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Risks is the TUC's weekly newsletter for safety reps and others, sponsored by Thompsons Solicitors.





Time to change law on sexual harassment

Almost 7 in 10 (68 per cent) people think the #MeToo movement has allowed people to be more open about sexual harassment, according to a new TUC poll. This number is highest amongst women (72 per cent) and young people (78 per cent). But the union body says that despite higher levels of awareness, cases of sexual harassment remain alarmingly high. It is calling on the government to introduce a legal duty on employers to actively prevent sexual harassment at work. TUC research found that more than half (52 per cent) of women – and nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of young women aged 18-24 years old – have experienced sexual harassment at work.  There is no legal requirement for employers to prevent sexual harassment happening in their workplaces. Instead, it is up to the victim to report it after it has happened. The TUC wants the law changed so employers have a legal duty to make sure that their workplaces are harassment-free – by taking simple preventive steps like carrying out mandatory training for all staff and managers and having clear policies. It says this would shift the burden of dealing with sexual harassment from individuals to employers. This would change workplace cultures and stop the problem once and for all, says the TUC. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The #MeToo movement has helped people speak more openly about sexual harassment. That’s a good a thing. But talking about the problem isn’t going to fix it. The government must stop dragging its feet and change the law.” She said ministers should take immediate action, adding: “Employers, not victims, should be responsible for tackling harassment at work.” New guidance from the arbitration service Acas says non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) should not be used to prevent someone from reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.
TUC news release. Usdaw news release. Acas news release. Morning Star. BBC News Online.
A TUC alliance backed by more than 30 organisations has launched a petition calling on the government to change the law. Sign the petition.

‘Sick and tired’ bus drivers vote for strike action

The prospect of a London bus drivers’ strike later this year has moved closer as Unite members have voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action in a consultative ballot. The dispute, branded the ‘sick and tired’ campaign by the union, concerns the long hours, fatigue and exhaustion that bus drivers are experiencing due to poor scheduling of shifts, a lack of rest breaks, a deficiency of decent facilities for breaks, late finishing, a lack of running time and not being treated with respect (Risks 933). Unite said a culture of long hours and insufficient rest is damaging the physical and mental health as well as harming the relationships and family life of bus drivers. In the London wide consultative ballot in the capital’s bus depots, members voted on average by 97 per cent in favour of strike action. The union said bus drivers in London report that their levels of exhaustion mean they are in danger of making driving errors and becoming a danger to passengers, other road users and themselves. Unite regional officer John Murphy said: “London bus drivers have resoundingly given their verdict that they are sick and tired of being exhausted at work.” He added: “Strike action is being considered as a last resort. The problem of fatigue has been around for decades but has been getting significantly worse due to the work patterns our members are being forced to endure.”

Unite news release and Sick and Tired campaign.

Coronavirus fears leave seafarers captive onboard

Seafarers who have visited Chinese ports are being barred from leaving their ships by countries fearing the spread of the coronavirus, UK seafarers’ union Nautilus has been told by a union whistleblower. A seafarer needs “off-signing” when they come to the end of their contract on a vessel and before they are allow a crew transfer and transport home. Nautilus says seafarers refused off-signing by a disembarkation country could be stuck onboard for many additional weeks, or months, depending on the vessel's schedule and disembarkation port. Crew could face an additional 14 days onboard when arriving at Singapore from China, or an additional 30 days onboard when seeking to disembark at Qatar after leaving China, for example. The union says refusing crew relief would directly contradict advice from the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA). IMHA also recommended that ship operators store facial protection for all crew, with a minimum of five pieces per person. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the outbreak a global health emergency. The UK government this week declared coronavirus a “serious and imminent threat” to public health.
Nautilus news release. ITF coronavirus advice and update. World Health Organisation (WHO) coronavirus adviceWHO statement. Department of Health statement. BBC News Online.

As storms hit, spare a thought for the workers

Rail, maritime and transport union RMT and firefighters’ union FBU have highlighted the essential and under-appreciated role of the workers keeping Britain safe and mobile through ‘atrocious’ storm conditions. Commenting on 9 February as Britain was battered by Storm Ciara and as Storm Dennis loomed, RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT members on rail and ferries are reporting the most atrocious working conditions today and they are out their battling the elements right at the front line protecting public safety and doing whatever possible to keep services running. They are unsung heroes each and every one of them.” The union leader added: “When trees come down, infrastructure is damaged and trampolines are blown onto the tracks it is our members out there using their experience and expertise to get the lines open. I ask the public to spare a thought for that 24-hour army of rail, bus and ferry staff as the storm rips across the country.” Firefighters’ union FBU said the fire and rescue services battling the storms have had their annual funding cut by £141.5m over the last four years. The union’s analysis was published as England’s local government funding settlement went before parliament on 12 February. The worst storm-hit areas in England – Cumbria, West Yorkshire, Lancashire and Greater Manchester – have had their annual fire and rescue service funding cut by a total of £16m since 2016, FBU said. The storms and related high winds and flooding caused widespread disruption to road, rail and air travel.
RMT news release. FBU news release. BBC News Online.

Dismay at government go slow on shop violence

Shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw has said it is ‘disappointed’ at the government’s foot-dragging response on the protection of retail workers, saying ‘words alone’ aren’t enough. Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis, commenting after a 11 February Westminster Hall debate secured by Mike Amesbury, the Labour MP for Weaver Vale, said: “Eight months ago, alongside a broad range of retail employers, we responded to the Home Office ‘call for evidence’ and jointly called for action to tackle this growing problem. Even in the time since the Home Office ‘call for evidence’ closed, our surveying suggests that around 100,000 shopworkers have been assaulted. So it is welcome that the government is finally going to publish their response next month, but we remain concerned at the pace of progress. They need go much further much faster to address this ongoing, growing and pressing problem.” The union is calling for stiffer penalties for those who assault shopworkers and the introduction of a simple stand-alone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, courts and criminals. Minister for crime Kit Malthouse, responding to the debate, said the government “will certainly have a look” at the sentencing issue, adding: “I definitely recognise that asking shop staff to arbitrate or to enforce legislation puts them in a particular position of vulnerability that may induce violence. There is a case there that needs to be addressed, and I am certainly happy to talk to the Lord Chancellor about his views on sentencing.” Usdaw’s Paddy Lillis said the union would continue to press for harsher penalties and a specific offence, adding: “We need decisive action to tackle this growing problem. Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected, they deserve the protection of the law.”
Westminster Hall Debate, 11 February 2020. Usdaw news release and full response to the government call for evidence.


‘Toxic’ school environments bad for mental health

Excessive demands on education staff and the poor working practices they endure in schools and colleges are helping create a ‘toxic’ work environment, the teaching union NEU has said. The union, commenting on a working paper published in late January, said the combination is leading to mental ill-health among both teachers and support staff. The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is the first to examine the mental health and wellbeing of teachers in England over three decades, based on data from more than 20,000 staff. It found that around 5 per cent of teachers are suffering long-lasting mental health problems, up from just 1 per cent in the 1990s, and there has been a similar increase in prescribed antidepressant medication. Commenting on the findings, NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “There is no doubt that the excessive demands upon education staff and the poor working practices they endure in schools and colleges are helping create a toxic work environment, leading to mental ill-health among both teachers and support staff. It is no wonder that we cannot recruit and retain the staff we so desperately need if workload demands are totally unsustainable.” She added: “The challenge for the government is to address these issues and ensure that education staff are nurtured and supported in their role but there is currently little sign of any concrete action in this respect.”
NEU news release. Nuffield Foundation news release and working paper. The Guardian. Personnel Today.

Review confirms stress crisis in Scottish teachers

Scottish teaching union EIS has welcomed the publication of a review of the mental health and wellbeing of education staff. Commenting on the publication of findings of the NHS Health Scotland evidence review, EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said the “significant publication” highlights the absence of school-level interventions to support teachers' mental health, and makes clear that this failing can have a significant impact both on the wellbeing of teachers and, additionally, on the learning experience and educational outcomes of pupils. “As the review notes, a number of major EIS surveys in recent years have highlighted the large numbers of teachers who are experiencing high degrees of stress as a result of their jobs,” he said. “This is an issue that must be tackled, or we will see an increasing number of teachers becoming ill, experiencing burnout and being driven from the profession prematurely.” The union leader concluded: “The EIS is promoting a 20/20 vision for the future of Scottish schools – with maximum teacher class contact time of 20 hours a week, and maximum class sizes of 20 pupils. These changes would be positive for teachers and for pupils alike."
EIS news release. Supporting teachers mental health and wellbeing, NHS Health Scotland, February 2020.

Criminal charges possible over Grenfell - inquiry chair

Those involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower are facing possible charges of fraud and conspiracy to defraud, according to the chair of the public inquiry into the disaster that claimed 72 lives. Sir Martin Moore-Bick has told the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, that during forthcoming hearings examining the marketing of the combustible cladding and insulation that spread the fire, witnesses are “very likely” to be asked to discuss issues involving potential fraud offences. The inquiry had already heard that witnesses could face criminal prosecution under the Health and Safety at Work Act and in some cases could be charged with manslaughter or corporate manslaughter. The Guardian reports that Moore-Bick revealed the possibility of fraud charges in an application to Cox for an undertaking that witnesses’ oral evidence would not be used against them in criminal proceedings, a call described as ‘outrageous’ by the union Unite (Risks 933). The inquiry was halted on 30 January when lawyers for the architects, the main contractor, facade contractor, fire engineer and landlord led a request to invoke a longstanding protection against self-incrimination. Moore-Bick urged the attorney general to make a decision “as a matter of urgency”, saying the evidence the inquiry team had uncovered “suggests that significant risks to public health and safety will continue to be created until the full extent of what happened at Grenfell Tower is brought to light.” The inquiry is not expected to reconvene until 24 February at the earliest.
The Guardian. BBC News Online.

Government ‘red tape challenge’ risks another Grenfell

Former Chancellor Sajid Javid’s “Brexit red-tape challenge” will fuel the deregulation agenda that led to the Grenfell tragedy, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has warned. Javid had announced that he will use the Budget on 11 March to launch a public and business consultation to propose ways in which the British government could “improve or remove” EU laws. He described the process of diverging from the EU’s rule book as “competition.” FBU general secretary Matt Wrack, quoted in the Morning Star, said: “The Grenfell Tower fire was an atrocity born of deregulation, privatisation and austerity. It is reckless and dangerous for the Chancellor to launch a ‘red-tape challenge’ just as the Grenfell Inquiry is shining a light on the consequences of previous deregulatory initiatives.” The union leader said that a “clear line can be drawn” from the 72 lives lost to consecutive governments’ decisions to slash red tape in housing, construction, building safety and fire safety. “The Chancellor is throwing red meat to the Tory party at the expense of public safety,” he said. “We cannot allow the toxic culture of deregulation to do more damage.”
Morning Star. Financial Times. The Telegraph.

Rare work death jail term exposes justice shortfall

A rare occasion where a negligent employer was jailed for manslaughter has highlighted a widespread failure to hold negligent directors to account for deaths at work, a trade union body has said. TWL director Han Rao was sentenced to four years for the manslaughter of employee Marian Iancu at The Old Bailey this month (Risks 933).  A statement from Waltham Forest Trades Council noted: “The sentence handed to Mr Rao for the manslaughter of employee Mr Iancu whilst going about his work reflects the seriousness with which the courts can regard this kind of crime, albeit with a relatively short prison term given the nature of the crime. Sadly manslaughter prosecutions of employers who kill are rare and convictions at trial even rarer. This is despite the fact that when manslaughter laws were reviewed and new a corporate manslaughter law was put in place in 2008 it was estimated there would be a large increase in cases brought to trial and this has not manifested.” The local union body added: “There is also the anomaly in law which is yet to be corrected where directors on the board, typically of larger companies, escape this type of prosecution if there is no evidence of a direct link from their actions or inaction to the incident at the workplace and where roles and relationships can become complex and easier to hide behind – and all of this despite their obvious connection. Mr Rao is going to jail because TLW is a small business and identifying him as responsible was far easier than in much larger businesses. We need a legal system which acts as a deterrent for all organisations.” The trades council, which covers the borough in which Mr Iancu lived, added: “We also need a fully funded enforcement body which is able to prevent the deaths of workers like Mr Iancu… It would be far better if the legal and enforcement systems, which are meant to act as a deterrent and prevent such incidents, were up to the job – and this must change.”
Waltham Forest UNISON news release. Environmental Health News.

Danger firms fined after worker dies in explosion

Materials Movement Ltd and PJ Labour Services Ltd have been fined after a 54-year-old worker was killed in an explosion at a London demolition site. Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard how, on 16 March 2017, Stephen Hampton was killed when an old fuel storage tank he was cutting up exploded and the end of the vessel struck him, causing fatal injuries. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found both contractors failed in their duties to effectively plan, manage and monitor control measures to address the risks associated with the demolition of a site that contained fuel tanks. HSE said the standards for this type of work “are well known, established and clear.” Both firms pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015. Materials Movement Ltd was fined £33,000 and ordered to pay costs of £7,675.38 and PJ Labour Services Ltd £33,000 with £7,648.18 costs. Commenting on the conclusion of the case, HSE inspector Ian Shearring said: “Mr Hampton had recently adopted two young boys and this incident leaves them, along with his wife, alone and struggling financially all for the sake of a bit more effort on both defendants’ parts. Both Materials Movement Ltd and PJ Labour Services Ltd have today been held to account for killing Mr Hampton after failing to take adequate action to protect the health and safety of persons working on their site.” He added: “Neither company adequately assessed and controlled the risks of this highly dangerous work. It was left to the workers to devise their own methods of working, which was compounded by no site management.”
HSE news release.

Defunct firm convicted after temporary worker death

A defunct London skip hire company has been fined £240,000 for criminal failures that led to a temporary worker being crushed to death. Stelian Florin Gavriliuc died while employed by Ace Waste Haulage in August 2017. The 24-year-old, who had only been with the firm for two weeks, was killed as he walked from his work station through the only exit open to employees and was crushed by a shovel loader vehicle that didn't see him. The court heard that just 18 months earlier, an unannounced Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspection highlighted unsatisfactory traffic arrangements at the site. HSE inspectors told the company to consider creating a separate vehicle and pedestrian route to avoid employees having to walk past operating plant and skip vehicles, but the recommendation was ignored. The company, which went into liquidation on 11 October 2018, was convicted following a trial at the Old Bailey. Jurors found the company guilty of a criminal failure to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees and for failing to organise the site in a way that would allow pedestrians and vehicles to circulate in a safe manner. Ace Waste Haulage was fined £240,000 plus £51,116.29 court costs. Acting Detective Chief Inspector Saj Hussain, who led the investigation, said it had been a “long and complex case.” He added: “This should be a clear message that workers’ safety must be paramount for any business, and you cannot cut corners when it comes to protecting life. His family and friends will have to live with the tragic impact of this failure for the rest of their lives.”
Metropolitan Police news release. Kilburn Times.

Police convicted after employee gets heart breaking shock

A police force has been fined after an employee received an electric shock whilst installing computer data cables. Cardiff Magistrates’ Court heard that on the 16 October 2015, at Bridgend Police Station, a 48-year-old civilian South Wales Police employee sustained damage to his heart muscles when he came into contact with an exposed end of a live 3-core electrical cable which had been left in a ceiling void. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the Force had failed to ensure the electrical system was safe and that the ceiling void was a safe place of work. South Wales Police Headquarters was found guilty of a criminal safety offence and was fined £64,000 and ordered to pay £29,449.14 in costs. Neil Craig, HSE’s head of operations, commented: “This incident could so easily have been avoided by simply carrying out correct control measures and safe working practices. Police forces have the same duties under health and safety legislation as any other employer. It was appropriate for HSE to bring this matter before the courts given the avoidable, life-changing injuries suffered by their employee.”
HSE news release.

Global giant fined after worker loses arm

A company that designs, manufactures and distributes construction materials has been fined after an employee suffered serious injuries, resulting in his left arm being amputated. The 48-year-old employee of Saint-Gobain Construction Products UK Limited, part of the global Saint-Gobain Group which has over 179,000 employees worldwide, was seriously injured on 13 August 2017 when a rock handling belt failed at the company’s plant in Barrow-Upon-Soar, Leicestershire. Two employees had been clearing rock that had built up around the belt. However, the belt had become so compacted it was difficult to remove the obstruction by hand. One of the men went to the opposite side of the tail-end drum to remove a jammed rock and the pair were no longer in visual contact. His colleague pressed the start/stop button whilst his colleague’s arm was in close proximity to the rotating drum and his arm was drawn in. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found there was no risk assessment or safe system of work in place for clearing rock safely from tail-end drums. Saint-Gobain Construction Products UK Limited pleaded guilty at Loughborough Magistrates’ Court to a criminal safety offence and was fined £400,000 and costs of £12,945.62. HSE inspector Michelle Morrison said: “This injury could easily have been prevented, had the risk been identified. Employers should make sure they properly assess and apply effective control measures to minimise the risk from dangerous parts of machinery.” Parent company Saint-Gobain Global had sales of 41.8 billion Euro in 2018 (£35.2bn).
HSE news release.


Global: Growing hazard posed by illegal pesticide trade

Over the past two decades, the trafficking of highly toxic pesticides has quietly grown into one of the world’s most lucrative and least understood criminal enterprises, a report in Washington Post has revealed. Adulterated in labs and garages, hustled like narcotics, co-opted by gangs and mafias, counterfeit and contraband pesticides are flooding developed and developing countries alike, with environmental and social consequences that are “far from trivial,” the UN Environment Program reported last year. “It’s very unknown, and it’s very common. This is big,” said Javier Fernández, a senior official with the agrochemical industry lobby group CropLife. He said climate change and increasing demand for food was accelerating the need for pesticides, so the illegal trade is “getting bigger and more violent.” Mikhail Malkov, who studies the problem at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said: “There are plenty of ways where the criminal businesses can make the ‘ideal’ mixture of the illicit pesticides. There are plenty of technologies, starting with sophisticated adulterations and blending, and God knows what they’re putting inside those drums of pesticides.” Roughly 10 per cent of the agrochemical trade — a quickly growing market valued at US$220 billion — is believed to be illegal, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The estimate has doubled since 2007. Some consider even that a vast underestimate. “More likely [it is] quite a bit higher,” said Leon Van der Wal, FAO’s expert on illegal pesticides. In Europe, he said, it’s 14 per cent, despite what he called “well-established procedures against and intelligence into the modus operandi of illegal traders.”
Washington Post (subscription needed).

USA: Industry wide silica clampdown begins

As the US government’s respirable crystalline silica (RCS) standard takes full effect, its safety regulator OSHA has beefed up its National Emphasis Program (NEP) to ensure compliance with the new, more stringent exposure standard. The new standard, originally introduced in general industry, has also now taken full effect in the maritime and construction industries. The 0.05mg/m3 exposure standard is twice as stringent the current UK standard of 0.1 mg/m3 and six times more protective for the lung-destroying dust disease silicosis (Risks 930). Silica exposure is also linked to lung cancer and lung, kidney and autoimmune diseases and other chronic health conditions. OSHA’s area offices are now tasked with curating a randomised list of employers for targeted inspections. Before initiating programmed inspections in accordance with the NEP, OSHA says it will offer 90 days of compliance assistance for stakeholders affected by the new measures.
OSHA news release and National Emphasis Program. EHS Today.
Biting the dust: HSE defends a silica standard six times more deadly, Hazards, number 148, December 2019.
ACTION: Send an e-postcard to HSE demanding it introduce a more protective UK silica standard no higher than 0.05mg/m³ and with a phased move to 0.025mg/m³.


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