Risks is the TUC's weekly newsletter for safety reps and others, sponsored by Thompsons Solicitors.
In a move described by the TUC as a ‘significant advance’, new Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance now says the safety regulator may act where an employer fails to address workplace harassment risks. The HSE investigation policy change comes three months after it was accused by the union-backed Hazards magazine of having an ‘enforcement anomaly’ and a ‘prevention blindspot’ on workplace harassment ( Risks 905 ). The new official guidance on ‘reporting a concern’ about work-related stress repeats the watchdog’s long-held line that: “HSE does not seek to apply the Health and Safety at Work Act where there is other more specific legislation or a more appropriate regulator,” and adds: “Cases of bullying and harassment would more commonly be dealt with as issues of discipline eg. breaches of policies on expected behaviours, discrimination, victimisation or equality.” But it now says HSE may instigate a safety investigation into bullying or harassment “if there is evidence of a wider organisational failing.” TUC head of safety Laurie Heselden commented: “The TUC and affiliated unions have been pressing the HSE to expand its criteria for investigating complaints about work-related stress, so we are pleased to have won the argument, and we welcome this positive step by the HSE.” He added: “The HSE's guidance to employers and managers is good in principle, but it is important to make it effective in practice. It is right that the HSE should focus on potential cases of unhealthy work-related stress that are structural, and that it should expect all usual channels of remedy to have been explored and exhausted, including representations by trade union health and safety reps. But the potential intervention by the HSE is a significant advance.” The TUC safety specialist explained there was more work to be done. “In parallel, unions and other stakeholders must continue to campaign for a substantial increase in the funding for HSE activities, especially proactive inspections. It is good to win an expanded intent, remit and role for the HSE, but what we want and need, is expanded impact.” The new guide says HSE stress investigations are appropriate where there is “evidence that a number of staff are currently experiencing work-related stress or stress-related ill-health.”
HSE ‘reporting a concern’ update , advice on How to report a work related stress concern , Tackling stress workbook , stress management standards and other HSE workpace stress resources .
Hands off: Time to take sexual harassment at work seriously and change the law , Hazards, number 146, July 2019.
In its first week, a hotline set by the teaching union NASUWT for members in Glasgow received dozens of recorded messages and text messages from teachers sharing their experiences of bullying and harassment in Glasgow schools. The union said teachers contacting the hotline reported feeling intimidated, belittled and harassed in the workplace, with many complaining of little support being given to them, particularly when they report incidents of pupil indiscipline. NASUWT leader Chris Keates said: “We opened the hotline in response to concerns raised by members in Glasgow over the abuse of their contractual rights over cover and reports of intimidating and bullying behaviour towards staff. The response so far from teachers shows that our concerns were well-founded and the hotline has exposed a number of serious issues, in particular the lack of support for teachers in managing pupil behaviour and the lack of respect for them as skilled professionals.” Keates added: “Teachers should not face threats and intimidation when they are simply trying to stand up for their basic workplace rights and when they are trying to maintain good order and high standards of pupil behaviour.” The union’s Scottish national official, Jane Peckham, said: “The response so far from members to the hotline indicates the deep level of frustration and anger of teachers in Glasgow over how they are being treated. Glasgow City Council needs to start listening to the voices of teachers and demonstrate that it values and respects its workforce and recognises and appreciates the vital work they do for the children and young people of the city.”
Workers in the police and justice services who work with the public in the best and worst of situations need their wellbeing and mental health to be protected by their employers, the union UNISON has said. Call management staff can face reports of missing children, murders or abuse in a day’s work, a combination the union said can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health issues for police staff members. Dave Bryant of West Mercia police told the union’s police and justice conference that instead many workers face mental health being treated as a ‘capability issue’, rather than one of people in crisis. The conference called on the union to gather information on mental health related sickness and employers’ policies, to support police staff members and to develop advice and guidance for branches.
A new TUC analysis has revealed 1 in 10 women workers don’t earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay. The TUC research shows that 1.4 million women employees earn less than £118 a week – the qualifying threshold for statutory sick pay. As a result they can’t claim the protection if they fall ill. The TUC research found women account for more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of the 2 million UK workers currently ineligible for statutory sick pay. It determined people in insecure work are even more likely to miss out. Nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of zero hours workers don’t earn enough to get the protection. The TUC is calling for the minimum earning threshold to be scrapped. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “No one should worry about falling into debt or struggling to pay their bills when they’re ill. It’s not right that women and insecure workers are most likely to miss out on sick pay – just because they are low earners.” She added: “The government needs to get on and protect every worker if they fall sick.” Studies have shown bad, low paid jobs leave workers at higher risk of being injured or failing sick. A review last year concluded “occupational injuries, cancers, nervous system disorders, suicides, reproductive problems, strain injuries and cardiovascular diseases are concentrated overwhelmingly in less well remunerated work. The lower your grade, the higher your risks” ( Risk 855 ). A study this year found workplace safety interventions are less effective for low paid workers ( Risks 916 ).
Construction union Unite is calling on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to undertake a ‘full inquiry into serious health concerns’ at Crossrail’s Bond Street station. The workforce on the multi-million pound section of the Crossrail project in London has been on stand down following reports that four workers operating on the project had died in their sleep. Unite is now demanding the joint venture behind the project ends its union busting practice and ‘fully engages with the union when allaying health concerns on the project.’ The union said it has been raising concerns about poor air quality at Bond Street for months, with the pressure leading to an improved air quality monitoring system being put in place. The union said assurances from the contractors Costain/Skanska that there is no problem with air quality is ‘premature’, and said it is awaiting the findings of independent tests. Unite regional officer Guy Langston said: “Workers at Bond Street have had genuine concerns about air quality levels for months and despite obstruction from management, Unite has ensured improvements have been made. The latest tragedies have again highlighted concerns with the air quality at the station and it is essential that the HSE holds a full inquiry into all elements of health and safety on the project.” He added: “If workers are going to have any confidence in air quality monitoring it is essential that Costain and Skanska do not revert to their union busting principles but fully involve Unite in testing and introducing measures to ensure that workers are not being placed at risk. If Costain and Skanska exclude Unite from the process then workers will simply not trust anything management says.”
Britain’s railways remain dangerous, with track workers particularly at risk, as a result of fragmentation and other factors, the rail union TSSA has warned. Its ‘evidence paper’ to the government-commissioned Williams Rail Review highlights ‘concerns over trackworker safety’ and provides ‘additional evidence about safety concerns that we have in relation to staff working on or about the railway’. The union submission follows the deaths in July this year of two Network Rail staff at Margam in South Wales ( Risks 905) , where a preliminary investigation found there was ‘no safe system in place’, and the publication of a critical Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) report into the death of a track worker at Purley in November 2018 ( Risks 906 ). The TSSA paper, submitted to the inquiry chaired by John Lewis and former British Airways executive Keith Williams, notes: “Essentially our point is that whilst Britain’s railways are seen as amongst the safest in the world, that situation is now seriously under threat by a combination of a rise in the number of near misses that are occurring as well as an increase in incidents arising from line blockages. In both these areas, the safety of track workers is put at risk.” It adds: “Our concern is that in any change that results from the Williams Review, safety or staff working on the railway must be front and centre and not compromised by any other considerations, like cost cutting or profit.” TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes, commented: “Our union will fight tooth and nail any attempt to break up and privatise publicly owned Network Rail. In fact, what we urgently need to make our industry safer and more efficient to end its fragmentation by bringing train operations back into public ownership.”
Two decades after 31 lives were lost in the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster, rail union RMT has warned that government policy could create ‘the same poisonous cocktail of conditions’ that lead to the 5 October 1999 tragedy. The union said Ladbroke Grove was one of a number of disasters ‘under the watch of the privatised Railtrack’ that led to its abolition and the creation of the publicly-owned Network Rail. However, RMT is warning “a return to casualisation, a myriad of contractors and sub-contractors, long hours and fatigue – all driven by a cuts and austerity environment on the railway – is in danger of turning the clock back.” RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “Privatisation, fragmentation and a complete absence of corporate responsibility were at the heart of the Ladbroke Grove tragedy and now, in 2019, the government, through their drive for cuts, are dragging us right back to that same toxic mix. The proliferation of private agencies and contractors, often employing casual staff on zero hours contracts, and the constant talk of re-privatising infrastructure in association with the greedy train companies is rapidly dragging us back to the edge.” The union leader warned: “If the government think that RMT will stand back while they ignore the lessons from the recent history on our railways then they should think again. RMT will use every tool at our disposal to both fight the current cuts and to demand the total renationalisation of our railways where the vast sums sucked out of the system in profits are re-invested in safe rail for all.”
Management services firm Liberata has signed UNISON’s End Violence at Work Charter, becoming the first private sector organisation to support the initiative. The charter aims to protect employees working in public services from acts of abuse, assault and threatening behaviour. It was established in 2017 after UNISON research found almost half of its members in the community sector had experienced an incident of violence or aggression at work in the previous two years. UNISON said ensuring private contractors comply with the principles set out in the charter has become an increasing priority for the union. To sign the charter, organisations must explain and provide evidence for how they meet ten important standards for protecting staff against violent incidents. These include a clear incident-reporting and investigation procedure, continually collecting and monitoring data on violent incidents, and providing training to ensure staff know how to deal with threatening situations appropriately. UNISON acting national secretary Donna Rowe-Merriman said: “It is great to see Liberata come on board and we look forward to more employers signing up to show their commitment to make a real difference to the wellbeing of staff.” Liberata CEO Charlie Bruin said: “It’s imperative that businesses from all sectors take measures to ensure the safety of their employees, which is why Liberata is pleased to sign up to the End Violence at Work Charter. As a services provider to central and local government, we feel it’s vital our clients are reassured that we are meeting the highest standard of employee safety. We hope that by being the first private sector signatory, we set a precedent for other services providers to follow.”
Postal workers’ union CWU is backing calls for legal reform in Scotland to tighten up action on dangerous or out-of-control dogs. Speaking after members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) debated the findings of a hard-hitting official report into the issue, which concluded that dog control failures were a national crisis, CWU health, safety and environment officer Dave Joyce urged them to “use your powers and please act now.” MSP Jenny Marra, the chair of the Scottish parliament’s public audit committee (PAC), introduced her committee’s report, which concluded Scotland’s present legislative framework is ‘not fit for purpose’. The report recommended ‘an urgent, comprehensive review of all dog control legislation is required’. Marra said legal reform is necessary in order that out-of-control and dangerous dogs can be “dealt with effectively,” while in the meantime, “immediate action” must be taken to improve enforcement of the existing powers. CWU’s Dave Joyce welcomed the report and the Holyrood debate, which regularly name-checked the union’s dangerous dogs campaign. “The recommendations in the public audit committee’s report are very positive ones and it was also extremely important that the debate took place, which helps to highlight this critical issue,” said Joyce. “But the response so far of the Scottish administration as a whole has been disappointing – they seem to have kicked it down the road with the announcement of two consultations, when what is needed is action now.”
Unions have welcomed UN backing for stronger protections for workers exposed to toxic substances. The global union confederation ITUC said every 11 seconds a person loses their life because of lethal working conditions, and many of the deaths and serious non-fatal diseases are caused by chemicals. “Every worker must be protected from toxic chemicals. Yet for firefighters, hairdressers, manufacturing workers and people working in many other occupations, the risk of cancer and other work-related diseases caused by toxic products is real, and it is costing lives,” said ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow. She was commenting after the adoption by the United Nations Human Rights Council of a resolution from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics, Baskut Tuncak. According to Tuncak, “global instruments only ban or restrict the use or emission of less than 0.1 per cent of toxic industrial chemicals and pesticides of global concern to which workers and communities are exposed.” ITUC’s Sharan Burrow commented: “We know what is needed for safe working environments to ensure that people can lead a healthy life. We need the institutions whose role it is to protect people to recognise just how fundamental this is. The time has come to drive forward solutions for a world of work with zero cancer, and that means proper regulation including of the corporations which make so much profit from products that result in human misery. The right to health does not stop at the factory gate or the office door.”
Steel mill owner Celsa has been fined £1.8m after an explosion at its Cardiff steelworks killed two workers and seriously injured another. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found the explosion would have come without warning to engineers Peter O’Brien, a dad of six, and father-of-two Mark Sim, who died at the rod and bar mill. Darren Wood, another employee, suffered serious injuries. All three were employees at the factory where scrap metal was turned into steel used to reinforce concrete. Cardiff Crown Court heard that on 18 November 2015, electrical engineer O’Brien, 51, was working with mechanical engineer Sim, 41, on an accumulator vessel in the basement of the steelworks site. Investigators found that a flammable atmosphere developed within the accumulator as hydraulic lubrication oil was being drained from it. This was ignited by an electric heater within the accumulator. The investigation found the company failed to assess the risks to which its employees were exposed when draining lubrication oil from the accumulator. Manually draining hydraulic lubrication oil from the accumulator by a procedure referred as a ‘blow down’ had become ‘custom and practice’ at the site; this procedure was not fully understood or consistently carried out by the company’s employees, exposing them to the risk of explosion. Celsa Manufacturing (UK) pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £1.8m and ordered to pay costs of £145,771.85. HSE inspector Lee Schilling said: “This incident, which had devastating consequences for all of those involved, was entirely preventable. The company failed to assess the risks of the maintenance work and identify suitable control measures to prevent an explosion.”
Cemex UK Operations Limited has been fined £1m after a worker suffered fatal injuries when he was struck on the body by a centring machine lifting mast. Livingston Sheriff Court heard that on 13 May 2017, James Brownlie was carrying out maintenance and repair work on a dry sided conveyor, part of which ran under a machine known as a centring machine. The centring machine was not isolated at the time and part of Mr Brownlie’s body interrupted the path of the light beam between the sensor’s emitter and reflector. This caused the machine’s lifting mast to activate and descend, striking the 64-year-old on the body and causing internal injuries from which he died a short time later. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that Cemex UK Operations Limited failed to ensure the centring machine was isolated prior to the maintenance and repair work being carried out on the conveyor. Cemex UK Operations Limited pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined £1 million. HSE inspector Kim Ross said: “This tragic incident led to the avoidable death of a man, which could have easily been prevented if had taken action to ensure the centring machine was isolated prior to the maintenance and repair work being carried out. If this had been in place before the incident, James Brownlie’s death could have been prevented.”
Australia’s national union federation ACTU is highlighting the ‘vital role’ occupational health and safety (OHS) representatives make in the workplace. The union’s campaign comes in the wake of its Work Shouldn’t Hurt survey this year, that found three in five working people had experienced mental illnesses or injuries like stress, depression, or anxiety at work as a result of their employer or workplace failing to manage poor working conditions ( Risks 910 ). The survey found that 98 per cent of workers said there should be work health and safety regulations specifically dealing with mental health conditions and psychological risks and hazards. The same proportion agreeed unions should have a role in work health and safety. ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien said: “Everyone has the right to go to work and come home safely, but increasingly workers are going home with mental health injuries as a result of their work. This isn’t good enough.” It said the current Liberal government’s laws “are failing working people. We need an overhaul of model work health and safety laws. We call for urgent action to prevent workplace deaths and injuries and illnesses as a result of work. All 34 recommendations of the government’s own review – the Boland review – must be implemented.”
Trade union leaders from Turkey, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Mauritius and Morocco have explored the use of global framework agreements (GFA) to boost union organising, collective bargaining agreements and to improve safety and working conditions. The September meeting organised by the global union IndustriALL in Cesme, Turkey, discussed how this type of agreement, negotiated at a global level between trade unions and a multinational company, put in place the very best standards of trade union rights, health, safety and environmental practices, and quality of work principles across a company's global operations, regardless of whether these exceed legal standards in place in some of the countries where the firm is based. Global fashion brands, ASOS, ESPRIT, H&M, Inditex and Tchibo, which have all signed GFAs with IndustriALL, also joined the meeting. Christina Hajagos-Clausen, IndustriALL director for the textile and garment industry, said: “The increase of unionisation rate in GFA supplier factories is key to enable trade unions to monitor the agreements and to ensure that workers’ rights are respected in the global garment supply chain.” Under IndustriALL’s GFA project, trade unions in Turkey and Bangladesh have organised over 50 new GFA supplier factories.
Preparations for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 remain blighted by “recurring violations and poor working conditions” the global union BWI has warned. A delegation headed by Ambet Yuson, BWI’s general secretary, warned the remaining months before the games were ‘critical’. “We have received reports from workers that they are putting a lot of pressure to double time which is resulting in massive overtime and hiring of new workers with lack of skills and safety orientation,” Yuson said. “This will undoubtedly lead to serious safety problems unless safety and preventive measures are put in place.” In the meeting with Tokyo 2020 organisers, Yuson expressed BWI’s commitment to a successful Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo, but emphasised the event should be positive, not only for the athletes, business sector and the government but also for the workers. BWI offered to work with the Tokyo 2020 organisers to improve the working conditions and ensure the welfare of site workers. It said unions also want a “construction audit or a joint inspection” of the facilities. BWI called on the organising committee to respond within a month. The union body has been concerned that earlier approaches had gone ignored. None of the recommendations of BWI’s May 2019 report, ‘Dark Side of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics,’ have to date been implemented by the organisers ( Risks 901 ). The report described “dangerous” patterns of overwork, some workers without employment contracts, and a “culture of fear” that discourages workers from reporting poor employment conditions. Many of those identified as facing the worst exploitation were foreign workers.
Concerns have been raised about the deaths of hundreds of migrant labourers each year preparing facilities for the 2022 Qatar football World Cup, with the majority of the fatalities attributed to heart attacks or “natural causes” by the Qatari authorities. Many are young men who die in their sleep – a phenomenon known locally as “sudden death syndrome”. The Guardian reports that in most cases no autopsies are performed on the bodies of migrant workers, whose deaths have been attributed to cardiovascular or “natural” causes. It reports that in 2014, a report from the Qatari regime’s own lawyers, international law firm DLA Piper, “strongly” recommended that it commission research into the deaths of migrant workers from cardiac arrest. So far it has failed to take action. At least 1,025 Nepalis died in Qatar between 2012 and 2017, 676 of them from causes deemed to be natural. The causes included cardiac arrest, heart attack, respiratory failure and “sickness”, according to a number of official sources, including the Foreign Employment Board (FEB), a government agency in Nepal responsible for the welfare of migrant workers. The FEB’s data is largely derived from death certificates issued in Qatar. Data from the Indian government reveals that 1,678 Indians died in Qatar between 2012 and August 2018. Of these deaths, 1,345 were classified as “natural” – a rate of four each week. Qatari law prohibits postmortem examinations except in cases where a crime may have been committed or the deceased may have suffered from an illness prior to death. However, the 2014 DLA Piper report recommended that the law “be extended to allow for autopsies or postmortem examinations in all cases of unexpected or sudden deaths”. Kausik Ray, a professor of public health at Imperial College London, said: “People aged 20 to 50 in general don’t die in their sleep suddenly… You could not say they died from heart failure or respiratory failure without a postmortem, unless you had information about their prior [medical] history.”
A US Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule lifting the maximum line speeds and reducing the number of government safety inspectors by 40 per cent at pork slaughter and processing plants should be set aside, a legal challenge has argued. The lawsuit filed by Public Citizen and the foodworkers’ union UFCW follows a rule-making process which saw thousands of individuals and organisations tell USDA its rule would endanger the lives and safety of both consumers and workers. Submissions also provided the agency with dozens of peer-reviewed studies and expert analyses showing the USDA’s changes would put plant workers, who already are in one of the most dangerous jobs in America, at increased risk of injuries. In its final rule, the USDA did not dispute any of this evidence. Instead, the agency “simply refused to consider the impact of its actions on worker safety, despite having done so for decades, suggesting that only the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration could take such harms into account,” the groups say. Their lawsuit argues that the USDA’s refusal to consider the harms its actions will have on workers reflects arbitrary and capricious decision-making and so violates the Administrative Procedure Act. Not only has the USDA considered the impact of its actions on workers in previous rulemakings, but in proposing this rule, the groups say the agency acknowledged the importance of considering the impacts of increased line speeds on worker safety. Public Citizen attorney Adam Pulver commented: “By refusing to even discuss the mountains of evidence showing that faster line speeds will put workers’ health at risk, after acknowledging the importance of considering worker safety in its proposed rule, the USDA broke these two bedrock rules.” UFCW president Marc Perrone said: “Increasing pork plant line speeds not only is a reckless giveaway to giant corporations, it will put thousands of workers in harm’s way.” He added: “The safety of America’s food and workers is not for sale, and this lawsuit seeks to ensure this dangerous rule is set aside and these companies are held accountable.”
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