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



Covid reports hit a record workplace high

The number of Covid reports made to workplace safety regulators hit a record high in January, newly released official statistics have revealed. The figures published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show January 2021 had the three highest numbers of weekly workplace Covid reports since the start of the pandemic. Since HSE started recording cases in April 2020, January is the only month so far where there have been over 1,000 reported cases each week, hitting an all-time high of 1,707 reports in week three (16-23 January). In total there were 5,710 reports in January, of which 51 were deaths. The first week in February saw a further 22 reported deaths, the second highest weekly toll on record. Work-related Covid-19 reports have now increased sharply month on month since a low of 534 reports in August 2020. HSE notes the figures up to the week ending 6 February show “over the period 10 April 2020 to 6 February 2021, 27,446 occupational disease notifications of Covid-19 in workers have been reported to enforcing authorities (HSE and LAs), including 318 death notifications.” The workplace Covid-19 reports, legally required of employers under the RIDDOR reporting regulations, are believed to be a large under-estimate of the true number of cases. “It should be noted though that the RIDDOR notification system suffers from widespread under-reporting which has the potential to give a distorted view of both the scale and spread of cases by important risk factors such as industry sector,” HSE notes. “This data is intended to provide an indicator of the numbers being reported to the enforcing authority and how this changes over time rather than an accurate count of the absolute number of occupational Covid-19 cases.” Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis of Covid-19 deaths by occupation published on 25 January revealed there had been 7,961 deaths involving the coronavirus (Covid-19) registered in the working age population (those aged 20 to 64 years) of England and Wales between 9 March and 28 December 2020.
Management information: Coronavirus (COVID-19) disease reports made by employers to HSE and Local Authorities since 10 April 2020, HSE, 15 February 2021 update. Construction Enquirer.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by occupation, England and Wales: deaths registered between 9 March and 28 December 2020, ONS, 25 January 2021.

HSE refuses to close Covid-risk workplaces

The government’s health and safety watchdog has failed to shut down any workplaces that put employees at risk of coronavirus even though there have been over 3,500 outbreaks at work since the start of the pandemic. An analysis of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) enforcement database reveals there have been no Covid-related prohibition notices, which allow inspectors to immediately halt activity in workplaces deemed injurious or damaging to health, since last March. Figures released by Public Health England in early February show there had been 3,549 outbreaks in workplaces, including offices, factories and construction sites, since July. HSE’s decision to classify Covid-19 as just a ‘significant’ rather than a ‘serious’ workplace risk (Risks 984), revealed last week by Labour’s Andy McDonald, appears to be hampering enforcement activity, with some inspectors claiming it restricts their ability to issue prohibition notices and mount prosecutions – its Enforcement Management Model explicitly directs inspectors not to do so. No employers have been prosecuted for Covid safety failings since the start of the pandemic, according to the TUC. The TUC said it was concerned the lower-risk classification was allowing employers to get away with exposing workers to avoidable threats. Thousands of workers have died from Covid “and many others have long Covid, with long-term health problems. It’s the most serious workplace safety hazard in a generation,” said Shelly Asquith, TUC health and safety policy officer. “It’s hard to understand why Covid is not classified as ‘serious’ given the number of workplace clusters.”
The Observer. Morning Star.
HSE Enforcement Management Model (EMM) Operational version 3.2.

Covid rule-breakers face jail - except employers

The UK government has this year threatened 10-year prison terms for people who lie about their travel history, imposed £800 fines for people who go to house parties and paid for adverts that warn a takeaway coffee or chat on a park bench could “cost lives”. At the same time, writes Financial Times columnist Sarah O’Connor, “the Health and Safety Executive, the UK regulator responsible for workplace safety, has not brought a single prosecution against an employer for breaking Covid-19 rules. It says it has handled 179,873 Covid-related contacts, which have resulted in just 218 enforcement notices.” None at all have stopped the job. “The result is a bizarre imbalance: draconian threats for individuals but the benefit of the doubt for employers, even though workplaces are big sites of virus transmission risk,” O’Connor notes, adding “the sanctions for careless failures to protect workers should be tougher.” Criticising HSE for refusing to classify Covid-19 as a ‘serious’ risk at work (Risks 984), the FT columnist states: “The government should instruct HSE to treat Covid-19 as a serious risk, which would better reflect the fact that while it may cause only moderate illness to the average worker, it is fatal for some and poses a wider public health threat. More funding for HSE and local authorities, on top of the £14m announced last year, would help, too. Ministers have other tools to use, such as the option to ‘name and shame’ employers who break the rules — as they do to companies caught underpaying the minimum wage.” She concluded: “No one is saying it’s easy to run a country in the midst of a pandemic, but there are some obvious steps that could help control the virus. At the least, they are more likely to work than guilt-tripping people in the queue for a coffee.”
Financial Times.

Campaign raises ‘extreme concern’ over HSE role

The national Hazards Campaign has said it “is extremely concerned about the HSE’s response to the Covid pandemic in the workplace generally, and more specifically about recent published revelations that the HSE designated Covid-19 not as a ‘serious’ workplace risk but rather as a ‘significant’ risk.” The campaign, in a 16 February open letter to HSE chair Sarah Newton and chief executive Sarah Albon, said it could not understand “how a disease that is ‘highly contagious’, the consequences of becoming infected are, in the words of the prime minister, ‘deadly’, which can leave infected workers with long-term life-changing and life-shortening ill health, leads to thousands of deaths, thousands of sick days and disabilities, can be classified as ‘not serious’ just a ‘significant workplace risk’.” The letter continues: “As a major health and safety organisation the Hazards Campaign requests an immediate review and resolution of this absurd situation. Employers look to the HSE to provide a lead in the advice they provide on safe and healthy work activities and this decision provides an excuse for bad employers not put in place preventative mitigations of the risks.” The letter concludes: “We will all be judged how we have responded to the pandemic. This is a time when the HSE needs to take a lead in providing strong messages about the duties on employers to ensure the mental and physical health of workers.” Train drivers’ union ASLEF also expressed dismay at the HSE failure to recognise Covid-19 as a “serious” risk at work. Mick Whelan, the union’s general secretary, said: “The only way to get Britain back to work is if people feel safe. Not by turning a Nelsonic blind eye to the real problems of the pandemic that the rest of us can see.”

Hazards Campaign open letter. ASLEF news release.

Covid work death serial law breaker not prosecuted

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has blasted Perth and Kinross Council over a series of criminal safety breaches at a waste recycling depot following a deadly Covid-19 outbreak - but has opted not to prosecute. Binman Scott Hunter died in hospital last month after an 18-day battle with coronavirus. His family said he tried to protect himself on his rounds using hundreds of pounds worth of cleaning equipment bought by his wife, Fiona. The 52-year-old was one of three employees at the North Forr Centre in Crieff who were struck with the virus at the beginning of the year. Just days after his death, Mr Hunter’s workplace was visited by a senior HSE inspector as part of an investigation into concerns about Covid-19 controls, understood to have been raised by a staff member. In an official notice, HSE’s Michelle Gillies noted a long list of “contraventions of health and safety law” and ordered Perth and Kinross Council to take immediate action. She discovered the three confirmed Covid-19 cases were not reported to the council’s corporate health, safety and wellbeing team so that close contacts could be traced. The shared lorries continued to be used by staff, said the HSE inspector. “It was also identified that there was no additional cleaning and disinfection of the site offices and welfare facilities conducted after the first positive case was reported to site management,” she said. “Despite it being known that the infected employees had entered and used these facilities shortly before testing positive.” She said that procedures put in place to minimise and control virus spread had not been “effectively communicated” down the management chain to employees at the site. She found there were no procedures in place for waste and recycling depots to follow in the event of a positive case. The council has been told to review procedures and training, and confirm an action plan to the HSE by 26 February. The HSE notice has not so far been recorded on HSE’s ‘naming and shaming’ enforcement database.
The Courier and related story. Daily Record.

Health board blames work outbreaks for Covid spike

A Scottish health board has pointed to outbreaks in large workplaces as a major contributory factor to the high Covid-19 figures in Falkirk. The Public Health Scotland statistics last week showed Falkirk at the very top of the weekly positive coronavirus tests list for Scottish local authority areas. An NHS Forth Valley commented: “The increase in cases of Covid-19 in the Falkirk area is partly due to increased testing and partly because of outbreaks in large workplaces such as factories and a bus depot. We have also seen a rise in the number of cases in Forth Valley Royal Hospital.” NHS Forth Valley consultant in public health, Dr Jennifer Champion, said: “The new variant is much more infectious and once again I urge people to follow government advice, particularly around keeping a 2 metre distance, and increased hand washing. Wearing a mask does not mean that guidelines no longer apply; keeping to physical distancing is paramount in trying to stop the spread.” She added: “It is so important not to let your guard down, even for a minute, to avoid becoming infected. So please remain vigilant.” The First Bus depot at Larbert is one of the workplaces known to have had an outbreak. Last month NHS Forth Valley also reported it was responding to a factory outbreak at O-I Glassworks. In another case, GMB has accused Falkirk council of failing to manage an outbreak at its building maintenance office in Grangemouth. GMB Scotland this week said it has now formally raised concerns about the council’s working practices throughout the pandemic, describing management's approach to Covid-19 safety regulations as “haphazard and dangerous.”
NHS Forth Valley news release. Falkirk Herald and related story on the bus depot outbreak and the Falkirk council outbreak.

Welsh firms ignore Covid rules, HSE ignores safety reps

Most employers in Wales have not been fully following the Welsh government’s Covid Workplace Guidance and the safety regulator is routinely bypassing union safety reps, Wales TUC/YouGov monthly polling of workers has found. Commenting on the poll findings, Wales TUC policy office Joe Allen said long-term funding cuts to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) made it “more important than ever that workers’ voices are captured in the enforcement process – so that, despite the limited resources, inspectors can get as full a picture as possible. Yet our research suggests that fewer than one in five trade union health and safety reps are notified about workplace inspections in advance – and only one in seven report being consulted by inspectors in relation to enforcement activity. All too often information on the results of enforcement activity is also not being shared with the workforce.” In a TUC blog posting, Allen added: “A situation in which it is only the employer that provides evidence on workers’ health and safety or the wider approach to managing health and safety responsibilities is neither effective nor sustainable. In setting up a national Health and Safety Forum, the Welsh government has recognised the need for better co-ordination and communication between enforcement agencies, unions and employers. And they have also now repeatedly shown a willingness to lead the way in setting stricter workplace regulations than we’ve seen elsewhere in the UK.”
TUC blog.

UCU anger at death of Burnley College teacher

Education union UCU has expressed its concern at the ‘appalling’ loss of a Burnley College teacher to Covid-19. Donna Coleman, a longstanding UCU member who worked with vulnerable students at Burnley College, died aged 42 on 6 January 2021. The union has early raised concerns about the college’s ‘poor Covid controls’. UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “We are all angry and devastated about the loss of Donna. Her passing will be deeply felt by her family, her students and her wider community.” The UCU leader added: “Too many workers, including those in post-16 education, have lost their lives to Covid. These deaths are not inevitable. UCU will continue to fight to keep our members safe, and for employers and the government to protect their health and safety.” UCU regional official Martyn Moss said: “Donna's death is an appalling tragedy and we are supporting her family at this difficult time. UCU is investigating the circumstances that led to Donna's death, including whether she contracted Covid through her work at Burnley College. Unfortunately, the college is refusing to disclose whether it knows if it has had any Covid outbreaks.” He added: “Prior to Donna's death we had rejected the college's risk assessments because of their poor Covid controls. We have also raised our health and safety concerns with the college and with the Health and Safety Executive, the government body that polices workplace safety.”
UCU news release. BBC News Online. Lancashire Telegraph.

Reopening schools could push the R number over 1

Fully reopening schools could push the reproduction number (the ‘R’ number) of the coronavirus in England above 1.0, potentially putting an end to the decline in new cases, suggests a new study. The pre-print modelling study, not yet peer-reviewed, was conducted by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). The study used data collected from the CoMix study, measuring children and adults’ social contacts during the November 2020 and January 2021 lockdowns, examining how this behaviour changed with the closure of schools. This was combined with different estimates of children’s susceptibility - how likely they are to be infected upon contact with an infected individual - and infectiousness, how easily they infect others. Using official estimates of the current R number, the team estimated the possible increase in R upon opening schools. The effect of fully reopening schools saw R increase from an assumed baseline of 0.8 to between 1.1-1.5. Partial school reopening - primary or secondary schools only - resulted in lower increases, with an R of between 0.9-1.2. James Munday from LSHTM’s Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases said: “These findings offer crucial insights to support decisions about whether, and how, schools should reopen. An R number greater than 1.0 - as some of the estimates in this research predict - signals that the epidemic would begin to grow and that cases are likely to increase.” The researchers emphasise it is important to remember that these estimates will shift based on changes in other factors that affect the R number.
LSHTM news release. James D Munday and others. Estimating the impact of reopening schools on the reproduction number of SARS-CoV-2 in England, using weekly contact survey data [pre-print].

Union concern over Scottish school reopening

Teaching unions have warned ‘significant’ safety concerns remain about the planned return to school in Scotland of nursery children and early years pupils and some senior phase secondary pupils. Responded to first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s confirmation that a phased return will go ahead from 22 February, EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan called on the Scottish government to urgently reconsider its policy, noting “the test positivity rate in Scotland remains above the level that the World Health Organisation recommends as indicative of the virus being under control.” He added: “Against this backdrop, the EIS continues to believe that a blended learning model, with around half of pupils in classes at any one time to allow for physical distancing, would have provided a more cautious and more appropriate basis for pupils returning to schools.” Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT, said: “The situation on public health and in transmission of the virus remains incredibly fragile and precarious. In making the decision to proceed with the phased wider return to school for some pupils, the Scottish government has not demonstrated that its decisions will not undermine the health and safety of school staff and pupils or undermine efforts to reduce levels of virus transmission in the community. Schools, teachers and parents need to have compelling evidence that this will not be the case.” He warned: “Further safety steps are needed for every school in order to secure the confidence and welfare of pupils, staff, parents and the wider public.”
EIS news release and audio clip. NASUWT news release.

Quarantine hotels policy will not protect workers

The health of hotel staff and the wider public will be put in jeopardy as a result of ‘inferior’ safety rules in the UK’s quarantine hotels, unions have warned. The unions were speaking out in response to reports the government’s quarantine hotel policy is far less stringent than Australia’s, which had itself sometimes been found wanting. Unlike the Australian system, the UK allows quarantined guests the opportunity to leave their rooms when escorted by a security guard. In Australia, this is prohibited as it creates an avoidable risk to staff. The UK recommends surgical masks for staff, as opposed to the far superior FFP3 respirators required in Australia. The UK is not followed the Australian example on daily Covid test for quarantine hotel workers, nor does it prohibit workers from working in more than one quarantine hotel, to prevent cross-transmission. Unite hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson said: “The revelations that the UK’s guidelines for preventing the transmission of Covid are far inferior to those in Australia are deeply alarming for hotel workers. Once again, the government has been found guilty of prioritising headlines over the safety of workers.” He added: “If improvements are not made immediately, Unite will advise our members of their legal right to withdraw their labour if their health is being placed in immediate danger.” GMB national officer Nadine Houghton said: “We have seen clear examples from Australia's quarantine hotels where the virus has spread amongst guests and staff who have had no direct interaction with each other when doors into the hotel halls have been opened. Without proper safeguards, ministers risk jeopardising the UK’s recovery from Covid with new strains running riot through communities.”
Unite news release. GMB news release. Government guidance on red list travel ban countries, updated 11 February. BBC News Online. Morning Star. The Guardian and related story. The Independent.

Concern over quarantine impact on key workers

Seafarers and offshore workers’ union RMT has raised major concerns over the application of Covid-19 testing and quarantine measures on seafarers, divers and offshore workers. Ahead of the introduction of the quarantine rules on 15 February, RMT said unions had only been consulted “at the eleventh hour.” RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “Seafarers and offshore workers are facing a bill of at least £1,700 on return from the 33 Red List countries which includes Portugal, Brazil and UAE, yet hauliers who arrive from Portugal… via another European seaport are exempt.” He added: “We all acknowledge the importance of stopping the spread of coronavirus variants but we need a clear statement from government that key worker seafarers and offshore workers, who have slogged their guts out in this pandemic, will not foot the bill for complying with new public health restrictions, including quarantine. This is an extension of the crew change crisis that will escalate fatigue and ill-health amongst seafarers within the domestic shipping sector.”
RMT news release.

Women feeling the pressure at work and home

Women in key worker positions are losing sleep, feeling stressed out and not finding time to take breaks, a UNISON survey has found. The findings are based on responses from nearly 47,000 women including teaching assistants, nurses, council workers and police staff. The union says its research provides a comprehensive insight into the emotional, physical and financial impact of Covid on the critical public services staff who are keeping the country running. It adds its ‘Women Working Through the Pandemic’ report demonstrates the huge strain of working during the Covid crisis, with nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) not sleeping well, more than half (51 per cent) not taking regular breaks and a significant number (57 per cent) feeling stressed most of the time. UNISON is calling on the government to ensure employers offer staff more flexibility over when they work and not to take long hours for granted, fund childcare properly so it’s affordable and accessible for key workers and maintain the £20 increase to the universal credit allowance. UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said “employees are exhausted. They’re worn out from meeting work demands during Covid while caring for relatives, looking after children and dealing with debt. Those on low wages are the ones shouldering these burdens most of all.” She added: “All women deserve better and this country’s economic recovery depends on them. But their mental and physical health is at stake. The government needs to step up by providing the funding and support to make their working lives easier.”
UNISON news release and full report, Women Working Through the Pandemic.

Call centre workers putting their lives on the line

Covid-19 still presents a major threat to contact centre workers and action needs to be taken to protect them, the Scottish union federation STUC has said. The warning from the union body comes in a letter to the Scottish government. STUC calls for an audit of all Scottish call centres to ensure employers are following guidelines and revising risk assessments. It says its letter is a response to the work of the Scottish government’s Working Group for Contact Centres. STUC argues that the conditions in sealed buildings with mechanical heating and ventilation systems, ‘magnified’ by new variants of the virus, place workers at unacceptable risk. The letter has the backing of the Call Centre Collective - a trade union-backed grassroots organisation formed in response to the pandemic – which has organised a petition in support of the STUC’s demands. The collective’s Craig Anderson said: “The Scottish government needs to listen and take active steps to protect workers. We know there are some employers cutting corners and taking unnecessary risks with the safety of their staff.” He added: “We urge anyone who with an interest in protecting workers to sign our petition supporting the STUC’s letter and keep up the pressure.” STUC general secretary Roz Foyer said: “Throughout this pandemic one of the largest sources of complaints to unions and MSPs has been from call centre workers. The new evidence on transmission and the risks inherent with new variants makes it absolutely essential that we see action now.”
STUC news release. Call Centre Collective petition. Call Centre Collective.

One in five going into workplaces unnecessarily

Employers are putting workers at risk and increasing Covid infection rates in communities, unions have said, as research found that as many as one in five people have been going into their workplace unnecessarily. Polling conducted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that many people were coming under undue pressure from their employer to work from offices when they could work from home. “No one should be forced into the office or another workplace if they can do their job from home. Bad bosses are needlessly putting workers at risk and increasing transmission in local communities,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. She said unions had received hundreds of complaints from workers who felt they should be working remotely to help protect public health during the pandemic. The TUC said no company had yet been prosecuted and fined, leading O’Grady to call for any employer found breaking the rules to feel the consequences. “It’s time to end the foot-dragging approach to enforcement that has characterised workplace safety in this pandemic,” she said. The research, commissioned by the TUC, conducted by YouGov and shared with the Guardian, suggested 19 per cent of all those still working were going into offices or other workplaces for part or all of their working week despite being able to do the job from home. According to the polling of nearly 1,000 employees, pressure from bosses was the principal reason many people who could work remotely were still having to go in, with about 40 per cent falling into that category. A little more than a quarter said they preferred being in the workplace.
The Guardian.

Furlough new shielders who can’t work from home

Employers must furlough new shielders who can’t work from home to keep them and their jobs safe, the TUC has said. Responding to the 16 February announcement by the UK government that an extra 1.7 million people are being asked to shield in England, in addition to the 2.3 million already on the shielding list, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This will be a very worrying time for hundreds of thousands of working people. Some will be able to work from home – but others will not. These new shielders who can’t work from home must not lose their jobs and livelihoods overnight.” She added: “Employers must furlough new shielders who can’t work from home to keep them and their jobs safe. Ministers must publicise the option to furlough new shielders, and should consider introducing a right to be furloughed for all those who are required to shield.” Government guidance allows people to be furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme if they are shielding. The new model, which is in effect until 31 March, takes into account extra factors rather than just health, including ethnicity, deprivation (by postcode) and weight, to work out a person's risk of becoming seriously ill if they were to catch Covid. It also looks at age, underlying health issues and prescribed medications. The TUC is also calling on the government to introduce a temporary right to furlough for others who cannot work because of coronavirus restrictions – both parents with childcare responsibilities and also those who are clinically extremely vulnerable and required to shield.
Department of Health and Social Care news release. TUC news release. BBC News Online.

NHS staff think the pandemic has not been handled well

Less than 5 per cent of NHS staff think the UK government has handled the pandemic well, a GMB poll has found. In the survey of almost 3,500 health workers, only 4.9 per cent answered that the government was doing a good job during the Covid crisis. Almost half (47 per cent) said they thought the government had handled the pandemic badly and had made the situation worse. GMB says it “has campaigned throughout the pandemic for NHS workers to have proper PPE, Covid testing and pay justice after a decade of Conservative cuts which has seen their real terms pay slashed.” GMB national officer Rachel Harrison said: “NHS staff have been badly let down by ministers throughout this pandemic – it's no wonder they don’t think the government is doing a good job. It’s a year into the crisis and we’ve still got ambulance workers attending patients with flimsy gowns and paper masks instead of proper PPE and nurses in hospitals working amongst Covid patients given only the most basic of surgical masks.” Commenting on the government’s promised NHS reforms, she said “the first change they must make is to give staff the pay and protection they need to carry on saving lives.”
GMB news release.

Time for transport workers to move up vaccine list

After it emerged the initial phase of the Covid vaccination programme has hit its targets, the union RMT has called “for an escalation in priority for transport staff and other essential workers to ensure that those groups risking the highest levels of occupational exposure, and who are also pivotal to the route map out of the current lockdown, are properly protected.” RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The positive news on the vaccine roll out, which is a tribute to the sheer hard work and organisation of the NHS and those who have stepped up to support the effort, means that we can now look at the priorities for the next phase and all we are asking is that government follow the evidence, including the grim statistics from the ONS [Office for National Statistics], and give transport staff the appropriate recognition.” He added: “This isn’t special pleading. RMT recognises very well that there are other groups of essential workers that need to be prioritised as well but the facts on the occupational exposure of transport workers throughout this pandemic must not be ignored.” Office for National Statistics (ONS) data published on 25 January revealed taxi drivers (101 deaths per 100,000 males) and bus and coach drivers (83 deaths per 100,000 males) had recorded some of the highest death rates of any occupation (Risks 983), several times the expected levels for working age people.
RMT news release.


Report shows need for direct employment on sites

Unite has welcomed a report supporting a major increase in direct employment in the electrical contracting sector, with the report concluding this could have a positive effect on safety and employment conditions. The report prepared by Howard Gospel, emeritus professor of management at King’s College London, is based on interviews with over 50 experts, industry materials, government reports and peer-reviewed academic research. It was commissioned by the Electrotechnical Joint Industry Board, which sets the standards for employment, welfare, grading and apprentice training in the electrical contracting industry. The study found a steep decline in direct employment has led to  sharp increases in genuine self-employment, false self-employment and what the report describes as “false direct employment through intermediaries of various kinds”, such as payroll companies. A summary notes the report “cites research evidence indicating negative effects on health, safety and well-being, and the undermining of industry regulations setting a floor of standards.” The report also points to evidence that non-direct employment can have a negative impact on worker mental health. Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, who contributed to the report, said “the report identifies that government policies have allowed for the decline in direct employment and that crucially a great deal of the solution to the industry’s problems are in the government’s hands.” She added: “Rather than sweep the findings of this report under the carpet, clients, large contractors and the government need to accept its findings, adopt its recommendations and lobby others to follow suit.”
Unite news release.  Electrotechnical JIB news release and report, Direct Employment - A Study of Economic Business and Social Outcomes, Electrotechnical JIB, February 2021 [full report and summary].

Site firms fined for bodged asbestos removal

A construction company and a property management company have been fined for their criminal failures to manage asbestos safely during the refurbishment of a former office block in Stockport. Manchester Magistrates’ Court heard how Samer Constructions Limited had been contracted by Swift Property Management MCR Ltd to refurbish the property in Hazel Grove, Stockport. Materials containing asbestos along with general waste had been discarded from the property, on and before 2 August 2018, and were spread across the roof of a one storey part of the block. Some of the materials had also fallen onto a car park area below that was not segregated from passing members of the public. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that an asbestos survey carried out on 31 May 2018 identified the presence of asbestos containing materials, including some that should only have been dealt with by a licensed asbestos contractor, but Swift Property Management MCR Ltd had not passed this information to Samer Constructions Ltd prior to work being carried out. Samer Constructions Limited failed in its duty to identify whether a survey had been undertaken and went ahead with the work in a reckless manner, resulting in two employees being exposed to asbestos fibres. Swift Property Management Limited pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined £25,000 plus £3,428 costs. Samer Constructions Limited also pleaded guilty to two criminal charges and was fined £12,000 plus £3,428 costs. HSE inspector Phil Redman said: “These risks could so easily have been avoided by acting on the findings of the asbestos survey and carrying out correct control measures and safe working practices.”
HSE news release and asbestos webpages.


Chem Trust webpage on chemical mixtures

UK chemical safety charity CHEM Trust has produced a new online resource on chemical mixtures. The webpage includes information on why mixtures are a problem, support for action on mixtures, and links to related resources and position papers. Occupational exposure limits for chemicals at work are based on exposures to a single substance, but the multiple exposures typical in many workplaces can lead to different and sometime much more harmful effects. The Chem Trust webpage notes “current safety assessments primarily focus on single substances. This is a problem because we are not exposed to chemicals one at a time. Combined exposure to chemicals (a ‘mixture’ of chemicals) can lead to harmful effects, even if single substances in the mixture are below their individual safety levels.” Exposure limits for environmental or consumer exposures are typically hundreds of times more protective than occupational exposure limits.
Chem Trust chemical mixtures webpages.


Morocco: Supply chain pressure behind factory disaster

A 14-year-old girl was among the 28 garment workers killed in a factory disaster in Tangier, Morocco, on 8 February. Her mother reported the child had worked at the factory, an illegal sweatshop, for three years. The workers were drowned or electrocuted after a flood caused a short circuit. Seventeen others were injured. The facility operated in an underground garage in a residential area with 130 workers, most of them women. “How could this factory have been a secret? Where were the labour inspectors? Where were the local government authorities? Where were the investors?” said Amal El Amri, a representative in Morocco’s upper house of Parliament and Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) member. “We must ensure a voice for these workers who have died, and for the many thousands more women workers who toil under the same dangerous conditions.” The factory’s owner has been arrested, media reports said. The UMT and Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) demanded an immediate investigation into the tragedy, and the CDT said in a statement that it holds the state, the government and the employer fully responsible for the workers’ deaths. A statement from the US-based Solidarity Center said “illegal factories are a direct response to the demands of the fast fashion industry, in which large brands demand quick response to fashion changes and customer demands and so draw on subcontractors whose workforce is cheaper and its work arrangements informal.”
Solidarity Center news release. Morocco World News.

USA: Covid compensation claims routinely rejected

Employees who allege they contracted Covid-19 on the job can face a high bar to prove their cases, workers’ advocates in the US have warned. Jose Rivero, an attorney in Chicago, told the Wall Street Journal he has filed more than 30 workers’ compensation claims for people who said they contracted Covid-19 while on the job. In 10 of his cases, including one involving an employee at a meatpacking plant, the workers died. Every claim has been denied. The insurers that denied the claims have said it can’t be proved that the workers were infected at work. In the US, workers’ compensation can be critical to covering a sick worker’s medical costs, which can be devastating especially where long hospital stays and critical care are unavoidable. Fears voiced by businesses and their insurers at the start of the pandemic about soaring costs from payouts turned out to be unfounded. Workers filed hundreds of thousands of virus-related claims in 2020, but those cases, according to state and industry data, were more than offset by a steep drop in non-Covid-19 claims as layoffs, shutdowns and remote work reduced the number of workplace accidents and injuries. The Wall Street Journal says the data also suggest that carriers are denying a significant percentage of claims related to Covid-19, even in states with presumptive-eligibility rules, where for named frontline jobs the disease must be assumed to be work-related. In the first three quarters of 2020, workers’ compensation payments and liabilities were 7.6 per cent lower than in the same period of 2019, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, a trade group. That decrease is partly because insurers received fewer than expected Covid-19-related claims for long hospitalisations and deaths, said Donna Glenn, the group’s chief actuary.
Wall Street Journal.

USA: Deadly chicken plant accused of intimidating workers

Meat plant workers who were injured or lost their jobs after a fatal accident in the US last month have been intimidated and denied necessary medical care, workers’ rights advocates have reported. A liquid nitrogen leak at a Foundation Food Group poultry plant in Gainesville, Georgia, killed six people in January and hospitalised at least 11 others (Risks 983). A coalition of organisers, attorneys and community members claims that, since the fatal incident, workers have been discriminated against and intimidated by the company while attempting to file compensation claims and obtain medical care. Some workers had been asked to sign blank sheets of paper after returning to the plant to collect their belongings, according to a letter sent by the coalition to Foundation Food Group. The letter also claims the company is impeding employees’ access to healthcare. A company spokesperson denied the claims, noting it had “not taken any action to intimidate employees or limit their access to benefits in any way.” Critics of the meat industry point to its horrific injury rates pre-Covid as well as Covid safety failures which have seen tens of thousands of workers infected and hundreds die. Donald Stull, a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas who has studied the North American meat industry since the late 1980s, said: “What Covid did was point out the real weaknesses in our food systems.” He added: “When Covid is in our rearview mirror, the problems in the meat plants in terms of their working conditions will continue. Until the industry changes its basic orientation toward the workplace, those problems will not go away.”
The Guardian.


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