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



Not quite a Covid prosecution labelled a first

A construction contractor has become the first firm prosecuted following a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Covid spot check – although Covid risks were not cited explicitly in any of the related HSE enforcement actions. The safety regulator revealed it has carried out over 316,000 Covid spot checks across all industries since the start of the pandemic – with only one prosecution so far. Manchester Magistrates’ Court heard that on 9 July 2020, an HSE inspector performed a proactive Covid-19 spot check at a construction site in the city. HSE said breaches involving working at height, welfare, site security, electricity and Covid risks saw principal contractor Umar Akram Khatab served with a prohibition notice and two improvement notices. A return inspection was made on the 17 August 2020, after very little communication from the principal contractor. Little or no improvements had been made regarding the issues and additional enforcement action was required, including a further prohibition notice regarding an unsupported excavation. None of the notices mentioned Covid risks. Umar Akram Khatab, now resident in Bradford, pleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches and was sentenced to a 12-month community order. He was also ordered to pay £3,000 towards costs. HSE inspector Rebecca Vaudrey commented: “HSE prides itself on being a proportionate and evidence-based regulator. Since the beginning of the pandemic HSE has carried out more than 316,000 Covid spot checks, with the priority to urgently make workplaces safe from transmission risks, rather than heavy-handed enforcement.” She added: “This is the first prosecution to arise from the Spot Check programme. We’ve repeatedly stressed that prosecution is a last resort, but this case clearly illustrates that where there is consistent disregard to Covid or other risks to employees’ health and safety, HSE will use its powers to take action.” Several thousand workers are believed to have died as result of a Covid infection contracted at work.
HSE news release. Construction Enquirer.

Doctors condemn ‘shocking’ Sajid Javid mask line

The British Medical Association (BMA) has blasted the “shocking” irresponsibility of government ministers after Sajid Javid said there was no need for them to wear masks in cabinet. The head of the doctors’ organisation hit out after the health secretary defended pictures of a 14 September cabinet meeting, published on the No.10 flickr page, showed not a single minister in the packed meeting using a face covering. Sajid Javid said their behaviour was “perfectly consistent” with prime minister Boris Johnson’s advice that people should consider using face coverings when they are in crowded places with “strangers”. But BMA chair Chaand Nagpaul said that the health secretary and other ministers were showing a “shocking” lack of responsibility at a time when Covid-19 infections are running at an average of 35,000 a day. Mr Javid himself forced Mr Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak into self-isolation earlier this year when he held a meeting with them in Downing Street unaware that he had been infected. Dr Nagpaul said: “For a government which has extolled the importance of personal responsibility to show so little personal responsibility themselves is quite shocking. Ministers should be leading by example.” He added: “What is even worse is the dangerous message these comments and photographs send out to all of us as members of the public – a message that says the pandemic is over, life can go back to as it was before, and all will be well. This is far from the truth and the evidence shows that in no uncertain terms.” The weekly average of over 35,000 new cases a day is 10 times higher than this time last year, said Dr Nagpaul.
Sky News. The Independent. ITV News. Huffington Post.

Health minister admits mountain of PPE is unfit

Health service unions have reacted with fury at a government admission that £2.8 billion of personal protective equipment (PPE) is not fit for purpose. Health minister Lord Bethell revealed that nearly two billion items of PPE are unusable and lying in warehouses labelled “do not supply” — more than 6 per cent of the volume purchased. Unite union national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said the revelation was “a searing indictment” of government procurement policy, adding: “It is a national disgrace that NHS workers trying to care for us should be given equipment that has not protected them.” UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “This was profiteering, plain and simple: it shows the degree of cronyism at the heart of government. Contracts should be awarded transparently and based on value for money, not as favours for their wealthy chums. It’s a national scandal, a disgrace and an abuse of taxpayers’ cash.” The UNISON leader added: “The start date of the public inquiry must be brought forward. This would expose the government’s shortcomings on a grand scale.” GMB national officer Rachel Harrison said that the government’s “botched” PPE procurement had been “one of the scandals of the pandemic.” She said: “Our health workers, paramedics and carers were sent on to the front line with inadequate or non-existent PPE. Basically, they were thrown to the wolves by this government.” She added: “It boils down to incompetence or corruption.”
Morning Star.


Unite slams ‘reckless’ extension of driving limit

A UK government plan to continue the relaxation of maximum driving timing for lorry drivers is dangerous, reckless and potentially illegal, Unite has warned. The union said it has learned that the government is undertaking a technical consultation on continuing the relaxation on driving hours from 4 October until 23 January. Unite said there is a concern that the government could be acting illegally. The existing regulations allow for a ‘temporary relaxation’ in driving hours. The union said it could be argued that a six-month period of extended hours and the other recent period of relaxation, is not ‘temporary’ but is in reality a permanent change. It is seeking legal advice on this matter. Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, said: “Years of suppressing drivers’ pay and bypassing European regulations have led us to where we are now. The latest extension on hours will increase pressures on drivers and threaten public safety on UK roads.” Unite national officer Adrian Jones said: “This is a dangerous and reckless decision by the government. The government should immediately drop its plans to extend driving hours. Lorry drivers are already working excessive hours and the cumulative effect on fatigue will increase the risk of accidents and damage their health.” Jones added: “Action also needs to be taken to introduce minimum standards on pay and conditions, to end once and for all the race to the bottom and undercutting of wages which is at the heart of the current lorry driver shortages.” Safety charity RoSPA also said it is “deeply concerned” by the government’s plans.
Unite news release. RoSPA news release.

Protection of public-facing workers bill welcomed

Retail trade union Usdaw has welcomed the launch of the Abuse of Public-Facing Workers (Offences) Bill by Labour MP Olivia Blake. The Bill was introduced in the House of Commons under the 10-minute rule on 15 September and is scheduled for a second reading on 28 January 2022. Under the law, all verbal or physical abuse of public-facing workers would be made a specific criminal offence. The Sheffield Hallam MP told the Commons: “We need better reporting, support and a more robust pursuit of prosecutions, but we also need to see government take action. Today with this Bill I’m here to propose that verbal or physical abuse of public-facing workers carrying out their duties has to be made its own specific offence.” She added: “If the existing legislation reflects the situation in which we’re seeing spiralling levels of abuse, then it is time that we changed it because the status quo simply isn’t working.” Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis welcomed the proposed law but added “we are under no illusion and understand that this Bill stands little chance of being successful without government support, so we urge ministers to get behind this important measure.” He noted: “The pandemic has shown just how reliant we are on key workers, many of them in low-paid insecure employment and often facing abuse from the public. These essential workers deserve a new deal to ensure that they are properly valued, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and they deserve the protection of the law.”
Usdaw news release. BBC News Online.

Routine violence against transport staff exposed

Nearly 60 per cent of rail, bus and ferry workers have been subjected to verbal or physical attack since the start of the pandemic, according to research by the union RMT. The union’s survey of more than 5,000 transport workers showed that most believed that workplace violence has worsened during the pandemic and 73 per cent said they believed the government’s lifting of Covid restrictions and mixed messaging around safety measures had further aggravated the situation. More than half the respondents reported being threatened with physical violence while 1-in-10 had been physically assaulted. Nearly 9-in-10 (88 per cent) had been verbally abused, 16 per cent had been spat at or targeted with bodily fluids, 13 per cent had been racially harassed and 6 per cent sexually assaulted. Two-thirds (66 per cent) of those reporting attacks said they had been working alone at the time of the incident. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “The government's management of the pandemic is a shambles that has created new levels of passenger frustration and put our members in danger, while their disastrous fixation with cutting jobs and services to shore up profits will create more lone working, more vulnerable staff and more angry passengers.” The union said it ‘fully supports’ the bill tabled by Labour MP Olivia Blake which seeks to make verbal or physical abuse of a public-facing worker a specific offence.
RMT news release.

Care firm fined after rape while working

Care provider The Action Group has been fined after an employee was abducted, assaulted, sexually assaulted and raped in the course of her duties. Edinburgh Sheriff Court heard that on 27 December 2018, at a domestic property in the city, a young female employee of The Action Group visited service user Albert Caballero, 46, to provide support services. During the visit the 25-year-old care worker was abducted, assaulted, sexually assaulted and raped by Caballero. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), prompted by a police investigation into the attack, found The Action Group failed to make a satisfactory assessment of the risks to their female employees posed by this specific service user. They found female employees had been raising concerns about their safety while working with Caballero since March 1994. The Action Group pleaded guilty to two criminal health and safety offences and at a 22 September sentencing was fined £20,000. HSE inspector Kerry Cringan said: “This was a harrowing case for all involved and could have been avoided by carrying out a suitable assessment of the risks, particularly those posed to female members of staff. If this had been done, appropriate control measures and safe working practices could have been put in place that would have protected their staff and prevented this incident.”  In a separate June 2019 prosecution, Caballero was sentenced to eight years imprisonment.
HSE news release. Edinburgh Evening News.

Work grievance led woman to take her life

A young woman who felt sick at the prospect of going to work following a dispute with her employer leapt from a bridge to her death, an inquest has heard. Call centre worker Chloe English, 24, from Brighouse, died instantly when she fell from a Victorian iron and stone bridge, in Halifax, West Yorkshire on 14 May 2021. Her GP told the court: “It appeared she was suffering from increasing stress at work and had put in a formal grievance against the team leader and felt the relationship had broken down. She felt work was worsening her anxiety and going into work made her feel nauseous.” The university graduate was given several sick notes and it was agreed that her dose of the antidepressant, Escitalopram, would be increased to 20mg. Her father Richard English, who attended the hearing, said her anxiety and depression had been “compounded by the lockdown and isolation.” Assistant coroner Ian Pears concluded Chloe had taken her own life saying: “On 14 May Chloe English walked to North Bridge, deliberately climbed over a fence and died from a traumatic head injury.”
The Examiner. The Mirror. Daily Mail. Halifax Courier.
RESOURCES: Work and suicide: A TUC guide to prevention for trade union activists. ‘Don’t despair’ pin-up-at-work suicide prevention poster. More on work-related suicides.
ACTION! Use the Hazards e-postcard to tell the HSE to recognise, record and take action to prevent work-related suicides.

Poundland spreads the seasonal cheer

Retail trade union Usdaw has welcomed Poundland thanking its 18,000 staff by again deciding to close stores on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. The bargain retailer is the latest chain to announce festive closures, joining Sainsbury's, Argos, Habitat, Aldi, Morrisons (Risks 1009), Waitrose, Home Bargains, Pets at Home and Marks & Spencer. Usdaw national officer Dave Gill commented: “After discussions with Poundland we very much welcome the company again closing all their stores on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, to give their staff a proper break over the festive season. This is a much appreciated continuation of last year’s Boxing Day and New Year’s Day closures.” He added: “We don’t think it is too much to ask to give shopworkers the longest possible break over Christmas and New Year. We now hope that other retailers will follow suit, by closing their stores to help workers enjoy the festive season and give them a well-deserved breather.”
Usdaw news release.

Chemical firm fined £1m for fatal explosion

Briar Chemicals Ltd has been fined £1 million after a man died in an explosion at its site in Norwich. Chelmsford Magistrates Court heard how on the 27 July 2018, maintenance contractor Rob Cranston, 46, was carrying out repair work on a mixing vessel during a planned period of shutdown maintenance. It is thought that his welding torch or grinder accidentally ignited flammable toluene vapour inside the vessel, which should not have been present when the work commenced. Mr Cranston’s son Owen, 22, was working alongside his father when the tragedy happened. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that a quantity of toluene residue had been left inside the vessel after shutdown cleaning at the beginning of June 2018. Two damaged valves, situated above the vessel in the toluene supply pipe, were also found to be leaking. Operatives had been instructed to transfer a large quantity of toluene from one storage tank to another via this pipe which allowed additional flammable liquid to leak into the vessel which was supposed to be empty and clean. Briar Chemicals pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the COMAH Regulations 2015. The company was fined £1 million and ordered to pay costs of £10,967.20. In a Victim Impact Statement read out in court, Mr Cranston’s widow, Claire, said: “This has obviously been horrendous for both our sons, particularly Owen having to deal with actually being there at the time. Our lives changed forever that day.”
HSE news release. Evening News and related story.

Diving instructor fined after trainee dies

A technical diving instructor has been fined after he failed to properly assess the competency of two pupils prior to a deep-water dive in Scotland, which ended in a fatality. Edinburgh Sheriff Court heard how on 8 July 2017, William Peace and another pupil were due to take part in a 45 metre dive off the coast of Dunbar to the wreck of the U74E – a 755-tonne German mine laying submarine, which sank in 1916. The men were taking part in closed-circuit rebreather diving, which is more technical than scuba diving and enables divers to dive to greater depths. They had joined technical diving instructor Ashley Roberts, sole director of Ash Roberts Technical Limited, to complete their Technical Diving International (TDI) mixed gas closed-circuit rebreather course. As the students had not completed all of the online course pre-requisites, Mr Roberts determined that the planned dive would be a free-diving session and fun dive rather than a training dive where he would check the students’ abilities in-water and provide feedback to them prior to enrolling them on the course and starting the training the following day. However, after the two students reached the seabed unsupervised they encountered difficulties, with Mr Peace becoming unresponsive. His dive buddy made several attempts to rescue Mr Peace, but was forced to return to the surface for his own safety. Mr Peace’s body was later recovered by police divers using a sonar search. Ashley Roberts pleaded guilty to two criminal safety breaches and was fined £2,300. Ash Roberts Technical Limited was dissolved on 9 July 2019.
HSE news release.

Firm convicted after worker crushed at coal face

Three D’s Mining Ltd has been convicted of three criminal safety breaches following a roof fall on the NW9 coal face at Dan-y-Graig No 4 colliery located near the village of Crynant, South Wales. Swansea Crown Court heard that, on 15 November 2017, two workers were preparing the roof for the erection of supports with the use of a pneumatic chisel when 0.6 tonne of stone fell from the roof and hit one of the workers on his back. He suffered significant crush injuries, large pelvic haematoma and a three spinal fractures. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the company had not carried out an assessment of the strength of the timber. The 24mm timber used to support the roof was not strong enough, and was not industry standard half rounds or split bars which are 65mm thick. Three D’s Mining Ltd was found guilty of two criminal breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act and a further breach of the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999. The company was fined £100,000 payable over four years. Costs were not awarded as the company is entering administration. HSE principal inspector Adrian Taylor commented: “Small coal operators should follow industry guidance on the use of support material on small coal faces. Any changes should be fully assessed to check suitability.”
HSE news release.


Global: New work deaths figures must spur action

New estimates jointly released jointly by two UN agencies that indicate 19 work-related risk factors cause approaching two million deaths each year fall substantially short of the real toll, the global union confederation ITUC has warned. The figures were announced last week by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and World Health Organisation (WHO). “It’s shocking to see so many people literally being killed by their jobs,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. “Our report is a wake-up call to countries and businesses to improve and protect the health and safety of workers by honouring their commitments to provide universal coverage of occupational health and safety services.” However, the international union confederation ITUC warned that adding in causes of death by risk factors not included in the joint report – including work-related psychosocial factors and infectious diseases - and filling in information gaps from poor record-keeping brings the real world total closer to three million deaths. It said even that is likely to be an underestimate. In a speech at this week’s World Congress on Safety and Health, ITUC deputy general secretary Owen Tudor said: “The mounting toll of deaths due to work will only be stopped by making occupational health and safety a fundamental right at work along with the other ILO Fundamental Rights – freedom of association, collective bargaining and freedom from discrimination, child labour and forced labour. This must be finalised at the annual ILO Conference next year, to spur stronger action by governments to prevent death and disease at work, in both the private and public sectors.” He called for measures including universal access to occupational health services and wider participation of workers and unions in all levels of health and safety. Tudor concluded: “We also look forward to the ILO and WHO completing the picture by capturing accidents and diseases that are not covered in their recent announcement, including the list contained in ILO Recommendation 194,” the official ILO List of Occupational Diseases.
ILO news release. WHO news release. ITUC news release.
WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury, 2000-2016: Global Monitoring Report, WHO/ILO, September 2021. ILO List of Occupational Diseases, Recommendation 194. World Congress on Safety and Health and related media advisory.

Australia: Anti-vaxxer attack on union office condemned

Australia’s national union federation ACTU has condemned a violent attack on a construction union office orchestrated by right-wing extremists and anti-vaccination activists. ACTU said the ‘reprehensible’ attack on the CFMEU Construction office in Melbourne endangered union officials, staff and the public. The original 20 September protest was prompted by an official announcement that vaccinations for construction workers would be mandatory, but escalated after anti-vax and right-wing activists hijacked the event. These groups continued to protest the following day. Responding to the attack on the union office, a statement from ACTU noted: “Unions put the safety of working people first. High vaccination rates are the only way for us to get out of lockdown, save jobs and get back to work in safe workplaces and communities. Division and the spreading of misinformation against the vaccination programme are putting the lives of vulnerable people at risk and will lead to the overwhelming of our health care system, endangering the health care workforce.” The union body, which opposes vaccine mandates but is actively encouraging vaccinations, added: “Every worker who can get vaccinated should get vaccinated as soon as possible. Australian unions will never be intimidated by violence or threats from extremists who refuse to put the good of the community first.”
ACTU news release. The Guardian. 9 News. The Age and related opinion. New Daily.

Thailand: Union leader ‘targeted’ for rail safety campaign

One of Thailand’s most prominent union leaders is facing three years in prison for his role in organising a railway safety campaign, in a case described as the biggest attack on organised labour in the country in decades. Rights advocates say the case involving Sawit Kaewvarn, president of the State Railway Union of Thailand (SRUT), will have a chilling effect on unions and threatens to further weaken workers’ rights in the country. Sawit, who is also head of the State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation, the largest body of trade unions in Thailand, was convicted of omission of duties and sentenced to three years in prison last October. Twelve other national and local union leaders received the same sentence. The group has been freed on bail and have appealed against the verdict, with a ruling expected soon. The case dates back to 2009 when seven passengers were killed, and dozens more injured, after a train derailment near Khao Tao station in Hua Hin, a seaside town 125 miles (200km) south of Bangkok (Risks 882). The union argued that faulty safety equipment had contributed to the disaster. It launched a health and safety campaign, calling on the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) to fix what it believed to be broken machinery. Drivers refused to operate trains that they alleged did not have functioning safety features, such as “dead man’s switches” and vigilance control equipment. Sawit stresses that the campaign was simply calling for safer conditions for workers. “Safety is a human right, it is the employee’s right; we need to work in a safe environment,” he said. The union said the family of a victim killed in the Hua Hin crash had successfully sued the SRT for failing to maintain safety equipment – a sign, it argued, that its campaign was in the public interest.
The Guardian.

Ukraine: Union wins payout for shipwreck survivor

A Ukrainian seafarer who could not face going back to sea after a shipwreck ordeal has secured compensation with his union’s support. In September 2019, tug supply vessel the Bourbon Rhode sank in the middle of the central Atlantic Ocean. The vessel was travelling from the Canary Islands to Guyana in South America when it was hit by a devastating hurricane. All but three of the seafarers onboard the Bourbon Rhode were killed. The survivors spent the next three days struggling desperately for life against the storm, in a tiny life raft, with no food or water, before being rescued. Ukrainian seafarer Yevgeniy Nikolov was injured and couldn’t face working at sea again after the shipwreck. Global transport union federation ITF reports that after getting no assistance from the shipowner, Yevgeniy sought help from the Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union (MTWTU) of Ukraine, which negotiated a substantial payout. MTWTU chair Oleg Grygoriuk said “it is noteworthy that the company acted quickly as soon as it found out that Yevgeniy’s interests were represented by the MTWTU. It’s no coincidence that when employers such as this hear that a seafarer has the backing of the ITF union family, and us, the only maritime ITF affiliate in Ukraine.”
ITF news release.


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