|Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others. Sign up to receive this bulletin every week. Past issues are available. Disclaimer and Privacy Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at email@example.com.
The TUC marked the 40th anniversary of a landmark safety law on 25 October, celebrating four decades of lifesaving work by trade union safety reps. The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 gave union reps legal rights to act on health and safety concerns in workplaces. The TUC said there are now around 100,000 safety reps in the UK’s workplaces. It said proven benefits of safety reps include an injury rate in firms with union health and safety committees that is half that in firms managing safety without unions. Fatalities are also lower in unionised workplaces, it said. And a 2016 study of government statistics calculated that the prevention of workplace injuries and work-related ill-health due to unions contributed savings of £219m-£725m a year. Launching a new report showcasing the lifesaving work of dozens of safety reps, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Health and safety is under attack by politicians who see good regulation as ‘red tape’, and bosses who want to cut corners and risk lives. Big falls in inspections and cuts to enforcement are making working life more dangerous for us all. But good employers are already working with unions and know the benefits safety reps can bring to their workplaces. Not just by keeping their staff safe and well, but also by saving the economy hundreds of millions of pounds every year.” She added: “We often forget that union health and safety representatives are volunteers doing this job because they care about their colleagues’ well-being. So let’s use this anniversary to celebrate the massive difference these unsung heroes have made.”
Ÿ TUC news release and Safetyreps@40 report, case histories and resources, leaflet and Union effect report. It’s down to you: Safety reps@40 – four decades of making work safe and healthy, Hazards magazine, number 139, 2017. Morning Star.
Shopworkers’ trade union leader John Hannett has questioned whether police cuts are having an effect on crime. He posed the question after latest figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed an 11 per cent increase in shoplifting, continuing an upward trend from 2012. The Usdaw general secretary said: “Theft from shops can often be a trigger for violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers, so the rising trend in incidents of shoplifting is extremely worrying for our members. Is this a consequence of the Conservative seven-year record on retail crime? Since 2010 there are 20,000 fewer police, shoplifting is rising, but fewer shop thieves are going to court.” Hannett added: “There needs to be government action to protect shopworkers. I have been shocked by the leniency of some of the sentences for assault of workers. Some violent criminals charged with assault do not get to court and those who are can receive derisory sentences. In other cases the offender isn’t even charged and victims are left feeling that no one cares that they were assaulted. The Conservatives in government have repeatedly blocked attempts to stiffen penalties for those who assault shopworkers. We need the police to respond to incidents, investigate and prosecute theft from shops. Around 200 shopworkers are assaulted every day and it is time to say enough is enough. Retail staff are an important part of our communities and their role must be valued, respected and protected.”
The Scottish government and all public service employers should take action immediately in order to tackle the “massive scale of the problem of violence against public sector workers”, UNISON Scotland has said. The call came as the public service union’s annual violence at work survey revealed a further increase in reported assaults on public service workers. UNISON warned this could just be the ‘tip of the iceberg’. The survey returns for 2017 indicated there were 42,421 assaults in total reported in the most recent year – an increase of 1,255 compared with the overall figure of 41,166 in the 2016 survey. Local government assaults have risen to 22,006 in the 2017 survey – an increase of 4,401 over the previous total 17,605. In Health Boards there has been an increase of 2,054 from 17,116 in 2016 to 19,170 in the 2017 survey. Scott Donohoe, UNISON health and safety committee chair, said: “Violent attacks on public service staff have more than doubled in the last decade – but the numbers keep on rising – and we have real concerns that this figure of 42,421 is just the tip of the iceberg.” He added: “The massive scale of the problem of violence against public sector workers – including those in the community and voluntary sector – has slowly begun to emerge over the last decade. It is now time for action by employers and stronger legislation, regulation and oversight by government to end the epidemic.”
Schools must take incidents of verbal abuse from pupils seriously and adopt a zero-tolerance attitude, a teaching union leader has said. Addressing the annual conference of NASUWT Cymru in Cardiff, Chris Keates said: “The NASUWT’s research into pupil behaviour shows that 61 per cent of teachers in Wales had experienced verbal abuse from a pupil in the previous 12 months. We know that many teachers do not report incidents of verbal abuse and aggression to their employer because they feel that their school will not address such incidents or fear that they themselves will somehow be blamed for pupils’ poor behaviour.” The NASUWT general secretary said: “There is absolutely no excuse for any school to be ignorant of the steps that they can and must take to maintain and sustain good behaviour. It is therefore highly dispiriting that the NASUWT still encounters schools where even the most basic of these measures are not in place and where teachers are not supported when they raise concerns or report incidents of pupil indiscipline. Headteachers, governors and local authorities must show they are fulfilling their responsibility to make sure that every school secures a calm and orderly working and learning environment and ensure that schools are properly supported and resourced to maintain good order and discipline.” Neil Butler, the NASUWT national executive member who proposed the motion, said: “This has to be taken more seriously in schools and there have to be sanctions against pupils who subject teachers to verbal abuse. This is the only way to deal with what has become an endemic problem.”
The government is to start reimbursing the fees paid it required from people taking employment tribunal claims. In a major humiliation for the government, the fees introduced in 2013 were ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, following a long running legal challenge by the public service UNISON (Risks 810). The total refunds due to claimants have been estimated at £27 million or more. Responding to the government’s announcement last week that the first people eligible for employment tribunal fee refunds can now make their claims, UNISON head of legal services Adam Creme said: “The government is now making good on its promise to refund anyone who was unfairly charged to take their employers to court. The government got it very wrong on fees, as ministers found to their cost when they lost at the Supreme Court in the summer. But the real tragedy of the fees fiasco is the thousands of wronged employees who couldn’t afford to shell out to get justice and so lost out. Nothing can be done to help them, or to bring the many unscrupulous employers, who broke the law and got away with it, to court.” The government introduced the fees in 2013, saying the measure was intended to reduce the number of malicious and weak cases, but that led to a 79 per cent reduction in tribunals over three years. Victimisation for raising safety concerns fell into the highest cost band, with a £1,200 fee to take a case. Refunds will not be automatic. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said the refund scheme would be “widely advertised”, but they would not be contacting claimants individually. Instead, claimants will have to “register their interest” in writing to the department, either through the post or by email.
In the wake of a slew of reports from women working in arts, culture, media and entertainment about sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in the workplace (Risks 822), the Musicians’ Union has stressed it is there to provide support. The union said thousands of workers in the industry have shared their stories across social media using hashtags including #metoo and #himthough. Naomi Pohl, Musicians' Union (MU) assistant general secretary, said: “Over the years we have dealt with many individual cases, but this is the first time we have glimpsed the true scale of the problem faced by women working in music. It’s horrific to see how much has been tolerated or dismissed as part and parcel of the job. Let’s hope this is the beginning of real change.” She added: “Traditionally, the MU is approached when harassment or discrimination occurs in an employment situation or when it has affected a musician’s ability to get work. This might be an advert calling for attractive female violinists, for example, or an inappropriate dress policy, or where someone has suffered sustained harassment in a place of employment and wants to put in a grievance. I would like to re-assure members that we can offer advice if sexual harassment, abuse or exploitation occurs in any aspect of their career in music. Our advice and support is here for freelancers as well as employed musicians. If you have suffered inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, of any kind, please get in touch and we will listen.”
Pilots’ union BALPA is calling for regulators to ensure the development of effective cabin air filters onboard aircraft, after several flights to UK airports were diverted when smoke smells were detected on board. Precautionary landings were reported from flights travelling to and from Dublin, Manchester, Liverpool and Jersey. NATS, a company that provides air traffic control services in the UK, said it had facilitated “a number” of diversions from aircraft reporting fumes being detected in the cockpit. Head of flight safety at BALPA, Dr Rob Hunter said there had been “high levels of contaminants in the air, which experts are attributing to the remnants of Hurricane Ophelia dragging tropical air and dust from the Sahara, as well as debris from forest fires in Portugal and Spain.” He said: “A vulnerability of the way in which cabin air is supplied in most airliners is that there is no direct filtration of the outside air before it enters the cabin, so if the outside air is contaminated, this contaminated air is drawn into the aircraft,” adding “ash and volcanic gases are in the atmosphere and when dusts from storms or soot from fires on the ground are drawn in to the air. As part of the process by which the air is supplied to the cabin the air is temporarily heated and this can contribute to the burning smell. In principle, the air supplied to the cabin should be filtered and BALPA is writing to regulators to ask that the effective filters are developed and are then required to be fitted.”
Asbestos in schools is killing teachers, support staff and pupils and cuts to school funding can only make the situation worse, UNISON has said. The union said a recent Freedom of Information request by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee revealed that at least 335 primary and secondary school teachers died of mesothelioma in Britain between 1980 and 2015, along with eight school secretaries, eight nursery nurses, 18 school midday assistants and 24 teaching assistants between 2003 and 2015. The number of pupils affected is not recorded, said the union, although it said a US government agency has estimated that for every teacher and support staff death from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma, nine former pupils will die of the condition. UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “The cuts in schools budgets and the fragmentation of the school system have undermined how health and safety risks such as asbestos are managed. In addition, the cuts in the schools building programme mean that old, asbestos ridden and poorly maintained buildings continue to be used to teach our children putting them and staff at risk.”
Unite has renewed its call for better protection of bus drivers after Youtube footage emerged of a driver being attacked with a firework. In the attack on a London bus, a group of youths fired a firework into the bus which hit the driver’s cab before ricocheting around the bus. On the previous day on the same route, a knife fight between two rival gangs occurred while the bus was in motion. In a separate incident in Alperton a female passenger on a bus narrowly escaped injury but her bag was burnt, after a firework was thrown onto a bus. Unite regional officer John Murphy said: “This attack on a bus driver is simply outrageous, if there had not been a protective screen on the cab they would have suffered a serious injury. The police and Transport for London need to take a zero tolerance approach to these types of attacks and those involved need to be convicted for these cowardly and potentially lethal attacks.” He added: “The latest incidents highlight the highly stressful nature of bus driving and the ‘Driven to Distraction’ report needs to be fully implemented as a minimum to reduce the stress faced by drivers and to ensure they are treated by their employer with the respect they deserve.” The July 2017 London Assembly transport committee report called on bus operators to drive up safety and reduce the stress and fatigue hitting London’s 26,000 bus drivers (Risks 810).
Rail workers are calling for Abellio to be stripped of its Greater Anglia franchise after safety inspectors found “deficiencies and failings” arising from the use of poorly trained managers as substitutes for striking guards. The RMT complained to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) after Greater Anglia drafted in the hastily trained managers to break a strike by guards fighting the company’s attempt to abolish their safety-critical jobs (Risks 822). The Morning Star reports that ORR wrote back to say its inspectors had found “a number of areas with deficiencies which need to be addressed, including planning procedures, risk assessment, training and safety validation.” Greater Anglia promised not to use the untrained strike-breaking guards until the problems have been addressed. RMT general secretary Mick Cash subsequently wrote to Dutch-owned Abellio, saying the inability to “carry out such basic items of health and safety management in the list above must bring into question the suitability of your organisation to run passenger services in the first place.” He promised the union would keep gathering evidence of failings to force the regulator to bare its teeth.
Ÿ Morning Star.
Rail union RMT has written to the chief executive of Network Rail demanding clear assurances that the ‘filthy and disgusting practice’ of dumping raw sewage on Britain’s railway tracks will end by a clearly defined cut-off point, with no exemptions or derogations. The union letter came after Network Rail chief Mark Carne told the press that the practice would be phased out by next year (Risks 822) – a pledge RMT wants turned into a ‘cast iron guarantee’ with an assurance that punitive action will be taken against those train companies that attempt to flout it. RMT also wants assurances that train companies will not be allowed to duck the issue by simply stripping out their toilets and replacing them with seats as has happened in the past on the south coast. In the letter to Mark Carne, RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “I would ask you to ensure that every operator across all sectors of the industry is operationally bound to provide suitable and sufficient arrangements for the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health by an agreed cut-off date. After that, Network Rail actually take action against those who fail to maintain a zero discharge programme with suitable depot facilities that remove and package the waste to a suitable and safe disposal plant. If it’s good enough for the workers in Scotland from December 2017 it should be the same standard for rail maintenance and track workers in England and Wales.” The union leader commented: “The government cheerleaders at the self-styled Rail Delivery Group are quick to stick the boot into Britain’s guards when they stand up for public safety. It is time for them to get their house and their industry in order and show some support for the workforce for whom a dousing with faeces from a passing train is a regular occurrence.”
Offshore union RMT is pressing the Scottish and UK governments to take stronger action on the safety of offshore helicopters. The call came ahead of a Scottish parliament debate this week on workers’ concerns over the safety of Super Puma helicopters. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “If this were a public transport service, such a terrible pattern of failure would have been tackled long ago. When workers consistently point to helicopter transport as their number one safety concern, government and regulators at all levels must take action, or we face further deterioration in the perception of safety at work offshore, which in turn risks a further decline in jobs and skills amongst UK offshore workers.” He added: “Only a public inquiry and concerted regulatory action, including through the Civil Aviation Authority and the Oil and Gas Authority, has any hope of restoring to offshore workers the confidence in helicopter transport which they need and deserve.” RMT national secretary Steve Todd said: “The safety record of Super Puma’s in the North Sea is appalling, with 33 workers having lost their lives and 65 passengers and crew rescued in a series of accidents since 2009.” He added: “We need a public inquiry to establish how we repair and restore workers’ confidence in offshore helicopter transport, and whether or not that includes the Super Puma. The Scottish government must support this and demand in stronger terms action from the UK government and regulatory bodies to address this untenable situation for offshore workers.”
People who work in factories, construction and in housekeeping jobs are the occupational groups that have the highest mortality rates, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Glasgow have published the first study to rank mortality rates by occupation in the UK in 30 years. The study, published in the Lancet Public Health, analysed mortality rates and occupational data together. It found that doctors and other health professionals have very low death rates while factory workers and cleaners have amongst the highest death rates. The study, which looked at records from 1991 to 2011, found over three-fold differences in mortality rates by occupation, with unemployed men and women faring the worst. Lead author of the study Dr Vittal Katikireddi said: “Our results show that there were very large differences in death rates by occupation, with professional occupations such as doctors and teachers faring far better than factory workers and garment trade workers.” He added: “We studied trends over a 20 year period where we found that in most occupations mortality rates have fallen. However, in some they have remained stagnant and for women in some occupational groups, such as cleaners, mortality rates have even increased.” The highest mortality rates were seen amongst unskilled construction workers and those working in factories or similar settings. However the highest mortality rates overall occurred in men who reported no occupation. The authors note that pay and exposure to risks at work are the two major factors underpinning the differences in life expectancy. “Mortality by occupation can be considered as being driven by two inter-related factors: the socioeconomic composition of occupational groups, with occupation considered a specific measure of socioeconomic position, and differing exposure to work-related risks and benefits,” the paper notes.
Ÿ University of Glasgow news release. Srinivasa Vittal Katikireddi, Alastair H Leyland, Martin McKee, Kevin Ralston, David Stuckle. Patterns of mortality by occupation in the UK, 1991-2011: a comparative analysis of linked census-mortality records over time and place, The Lancet Public Health, published online 23 October 2017. BBC News Online.
E-cigarettes could be as dangerous as normal cigarettes and users could also be prone to unique health problems, a new study has revealed. Researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC) found that vaper users showed high levels of protein which are linked to potentially serious lung conditions, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis, along with lupus and psoriasis. Dr Mehmet Kesimer, who led the study, said: “There is confusion about whether e-cigarettes are ‘safer’ than cigarettes because the potential adverse effects of e-cigarettes are only beginning to be studied. Our results suggest that e-cigarettes might be just as bad as cigarettes.” The study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, examined 44 sputum samples from e-cigarette users, current cigarette smokers, and non-smokers. The authors made it clear that most of the e-cigarette smokers were formerly cigarette smokers, making it difficult to clearly identify whether these results were solely related to e-cigarette use. MPs this week announced they are to carry out an inquiry into e-cigarettes amid concerns there are "significant gaps" in what is known about them and how they are regulated. The Commons science and technology committee will look at their effectiveness as a stop-smoking tool and the impact of their growing use on health. Nearly three million people in the UK now ‘vape’ regularly - four times more than in 2012.
Ÿ UNC news release. Boris Reidel and others. E-Cigarette Use Causes a Unique Innate Immune Response in the Lung Involving Increased Neutrophilic Activation and Altered Mucin Secretion, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, published online 20 October 2017. Commons Science and Technology inquiry announcement.
A bill to double the maximum sentence for common assaults on on-duty emergency workers to one year has successfully started its progress through parliament. Labour MP Chris Bryant’s Assault on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill (Risks 822) received cross-party support during a 20 October debate, passing its second reading unopposed. Bryant said it could be made law by next spring. Justice minister Sam Gyimah said that longer sentences will “send the clearest possible message that this cowardly behaviour will not be tolerated.” MPs also asked for more frontline workers - such as police community support officers, first responders, GPs and traffic wardens - to be protected by the proposals. Chris Bryant admitted that he was “not entirely convinced” the definition of an emergency worker was correct in the Bill but promised to put it right in committee. The legislation would also make it an offence for someone to refuse to provide a blood sample if they are suspected of exposing an on-duty emergency worker to the risk of contracting an infectious disease. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) welcomed the Bill but warned that the government’s scrapping of NHS Protect means that figures on assaults will no longer be collected, so “it will be difficult to quantify the scale of the problem, or the effectiveness of any new law.” NHS Protect warned that the level of assaults was increasing and its final figures showed a 4 per cent rise in physical assaults against healthcare workers in England, from 67,864 in 2014/15 to 70,555 in 2015/16.
Unite has welcomed a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation launched after the union revealed workers had been exposed to asbestos at an Aberdeen council depot. Open bags of roofing material covered in asbestos were found by workers beginning their morning shifts at the council’s Kincorth facility last month. It is still not known who accessed the site, which is locked at night, to dump the bags. Unite had expressed doubt over the local authority’s ability to investigate the incident, as it is thought only someone with keys could access the depot. When the city council removes asbestos from a property there is usually a paper-trail to indicate where it came from and how it will be disposed. Unite’s Tommy Campbell said: “Unite welcome that there will be an investigation by the HSE, it is however disappointing that we have had to take the action of reporting it.” A spokesperson for HSE confirmed: “HSE is investigating asbestos concerns raised at Aberdeen’s City Council’s Kincorth depot. Our inquiries are ongoing.” An Aberdeen City Council spokesperson said: “The health and safety of our staff is a priority for us and so we have liaised with HSE about the matter, and are working with their officers in their investigation.”
Toxic chemicals are putting firefighters at risk of cancer and other diseases, a study of their real-life exposures has shown. A team of researchers at the University of Ottawa, working with Health Canada, the University of Toronto and the Institut national de santé publique du Québec, examined chemical exposure experienced by Ottawa Fire Service firefighters during on-shift, emergency fire operations between January 2015 and April 2016. The team collected urine and skin wipe samples from the firefighters at the start of their shift as well as after a fire to measure whether they were exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can cause DNA mutations and cancer, and other harmful chemicals often found in smoke. “Firefighters had from three to more than five times the amount of metabolites, or by-products of PAHs, in their urine after a fire compared to before the fire,” says Jennifer Keir, senior author of the study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The team found a significant link between PAH metabolites found in urine and levels of PAHs on skin, suggesting that firefighters are exposed to these harmful chemicals mainly through contact with their skin, rather than by inhalation. “Our study shows that the best way to reduce a firefighter’s exposure to harmful combustion products is to reduce chemical exposure to the skin,” said co-author Jules Blais. “Our research shows how firefighters are exposed to harmful chemicals, which helps us find ways to reduce those exposures - and hopefully reduce the onset of disease”. Australia’s United Firefighters Union this week called for airport firefighters to be given blood tests for toxic chemicals after exposures to firefighting foams were linked to cancer and other ill-effects (Risks 688).
Ÿ University of Ottawa news release and video. Jennifer Keir and others. Elevated Exposures to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and Other Organic Mutagens in Ottawa Firefighters Participating in Emergency, On-shift Fire Suppression, Environmental Science & Technology, published online 18 October 2017. The Guardian.
Samsung Display Co Ltd has remodelled the dormitories it uses to house staff in a move intended to prevent further suicides among its 23,300 workers. The world’s largest OLED maker has replaced closets, hangers, doorknobs, windows, garment bars, and other amenities in the dormitories at its Tangjeong plant in Asan, South Korea. According to the conservative business news site Chosun Biz, the move is intended to prevent them from being used during suicide attempts. The remodelling came after an engineer, in his thirties, hanged himself in April 2017 on a garment bar in his dormitory room. The engineer, whose identity was withheld, was overwhelmed by overwork, according to the police. “We have changed facilities in places where there will likely be an accident,” Chosun Biz quoted a Samsung Display spokesperson as saying. “We have made the improvements to prevent unfortunate accidents and explained it to our employees.” Earlier, in January 2017, a 43-year-old employee plunged to his death from a building in Tangjeong, leaving a note saying: “I am stressed out by work.” Samsung Display is the division of Samsung Electronics Co Ltd where a succession of employees contracted leukaemia, multiple sclerosis and brain tumours. Spun off in April 2012, the company is still majority owned by Samsung Electronics.
A voluntary safety scheme that gives qualifying US companies a get-out-of-official-inspections card has been criticised as a deregulatory and deadly ruse. Jordan Barab, a former deputy head of the US government safety regulator OSHA, said in the last months two workers have been killed at companies participating in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs. At Nucor Steel in Decatur, Alabama, Melvin Gant Jr fell into a vat of the waste products of finished rolled steel. A contractor at Valero Oil Refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, Ezequiel Guzman Orozco, died after allegedly falling from a scaffold. Valero claims that the worker, an employee of Brand Energy Solutions, died from a heart attack, although the medical examiner’s office said preliminary notes from Guzman Orozco’s autopsy showed there was blunt-force trauma to his body. The Valero case appears to be a VPP double failure as the contractor, Brand Energy Solutions, is also a VPP participant. According to Barab: “Participants in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program are supposed to be the best of the best… But, of course, the VPP program is more than just a recognition program, it also exempts VPP participants from programmed inspections - those inspections that stem from national or regional emphasis programs, or any other OSHA targeting program.” He added: “It will be interesting to see how OSHA deals with these fatalities. At the beginning of the Obama administration, VPP had come under significant criticism for allowing unqualified companies - even companies that where workers had died and had received wilful citations - to remain in VPP.” The Voluntary Protection Programs Participants Association (VPPPA) continues to lobby for a bill that would make VPP permanent by writing it into the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
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