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



Unions demand action on ventilation in schools

The government must take firm action to improve ventilation in schools to reduce further Covid disruption, education unions have said. In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, the unions - NEU, Unison, NASUWT, ASCL, NAHT, GMB and Unite – say proper measures to increase airflow in time for the start of the next academic year will make a difference to health and limit the damage to learning for pupils. In their 17 August letter to the education secretary they say “the benefits of ventilation in the control of airborne diseases are already well understood and accepted”. They point to carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors – which can provide an indication of the effectiveness of ventilation in a room – and micro (HEPA) filters for removing harmful particles as measures that will make a significant difference and should be properly funded. The joint letter concludes with a “call for urgent action by the DfE to invest in ventilation measures in our schools, including but not limited to the provision of CO2 monitors to monitor air quality and other measures, including where appropriate HEPA filters, which can help slow the spread of such diseases.”
NEU news release. NASUWT news release. Unite news release. Morning Star.

University staff anxious about in-person working

Two in five university staff are wary about returning to in-person working and most report safety-related concerns and anxiety, University and College Union (UCU) Scotland research has found. Over threequarters (76 per cent) of respondents to the union’s survey reported an increase in workload last year, 86.5 per cent said they want better ventilation on campus and 78.5 per cent indicated they support the continued wearing of face coverings. These safety considerations, on top of the added workload, left threequarters of staff reporting their anxiety levels had increased during the pandemic, while 41 per cent said they felt some anxiety about returning to normal. UCU Scotland official Mary Senior said the report “underlines the need for a cautious, safety-first start to the new academic year.” She added: “The teaching and learning environment for students depends upon the people delivering that, so it is in employers’ interests to support their staff at this time.” She said the union was urging education employers to “take on board the concerns of staff on ventilation, reduced occupancy and enhanced cleaning and hygiene - and importantly to continue with online working where appropriate and especially for larger groups. We're calling on government and employers to do more on ventilation - including capital investment in estates where ventilation is poor, to keep students and staff safe for the long term.” She said: 'Members have also told us that their stress and anxiety has increased during the pandemic, and that over four in ten of them are anxious about returning to in-person working.”
UCU Scotland news release and report. Morning Star.

Health unions warn of impending Covid crisis

Health unions have warned of an impending crisis after concerns were raised about a possible large wave of Covid-19 hitting hospitals in the autumn. The unions were commenting as rules were eased so that fully vaccinated adults will no longer have to isolate if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. Instead of having to quarantine for 10 days, people in England are now advised to take a PCR test - but this is not compulsory. Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said that the pandemic is far from over, despite the government’s “wishful thinking and overoptimistic assessments. We have to remain vigilant and alert to new variants and waves of Covid-19 that could materialise over the autumn and winter.” He added: “This means the systems we have created over the last 18 months relating to [protective equipment], testing and the successful vaccination programme to support the NHS must be continued and refined. Mask-wearing in public places and on the transport systems should be made mandatory.” GMB national secretary Rehana Azam said: “Unless the UK government start to proactively plan for another wave in the autumn, we could see thousands of hospital admissions, with overworked NHS staff left to pick up the pieces once again. All the underlying problems caused by a decade of cuts to the NHS have been exposed by Covid-19: An understaffing crisis, spiralling waiting lists, and a total lack of value for the heroic key workers left struggling on the front line.”
Morning Star. BBC News Online.

Union calls for action after MPs flout mask rules

The ‘contempt’ shown by large numbers of MPs who failed to wear masks during an 18 August parliamentary debate should result in action from the parliamentary authorities, Prospect has said. The union, which represents hundreds of staff working in parliament, wants MPs to be bound by the same rules on mask wearing that apply to other staff. During the special debate on the crisis in Afghanistan large numbers of MPs, especially on the government side and including the entire government front bench of leading ministers, were seen to be flouting the Speaker’s strong advice that they should wear masks when not speaking. The debate saw hundreds of MPs pack into the Chamber for the first time since restrictions on numbers lapsed in July. Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said that given the high profile of the debate it was “all the more frustrating that so many MPs, including the entire government front bench and most of the backbenchers, chose to ignore the Speaker’s very clear advice about wearing masks in an enclosed space. Not only does this show huge disrespect to the Speaker, it demonstrates contempt for the safety of their colleagues and the many staff attending the packed chamber who are required to wear masks.” He added: “With the Commons set to resume full time in just a few weeks, it is time to rethink the light touch approach to mask wearing in the chamber. It has demonstrably failed and more rigorous enforcement must be considered.”
Prospect news release. The Guardian.


Report backs right to disconnect

Working from home during the pandemic has caused an “epidemic of hidden overtime” that particularly affects women and demonstrates the need for a new “right to disconnect” law, according a report from the Autonomy thinktank. As part of the report, Autonomy proposed draft legislation that would create a right to disconnect, based on French law, which stipulates employees do not have to take calls or read emails related to work during their time off (Risks 782). The thinktank called for two amendments to be made to the Employment Rights Act 1996 to ensure workers have the right to fully disconnect from all work communications outside working hours and to bring employment tribunals for any breach of this right. Will Stronge, the director of research at Autonomy, said the Covid pandemic has “accelerated the need to create much clearer boundaries between work-life and home-life.” The right to disconnect has been the focus of a campaign by civil service and specialists’ union Prospect. Commenting on the report Andrew Pakes, research director at Prospect, said: “Other countries have already acted to address this by bringing in a right to disconnect for workers, and we are calling on the UK government to take action now so that we are not left behind.” The government has not supported a right to disconnect but it has a flexible working taskforce looking at the issues around working from home that arose during the pandemic. Labour has said it would give workers the right to disconnect as part of flexible work reforms.
The right to disconnect, Autonomy, August 2021. Prospect ‘Right to disconnect’ campaign. The Guardian. The Mirror.

Shifts ‘significantly associated’ with heart problems

Long-term night shifts are “significantly associated” with heart-related health problems in UK workers, according to a new study. Researchers from China, Hong Kong, the USA and Sweden examined UK data and found working late hours was linked with irregular and fast heart rate, with women potentially at greater risk. Working night shifts also increased the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), according to the paper published in the European Heart Journal. Researchers have previously looked how night shift work impacts health (Risks 891), including a 2018 study finding an increased risk of CHD from rotating shift patterns. The authors of the latest study say they believe it is the first of its kind to test the association between night shift work and atrial fibrillation (AF) - a heart condition causing an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate.  The study - which used information from 283,657 people in the UK Biobank database - said they found “both current and lifetime night shift exposure were significantly associated” with a risk of atrial fibrillation regardless of genetics. The findings suggested that among people who worked an average of between three and eight night shifts a month for 10 years or more, the risk increased to 22 per cent compared with daytime workers. Previous research has also found women who worked night shifts had an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, breast cancer (Risks 958), asthma (Risks 974) and faced a greater risk of miscarriage (Risks 891). Night shifts have also been linked to a higher risk of road traffic accidents while travelling home from a shift (Risks 808).
Ningjian Wang and others. Long-term night shift work is associated with the risk of atrial fibrillation and coronary heart disease, European Heart Journal, 2021;, ehab505. Published 10 August 2021. The Independent.

Motorway workers protest over sick pay denial

Highways maintenance workers employed by construction giant Kier have protested at the company’s Basingstoke offices, over the company’s refusal to pay them sick pay. The Unite members have provided round the clock cover to ensure the motorway and key roads network on the Highways England Area 3 contract, which covers Hampshire, Surrey, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and parts of Buckinghamshire, have remained fully open and properly maintained, with delays due to accidents minimised. But Unite says that despite being required to work day and night in all weathers the highways maintenance workers only receive statutory sick pay (SSP), which is worth just £96.35 a week. The union says this is in contrast to the office-based staff at Kier and the workers who are directly employed by the client Highways England who receive full sick pay from day one for a period of up to three months. As part of the protest the workers unfurled a banner which reads “Kier end the discrimination on sick pay”. Unite regional officer Malcom Bonnett said: “The lack of sick pay results in workers continuing to come to work when they are ill. In normal times, due to the safety critical work they undertake, this could have tragic consequences. During the Covid pandemic it leads to unnecessary risk of exposure to infection.” He added: “It is simply unjustifiable that office-based workers receive full sick pay while those working on the motorway network only receive SSP.” Calling for a ‘level playing field’ on sick pay, he said: “If Kier does not end the discrimination to motorway operatives Unite will step up the campaign which will involve further protests and the possibility of additional actions in order to secure a fair deal for our members.”
Unite news release.

Strike looms as bus drivers reject remote sign-on

A survey of London bus drivers by the trade union Unite has found overwhelming opposition to proposals to move to a system of remote sign-on for buses in the capital. Over 2,200 bus drivers replied to the survey, with 84 per cent replying that they believed that remote sign-on would be bad for them. Under a system of remote sign–on the driver no longer begins work at the bus depot, but meets the bus externally somewhere along the route, such as a bus stop. The driver is only paid from when they begin driving the bus. In addition to a loss of pay, Unite says there are ‘serious safety concerns’ with the plans, noting there would be no safety checks to see if the driver was fit to work before beginning their shift. Drivers would also lose access to welfare facilities at depots. Unite lead officer for London buses John Murphy said: “This survey demonstrates that London bus drivers are almost entirely opposed to the introduction of remote-sign-on. Allowing bus drivers to drive a bus without any checks on their health is fundamentally dangerous. Equally, the initial progress being made in London to tackle fatigue and tiredness will be entirely undone if remote sign-on is introduced. Levels of tiredness among drivers will skyrocket, which has major safety implications for passengers, drivers and all road users.” He warned: “It is imperative that the mayor and Transport for London takes action to outlaw remote sign-on at the earliest opportunity in order to avoid industrial action on the London bus network later this year.”
Unite news release.

Solid action in rail safety dispute

Rail union RMT has said action by senior conductors and train managers on East Midlands Railways in two separate disputes remains solid, despite the company’s “dangerous” efforts to operate services on strike days. The union said it is compiling a dossier of potentially lethal safety breaches as the company drafts in “an ill-trained army of strike breakers in a dangerous and desperate bid to try and undermine their frontline staff.” RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “We already have clear evidence of safety breaches on scab-operated trains including the potentially lethal and basic error of doors being opened on the wrong side of the train. The union is compiling a dossier for the safety regulator and is demanding that the company stop taking these unnecessary risks and start talking.”
RMT news release. Morning Star.

Asda workers demand action to stop violence

The union GMB has handed in 1,250 letters from ‘terrified’ supermarket workers asking Asda for protection in the wake of a ‘Spiderman’ gang attack at the supermarket giant’s Clapham Junction store (Risks 1007). The letters were presented at the store, where workers were beaten and some subsequently hospitalised in the 22 July attack. Ahead of the 18 August protest, GMB senior organiser Mark Wilkinson said: “The abhorrent attacks on Asda Clapham Junction staff, which many will have seen on social media, are the final straw. Nobody should face that sort of violence and abuse just for doing their job.” He added: “GMB members working for Asda have two clear demands – Asda must prosecute whenever a colleague is abused or assaulted, and they must put in place adequate security in store to ensure staff are safe. Nobody can possibly think these are unreasonable demands. Asda must act before more people are seriously hurt."
GMB news release.

Retailers urged to back new Bangladesh Accord

Top British retailers are being urged to renew an agreement that led to dramatic improvements in labour and safety standards at the garment factories in Bangladesh making products sold worldwide. The original Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was agreed after the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka collapsed in April 2013, killing over 1,100 workers. The landmark agreement ensured global fashion brands acknowledged direct responsibility for factory conditions by addressing buildings and fire safety. This led to improved safety in 1,600 garment factories employing more the two million people. The Accord in its current, legally binding, form is due to end on 31 August 2021 and there is a risk that brands will return to a weaker, voluntary system. The calls for the Accord to be extended and improved so it is legally binding and enforceable and overseen by an independent body (Risks 999) have been backed by the UK retail union Usdaw. The union’s general secretary Paddy Lillis said: “Now that the Accord is coming to an end, we are hearing reports that brands are pushing for a voluntary watered-down version. This is completely unacceptable. The health and safety of workers in any country must be paramount.” He warned: “Voluntary initiatives simply aren’t enough to protect workers. It is essential that British companies sign up to the legally binding Accord and show consumers that they are not merely paying lip service to their ethical pledges.”
Usdaw news release. Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

Journalists fleeing Afghanistan must be given sanctuary

The journalists’ union NUJ is calling on the UK government to put in place specific measures for journalists and media workers under a resettlement scheme and step up its effort to deliver their safe passage out of Afghanistan. As the Taliban took control of the country, the NUJ said there has been a rapid escalation of violence and threats against journalists and independent media, and house-to-house searches in Kabul that resulted in journalists being detained. The union said many journalists have gone into hiding and women journalists have been prevented from reporting. More than 140 media outlets have been forcibly shut down or taken over by the Taliban and as a result to date over 1,000 journalists and media workers have lost their jobs. Commenting on 17 August, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “Government action to date has been insufficient, vague and lacking in urgency. This is needlessly contributing to the distress and fear of journalists and their families. Urgent government support must be put in place to secure access to the airport and onto military planes back to the UK. That means visas need to be approved swiftly, we have already seen too many days of inaction.” She added: “The UK government must also provide visas for journalists and media workers in Afghanistan who have links to the UK media.”
NUJ news release and related news release. IFJ Safety Fund for Afghanistan.

Access to OHS has been greatly exaggerated

A government-sourced statement that around half of the UK workforce has access to occupational health services (OHS) is based on unsubstantiated claims and is likely to be a significant over-estimate, a top occupational health expert has warned. In a Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) blog posting, occupational doctor Paul Nicholson warns the evidence is “unreliable” and “access is likely to have been overestimated.” He said the 50 per cent figure comes from a 2020 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Department of Health and Social Care research (DHSC) report which stated: “A couple of the experts estimated that OH services only have 50 per cent population reach currently (this is backed up by DWP research that has shown that 51 per cent of employees have access to OH services provided by their employer currently.” According to Nicholson: “Data that is based on the estimates of ‘a couple of experts’ sounds rather slapdash” with “even published peer-reviewed expert opinion being the lowest quality evidence in most evidence hierarchies.” He noted: “Previous research has estimated access to occupational health services (OHS) as being much lower; it being inconceivable that access has improved since. In 2002, an HSE contract research report estimated that around 14 per cent of workers in the UK benefit from comprehensive occupational health (OH) support… Subsequent estimates have suggested that 30-34 per cent of the UK workforce has access to specialised occupational health care.”  Nicholson concluded: “Overall, organisations are best placed to avoid repeating the estimate that around half of the UK workforce can access OHS; it is likely to underestimate the extent of the problem and the urgency to put it right.”
SOM news release.

Spate of deaths prompts HSE farm safety alert

More must be done to improve farm safety after four fatalities on farms in just over a fortnight, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has warned. The tragedies, between 27 July and 10 August, came in the wake of HSE’s latest statistics on fatal injuries in agriculture, forestry and fishing in Great Britain. These showed the number of deaths in the sector almost doubled year-on-year, up from 23 in 2019/20 to 41 in 2020/21 (Risks 1006). Agriculture has a fatality rate around 20 times higher than the average five-year annual rate across all industries, HSE noted. HSE’s acting head of agriculture Adrian Hodkinson said: “While we must respect the ongoing investigations following these tragic incidents, most injuries or deaths that we’ve historically seen on farms have been both predictable and preventable.” He added: “The fatality rate within the sector is high, but there are simple measures workers can take to reduce risk including making sure to switch off the power to vehicles or machinery before attempting to carry out repairs, keeping people away from moving vehicles; and ensuring dairy bulls, and cows with calves are not in fields with public footpaths. We are urging people who work on farms to make safety a priority and help us to reduce the number of deaths and injuries in the industry.”
HSE news release. Fatal injuries in agriculture, forestry and fishing in Great Britain 2020/21, 19 July 2021.


Australia: Costly bid to block women’s toilet

Australia’s federal building industry watchdog has defended its decision to spend more than half a million dollars unsuccessfully pursuing a union through the courts after organisers demanded a women’s toilet on a Melbourne worksite. Attorney-general Michaelia Cash disclosed that the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) had spent Aus$432,469 on external legal fees in its attempt to fine the union CFMEU for stopping work on a construction site in 2015. With internal costs and the union’s High Court fees, the total costs bill to the watchdog will be much higher. Its action came after a CFMEU official said there should be a union enterprise agreement covering a project, with the union also noting a woman working on the site had previously been forced to use the men’s toilet. Eight workers downed tools but the facilities were soon upgraded and work resumed. Initially, the Federal Court ruled the union had engaged in coercion and issued a $50,000 fine, but the penalty was overturned in June. Battling the union’s ultimately successful appeal in the full Federal Court cost another $58,196. An attempt to take it to the High Court cost another $128,020. The union’s construction secretary, Dave Noonan, claimed the case exposed the government’s approach towards female workers. After unrelated criminal cartel charges the watchdog pursued against CFMEU’s construction section were withdrawn this week by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP), both CFMEU and the national union federation ACTU accused ABCC of “an abuse of power”.
ACTU news release. Sydney Morning Herald. ABC News.

Malaysia: Electronics firm told to act on Covid deaths

Malaysian company ST Microelectronics (STM) has been accused of putting profit before workers’ safety, after 19 employees died during a large scale workplace Covid-19 outbreak. The country’s Ministry of International Trade & Industry only ordered a total shutdown of the plant from 29 July until 4 August; prior to this the company only closed individual sections of the plant as Covid-19 cases were detected. The Electronics Industry Employees Union has said the original limited action amounted to “recklessness and endangering lives” in a bid to keep production going while infections in the factory remained high. Roslan Bin Rosdi, the deputy president of the union’s southern region, said the deadly outcome could have been avoided if the firm had engaged in dialogue. He called for the strict implementation of health and safety protocols across all its sites. Valter Sanches, general secretary of the global union IndustriALL, has written to ST Microelectronics calling on it to “put people before profits” and engage in dialogue with the electronics union. And Kan Matsuzaki, IndustriALL electronics director, said: “IndustriALL expresses sincere condolences with the families of the 19 workers. We urge STM to walk the talk on its sustainability strategy, which emphasises putting people first and protecting everyone’s life.”
IndustriALL news release. Morning Star.

USA: Amazon loses bid to stop NY safety probe

A US federal judge has dismissed Inc's attempt to block New York’s attorney general from investigating the online retailer's ability to protect warehouse workers from Covid-19. In a 10 August ruling, US District Judge Brian Cogan rejected Amazon's lawsuit claiming attorney general Letitia James acted in bad faith by trying to police its pandemic response, and stop its alleged retaliation against workers who were unhappy the company wasn't doing more. “The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that employers are complying with state labour laws, are enforcing important health safety measures, and are sanctioned for illegal conduct that occurs within the state,” Cogan wrote. Amazon had argued that federal health and labour laws pre-empted the attorney general’s oversight. Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the company was “disappointed” with the procedural ruling. The NY attorney general sued Amazon in February over its treatment of thousands of workers at a Staten Island fulfilment centre and a Queens distribution centre. James accused Amazon of prioritising profits over safety, and improperly disciplining two employees who complained about working conditions, one of whom was fired. The attorney general is seeking a court-appointed safety monitor for Amazon.
Seattle Times. Commercial Observer. Reuters. Bloomberg.



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