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TUC Risks E-Bulletins

Risks 637 - 11 January 2014

Asbestos - the hidden killer Hazards magazine Hazards at Work

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Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at








Government blocks justice for mesothelioma victims

Eight years ago the TUC proposed a no-fault fund of last resort for people who were injured or who developed a disease through work but where their employer had not got insurance, or the insurer could not be traced. The proposal was adopted by the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health and finally by the Labour government in 2010. When the coalition came to power that year, it said it wanted time to consider the proposals and discuss the plans with the insurance industry. After three years they came up with a watered down proposal which would give limited compensation only to a small number of people. Rather than covering everyone with an occupational disease it was restricted to mesothelioma, just one asbestos cancer. In addition, compensation would be only 70 per cent of what they would receive if they could trace their insurer. This week the bill, which had been criticised by asbestos disease advocacy groups and unions, had its final stage in the Commons. The only concession was an increase in the amount of compensation from 70 per cent to 75 per cent of the full rate. According to TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, calls for more research, more compensation and for payments to be backdated to benefit those diagnosed after 2010 were also defeated “even though the government did not even bother to even try to justify their case for opposing them.” Safety minster Mike Penning said that the bill was “a deal we have struck to get this bill to where it is today with the insurance industry”.  Criticising the deal, Newcastle East MP Nick Brown said: “Compensation should be 100 per cent of what is due. Victims, within a few months, are going to be 100 per cent dead, so 100 per cent compensation does not seem unreasonable.” TUC’s Hugh Robertson said the bill will benefit about 300 mesothelioma sufferers a year “because of the work done by the victims’ support groups, their unions, the union lawyers and of course that small core of Labour MPs who have been relentlessly pursuing the case for this over the past seven or eight years.” He added this was “not the end of the line. Unions are going to continue fighting for justice for all those who are made ill or injured at work and that means 100 per cent compensation, for everyone.”

Government cuts heighten flood dangers

Cuts to essential Environment Agency (EA) jobs will dramatically reduce the country’s ability to respond to floods and other extreme weather emergencies, unions have said. The warning, coming as large stretches of the country remained flood affected, has received support from MPs. Conservative MP Anne McIntosh, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee, this week warned: “Recent flooding events reinforce our concerns about cuts to the Defra budget. It is a small ministry facing massive cuts. Ministers must clarify how further budgets will impact on... the ability of the department to respond to emergencies.” She noted that EA, the frontline flood defence body funded by the environment department Defra, is set to lose 1,700 jobs by October, on top of 1,150 jobs lost since 2009: a total of 23 per cent of the workforce. UNISON said the job cuts were “potentially catastrophic” in the wake of a series of devastating storms that have caused enormous damage to the UK's flood defences.  UNISON national officer for EA, Matthew Lay, said: “Staff in the Agency have worked day and night to keep communities safe and prevent flood damage, and work tirelessly to support those devastated by the aftermath. The government can't have it both ways, praising the sterling work of members in the Agency but at the same time imposing further damaging cuts.” Prospect deputy general secretary Leslie Manasseh said his members in EA management were being “forced to focus on how to make cuts, diverting them from their vital work providing flood warnings, repairing damage, maintaining flood defences and planning ahead for future crises of this nature.” GMB national officer Justin Bowden said frontline staff would be affected, adding: “The public need to know that job losses on this scale will impact directly on flood risk management, on flood defence operations teams managing flood defences and carrying out river maintenance to enables flows to be conveyed away, enhancing the river's ecology and supporting fish stocks.”

Floods highlight peril facing lifesaving services

The impact of cuts to essential Environment Agency flood prevention services will be amplified as crucial emergency and coastguard services are also dramatically pared back, unions have warned. Commenting after the release this week of a report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (Efra) into the effect of budget cuts on the ability of the government to respond to floods, firefighters’ union general secretary Matt Wrack, said: “Firefighters are on the front line when floods take place, yet the government is slashing fire and rescue budgets to ribbons. Our ability to protect public safety during floods, fires, road traffic accidents and major incidents such as terrorist attacks is already being tested to breaking point, and further cuts will endanger lives.” The FBU leader added: “This report echoes concerns firefighters have had for years, and its testament to the hard work they put in that recent floods have not been even more damaging and dangerous.” Civil service union PCS said the storms and floods in the UK show the need to retain expert coastguard resources and knowledge in coastal communities. As well as co-ordinating rescue operations at sea, coastguard staff assisted other emergency services and the Environment Agency in cities and towns. Already, three coastguard stations have been closed by this government and Brixham, Liverpool, Portland, Solent, Swansea and Walton on the Naze are all earmarked for closure. The union warns lives could be lost as resources were already thinly stretched before the bad weather set in. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “The response to the storms shows just how invaluable the local knowledge and expertise of coastguard staff are to our coastal communities. Ministers must put an immediate halt to their station closure plans that we continue to believe will put lives at risk."

George Osborne wants your pension

The Chancellor’s December 2013 budget delivered a crumb of safety comfort but accompanied it with some devastating news for your prospects of ever living to see your pension. George Osborne announced the government will extend the exemption from taxation on medical treatments recommended by employer-arranged occupational health services, with an anticipated £500 limit on the costs. This will be in addition to treatments recommended by the new Health and Work Service, which starts later this year. This means that those workers who are lucky enough to have an employer who is willing to refer them to a physio or other type of therapist is no longer going to find themselves issued with a big tax bill. But a big budget cut to the Health and Safety Executive’s parent ministry, DWP, may well mean even further cuts in the HSE budget on top of a 35 per cent cut over the last four years. But it is the government’s plans for a staged increase in the state pension age to 70 (Risks 635) that will be guaranteed bad news for many. Life expectancy at birth for males in Kensington and Chelsea (one of the richest boroughs in the country) is 85.1, and 89.8 for females. In Glasgow, men’s expectancy is 71.6 and women’s is 78. That means that Glasgow men die 14 years earlier than their well-heeled Kensington and Chelsea counterparts. Average pay for men in the London borough in 2011 was over three and a half times that of a man in Glasgow (£87,516  compared to £23,356). So if the pension age is raised to 70 the average Glaswegian man might expect to be able to claim it for just over a year. According to TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson: “It is not just a geographical split. It is also a work one. How many construction workers are going to be able to continue until they are 70? Those that have not succumbed to the much higher rates of cancer that plague construction workers will almost certainly have had to stop working long before then because of musculoskeletal disorders like back, hip or knee problems.”

New call for a public inquiry on copter safety

Transport and offshore union RMT is stepping up its campaign for a public inquiry into helicopter safety after a series of incidents this year. The union said there is increasing public and political support for an inquiry, covering onshore as well as the North Sea offshore industry. The call came as the Fatal Accident Investigation into the 1 April 2009 North Sea helicopter disaster that cost 16 lives opened in Aberdeen on 6 January. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: “While the Fatal Accident Investigation has a role to play it cannot enforce justice or hold anyone to account and is no alternative to the full public inquiry into helicopter safety that RMT has been calling for with the support of the TUC. RMT does however hope that the FAI can answer some of the many questions that the relatives, friends and work colleagues of those who lost their lives have been asking. That is why the union is supporting the families at the investigation today.” He added: “The FAI process has been proven to be far too slow and since the 2009 disaster that is under investigation today there have been three further incidents, one of them fatal, and the families and colleagues of all those whose lives have been impacted by the helicopter safety issue have waited far too long for justice. Unfortunately, the FAI cannot deliver that justice and once again we call on the First Minister, Alex Salmond, to throw his weight behind the RMT campaign for a full public inquiry into the whole subject of helicopter safety and the broader issue of working conditions in the offshore industry.”

Thousands back offshore helicopter safety reform

Over 3,000 offshore workers have called on Oil & Gas UK (O&GUK) bosses to urgently act to improve the safety of helicopter transfers to and from North Sea installations. Unite representatives submitted a petition to O&GUK on 20 December 2013, backing the demands of the union’s ‘Back Home Safe’ campaign which calls for improvements to offshore helicopter design, survival contingencies and training and for the implementation all previous recommendations made by authorities to maximise the safety of workers (Risks 630). This petition was presenting in the week the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) said the August 2013 fatal crash of the Super Puma AS332 L2 returning from the Borgsten Dolphin platform was ‘survivable’.  Four people perished when their helicopter ditched in the waters off the south Shetland coast, three as a result of drowning (Risks 622). Unite regional industrial officer Tommy Campbell said: “The views of over 3,000 offshore workers cannot be ignored and their collective voice is loud and clear: They want safer helicopter transfers to and from installations in the UK Continental Shelf.” He added: “Confidence has clearly been shattered and the industry now needs to demonstrate that it is prepared to evolve and improve the safety of its offshore helicopter fleet and its survival training so that we can minimise the chances of future fatalities. O&GUK can help start this process now by working with Unite and implementing the demands of our Back Home Safe campaign which thousands of offshore workers are now actively supporting.”

Rail union criticises official line on sewage dumping

The government is continuing to play down the risks posed by raw sewage dumped by trains onto rail tracks. In a 7 January 2014 written parliamentary answer, which followed concerns raised by unions and a question from Labour MP John McDonnell, transport secretary Stephen Hammond wrote: “Research carried out for the Rail Safety and Standards Board in May 2004 concluded that while discharge from toilet waste on to the track is unsightly, the risk to passengers and employees from pathogen infection was low.” In December 2013, rail union RMT wrote ministers calling for an end to the “shocking practice” of private train companies dumping human sewage on the railway tracks. The union also called on the government to “disclose what tonnage of human excrement is currently being dumped on Britain’s railways by the train companies every year so that staff and public alike can see the true scale of the scandal that shames Britain’s railways.” RMT says workers have been sprayed with an aerosol of human waste and routinely have to remove excrement from tracks and carriages. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: “Not only is this a filthy way of disposing of human waste, but it also poses real health risks and dangers for RMT members out there working on the tracks and in the depots.” He added: “There is no point in the government politely requesting that the private train companies desist, they are the one’s profiting out of this scandal by allowing it to continue in the full knowledge that it is both dangerous and disgusting. This rotten practice should be stopped once and for all and the profiteering train companies should be the forced by the government to pay the price for upgrading the trains and employing staff to empty the tanks.” Last year rail worker Darren Skelton, 41, was compensated after he ended up in hospital hooked up to an IV drip with a sewage-related infection (Risks 549). He lost part of his thumb as a result.

Unite telephone hotline for blacklisted workers

Unite has set-up a special ‘hotline’ for blacklisted workers.The move in December 2013 came as around 1,200 victims and families were sent letters by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) telling them they were blacklisted through a conspiracy involving 44 construction companies spanning decades.  The union “is urging those that receive the shock revelations not to fall for employer attempts to lock them into a compensation scheme called The Workers Compensation Scheme, which is not yet ready, has not been agreed by the unions, and any compensation could fall far short of what the victims could otherwise get through union representation.” Instead, Unite is urging its members to contact a Unite telephone ‘hotline’ that will immediately direct them to the union’s lawyers. Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “We urge the victims of blacklisting and their families to use our hotline or contact their union rather than fall for employer attempts to buy them off. Lives were ruined and families were torn apart - victims of blacklisting deserve the best legal support rather than a scheme designed by employers to limit their exposure, rather than properly compensate the victims.”  In December 2013, Unite welcomed EDF Energy’s “cast iron protections” against blacklisting at its proposed new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C in Somerset. The company, Unite and GMB have signed what Unite termed “a groundbreaking labour agreement” that provides for an open and transparent hiring process along the contract chain and also includes trade union involvement in auditing recruitment.



More disappointment on deregulation

Bodies representing unions and safety professionals have expressed their “disappointment” at the failure of a government committee to rein in dangerous measures in the draft Deregulation Bill. A joint committee of the Houses of Commons and Lords has been looking at the draft Deregulation Bill which contains the government’s proposals to exempt some self-employed people from health and safety regulation. The bill would also impose on regulators including the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) an economic “growth duty”, which critics say could undermine the watchdog’s focus on safety regulation. Both measures are opposed by the TUC and IOSH, the organisation representing safety professionals. However, the joint committee decided not to oppose either proposal, noting only that it was important the growth duty “is not used by government to undermine the independence of regulators in the way it is implemented.” Criticising the committee’s stance, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said: “This means that the fight to protect the Health and Safety at Work Act moves to the Commons and Lords when the final Bill is introduced.” He added that on a more positive note the joint committee “did recommend the government drop their frightening proposal to allow ministers to decide to repeal any regulations they want without even getting the approval of parliament.” The committee concluded the power is “too wide and the safeguards are inadequate.” Committee chair Lord Rooker said: “Having looked at the Draft Deregulation Bill in some detail and taken evidence from a wide range of witnesses, we do not think it is appropriate for ministers to be given power to scrap legislation by order on the subjective test that it is 'no longer of practical use'.” He said giving ministers “that 'Henry VIII' power would undermine effective Parliamentary scrutiny.” IOSH said it was “disappointed” and “concerned” that the measures on exempting the self-employed from safety law and introducing a growth duty on HSE had not been opposed by the committee.

Government has too much time for zero hours

The government is “desperately short” of answers to the growth of zero hours contracts in Britain, the TUC has said. The union body was speaking out after the government’s announcement last month of a consultation on changes to zero hours contracts. Launching the consultation, which closes on 13 March, business secretary Vince Cable ruled out a complete ban. He said: “A growing number of employers and individuals today are using zero hours contracts. While for many people they offer a welcome flexibility to accommodate childcare or top up monthly earnings, for others it is clear that there has been evidence of abuse around this type of employment which can offer limited employment rights and job security. We believe they have a place in today’s labour market and are not proposing to ban them outright, but we also want to make sure that people are getting a fair deal.” Commenting on the government move, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The growth of zero hours contracts is one of the reasons why so many hard-working people are fearful for their jobs and struggling to make ends meet, in spite of the recovery. But while the government has identified some of the problems faced by those with zero job security, it’s desperately short on solutions to curb the use of these contracts.” She added: “Through the consultation, the TUC and unions will propose tougher action in order to tackle abuse of zero hours contracts, which can leave people not knowing how much they’ll be earning from one week to the next.” Unions criticised the government’s failure to either acknowledge or address the problems of insecure work, while business lobby groups defended the use of “flexible” contracts.

New warning on doctors’ hours

Doctors in Scotland are suffering “stress and burnout” as growing NHS workloads take their toll, medical leaders have warned. Brian Keighley, chair of the British Medical Association in Scotland, said the NHS was struggling to deal with the pressures of an ageing population, Westminster-led funding cuts and rising expectations from patients which include a shift towards a seven-day-working week in hospitals. In a New Year message, Dr Keighley said: “Reports of stress and burnout amongst all grades of clinical staff are now emerging across the service. An ageing population, increasingly sophisticated technology and pharmacology, legitimate rising expectations from patients and their families, the expectation of consistent levels of patient care over all seven days of the week and faster access to treatment are all pressures with which the Scottish government and its 14 health boards have struggled over the past year.” He added: “There is already a danger that the existing workforce is limited in its ability to generate and deliver solutions because of exhaustion with current arrangements.” A recent BMA survey of doctors found eight out of ten believed the pressure of their work load was “high” or “very high”. Last month, the Health and Safety Executive was asked by Scottish Labour's health spokesperson Neil Findlay to launch an investigation into junior doctors' working hours following the commuting death of a fatigued young medic (Risks 635). The watchdog has been called upon to consider whether health boards in Scotland are meeting their full obligations under EU working time regulations. It has also been asked to assess whether the safety of doctors - and their patients - is being put at risk by fatigue caused by working excessive hours.

HSE removes ‘good practice’ from dust rules

The Health and Safety Executive has “weakened” its approach to hazardous substances at work (Risks 635), with potentially deadly consequences, a top occupational health expert has warned. Dr John Cherrie of the Institute of Occupational Medicine said he had urged HSE to make improvements to dust controls as part of a consultation on the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations. He said this was necessary “to clarify that the present ‘limits’ are not really protective of health.” He added: “Unfortunately HSE ignored this advice and in fact weakened the criteria.” Cherrie had echoed union calls for the existing standard on dust exposures to be tightened dramatically (Risks 623). But this didn’t happen and HSE instead removed what Cherrie believes to be an important clause in the Approved Code of Practice. The section on dust originally included this note saying existing dust limits should be considered a ceiling: “Good occupational hygiene practice recommends that those levels should be the highest concentrations of dust to which employees should be exposed.” Criticising the decision to remove this statement, Cherrie said: “This is surely helpful advice, especially as there is evidence to suggest that the current limits are not safe. We recently published a commentary in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene outlining our case for reducing the limits to around 1 mg/m3 for respirable dust”. This is a quarter the current limit. “HSE claim that the revisions were designed to ‘clarify and simplify practical advice to help dutyholders comply with the requirements of [the] Control of Substances Hazardous to Health’ regulations, but to me in respect of dust they have made matters worse. I am really disappointed with the outcome of this process.”  Asked about the implications of the HSE move, he told Hazards magazine: “The lack of clear guidance from HSE on how to manage airborne dust will continue to put the health of tens of thousands of workers at risk. I’d now like to see the European Union step in and set a safe occupational exposure limit for low toxicity dusts.”

HSE adds a print version of its managing safety guide

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published a hard copy version of its popular and recently revised safety management guide for larger organisations. ‘Managing for health and safety’ – known to many as HSG65 – is now available in both downloadable and hard copy formats. The move follows a request from unions, who told HSE there was a role for both online and print versions of the guide (Risks 617). Andrew Cottam, HSE’s lead author of ‘Managing for health and safety’, said: “We are pleased to be able to make the hard copy of HSG65 available. We recognise that some dutyholders prefer to have a physical document that they can refer to, and it was always our intention to produce a version to meet this requirement.” HSE said the new guide complements its ‘Managing for health and safety’ online ‘microsite’. It added that the revised guide presents a ‘Plan, Do, Check, Act’ approach for managing health and safety. Welcoming HSE’s decision to produce a print version alongside its online guide, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said: “This is one of the most important and useful documents that the HSE produces and we welcome the appearance of this in both hard and downloadable formats and hope it will be widely disseminated and used by both employers and safety representatives”.

Farming company fined for forklift death

A Spalding farming business has been ordered to pay more than £200,000 in fines and costs after a farm manager was killed when he was hit by a forklift truck. Peter Barney, 58, was walking from his car across the yard at Middle Farm in Moulton Seas End when he was struck on 31 October 2010. His employer, Lincolnshire Field Products Ltd, was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation found the company did not have effective measures in place to allow vehicles and pedestrians to move around the site safely. Mr Barney, who had worked for the firm for 38 years, was making his way to a potato grading shed when he crossed the path of a forklift being driven by a farm employee. He died at the scene after being crushed by the vehicle. Safety consultants had carried out a risk assessment in 2003 which highlighted the need for pedestrians and vehicles to be segregated, but the firm did not fully implement these findings. Lincolnshire Field Products Ltd was fined £165,000 and ordered to pay £39,500 in costs at Lincoln Crown Court after pleading guilty to two criminal safety offences. HSE inspector Neil Ward said: “If Lincolnshire Field Products Ltd had taken effective steps to keep employees safe, Mr Barney would still be alive today.”

Forestry worker killed in the danger zone

The Buccleuch Estates Limited has been fined for criminal safety failings after a worker died during tree felling operations at Bogrie Wood near Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries. Ross Findlay, aged 49, who had learning difficulties, was struck in the head and body by a 36 metre tall tree. The tree had been uprooted and knocked over by another tree being felled as he was acting as a signalman. The Buccleuch Estates Limited was prosecuted after an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the estate failed to conduct a suitable and sufficient risk assessment, implement a safe system of work or provide adequate information, instruction, training and supervision for employees who were engaged in tree felling. Mr Findlay was acting as a signalman between two colleagues, one cutting the trees with a chainsaw and the other moving the felled trees using a tractor winch. This involved Mr Findlay standing in a position where he could see both workers and be seen by both workers. He should have been positioned at least two tree lengths away from the tree being felled. However, as a result of his learning difficulties he at times did not appreciate distances and was well within the ‘two tree’ exclusion zone when he was struck and killed. The winch cable was just 40 metres long, so it was not possible for this equipment to be two or more tree lengths from danger. The Buccleuch Estates Limited was fined £140,000 after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence. HSE inspector Aileen Jardine, said the “entirely avoidable incident and the failures by The Buccleuch Estate directly resulted in Mr Findlay’s tragic death. A system of waves and nods is not a safe way to manage the felling of large, heavy trees and put all three workers at unnecessary risk.”

Foundry fined over cellar fumes death

Sheffield Forgemasters has been ordered to pay £245,000 in fines and costs for criminal safety failings that led to an employee dying of carbon dioxide poisoning. Labourer Brian Wilkins, 48, was found unconscious at the South Yorkshire foundry after a confined underground area swiftly flooded with carbon dioxide fire-extinguishing mist. Four of his co-workers tried to reach him but were themselves almost overcome by the fast-acting gas. Mr Wilkins, who had three grown-up sons, was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital after the incident at the firm’s plant on Brightside Lane, Sheffield, on 30 May 2008. Sheffield Crown Court heard that Mr Wilkins had carried out part of a cable cutting task in an electrical drawpit and then went to carry out the rest of the job in the switchroom cellar, which was only accessible by lifting a manhole cover and dropping down a ladder. Once underground at the electrical drawpit, Mr Wilkins used a petrol-driven saw to cut through redundant 33,000 volt cables there. At some point later he moved from there to the nearby switchroom cellar with the saw. Colleagues heard the carbon dioxide warning alarms sounding from the cellar. All rescue attempts were defeated as each worker struggled to breathe and remain conscious when exposed to carbon dioxide. Mr Wilkins had to be brought to the surface later using slings. HSE found that use of the petrol-driven saw in the switchroom cellar had likely activated a smoke sensor and prompted the release of the carbon dioxide from the fire extinguishing system. The court was told the company had failed to provide any rescue equipment for either the cellar or the drawpit. Sheffield Forgemasters Steel Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £120,000 and ordered to pay £125,000 in costs. HSE inspector Jill Thompson said: “This was a very upsetting incident that resulted in the needless death of Mr Wilkins. It could have been an even worse tragedy as it was pure chance that another four workers who entered the cellar in a desperate bid to save their colleague did not also perish.”

Tesco shelf stacker loses toes in faulty lift

A Tesco worker suffered the “nightmare” of having a third of his right foot amputated after a lift accident that saw the supermarket giant fined more than £100,000 for criminal safety failures. Mohammad Ferdous, 32, was unloading cages of goods from the faulty lift in the basement of the Tesco Metro in Victoria, London, when it suddenly descended and trapped his foot. He was left screaming for help for up to 10 minutes before fellow workers heard his cries. Blood flow to the foot stopped, leaving it mummified after the incident on 7 August 2009, and he was unable to return to work until a year later. Mr Ferdous’s civil claim against Tesco was settled out of court for a six-figure sum last year. In a criminal case which concluded last month, Southwark Crown Court heard that he faced “inevitable” life-long difficulties walking. Prosecutor Adrian Chaplin told the court that Mr Ferdous “stepped forward with his right foot then his left foot to manhandle the cages [in the lift]. It was at this time that the lift car started coming down - he was unaware that he had stepped into a gap that had opened up. His foot was trapped and crushed.” In a prosecution brought by Westminster City Council, Tesco Maintenance was fined £115,000 and lift maintenance contractor Otis was fined £110,000 after both pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of safety law. Judge Peter Testar said the lift had not been maintained at all by the two companies in the months leading up to the incident. “Otis should have carried out maintenance properly and Tesco should have seen that it was done,” he said. Retail premises are exempted from unannounced official safety inspections.


Some Hazards are worth having

The latest issue of the union backed workers’ health magazine Hazards is out now. Features include a forensic examination of the government’s business-driven multi-pronged attack on health and safety rights at work and the knock-on problems for the Health and Safety Executive. There’s also an overview of the highly effective union and grassroots campaign against blacklisting, which has seen guilty employers and ministers frantically backtracking. All this is topped off with a welter of news and resources from the UK and further afield.



Australia: Unions warn asbestos inaction is ‘a killer’

Unions in Australia have expressed alarm at continuing asbestos imports 10 years after an official ban was introduced. National union federation ACTU was speaking out after it was revealed locomotives and car parts containing asbestos but certified as asbestos-free had entered the country from China. ACTU assistant secretary Michael Borowick said the goal of making Australia asbestos free by 2030 was unlikely at this rate. Speaking on 31 December 2013, he said: “Today is the tenth year anniversary of a ban on asbestos following clear and irrefutable evidence that the deadly dust particles cause cancer. The goal of an asbestos free Australia by 2030 cannot be reached if an ineffectual ban allows more asbestos containing material into the country.” Mr Borowick said it is illegal to import, export, use, re-use, supply or manufacture asbestos containing products or materials and yet the trade continues. “Importers have been duty bound since December 2003 to not import anything containing asbestos yet it is still happening and to make matters worse, the regulator isn’t doing its job and enforcing the ban. It is well established that imports from China, particularly freight trains and motor vehicles contain asbestos components.” He added: “Tragically, asbestos has been discovered only after workers had been exposed during an engine repair.” Despite around 25,000 motor vehicles containing asbestos being imported from China by Ateco in the previous year, there had been no prosecutions, he said. “These are complete failures by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service who should have identified the asbestos before the vehicles and trains were allowed into Australia,” he noted. “The government must urgently provide greater resources to the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service to ensure they are equipped to enforce the ban.”

Bangladesh: Factory bosses charged over fire deaths

Thirteen people, including the two factory owners, have been charged over the Tazreen garment factory fire in Bangladesh in November 2012 that killed more than 100 people. Police announced in December 2013 they had charged Delwar Hossain and his wife, Mahmuda Akther, as well as security guards and managers, over the Dhaka blaze. It was the country's deadliest garment factory fire, with an estimated 112 victims. Police said all 13 targeted in relation to the Tazreen fire had been charged with causing death due to negligence. On the night of the fire, more than 1,150 people were inside the eight-storey building, working overtime shifts to fill orders for international brands. Fire officials say the blaze broke out in the open-air ground floor, where large mounds of fabric and yarn were illegally stored. But on some floors, managers ordered the employees to ignore a fire alarm and continue to work. Many workers were trapped, unable to descend the smoke-filled staircases, and they were blocked from escape by iron grilles on many windows. The fire sparked protests from thousands of workers who claimed the building had been unsafe to work in. In April 2013 the Rana Plaza building collapsed killing 1,135 garment workers. Almost 200 workers are still missing from this latest major tragedy to strike the country’s garment sector. Over 100 international retailers who use the factories have since signed up to legally binding measures to improve workers' safety conditions, in an accord brokered by international trade union bodies. The Bangladeshi government has also announced steps to improve conditions for its three million garment workers - most of whom are women. These measures, which have been criticised by unions as insufficient, raised the minimum wage and made it easier to form unions.

Global: UN cancer agency ‘captured’ by industry

A high profile United Nations cancer agency has been ‘captured’ by industry and compromised, new reports suggest. They reveal that two Russian scientists who have acted for Russia’s asbestos lobby around the world are helping fashion the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) policy and publications on asbestos. Sergey Kashansky, who has publicly claimed Russia’s chrysotile asbestos does not cause the IARC-confirmed asbestos cancer mesothelioma, has been appointed as a collaborating scientist on the IARC Asbest Study. With fellow Russian asbestos industry lobbyist Evgeny Kovalesky and four IARC co-authors, he also contributed to a paper published in August 2013 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology. According to Hazards magazine, the IARC scientists “were consorting with and collaborating on asbestos papers and projects with individuals responsible for pushing asbestos in India, Brazil and worldwide. IARC had all the hallmarks of an agency that had ‘captured’ by industry.” This concern was reinforced when it was revealed a paper on asbestos cancer risks with three prominent IARC authors, published online in the British Journal of Cancer (BJC) in January 2012, was co-authored by Paolo Boffetta, an ex-IARC staffer who had also acted for the asbestos industry. The paper was rubbished in academic journals after it was revealed it had dramatically underestimated the risks posed by chrysotile asbestos, a flaw IARC has refused to acknowledge or rectify. All the authors, including Boffetta, declared in the journal they had “no conflict of interest”. However, Kathleen Ruff of Canada’s Rideau Institute says in 2011, at the same time that he was co-writing with IARC the BJC paper on asbestos, Boffetta was being paid by an Italian asbestos company to help it challenge charges of criminal negligence, causing the deaths of a dozen workers, who died from mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos used at the company’s Montefibre factory in Italy. She said this is also at odds with IARC’s own Declarations of Interests form, which requires scientists working with the organisation to “disclose any circumstances that could give rise to a potential conflict of interest.” According to Ruff, the consequences of IARC’s capture are severe. “When scientific information is poisoned, at the payment of and to the benefit of toxic industries, people are harmed and die,” she said.

USA: Injury risk increases with multiple jobs

People who hold down more than one job not only experience an increased risk of injury at work, but when they’re not at work as well, according to a new study. The research, published in the January 2014 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, found that multiple job holders had a “significantly” higher injury rate per 100 workers for work- and non work-related injuries when compared to single job holders. The study, which was based on 1997-2011 data from the National Health Interview Survey, examined nearly 7,500 injury episodes reported during the 15-year study period, of which 802 were reported by multiple job holders and about 2,250 were work-related. It concluded that even after adjusting for the additional hours worked, multiple job holders still face a higher risk of injury. In 2011, about 5 per cent of US workers reported working more than one job within the same week, while some estimates put the number of men working multiple jobs as high as 20 per cent. The authors say the issue has been neglected. They warn: “Injury research and standard surveillance systems have disregarded multiple job holding, instead describing injury morbidity in terms of exposures at the primary job or the job in which the worker was working when injured. Furthermore, most of the current injury surveillance systems and standard employment surveys in the United States do not account for the dynamic fluctuations in work forms present today.” The heightened risk of injury for multiple job earners was also seen outside the workplace. The study authors said this may be associated with fatigue or the “potentially hectic structure” of working two jobs.

  • The Pump Handle. Helen R Marucci-Wellman, Joanna L Willetts, Tin-Chi Lin, Melanye J Brennan, and Santosh K Verma. Work in Multiple Jobs and the Risk of Injury in the US Working Population, American Journal of Public Health, volume 104, number 1, pages 134-142, January 2014 [abstract]. 


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