Risks is the TUC's weekly newsletter for safety reps and others, sponsored by Thompsons Solicitors.
Hundreds of workers at the government vehicle licensing office in Swansea have voted for industrial action over Covid health and safety concerns. The DVLA office has seen more than 500 Covid cases since September in what a union described as “the worst Covid workplace outbreak” in the UK (Risks 987). PCS members returned a 71.6 per cent vote for strike action and 76.9 per cent for action short of a strike, on a turnout of 50.3 per cent. More than 6,000 people work at the site and the PCS union said more than 2,000 staff have been going into the workplace every day, despite the scale of the outbreak. The union has called repeatedly for a huge reduction in footfall at DVLA, pointing out that during the first lockdown, only 250 people were in the workplace carrying out essential duties. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “This result is a damning indictment on DVLA management in their abject failure to keep staff safe. Our members have sent a loud and clear message that they are not safe at their place of work. The strength of feeling amongst staff comes as no surprise, given the management’s disregard for the safety of their workers.” He added: “Our members have been forced into this position and industrial action will take place unless management immediately implement all necessary changes to ensure staff are safe at work.” The UK's shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said it was “shameful” workers were having to strike because they felt “unsafe.” Earlier this month PCS members also voted for strike action at Liverpool Combined Courts and Snaresbrook Crown Court over Covid safety concerns.
PCS news release and courts strike vote. BBC News Online.
Vaccination of Scotland’s healthcare workers offers some protection against transmission of Covid-19 to their household contacts, a new study has found. The rate of infection with Covid-19 vaccine for people that live with healthcare workers is at least 30 per cent lower when the worker has been vaccinated mostly with a single dose, according to the preliminary new research. Not yet peer reviewed, the study involved all healthcare workers employed by the NHS in Scotland and their households, more than 300,000 people in total. Since household members of healthcare workers can also be infected via other people - not just via the healthcare worker they live with - this 30 per cent relative risk reduction is an underestimate of the ‘true’ effect of vaccination on transmission, the authors say. The research was led by Public Health Scotland and the University of Glasgow, with contributions from researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Glasgow Caledonian University, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Strathclyde. Co-author Dr Anoop Shah from LSHTM said: “We looked at nearly 150,000 healthcare workers and their 200,000 household members. Our study showed that among household members, in the period after the healthcare worker in the household had been vaccinated, the risk of Covid-19 was around 30 per cent lower.” Dr David McAllister of the University of Glasgow, a co-author of the research, said: “We provide the first direct evidence that vaccinating individuals working in high-exposure settings reduces the risk to their close contacts – members of their households. Our work will also be of interest to modellers, as it can be used to inform their predictions about future rates of Covid-19 in the community."
LSHTM news release. Effect of vaccination on transmission of COVID-19: an observational study in healthcare workers and their households, MedRXIV pre-print, 2021.
A ‘huge mistake’ by national public health agencies in the US, UK and elsewhere could have greatly increased the death toll among workers, new research suggests. Guidance from agencies including the US Centers for Disease Control and Public Health England has claimed repeatedly that droplet transmission in close proximity to infected patients was the overwhelming transmission route for Covid-19, so only those working in these circumstances should be prioritised for the more protective respirators rather than just medical masks. “The whole thing is upside-down the way it is currently framed,” said Dr Michael Klompas, a Harvard Medical School associate professor. “It’s a huge mistake” to ignore the risks of airborne (or aerosol) transmission, said Klompas, who was previously sceptical about the airborne risk. He is the lead author of a paper just published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases which reports cases of health care workers infected while wearing surgical masks and eye protection, even when in proximity to a masked patient. A report this month by UK experts warned that UK infection control guidance was ‘fundamentally flawed’ in not recognising the risks of airborne transmissions (Risks 988). “The upshot is that it’s inhalation” of tiny airborne particles that leads to infection, said Donald Milton, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who studies how respiratory viruses are spread (Risks 968), “which means loose-fitting surgical masks are not sufficient.” The studies come in the wake of a report this month that estimated over 17,000 health care workers worldwide have so far died of Covid-19 (Risks 988).
Kaiser Health News. The Guardian.
Michael Klompas and others. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from asymptomatic and presymptomatic individuals in healthcare settings despite medical masks and eye protection, Clinical Infectious Diseases, 2021, ciab218, published 11 March 2021. https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciab218
The UK governments, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and employers have been found guilty of a series of charges relating to deadly negligence in addressing the workplace risks posed by Covid-19. The verdicts, returned at a Workers’ Court on the 11 March anniversary of the start of the pandemic, conclude the combined failures led to the preventable deaths of tens of thousands of workers and members of the public. The online trial, organised by the UK Hazards Campaign and heard before law professor Steve Tombs, heard evidence from a series of witnesses who had experienced Covid-19 safety abuses at work and their consequences. Summing up, Professor Tombs said: “The jury has unanimously found the employers, enforcement authorities and the UK governments, guilty of all the charges laid against them. Their collective criminal negligence will not be forgotten. You are the living record, yours is one of the many collective records of the lives of over 130,000 people callously ended, needlessly ended, up to this point in the pandemic.” He added: “On behalf the Workers’ Court: we demand a public inquiry, we demand legal proceedings for corporate bodies and senior individuals within them; we demand truth, justice and accountability. We shall remember the dead but we will also fight for the living.” Those giving evidence included trade union reps, specialist academics and campaigners from the NHS, public sector, construction, education, manufacturing, telecommunications and transport. Other witnesses included a former HSE inspector, an activist from the Black Workers Network, a retired GP and national and regional trade union officers.
Hazards Campaign news release. Video record: Court verdict and concluding remarks; jury deliberations; and witness statements.
The working poor are bearing the greatest burden from Covid-19, a public health study has found. The research by Sheffield council showed people in low paid jobs, with insecure contracts, who couldn't afford to isolate have been hardest hit by the disease in the city. The council split its population into 10 income brackets, from the wealthiest to the most deprived, and looked at Covid case rates in each group. While the rates were generally greater among the less well-off, they were highest of all in the third income group, rather than the poorest or second poorest. “The impact is really on the working poor,” said Sheffield's director of public health, Greg Fell. This group is “most likely to be low paid,” on insecure contracts and unable to afford to isolate. “Transmission in that group of people is much higher,” he said. The fact the disease has affected poorer areas more than wealthy ones in the UK has been well recorded. Work by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods are more than twice as likely to die from Covid as those in the least deprived. But Greg Fell told the BBC he is “surprised by the starkness” of what the council found in Sheffield.
BBC News Online. BBC Newsnight.
Half of school support staff in England were anxious ahead of the return to classrooms last week, with many fearing measures to keep them safe were inadequate, according to a UNISON survey. More than 8,000 teaching assistants, cleaners, technicians, librarians, receptionists and catering staff took part in the poll between 26 February and 8 March. Major worries include the absence of adequate protective kit, poor social distancing and a lack of safety assessments to measure the threat staff face, especially given new, more transmissible Covid variants, according to the survey. One in three (33 per cent) were worried school ventilation systems – crucial to generating air flow to combat airborne transmission of the virus – aren’t up to the job. More than a third (35 per cent) hadn’t seen their school’s risk assessment or received an individual safety check, said the union. UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “It’s shocking that a third still haven’t had a risk assessment and simple safety measures, such as adopting a rota system to help social distancing, have been ruled out by ministers. The government needs to take account of the specific vulnerabilities of support staff and encourage schools to conduct detailed individual risk assessments to identify those at increased risk. Clinically vulnerable workers must be allowed to work from home until the virus risk is reduced or until they’re vaccinated.” He warned: “Untold damage will be done if ministers don’t put education and safety first and roll out the vaccine to all school staff.”
UNISON news release.
The TUC is asking ministers to do more to lift the burdens facing working mums. While the reopening of schools has eased some of the burden mums face, there are ongoing pressures about getting enough childcare to cover hours at work, the union body said. Previous TUC polling has revealed that Covid-19 has had a huge impact on working mums over the last 12 months. The vast majority (90 per cent) told the TUC that they have taken on more childcare responsibilities since the pandemic began. The same proportion said that their anxiety and stress levels had increased during this latest lockdown. Calling for a range of government interventions, the TUC said these should include an increase in statutory sick pay to at least the level of the real Living Wage, for everyone in work. It noted 1.3 million women workers earn too little to get any sick pay. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Women have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, both on the front line in key worker roles and at home.” She added: “This crisis has to be a turning point. Mums deserve so much more. We can’t allow these inequalities to take root as we emerge from the pandemic. Ministers need to introduce a range of measures to get women back into work, keep them in the workplace and help them cope with the extra demands posed by the crisis – or gender equality could be set back decades and women’s and children’s poverty could soar.”
TUC news release.
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has said health and safety should be treated as a ‘fundamental right’ at work. The world’s biggest safety professionals’ organisation was commenting after it signed up to the United Nations (UN) Global Compact. Member organisations of this voluntary pact – the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative – agree to align their strategies with universal principles on human rights, labour rights, and the environment and anti-corruption. They also commit to taking action to advance the most urgent societal goals, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the blueprint for achieving a better world for people and planet, including ‘decent work’. IOSH said it will offer its expertise to help foster sustainable development in a variety of ways, including “supporting the principle that OSH [occupational safety and health] is a fundamental right for all workers and advocating for the respect of internationally proclaimed human rights.” Bev Messinger, chief executive of IOSH, said: “IOSH is committed to being an exemplar of sustainability to support the health, safety and wellbeing of workers across the globe.” Later this month the International Labour Organisation’s Governing Body will discuss formal recognition of occupational health and safety as a ‘fundamental right at work’, alongside conventions against child and forced labour and supporting the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining (Risks 984). Unions have been joined by many governments, major companies and labour and human rights groups in backing the move (Risks 988). It is also the global theme for International Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April this year.
IOSH news release.
More on International Workers’ Memorial Day, 28 April 2021.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, has been condemned for putting the safety of workers in Westminster below his ‘bizarre’ sense of tradition. The criticism by civil service union Prospect came after Rees-Mogg rejected a report by parliament’s Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body recommended that in order to renovate parliament safely, a full decant to alternative premises should be undertaken. Prospect said the Tory politician was ignoring evidence that there is a serious risk to safety if a full decant does not take place, that costs will be higher, and that the work will take decades longer to complete. Garry Graham, Prospect deputy general secretary, said: “Just a day after parliament’s Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body warned of an ‘extraordinary level of risk’, more cost and decades of delays if renovation of parliament goes ahead without a full decant, Jacob Rees-Mogg has poured cold water on the idea. For the Leader of the House to reject this out of hand raises the question of what the point of the whole exercise was if his views are apparently impervious to evidence.” He added: “Whether it is the restoration or Covid security, a worrying impression is forming that the safety of those on the parliamentary estate is significantly less important to the Leader than his own bizarre sense of tradition and the views of a handful of dinosaurs on the Tory back benches.”
Prospect news release and related release. Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body news release and full report.
Hundreds of thousands of older workers are retiring early and “consigned to poverty” due to ill-health, the TUC has said. A new report published by the union body shows that 1 in 8 (12 per cent) men and women are forced to stop working before state pension age due to ill-health or disability. he report – Extending working lives: how to support older workers – finds that more than half a million (534,876) workers aged 60 to 65 have had to leave the workplace due to medical reasons. The report reveals a stark income and class divide. People who left the labour market early while working in low-income jobs - like cleaning, care and manual labour - were six times more likely to quit due to medical reasons than those in higher paid jobs. It also found 1 in 3 low-paid workers who left their jobs before state pension age did so because of ill health. By contrast, just 1 in 20 professionals who left the labour market early did so because of long-term sickness. The TUC said plans to hike to the state pension age while the healthy life expectancy gap between rich and poor areas is growing would deepen inequalities further. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that “many older workers are being forced to stop work earlier due to ill health. They must not be consigned to years of poverty. The government should stop plans for further rises in the pension age and focus on improving support for people who are too ill to work. And it should tackle the health inequalities that are causing it.” She added: “With healthy life expectancy falling for women in poorer areas ministers need to reverse this alarming trend - not make them wait even longer for their pension.”
TUC news release and report, Extending working lives: how to support older workers, March 2021.
The proportion of NHS staff in England who reported feeling unwell as a result of work-related stress increased by nearly 10 per cent last year as the Covid pandemic took its toll, according to the health service’s 2020 survey. The NHS Staff Survey 2020 found that 44 per cent reported feeling unwell as a result of work-related stress in the previous 12 months, compared with 40.3 per cent in 2019. The proportion has steadily increased since 2016 (36.8 per cent). Increases in stress levels were sharpest in acute community trusts and acute specialist trusts as patient numbers rose during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some 46.4 per cent had worked while feeling unwell at some point in the three months preceding the survey. There has been a steady increase in the proportion of employees experiencing musculoskeletal problems as a result of their work. In 2020 these were faced by 29.3 per cent of staff, up from 28 per cent in 2019 and 25.2 per cent in 2016. Eight in 10 said they felt safe at work. The survey, which received 595,270 responses out of more than 1.2 million NHS England employees, found that the proportion who said they often or always looked forward to going to work dropped to 58.7 per cent, from 59.5 per cent, while 73 per cent said they were often or always enthusiastic about their job, almost two percentage points down on 2019. The survey results also illustrated how Covid has affected the jobs people are expected to do and the way they do them, with 18.5 per cent of staff saying they had been redeployed due to the pandemic and 34.2 per cent of staff saying they had worked on a Covid-19-specific ward or area at any time.
NHS Staff Survey 2020. The Guardian. Personnel Today.
A joint statement from over 30 UK unions has demanded safety, justice and equality in the face of “an epidemic of male violence”. The move comes in the wake of the abduction and murder earlier this month of Sarah Everard as she walked home and outrage at the high rates of male violence against women. The statement notes: “Male violence threatens women in all areas of their lives - in our homes, workplaces, and in public and digital spaces. Institutional and systemic failings enable and empower perpetrators and deny women safety and justice.” It adds that in the UK 97 per cent of young women have been sexually harassed, and one in two women are sexually harassed in the workplace. The statement makes several demands on ministers, including a call on the government to “implement a new mandatory duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment at work and ratify ILO Convention No.190,” the International Labour Organisation’s standard on violence and harassment at or arising out of work. Among wide-ranging measures, the ILO convention calls for employers to be required to “adopt and implement, in consultation with workers and their representatives, a workplace policy on violence and harassment.” It also stipulates the policy should “take into account violence and harassment and associated psychosocial risks in the management of occupational safety and health” and “identify hazards and assess the risks of violence and harassment, with the participation of workers and their representatives, and take measures to prevent and control them.”
Joint statement. PCS news release. TSSA news release. Unite news release.
ILO convention 190.
A waste collection company has been fined nearly £2 million after a binman was killed when he was dragged under the wheels of his runaway lorry. Peter Coleman, 54, was trapped under the burning lorry in the incident at Woodside Leisure Park in Watford. The father-of-two from Dunstable was alone when he attempted to stop the Volvo lorry rolling down an embankment at around 6.10am on 11 October 2014. At a Luton Crown Court sentencing, his employer, F&R Cawley Limited, were fined £1.5 million and told to pay prosecution costs of £475,000. The lorry was found to have had two defects - a faulty set of brakes on the second axle, and a disabled mechanism intended to stop bins being lifted while the lorry was in gear. The company were convicted in December at Peterborough Crown Court on two criminal safety charges. Judge Mark Bishop said: “I do not find profit was put before safety, but there was a startling lack of insight into its own failings. The company did not take health and safety of employees insufficiently seriously.” F&R Cawley Ltd already had two previous safety convictions, with one resulting in a six figure fine (Risks 727). Mr Coleman, who had worked in refuse collection for 20 years, was trapped under the lorry, which caught fire, “for some considerable time” before being airlifted to hospital where he later died. Justine Hoy, head of community protection for Watford Borough Council, said: "Following a police investigation, a coroner’s inquest and our own detailed investigation, we proceeded with this prosecution against F&R Cawley Ltd based on evidence indicating serious issues with the condition of Peter’s vehicle and the practices of the company. We are committed to taking action wherever and whenever it is necessary and we hope that this case will help to prevent other deaths in the future."
BBC News Online. Watford Observer.
A global engineering firm has been fined after a hazardous chemical spill left four workers suffering serious health symptoms. Poole Magistrates’ Court heard how, on 9 October 2017, between 150 and 200 litres of a chemical preparation including highly hazardous hydrofluoric acid spilled across a large area of the factory floor of Nasmyth Technologies Limited’s fabrication division in Wimborne, Dorset. Four workers were involved in the clean-up that took several hours. They were provided with inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to undertake a clear up, for which they had no training. Some of them suffered ill-health following the incident, which included an asthma attack, a severe headache, nausea, sore eyes and throat. One of the workers, whose symptoms persisted, was referred by his doctor to a specialist for treatment. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that there was significant non-compliance regarding management of substances hazardous to health. The company had failed to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment and had not prepared for this emergency situation. Nasmyth Technologies Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £13,000 and ordered to pay costs of £9,551.
HSE news release. Dorset Echo.
A shipping company that sold on a defunct vessel for scrapping will have to face a claim by the widow of a Bangladeshi man who died while breaking up the ship. An attempt by Maran (UK) Limited to have the claim struck out by the Court of Appeal failed, and followed an earlier high court judgment also in favour of the widow (Risks 956). The Supreme Court held that a shipping company in London selling a vessel to South Asia could owe a duty of care to shipbreaking workers in Bangladesh even where there are multiple third parties involved in the transaction. Lord Justice Coulson said “the appellant could, and should, have insisted on the sale to a so-called ‘green’ yard, where proper working practices were in place.” Leigh Day lawyers representing widow Hamida Begum believe it is the first judgment of a higher court anywhere which directly holds that shipping companies can be liable for the practice. They say it will shine a light on the whole shipbreaking industry and has significant wider implications. Mrs Begum’s husband, Khalil Mollah, fell to his death on 30 March 2018 while working on demolition at the top of the defunct oil tanker EKTA in the Zuma Enterprise Shipyard on the tidal beaches of Chattogram, Bangladesh. He had worked in shipbreaking since 2009, working 70-hour weeks for low pay, and without PPE in highly dangerous conditions. EKTA, formerly Maran Centaurus, had been owned and managed by companies within the multi-billion dollar Angelicoussis Shipping Group, which included Maran (UK) Limited. Leigh Day partner, Oliver Holland, who represents Hamida Begum, said: “The Court of Appeal’s findings on duty of care will send shockwaves around the shipping industry as a higher court has recognised that shipping companies choosing to send vessels to the beaches of Bangladesh may owe a duty of care to the local workers and can be liable when things go wrong.”
Leigh Day news release and Court of Appeal judgment, 10 March 2021.
Deliveroo’s predatory business model means workers shoulder significant risks, including low pay rates, dangerous working conditions and unfair deactivations, its riders have said. Ahead of a major public share issue (IPO) on the London Stock Exchange, a global network of Deliveroo riders is warning potential investors of growing legal, regulatory, and reputational risks, urging them not to back the company until it improves rider safety, conditions and pay. A letter to Deliveroo CEO Will Shu calls on the company to stop treating riders like second class citizens. Deliveroo profits have soared during the pandemic, with its riders delivering takeaways and groceries to millions of people across 12 countries. “Instead of affording riders the rights they deserve, Deliveroo has been putting even more pressure on them,” said Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which is supporting the riders’ network. “While competitors like JustEat are changing their ways, Deliveroo has left the riders feeding our cities struggling to feed their own families.” Despite attempts by Deliveroo and other gig economy companies to misclassify riders, courts – including the Supreme Courts in the United Kingdom and France – are increasingly recognising direct employment relationships. Last month, a Dutch court ruled that Deliveroo misclassified its workers as independent contractors to avoid responsibility for holiday, sick pay and other employment entitlements. Spanish courts earlier came to a similar conclusion. These landmark rulings highlight a growing recognition of the legal and regulatory obligations on app-based companies, ITF said. I said it is supporting the #Rights4Riders network as part of its commitment to amplify organising by platform workers. In November 2020, the ITF launched 10 gig economy employer principles, which provide an outline for ending exploitation in the gig economy.
ITF news release and 10 gig economy principles. ETUC news release. Rights4Riders.
The circumstances in which 65 media workers died last year while doing their jobs has been revealed in a new report from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The global journalist union’s federation detailed how they had been victims of targeted attacks, bomb attacks and crossfire incidents in 16 countries. The 2020 toll was 17 more than were killed in 2019, when 49 media workers died. It brings the total to 2,680 journalists and media workers who lost their lives to violence in the world since 1990, when the IFJ started publishing these annual reports to highlight what it describes as a deepening safety crisis in the media. IFJ said the number of media professionals’ killings are more or less on the same levels as in 1990s. The report cites organised crime groups, extremists and sectarian violence among the main reasons for the safety crisis in journalism. “In this regard, 2020 was no exception,” said IFJ general secretary Anthony Bellanger. “The ruthless reign of crime barons in Mexico, the violence of extremists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia, as well as the intolerance of hardliners in India and the Philippines have contributed to the continued bloodshed in the media.”
IFJ news release.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the US government’s federal safety regulator, has launched a national emphasis program (NEP) focusing enforcement efforts on companies that put the largest number of workers at serious risk of contracting the coronavirus. The move, in response to President Biden's executive order on protecting worker health and safety (Risks 983), also targets employers that retaliate against workers for complaints about unsafe or unhealthy conditions, or for exercising other rights protected by federal law. “This deadly pandemic has taken a staggering toll on US workers and their families. We have a moral obligation to do what we can to protect workers, especially for the many who have no other protection,” said OSHA head Jim Frederick. “This program seeks to substantially reduce or eliminate coronavirus exposure for workers in companies where risks are high, and to protect workers who raise concerns that their employer is failing to protect them from the risks of exposure.” Health care, nursing homes, long term care, meat and poultry processing, supermarkets and retail, warehouses and prisons are among the workplaces high on the ‘primary target industries’ enforcement directive priority list. Secondary target industries include other food/beverages, agriculture and forestry, construction, chemicals, petrol, coal and metals. The programme also includes unions as an explicit group for ‘outreach’ under the enforcement directive.
OSHA news release and National Emphasis Program – Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Department of Labor news release.
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