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



Upward surge in work Covid cases continues

Cases of work-related Covid-19 reported to health and safety enforcing authorities are continuing to increase. Figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on 14 February show the total number of cases reported to HSE and local authorities since 10 April 2020 has risen from 39,701 on 8 January 2022 to 42,059 on 5 February 2022. The number of Covid-19 deaths notified rose from 439 to 446. “The number of reports received by month has continued to increase, with 2,624 reports received in January 2022, around double the number received in December,” HSE stated. “The number of reports received increased week-on-week throughout December and early January, and in the week ending 22 January just over 700 reports were received, the highest weekly number since February 2021. While the number of reports in the most recent two weeks have fallen (544 and 519 reports respectively), they remain markedly higher than in early December when weekly numbers started increasing.” It means January 2022 had the sixth highest number of reported work-related infections of any month since the start of the pandemic. An HSE breakdown by sector showed “40 per cent of all reports received since 7 November 2021 were recorded by employers as being for workers in the health and social work sector (including for example, hospitals, residential homes and day care), although the actual percentages may be higher as it is known that many reports for this sector get mis-classified by employers, particularly to the accommodation sector and to other personal services. Other sectors with a sizable number of reports over this period include education (16 per cent of reports in last 13 weeks) and public administration and defence (8 per cent).” The alarming new figures emerged as the UK government announced plans to ditch all the remaining Covid-19 restrictions.
Management Information: Coronavirus (COVID-19) disease reports made by employers to HSE and Local Authorities since 10 April 2020, updated 14 February 2022.

Ministers must fix broken sick pay system

The UK government must fix the “broken sick pay system once and for all”, the TUC has said. The union body was commenting after the 9 February announcement by the prime minister that all remaining Covid restrictions in England - including the legal rule to self-isolate - could end later this month. The current restrictions were due to expire on 24 March but Boris Johnson told the Commons: “Provided the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we will be able to end the last domestic restrictions - including the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive - a full month early.” The law will be replaced with guidance, Downing Street said - for example people will be urged not to go to work if they have Covid. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady commented: “It’s more important than ever that employers carry out proper risk assessments to keep people safe at work.” She warned the announcement “is not a green light for bosses to cut corners. It’s also vital that ministers fix our broken sick pay system once and for all. Workers who are laid low by Covid must be able to make ends meet – not pushed into financial hardship. It beggars belief that millions still don’t have access to decent sick pay. This is leaving the country vulnerable to new variants and pandemics.”
Prime minister’s questions, House of Commons, 9 February 2022. BBC News Online and prime minister’s questions coverage. The Guardian.

Ending isolation rules is going ‘too far too soon’

Abandoning Covid isolation rules early is going too far way too soon, UNISON has said. The public sector union said everybody wants to get back to normal, but Covid risks haven’t disappeared. Responding to the prime minister’s 9 February announcement that self-isolation requirements for people who test positive for Covid in England could end a month earlier than previously planned, UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Everybody wants to get back to normal, but Covid risks haven’t disappeared. This is going too far, way too soon. Infections are still rife in schools. Large numbers of pupils and staff are off. Allowing a premature return could lead to a further jump in infections and disrupt learning for thousands more children and young people.” Department of Education (DfE) figures showed almost a tenth (9.1 per cent) of all teaching staff in England were absent in the first week of February, a new record. The union said ministers must give clear, detailed guidance to prevent a “super spreader free-for-all” in workplaces when Covid isolation requirements end. The government move to end Covid isolation rules early was ‘unequivocally condemned’ by the campaign group Zero Covid UK. In a statement, it said “the government is ‘recommending’ that people don’t go to work ‘when they have an infectious disease’, but ‘recommendations’ and ‘personal responsibility’ are simply not enough.”
UNISON news release and follow up news release. Zero Covid UK news release. Morning Star.

Lifting self-isolation rules bad news for shopworkers

Retail trade union Usdaw is urging the UK government to think again about lifting all Covid rules. Comment on the prime minister indicated he would end the rules including those on self-isolation, the union’s general secretary Paddy Lillis said: “Lifting the self-isolation rules will inevitably lead to more Covid infected people circulating in public and entering shops. Coupled with last month’s unnecessary end to mandatory face coverings in stores, that leaves shopworkers at greater risk of catching the virus and taking it home to their families.” He added: “Even without the legal requirement to isolate, more people catching Covid will mean more sickness absence, reduced staffing levels and disruption in workplaces. Being ill has a huge financial impact on low paid workers, as too many are forced to live on Statutory Sick Pay of just £96.35 per week. Thanks to trade unions, Statutory Sick Pay has been paid from day one during the pandemic. This must continue and the level of sick pay should be increased.” The Usdaw leader concluded: “The government must consider the impact of their decisions on key workers who have kept the country going through the pandemic. Retail staff deserve to be valued, respected and protected.” The union said the plan to end free Covid tests alongside removing the self-isolation rules and the masks requirement creates a dangerous ‘triple whammy’ for Covid safety in stores.
Usdaw news release and follow-up news release.

Long Covid has hit half of firms, survey finds

A quarter of UK employers say long Covid is now one of the main causes of long-term sickness absence among their staff, a study has found. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) survey of 804 organisations, representing more than 4.3 million employees, found that one in four put it among the top three reasons for long-term absence. Half had staff who had suffered from long Covid in the past 12 months, the survey found. Meanwhile, a fifth of employers said they did not know whether any of their staff had experienced continuing symptoms from the virus, suggesting the problem was underestimated as a workplace issue. Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employment relations at the CIPD, the professional body for human resources, said alarm bells would be “starting to ring” for employers who were already struggling to fill vacancies. “Long Covid remains a growing issue that employers need to be aware of, and they should take appropriate steps to support employees with the condition. There’s a risk that those who experience ongoing long Covid symptoms may not get the support they need in the workplace and could even fall out of work,” she said. “Employers should ensure they have a supportive and inclusive culture that helps employees feel confident to discuss a health condition and ask for support or helpful changes when needed, such as a phased return or flexible working arrangements. Line managers should be given training and guidance on how to support members of their team with the condition, including how to facilitate a successful return to work following illness.
CIPD news release and report, Working with long COVID: Research evidence to inform support, 8 February 2022.
Long Covid: a guide for supporting our members, TUC – use the interactive guide [takes approx. 25 minutes]. Workers’ experiences of long Covid: A TUC report, June 2021 and summary.


Stricter diesel exhaust rules would save many lives

A substantial number of lives would be saved each year by implementing a stringent workplace diesel engine exhaust exposure limit, a study has concluded. Risk assessment experts from Utrecht University calculated the expected impact of the incoming European Union regulatory limit for occupational diesel engine exhaust (DEE) exposure on the excess burden of lung cancer in Europe. In their paper in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, they note: “We evaluated the effects of intervention on DEE exposures according to a health based limit (1 µg/m3 of elemental carbon (EC)) and both Dutch (10 µg/m3) and European (50  µg/m3) proposed regulatory limit values. Results were expressed as individual excess lifetime risks (ELR).” They conclude implementing the proposed health based DEE limit would reduce the ELR by approximately 93 per cent, while the proposed regulatory limits of 10 and 50  µg/m3 would reduce the ELR by 51 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively. The authors conclude: “Although the proposed regulatory limits are expected to reduce the number of DEE related LC deaths, the residual ELRs are still significantly higher than the targets used for deriving health-based risk limits. The number of additional cases of lung cancer in Europe due to DEE exposure, therefore, remains significant.” Exposure to diesel exhaust fumes is also associated with other cancers, respiratory disease, heart problems and other chronic and acute health effects, so the total ELR stemming from the new exposure standard would be substantial higher.
Roel Vermeulen and Lützen Portengen. How serious are we about protecting workers health? The case of diesel engine exhaust,  Occupational and Environmental Medicine Published Online First: 11 February 2022. doi: 10.1136/oemed-2021-107752


New study exposes UK inaction on diesel controls

A new evaluation of the protective health effect of tight workplace exposure standards for diesel engine exhaust has exposed the potentially high cost of the UK’s continuing failure to introduce any standard and its refusal to regulate diesel exhaust as a workplace cancer risk. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified diesel exhaust as a top rated ‘Group 1’ human carcinogen in 2012 (Risks 560), but the UK still does not treat it as a workplace cancer cause for regulatory purposes. The Utrecht University study published on 11 February 2022 indicated adherence to a new European Union standard could reduce the toll by a fifth, preventing hundreds of deaths a year in Great Britain, with a tighter still standard offering further dramatic reductions. In 2018 the TUC warned the UK was failing to take the action necessary to protect workers and criticised its failure to regulate diesel exhaust fumes as a cause of occupational cancer (Risks 837). Unite warned in 2017 that diesel exhaust exposures were a ‘ticking time bomb’, as it launched a diesel emissions exposure register. A GMB alert said as a result of high diesel exhaust fume pollution levels “street cleaners, refuse workers, parking enforcement staff, utility workers, police community support workers and others are particularly exposed to such pollutants.” The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimated in 2012 that there are 605 deaths a year in Great Britain from diesel engine exhaust related lung cancer. However, a 2019 report from Hazards magazine noted that the real UK diesel-related occupational lung cancer toll could be over 1,700 deaths per year, more than 1,000 more deaths each year than the official HSE estimate (Risks 635). The Utrecht study would indicate enforcing the EU standard would save over 300 lives a year in Great Britain from lung cancer alone. HSE has opted not to introduce a workplace exposure limit for DEE. The Hazards report warned HSE’s failure to impose a workplace limit was the result of pressure from industry-financed groups (Risks 880).

Control of diesel engine exhaust emissions in the workplace, HSE, 2012. IARC Monographs – volume 105, Diesel and gasoline engine exhausts and some nitroarenes,  IARC, 2012.
Roel Vermeulen, Debra T Silverman, Eric Garshick, Jelle Vlaanderen, Lützen Portengen, and Kyle Steenland. Exposure-Response Estimates for Diesel Engine Exhaust and Lung Cancer Mortality Based on Data from Three Occupational Cohorts, Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 122(2), pages 172-7, February 2014 (first published online 22 November 2013). 
The burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain: Lung cancer, HSE, 2012.
Fuming feature, Diesel out prevention factsheet and Die diesel die pin-up-at-work poster. Hazards 144, October-December 2018.
Diesel exhaust in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, October 2018. Unite diesel emissions register.

‘Grave’ safety concerns over rail funding cuts

Rail union TSSA has raised its ‘grave concerns’ over a planned £4 billion in cuts planned for Britain’s rail infrastructure. Publicly owned Network Rail, which owns and maintains the infrastructure, plans to shed 905 jobs on top of 1,000 voluntary redundancies, the union said. TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes has written to rail regulator the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) warning that the loss of highly skilled and specialist employees could threaten safety. In his letter to the regulator’s chief executive, John Larkinson, Cortes questions whether the scale of the planned changes infringe the ‘Managing Change Policy’, which Network Rail is required to comply with under its network licence.  Cortes goes on to ask the ORR, which also regulates safety on the rail system, whether Network Rail should be reviewing its Safety Management System (SMS) in light of the planned widespread redundancies. “It is the ORR’s responsibility to ensure that our railways are safe both for passengers and as a place of work,” Cortes said. “We have grave concerns about the impact that thousands of Network Rail job cuts in a short space of time will have on the safe running of our railways and are asking the ORR to execute their duty in holding Network Rail to account. It is vital that such huge changes on our railways do not put passengers or staff at risk – the safety of our railways must come first.”
TSSA news release. Morning Star.

More rail action over ‘safety critical’ roles

Further strike action on CrossCountry trains is set go ahead from 19 February over ‘an assault on the safety critical role of senior conductors and train managers’, the union RMT has said. The union said its decision to proceed with the action came after the company snubbed a possible settlement in talks driven from the union side. RMT train managers and senior conductors have fought a long campaign for safety on their units after voting overwhelmingly for action as the company has sought to draft in other staff to carry out their roles, the union said. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “RMT's campaign is being solidly supported in all CrossCountry depots as members show their anger and disappointment that every attempt to reach a negotiated settlement in talks has been kicked into touch by CrossCountry. This dispute is about a systematic attempt by CrossCountry to undermine the role of the senior conductors and train managers by drafting in other staff to do their jobs.” He added: “This dispute could have been resolved months ago if our members were simply allowed to get on with their jobs rather than having their long-term futures and their safety critical roles threatened by this cash-led assault by CrossCountry.”
RMT news release.

Fire response times face big slow down

Response times by the fire and rescue service to significant fires in England have slowed by the biggest amount since 2015. New figures show that the average response time for primary fires in England was 8 minutes and 43 seconds for the year ending September 2021, a slowing of six seconds compared to the previous year. Firefighters’ union FBU says this is the largest single-year slowdown for this statistic since 2014/15. It says the ‘huge levels of cuts to the service’ are responsible. Andy Dark, FBU assistant general secretary, said: “It is no surprise that response times are increasing - central government cuts are entirely to blame for this reduction in services and our communities deserve better.” He added: “Slow response times means more serious fires, more deaths, more injuries, more serious damage to your houses and businesses.” The FBU said since 2016 alone around £140m has been taken out of the fire and rescue service in England, and since 2010 more than 11,000 firefighter posts – around one in five - have been lost across the UK. The response time figures were released by the Home Office on 11 February 2022.
FBU news release.

Teacher welfare treated as ‘collateral damage’

Government ministers, employers and inspectorates are failing in their duty of care to teachers, instead treating their welfare as ‘collateral damage’, teaching union NASUWT has said. The union’s survey into teacher wellbeing found more than nine out of ten (91 per cent) reported their job has adversely impacted their mental health in the last year. More than threequarters (78 per cent) said their school does not provide staff with workspaces that promote wellbeing and two-thirds of teachers said their school does not have measures in place to monitor and manage stress and burnout. More than four in five teachers (81 per cent) said they do not believe government policies support schools to respond to the mental health and wellbeing of teachers, NASUWT found. Nearly all respondents (98 per cent) said they did not believe the inspection system takes teachers’ mental health and wellbeing into account when assessing schools. Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary, said: “Establishing working conditions which support the health and wellbeing of teachers will deliver a win-win in schools’ efforts to ensure the best outcomes for pupils. Instead, employers and governments are fixated on heaping ever more pressure on teachers on the damaging assumption that teachers’ dedication to their pupils is unbreakable. The damaging toll on teachers’ health and wellbeing cannot continue to be written off as collateral damage.” He added: “This is no way to run a world-class education service. If the government is truly committed to the educational success of children and young people, ministers must deliver a better deal for teachers.”
NASUWT news release.

Working in film and TV is ‘mentally unhealthy’

Creative industries union Bectu has welcomed a new report on working conditions in the sector. The Film and TV Charity’s ‘Looking Glass ’21’ report, a follow-up to the charity’s 2019 research, is based on responses from more than 2,000 workers and identifies major concerns including long working hours, harassment and the continuation of a ‘mental health crisis’ in the industry uncovered in the 2019 findings. Bectu says its soon-to-be-released mental health and wellbeing policy for companies working in the film and TV sector, written by and for members of Bectu, is an important step towards addressing these issues. Head of Bectu Philippa Childs said: “Bectu welcomes the publication of this important research that lays bare the daily realities for too many of the UK’s film and TV workers – untenable hours, endemic racism and persistent bullying and harassment. With only 10 per cent of respondents agreeing that the industry is currently a mentally healthy place to work, it’s clear that these issues are driving skilled workers out of the industry and action is needed now.” She added: “It is now the responsibility of everyone working in the film and TV industry to work constructively to follow through on commitments made to improving mental health and wellbeing and working conditions. Bectu will always work to stamp out bullying, harassment, discrimination and fight for better working conditions.”
Bectu news release. Through the looking glass report 2021, Film and TV Charity, February 2022.

NHS staff isolate after Lassa fever cases

NHS services across the east of England have been affected after three cases of Lassa fever were discovered in the region. A newborn baby died at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital last week, an adult was cared for at Addenbrooke's in Cambridge and another has since recovered. Staff who had been in contact with the patients are having to isolate. Bedfordshire Hospitals Trust medical director Paul Tisi said the disruption would last “for a few days.” He told the Luton Borough Council's health and wellbeing board on 15 February: “There's some impact on services across the East of England, which is why the region is managing this as a major incident.” The three people being treated for the disease – described as a cousin of Ebola - were all from within the same family and had recently travelled to west Africa, where the disease is endemic. In an email to staff at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, trust management stated those who had been in contact with the Lassa fever patient had to self-isolate for a fortnight, with no patient contact for 21 days. It is understood the number of staff affected at both Addenbrooke’s and the Luton and Dunstable is in the hundreds. In a 16 February update, the UK Health Security Agency (HSA) said it was continuing to “closely monitor” people identified as contacts of the three patients, and added that no further cases of Lassa fever had been identified. “NHS Trusts have performed risk assessments on individuals and patients who have worked or stayed in the same ward areas as the Lassa patients,” it said in a statement. “Individuals have been given advice on monitoring and testing. The majority of individuals will complete monitoring by early March.”
UKHSA Lassa fever updates. BBC News Online. The Guardian. Cambridge News.


Brazil: Meat worker safety under attack

Health and safety regulations for meat and poultry processing introduced in Brazil in 2013 were a major advance for workers’ rights, unions say, but they warn they are now under attack. Meat companies are lobbying Brazil’s government to withdraw or weaken the regulations, global foodworkers’ union IUF has said. The 2013 law – known as NR36 - came into force following 15 years of national and international union campaigns for safer meat and poultry workplaces. IUF says NR36 was enacted to halt an epidemic of repetitive strain and other injuries and required an overhaul of work practices, including introducing new provisions for regular breaks. The law also requires the participation of workers and their representatives in developing and monitoring health and safety in the workplace. IUF assistant general secretary James Ritchie stated: “Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, Brazilian authorities, backed by powerful corporate interests, are preparing to withdraw or seriously weaken NR36. We urge all IUF affiliates to send a message to the Brazilian authorities to ask them not to withdraw or amend the existing regulations.”
IUF news release. UFCW Canada news release.
ACTION: Sign the petition.

Canada: Miner’s daughter exposes toxic aluminium ‘treatment’

A decade-long campaign led by the daughter of a deceased Canadian uranium miner has led to a major victory for workers struck by Parkinson’s disease after being subjected to aluminium dust inhalation “treatments” in their jobs. Supported by her union, the United Steelworkers (USW), and other worker advocacy organisations, Janice Martell waged a relentless campaign to compel Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) to recognise Parkinson’s as an occupational disease linked to the use of McIntyre Powder in mining and other industries. The powder was an aluminium-based inhalant used between 1943 and 1979 in mines and other industries where workers might be exposed to silica dust. The theory, eventually proved false, was that inhaling the powder would protect workers’ lungs. Instead, it made workers sick, and led to many deaths. The campaign led by Martell, the USW and the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), has finally achieved its goal. Monte McNaughton, the labour minister in the province of Ontario, announced this month the provincial government will recognise McIntyre Powder-related compensation claims from former workers and surviving family members. Martell’s father, Jim Hobbs, developed Parkinson’s after being subjected to the non-consensual McIntyre Powder treatments while working at a uranium mine in Elliot Lake, Ontario. He died in 2017. Martell, who founded the McIntyre Powder Project, said: “Now, other workers who are struggling with occupational disease, and the families of workers who have died, will be able to pursue the compensation they deserve, and find some measure of justice.”
USW news release. McIntyre Powder Project. Ontario WSIB McIntyre Powder update. Canadian Occupational Safety.
Janice Martell and Tee Guidotti. Breathe Deep, Boys: Voices of the McIntyre Powder Project Miners, New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, 9 February 2022.

New Zealand: Firefighters issue cease work notices

New Zealand’s firefighters’ union NZPFU has issued a stop work notice on a dangerous appliance and had taken wider action to demand measures to address safety concerns across the service. The union said the ‘dangerous saga’ of appliances failing at fires has been a growing concern. After another aerial appliance failed at ‘a critical time’ on 2 February while fighting a structural fire in Kilbirnie, a health and safety representative from the union’s Wellington branch issued Provisional Improvement Notices (PINS) under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. The 8 February notices cited breaches by Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) of its primary duty of care, noting the requirement on employers to provide and maintain safe systems of work. PINs are legally binding notices issued by unions pending action by regulatory authorities. The PINs followed a ‘cease work notice’ issued on 2 February 2022 relating to the faulty aerial appliance used in the Kilbirnie fire. The notice said: “Operators have serious concerns as to the abilities of this piece of plant and its reliability. Evidence of multiple faults with this appliance are well detailed and recorded. We therefore believe the operation of the appliance puts workers in a position of imminent exposure to hazards and any operator is placed in a position of potential serious risk.”
NZPFU news release. WorkSafe New Zealand guide to PINs.


TUC Hazards at Work 6th Edition

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