crowded 06:14 train from Poole to London Waterloo crashed into the back of the stationary train, which had stopped at a red signal. A third train, travelling empty in the opposite direction, hit the wreckage only minutes later. Mistakes made by a severely fatigued worker were identified in the Hidden inquiry into the incident. The report recommended wide-ranging safety improvements, including a 12-hour working day ceiling. RMT says this crucial safety recommendation has been replaced by a 14 hour door-to-door limit, including unpaid hours, a move the union believes “piles on stress and fatigue.” RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: “The tragedy is an eternal warning of what happens when staff are suffering fatigue and are operating within a culture of excessive hours and impossible demands,” adding: “25 years on from Clapham , RMT is issuing a renewed call for an end to the casualisation and zero hours contracts culture which is being rolled out across the railways by stealth and where fatigue, and a lack of clear management control, is once again being flagged up as a major issue by our members.” The union leader said: “RMT expects our concerns to be taken seriously and for immediate action to be taken to bring Network Rail works back in house within an environment where safety is paramount and where staff are on decent pay and conditions and where working hours are properly managed and controlled.”
A library assistant who suffered a manual handling injury while working for Flintshire County Council developed permanent back problems that mean she can no longer work. The 54-year-old UNISON member from Wales was instructed by council managers to help move 80,000 books from one area of the library to another over four months in 2008 and 2009. The worker, whose name has not been released but who had not receiving any training in manual handling, was told to lift stacks of books and pack them into boxes, each weighing up to 22kg (50lbs). These were then loaded onto trolleys and moved through the facility. After developing back pain, she told her manager and took three days off to rest. However, when she returned to work she was told to carry on moving the boxes despite her back problems. As a result, her back seized up altogether. Flintshire Council did not offer her alternative light duties and she was subsequently dismissed on grounds of medical incapability. The woman, who had never previously suffered back problems, can no longer work. Facing a union backed compensation claim, Flintshire County Council denied liability until court proceedings were launched. Lawyers brought in by the union to act in the case then negotiated a payout of over £23,000. UNISON regional secretary Margaret Thomas said: “Manual handling injuries are among the most common injuries in the workplace and yet employers still see fit not to equip their workers with the skills to shift loads safely. In this case, our member should not have been instructed to carry out such heavy lifting without the correct safety protocols being followed. Her injury was entirely preventable and Flintshire Council’s actions showed complete disregard for her well-being.” Library work is considered low risk by the safety authorities, so exempt from preventive safety inspections.
Karen Dowling, a senior support worker with Leicester Housing Association, has received compensation after suffered a serious leg injury when she fell through a hole in the floor. The association had taken up up a board but not replaced it. The UNISON member from Mansfield sustained extensive bruising to her left leg, a cracked heel bone, and broke her ankle in two places. She required hospital care, her leg was put in plaster and she had to have both hydrotherapy and physiotherapy. She was off work for seven months in total. In a UNISON-backed compensation case, Leicester Housing Association agreed to make an undisclosed payout to Karen for her injuries and loss of earnings. She said: “The legal process was quite painless compared to the disruption to my daily life. My husband had to wait on me hand and foot which I couldn’t even enjoy because of the pain and frustration of being completely immobile. We went through a lot because management didn’t see fit to put up a simple sign to warn employees about the hole.” Helen Black, UNISON regional secretary, said: “How more basic does health and safety come than filling in or warning about a hole in the floor? It was a known hazard and while Karen was left to pay the physical price for the employer’s lack of action they also landed themselves with a hefty damages bill.”
The public sector union UNISON is asking its safety reps and stewards in the schools sector to complete a short joint union survey on the management of asbestos. The union says this will form a vital part of the evidence to be presented by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee to the Department for Education's (DfE) review of its policy on asbestos. Official estimates suggest more than 75 per cent of Britain's state schools contain asbestos. UNISON says much of this “is badly maintained, meaning that children and staff are exposed to this killer fibre. Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past 10 years as well as an unknown number of cleaners, admin staff and caretakers.”
Almost 5 per cent of lung cancer deaths in the United States and the United Kingdom may be due to workplace exposure to diesel exhaust, according to a new study. The study’s findings suggest official Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates of occupational lung cancer deaths caused by diesel exhaust exposures could fall more than 1,000 short of the true toll. The researchers from US and European institutions, writing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, estimate that based on diesel exhaust exposure data available in the US and UK, 4.8 per cent of lung cancer deaths are due to occupational exposure to diesel exhaust, while 1.3 per cent is due to environmental exposures. Lorry drivers and miners exposed over their careers to diesel exhaust face a risk of dying from lung cancer that is almost 70 times higher than the risk considered acceptable under US occupational standards. The researchers used data from three previous US studies of workers – two of truckers and one of non-metal miners – as well as national death statistics for the United States and United Kingdom. In 2010, there were 34,859 deaths from lung cancer in the UK. Based on the findings of this study, that would equate to approximately 1,673 occupational lung cancer deaths linked to diesel alone each year. HSE’s cancer estimates give a diesel exhaust attributable fraction of just 1.84 per cent, or 605 occupational lung cancer deaths.
Lawyers for people suffering from an always fatal asbestos cancer have said a new compensation scheme is not good enough. The criticism came as the government published details of a scheme it says will award over £350 million over 10 years to around 3,000 mesothelioma victims across the UK who have been prevented from claiming compensation because they cannot trace a liable employer or an employers’ liability insurer. But lawyers representing victims of asbestos-related diseases have urged the government to urgently rethink a scheme that would mean those eligible missing out on up to £43,000 of vital funds for care and support. The provisions in the Mesothelioma Bill, which disability minister Mike Penning admitted in the Commons on 2 December were “not perfect”, will allow claimants to receive around 75 per cent of the average amount paid out in civil damages. Critics say that eligibility rules mean thousands of others affected by asbestos-related disease will miss out on even these cut-price payouts. Adrian Budgen of the law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: “The aim of this legislation should be to introduce the right scheme to help victims of asbestos-related disease – something that will simply not be achieved by the ‘better than nothing’ approach which is seemingly being taken.” He added “the scheme would only apply to victims diagnosed with mesothelioma from 25 July 2012, meaning many more sufferers would be missing out on the support they need and deserve… We would urge ministers to seriously consider a rethink on the plans to make sure they get the right proposals in place as soon as possible.”
Scottish health secretary Alex Neil has come under pressure to review junior doctors' working hours following the tragic case of Dr Lauren Connelly, who died driving home after a hospital night shift. Dr Connelly, 23, was involved in a fatal crash in September 2011 returning from Inverclyde Royal Hospital in Greenock. Her father, Brian Connelly, believes she was fatigued after six weeks of extremely long hours and wants an overhaul of the system and has received support from opposition politicians. Evidence appears to support his call. In 2005 the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health warned junior medics working long shifts were twice as likely to be involved in a car accident leaving work. They were also five time more likely to have a “near miss” than colleagues on shorter hours. A 2006 UK study of 1,619 junior doctors by the former Royal College of Physicians vice president Professor Roy Pounder found one in six had had a traffic accident on the work commute. Scottish Labour's health spokesperson Neil Findlay said: “Health boards have a duty to their staff to provide safe and fair working conditions and scheduling newly qualified junior doctors to work 90 plus hours in a week is a failure of that duty.” He added: “Even if they are complying with the letter of the law by averaging out hours across a number of weeks it is still not reasonable to require anyone to work excessively day after day, week after week. It seems clear that the system we have is broken and health boards and the Scottish government must find a way to fix it.” Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Jim Hume MSP also called for a review. A spokesperson for BMA Scotland said shifts patterns including 90-hour weeks were “not in the spirit” of working time rules.
A man operating as an unlicensed gangmaster and terrorising and exploiting migrant workers has been jailed for seven years. Audrius Morkunas, 40, a Lithuanian national, was sentenced this week at Norwich Crown Court. He was also handed seven years for money laundering and 18 months for assault – his crimes included attacking one worker with an iron bar - to run concurrently. Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) chief executive Paul Broadbent said: “This man exploited vulnerable workers to despicable levels.” He added: “Morkunas sought to control his workers in many different ways – psychologically, through debt and worse still by violence and threats. I take great satisfaction from the fact that these workers are now free from his aggression and exploitation and that our investigation has resulted in a substantial custodial sentence.” Morkunas was charged with acting as an unlicensed gangmaster between January 2009 and September 2012. He had denied two further offences of possession of an offensive weapon and assault causing actual bodily harm but was found guilty of both after a trial earlier this year. He demanded rent at £50 per person per week and charged £400 for finding jobs in local GLA sector industries such as agriculture and chicken processing. He also charged each worker £5 per day for transport he provided. Morkunas displayed aggression and used violence to control many of the workers. The assault charge resulted from him beating a worker with an iron bar – a crime that was captured on CCTV. He also controlled the bank accounts that workers opened, as well as taking control of many of their identity documents, including passports and driving licences. GLA said the workers invariably built up a ‘debt’ to Morkunas that he used to exploit and control them. This is the first GLA case to result in a jail term.
A global adhesives giant has been fined after a worker died when he was pinned against a forklift truck by a reversing lorry. Andrew Davies, 43, died following the incident in the transport yard at Mapei UK Limited in Halesowen on 1 July 2010. He had been asked to empty a machine, using a forklift truck to move a skip and then empty the contents of the skip into a bag that was held within a cage. Wolverhampton Crown Court heard Mr Davies had moved to the front of the forklift truck when a reversing 18-tonne rigid-back truck pinned him between the back of the lorry and the cage, which was resting on the forks of his forklift truck. His head was impaled against the forks, killing him instantly. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found Mapei UK Ltd had failed to segregate pedestrians and vehicles adequately in order to organise, supervise, manage and run their transport yard. A system was in place to restrict vehicle movement whereby all drivers handed in their vehicle keys on arrival, but this didn’t apply to all vehicles. In this case, the lorry driver had not handed his keys in, meaning he did not have to seek Mapei UK Ltd’s authority or assistance when moving his vehicle. HSE found Mapei UK Ltd, with is one of the largest producers of adhesives for the construction industry, considered the transport area a low priority in terms of risk, despite previous independent safety reports telling them the opposite. The firm pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined a total of £173,332, with costs to be determined later. Mr Davies’ mother, Margaret Davies, said: “It is really hard to explain the hurt, grief and anger I feel,” adding: “They should have had proper safety procedures in place, and people directing drivers reversing big lorries, then this might never have happened.” Managing director of Mapei UK, Mark Louch, said the fine was “irrelevant, we just feel for his family.” He said the firm would hold a special health and safety at work day on the Friday closest to the anniversary of Andrew's death “as a memorial to him.”
A 200kg fish tank being built at a lorry trailer manufacturing firm for one of its directors toppled over, leading to a worker suffering severe injuries. Alloy Bodies Ltd was convicted of criminal safety failings after an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found “the highly unusual activity” had not been planned, supervised or carried out safely. During a six-day trial, Manchester Crown Court heard that the company’s bespoke services department had built a two-metre-wide fish tank for one of the firm’s directors. The heavy tank was being loaded into the back of a van on 1 June 2010 when it toppled from the forklift truck and struck the 59-year-old worker. The court was told the fish tank was not secured to a pallet before being lifted and workers struggled to load it onto the van due to its size. The injured worker, who has asked not to be named, broke both his legs in the incident and doctors had to amputate his right leg below the knee. He now has a prosthetic limb and is still unable to return to work, more than three years on from the incident. Alloy Bodies Ltd was fined £30,000 and ordered to pay £56,621 in costs after being found guilty of a criminal breach of safety law. HSE inspector Alex Farnhill said: “No effort was made to plan the work in advance, despite it being a highly unusual activity for employees at the factory. The firm should have considered the risks and found a safe way of moving the fish tank. If it had been secured to a pallet and loaded onto a larger vehicle, rather than a van, than the terrible injuries the worker suffered could have been avoided.”
An agricultural vehicle sales company has been fined after an employee received multiple skull fractures in a fall at work. Jacob Wingett, 28, was fitting a number plate to the top of a tractor cab on 1 May 2012 when he lost his balance and fell about a metre to the ground, causing serious injuries. The incident was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which prosecuted B&B Agricultural Sales Ltd at Truro Magistrates’ Court. The court heard that Mr Wingett was working at the company’s site in Dobwalls, near Liskeard. He was standing on the cross shaft arms at the back of the tractor when he fell, resulting in one broken and one shattered wrist, two broken arms and multiple skull fractures. He underwent several operations to put pins and plates in both arms and was unable to work for over a month. HSE found B&B Agricultural Sales Ltd had not taken any measures to prevent Mr Wingett falling. There was no plan for the work, no safe system of working and no suitable training or supervision. The company pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £7,000 and ordered to pay £8,142 in costs. HSE inspector Gareth Cottle, speaking after the hearing, said: “Mr Wingett’s serious injuries could have been avoided with some simple measures including planning the work properly, providing proper equipment, such as a platform to work on and adequate training and supervision.” He added: “There is no excuse for employers failing to safeguard workers who have to work at height.”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has updated key publications on the control of dangerous substances at work. The sixth edition of the Approved Code of Practice and guidance to the Control of Substances Hazards to Health (COSHH) regulations now takes account of regulatory changes following the introduction of REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals) and CLP (classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures) rules. HSE has also consolidated five Approved Codes of Practice (ACOPs) under the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR), covering issues from plant design and operation, through to maintenance. The new single source on DSEAR is relevant to businesses handling or storing flammable substances. HSE says “legal responsibilities (ie the requirements of the DSEAR regulations) to protect workers’ safety are not altered by any redrafting to the ACOP.” Both the COSHH and DSEAR documents are available free online, or can be purchased in print versions.
The European Commission (EC) appears willing to talk about the harm caused by work, but it is wholly committed to doing nothing about it, the UK union body TUC has said. With an estimated 23 million people living in the EU suffering from a work-related health problem, it was “encouraging” that the European Commission decided to organise a major conference on the burden of occupational diseases, said the TUC. But the event, which took place last week in Brussels, would have “bitterly disappointed” anyone hoping for action, said TUC’s Hugh Robertson, who was in attendance. “The conference came up with no proposals for tackling the crisis that workers face, nor was there even any sense that governments or the Commission had any willingness to do anything,” he wrote in the TUC’s Stronger Unions blog. “There was a loud and clear message from the employers’ representatives, the governments, and the Commission itself that there must be no more regulation. It was like a mantra.” He added: “OK – so what do they proposed instead? I have no idea, and nor do they.” He said instead the conference featured a parade of academics presenting “nothing new, or surprising.” Robertson warned “it does not matter what the evidence says, or how much research is done, this Commission, like this [UK] government, intends to continue to allow millions of people to have their health, and lives, ruined because of preventable illnesses caused by their work.”
New Zealand workers who are killed on the job deserve justice, not excuses, the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) has said. “Nine forestry workers have died this year,” said Bill Newson, EPMU national secretary. “If the companies they worked for caused their deaths through shoddy practices, they will never be held to account, just as Pike River Coal wasn’t” (Risks 619). The union said it had “consistently called for the introduction of corporate manslaughter laws, especially after the deaths of 29 men in the Pike River coal mine.” Pike River Coal has gone into receivership and has not fully paid the compensation ordered by a court to the families of the victims. “We support the government’s work so far in improving health and safety in the workplace, but when health and safety is undermined or ignored by negligent business owners, and workers die, they should be held accountable for that negligence,” said Bill Newson. “Last year when a 3 News poll said 74 per cent of New Zealanders supported a corporate manslaughter law, the prime minister said it was ‘worthy of consideration’. Now a year later nine more men are dead, and he’s changed his mind. It’s a cynical backdown.”
An investigation has found forestry officials knowingly put protection of property ahead of safety as a fire swept across parts of Arizona in June, causing the deaths of 19 firefighters. The ruling by the state Industrial Commission came after its investigative agency, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH), released its findings and recommended citations and financial penalties. The probe concluded the state’s Forestry Division should have pulled crews out earlier. The commission levied a $559,000 fine. The ADOSH report provided a stinging rebuke for the Forestry Division, whose earlier investigation found that state fire officials communicated poorly but followed proper procedures when 19 ‘Granite Mountain Hotshots’ were killed on 30 June in a blaze near the small community of Yarnell northwest of Phoenix. They were trapped as the flames they were battling changed direction in a fierce thunderstorm. The Arizona State Forestry Division oversaw the fight against the blaze that sparked on state land. ADOSH lead investigator, Marshall Krotenberg, told commissioners that fire managers should have removed firefighters an hour before the thunderstorm arrived. “The storm was anticipated, it was forecasted, everybody knew it,” he said. “But there was no plan to move people out of the way.” He added senior fire managers had already determined that the town itself was indefensible. More than 100 homes were destroyed. The ADOSH investigation found that the state Forestry Division didn't respond to a request the evening before for two safety officers, key positions in large firefighting efforts.
US workers who have been victimised - or fear they will be - for reporting unsafe conditions to their employers can now go to a new Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) whistleblower site to file complaints. OSHA director Dr David Michaels explained: “The ability of workers to speak out and exercise their rights without fear of retaliation provides the backbone for some of American workers’ most essential protections. Whistleblower laws protect not only workers, but also the public at large and now workers will have an additional avenue available to file a complaint with OSHA.” OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions protecting employees who report violations of various securities, trucking, airline, nuclear power, pipeline, environmental, rail, public transportation, workplace health and safety and consumer protection laws. The new online form prompts the worker to include basic whistleblower complaint information so they can be easily contacted for follow-up. Complaints are automatically routed to the appropriate regional whistleblower investigators.
TUC courses for safety reps
COURSES FOR SEPTEMBER TO DECEMBER 2013