|Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others sponsored by Thompsons Solicitors. Sign up to receive this bulletin every week. Past issues are available. Disclaimer and Privacy Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at email@example.com.
A special needs teaching assistant from Plymouth who was assaulted after being threatened repeatedly by a student had raised her concerns earlier but management ‘turned a blind eye’. UNISON member Andrea McGowan, who taught students with autistic spectrum conditions, suffered a back and neck injury after being put in a headlock by a student she had reprimanded for bad behaviour. Months earlier, the 47-year-old had raised concerns to the head teacher about the same student, after he threatened to kill her several times. Despite this, Andrea had to continue to teach the student whose threats persisted up to the days before she was assaulted. “Work became very difficult for me,” said Andrea. “I told senior staff that the student needed mental health support and I didn’t feel safe around him, but they turned a blind eye. I didn’t want to leave, as I knew the other students needed continuity, but the repeated abuse became unbearable.” She ending up leaving her job in July 2015, having struggled to keep working for two years after first reporting the threats, and the assault that followed, to her head teacher. She needed psychological support and was on antidepressants. After a three-and-a-half year legal battle and two days in court, an undisclosed compensation package was secured for her by lawyers from Thompsons Solicitors, brought in by UNISON to act for Andrea. She said: “I still have flashbacks to the threats and assault even now, years later. No one seemed to care about me until I spoke with my union. They explained that I was not on my own and they had legal experts who could help me make a claim. Without this support, I don’t know what I would have done.” Andrea added: "It was never about the compensation. I wanted to highlight the difficulties teaching assistants can face and prevent this from happening to others in similar circumstances. Hopefully this will educate my ex-school, and schools in general, to listen and support their employees, instead of ignoring them.” UNISON South West regional secretary Joanne Kaye said: “Andrea’s experiences emphasise why unions remain vital to safeguard the interests of workers throughout the UK. UNISON is fighting to ensure workplaces are safe environments and to step in when employers fall short.”
The safety and welfare of lorry drivers and the road going public has been put at risk because the government has ignored the views of professional drivers when formulating its post-Brexit transport contingency plans. Unite, which represents over 50,000 lorry drivers, has blasted the government and other key organisations including Kent County Council, for failing to consult the union over Brexit planning. The union says the failure to consult the union and to inform drivers of what is expected of them is risking the safety and welfare of not just lorry drivers but all road users, as well as making the expected disruption caused by a disorderly Brexit far worse. With Kent County Council already activating its Operation Yellowhammer contingency plans for lorry drivers, Unite wants to know what if any welfare facilities and breaks provisions are being provided for drivers. The union also wants to know if there are plans to introduce emergency measures to alter rules on drivers’ hours. Unite is also warning that while the majority of the focus on Brexit disruption is directed on Dover, delays will affect the entire distribution network, resulting in additional stress and problems for lorry drivers across the UK. Unite national officer for lorry drivers Adrian Jones said: “Kent council has already activated its Brexit plans, yet hasn’t spoken to drivers. Over 250 people are killed in road accidents every year. Drivers being forced to work additional hours who are denied proper breaks and sleep are a danger to themselves and other road users.” He added: “All workers including lorry drivers have an absolute legal right to withdraw their labour if they believe that their safety is being placed at risk. As things currently stand Unite has had no information that drivers’ health, safety and welfare will be assured.”
New statistics from the retail union Usdaw show that the key triggers for violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers are theft from shops and enforcing the law on the sale of alcohol and other age-restricted products. Usdaw’s survey findings, released last week, reveal that incidents of violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers are an increasing problem. The union found that during 2018 nearly two-thirds of shopworkers experienced verbal abuse and over 40 per cent were threatened by a customer. On average over 280 were assaulted every day, the union survey found. It revealed that the top triggers for these incidents are shop theft (25 per cent), age-restricted sales (22 per cent) and sales of alcohol (21 per cent). The British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) annual retail crime survey findings released the same day also indicated that the situation for shopworkers was getting worse with, on average, 115 retail employees attacked every day. Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis commented: “When the trade union for shopworkers and the retail employers’ association agree, through separate surveys, that the problem is getting much worse, it is time for the government to sit up and listen.” He added: “Usdaw continues to call for stiffer penalties for those who assault shopworkers; a simple stand-alone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, CPS, the judiciary and most importantly criminals. The government has accepted there is an issue, following a roundtable meeting that I attended with retailers. We have now secured a ‘call for evidence’ and investigation into what can be done to provide better protections for shopworkers. These two surveys are a key part of the evidence they’ve requested. Shopworkers are on the frontline of helping to keep our communities safe, they have a crucial role that must be valued and respected.”
Hundreds of prison officers marched through Westminster on 20 March, demanding action against soaring levels of violence, an end to private prisons, and a fair retirement age of 60. Explaining why union members took to the streets, POA general secretary Steve Gillan said: “We may be banned by law from taking any kind of industrial action, but they can’t take away our right to protest.” He added: “My members face record levels of violence – day in, day out – simply for doing their job. This is a health and safety emergency, and the government must immediately return the money it stole from the Prison Service in the discredited name of austerity.” He said “we demand our cruelly high retirement age is brought back down to 60,” noting “how many people do you know who could perform the physically demanding and extreme role of a frontline prison officer until the age of 68?” POA national chair Mark Fairhurst said: “Expecting prison officers to work at the frontline until they are 68 is cruel. We are a frontline uniformed service, essential to the public, and we deserve to be treated in the same category as firefighters and the police. We deal with violence and emergencies daily. We cannot be expected, either physically or mentally, to continue working in this environment in our sixties.”
GMB is to set up food banks for outsourced staff at hospitals across London and the south east of England to ease the impact of delayed wages and an unfair sick pay scheme. The union says outsourcing giant ISS holds the cleaning, catering, portering and security contracts in hospitals across South London including Lewisham and Greenwich NHS trust, Oxleas NHS trust, South London and Maudsley NHS trust, Surrey and Borders NHS trust and in Kingston Hospital. GMB says as a result of an ISS ‘pay harmonisation project’, desperate hospital workers will be left without wages for up to a week and are concerned about how they will pay rent and feed their families. Unfair sick pay systems mean workers are having to go to work when sick or face further hardship. GMB says staff are ‘flocking’ to sign mass grievances against ISS across the hospital sites. GMB regional organiser Helen O’Connor said: “It’s disgraceful that hard working hospital workers are forced to turn to food banks in order to survive day to day. GMB members are already angry about low pay, frequent ‘pay errors’ leaving them short of pay and having to go into work sick due to an inadequate sick pay scheme. This ‘pay harmonisation drive’ is the last straw. GMB will not allow senior hospital managers to turn a blind eye to the suffering of a vital part of the hospital workforce.”
Security staff at Southampton General Hospital have served notice of their intention to strike for eight days in their dispute over pay rates, sick pay and safety concerns. The 21 Unite members report they are being attacked on a regular basis by members of the public either under the influence of drink or drugs, or with mental health problems (Risks 889). The union said the workers will strike on eight days in April, May, and June, as well as starting an overtime ban on 5 April. Unite said that neither the employer Mitie Security Ltd nor the bosses at the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust had made any effort to resolve the dispute over the lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as stab vests and safety restraints. Unite lead officer for health in the south east Scott Kemp said: “The lack of urgency on Mitie’s part to resolve these personal protection issues at the Tremona Road site is a disgrace – that’s why our members voted unanimously for eight days of strike action. Our members are at the forefront of providing security and a safe environment for staff, patients and visitors - that’s why Mitie’s management needs to get around the table and negotiate constructively.” He added: “At present, if the security staff are injured at work, and if the resulting investigation finds in their favour, they get two weeks’ full pay and then two weeks’ half-pay. After that, it is the statutory minimum. What we want is enhanced sickness payments for those off work due to being injured protecting patients and hospital staff; proper and transparent investigations into all attacks; and our members having the necessary personal protection equipment. Our members are seeking six months’ full-pay, followed by six months’ half-pay for all sickness absences.”
Coventry Council must commit to a full, independent investigation into a bullying ‘epidemic’ raging through the town hall, the union GMB has said. The union raised its concerns at a council meeting last week after a GMB survey revealed 85 per cent of the local authority’s workers had experienced bullying (Risks 888). As well as committing to an investigation, GMB said the council must also pledge to tackle the large backlog of bullying grievances submitted by GMB members, some of which it said have been live for several months - in direct contravention of the council’s grievance policy. GMB organiser Justine Jones said: “It’s no secret that there is an epidemic of bullying and intimidation within Coventry City Council. After raising these issues for months, hopefully we will at last see some action being taken.” She added: “The council must commit to a full, independent investigation, and make sure the backlog of bullying grievances is dealt with urgently. Failure to do so will lead to catastrophic break down of trust between staff and management.”
Working shifts increases a person’s chances of developing heart disease, with every year spent in this working pattern causing a 1 per cent rise in the risk, according to a new study. The research published in the journal Occupational Medicine is the largest ever study focusing on the risk of ischaemic heart disease in shift workers. Researchers analysed 21 studies that pooled together 320,002 participants with 19,782 cases of ischaemic heart disease. Shift workers were found to be 13 per cent more likely to develop ischaemic heart disease compared with day time workers. The study revealed there was a 0.9 per cent increase in the chance of developing ischaemic heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease, with every year spent in this working pattern. The study authors have called for employers of shift workers to do more to protect their employees’ health. Study co-author Professor Weihong Chen said: “This is the largest study about shift work and ischaemic heart disease ever undertaken. This is also the first study to analyse the dose response relationship between shift work and ischaemic heart disease.” She added: “The longer an employee spends working shifts, the higher their risk of developing ischaemic heart disease. Shift work is a timesaving work system, it can earn more profit but it can also cause harm to the health of employees, so employers should reduce shift work as much as possible. Employers should pay attention to staff members who are experiencing symptoms of heart problems as well as those with a family history of heart disease. Employers could provide health promotion, such as information on how to prevent and deal with ischaemic heart disease. Companies could also consider providing health checks to detect early signs of heart problems.” Long-term night work has also been linked to diabetes, breast cancer and other health effects. In November 2018, a TUC analysis of official figures revealed the number of people working night shifts in the UK has increased by more than 150,000 over the past five years (Risks 873). The union body says the number working nights now stands at more than 3 million workers – or one in nine of the total workforce.
Ÿ M Cheng and others. Shiftwork and ischaemic heart disease, Occupational Medicine, 29 March 2019.
Working two or more night shifts in a week may increase a pregnant woman's risk of miscarriage the following week by around a third, a new study has found. The prospective study published online in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine accessed payroll data on 22,744 pregnant women working in public services, mainly hospitals, in Denmark, and linked that with data from Danish national registers on births and admissions to hospital for miscarriage. After week eight of pregnancy, women who had worked two or more night shifts the previous week had a 32 per cent higher risk of miscarriage compared with women who had not worked any night shifts that week. And the risk of miscarriage increased with the number of night shifts worked per week and also by numbers of consecutive night shifts. The authors note that around 14 per cent of women in Europe report working at night at least once a month. They conclude: “The study corroborates earlier findings that night work during pregnancy may confer an increased risk of miscarriage and it indicates a lowest observed threshold level of two night shifts per week. The new knowledge has relevance for working pregnant women as well as their employers, physicians and midwifes. Moreover, the results could have implications for national occupational health regulations.”
Ÿ Luise Moelenberg Begtrup and others. Night work and miscarriage: a Danish nationwide register-based cohort study, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Online First 25 March 2019. DOI: 10.1136/oemed-2018-105592 Science Daily.
Sitting or lounging around for long periods during the day could be the cause of almost 70,000 deaths in the UK and cost the NHS at least £700m a year, new research has revealed. Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University noted that a large proportion of the UK population have sedentary jobs and leisure activities. The team led by Queen’s University’s Leonie Heron made their calculations by estimating the amount of money spent by the NHS on type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and endometrial, colon and lung cancers over the financial year 2016/17 across the UK. Their findings, published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, suggests that sitting or lying down for at least six hours a day is behind £424m of spending on cardiovascular disease, £281m on type 2 diabetes and £30m on colon cancer alone. The researchers say their results suggest that 11.6 per cent of all deaths were associated with sedentary behaviour and that 69,276 deaths might have been avoided in 2016 if sedentary behaviour was eliminated in the UK. The paper concludes: “Many individuals in the UK spend their leisure time in sedentary behaviour, and the workplace represents a significant proportion of unavoidable daily sitting time for many people. Measures should be taken to reduce sedentary behaviour with the aim of improving population health and reducing the financial burden to the health service.”
Ÿ Leonie Heron and others. Direct healthcare costs of sedentary behaviour in the UK, Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, published online 25 March 2019. doi:10.1136/jech-2018-211758 The Guardian.
The health risks associated with combined exposures to a range of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are ‘systematically underestimated’, a new study has concluded. The European research project EDC-MixRisk is critical of the current assessment methods employed in the European Union on EDCs, a large group of chemicals linked to reproductive harm, cancer and other health effects. Researchers behind the project call for a shift in risk assessment to better reflect real-life exposure to multiple chemicals throughout life. The EDC-MixRisk study warns that the focus on single substances in current risk assessments and regulations has been recognised as an important shortcoming in Europe’s approach to endocrine disruptors, which include commonly encountered workplace substances used in the production and use of pesticides, plastics and a host of other products. Genon K Jensen, executive director at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), commented: “Just when the European Commission is expected to roll out its action plan to overhaul Europe’s approach to endocrine disruptors, these findings call for an urgent reform of the methods used to assess and regulate these chemicals, to reflect real-life exposure and truly protect the health and future development of our children.” The study found exposure to mixtures of EDCs at the prenatal stage has been associated with adverse effects on children’s subsequent sexual development, neurodevelopment and metabolism and growth. It is anticipated the European Commission will in the next few weeks launch a fitness check of all EU regulations related to endocrine disruptors. HEAL says this fitness check will form the backbone of a planned revision of the European strategy on endocrine disruptors.
A train refurbishment company left its workers subject to ‘uncontrolled and unrestrained’ exposure to vibrating tools from 2005 to 2015 and at risk of a debilitating occupational disease. Employees at Tamworth-based Faiveley Transport Tamworth Limited were exposed to vibration while using tools including sanders and air-fed cutting equipment to refurbish train doors. In 2015, an employee complained to the firm of symptoms consistent with hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). The worker had been using an air-fed cutting tool to remove rubber seals from train doors. Despite the company being made aware of this, it failed to take prompt action to manage the risk of exposure to HAVS. Later, another member of staff reported that he used grinders up to eight hours a day, often until his hands hurt. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found Faiveley Transport Tamworth Ltd failed to consider the risk to both its employees and agency workers of exposure to vibration over a prolonged period of time. The investigation found that there was little or no oversight by management to control exposure to vibrating equipment and there was no safe system of work including control, monitoring and maintenance measures. HSE also found measures to conduct a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of that exposure were not taken, instruction and training on tool use was not provided and the company did not have health surveillance in place. Faiveley Transport Tamworth Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £90,000 and ordered to pay costs of £45,000. HSE inspector Theresa Hewkin said: “This was a case of the company completely failing to grasp the importance of HAVS health surveillance.”
The death toll from an explosion in a chemical plant in east China's Jiangsu Province has risen to 78. The explosion on an industrial estate happened mid-afternoon on 21 March following a fire that broke out in the plant owned by Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical Co Ltd. At a memorial ceremony a week after the deadly blast, which also injured 600 workers, sirens blared and hundreds of people stood in silent tribute to the victims. Over 200 government officials, rescue workers including firefighters and paramilitary officers and families of the deceased observed the minute’s silence on 27 March at the scene of the explosion, to pay respects to the victims. The mourners then bowed and laid white chrysanthemums in front of a memorial wall. At a separate location, another 164 firefighters lined up to observe the one minute’s silence. The blast was so powerful it destroyed 10 neighbouring businesses. “We feel deeply guilty and grieved for the heavy casualties caused by the explosion,” said Dai Yuan, secretary of the Yancheng Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China, ahead of the ceremony. An official investigation into the cause of the explosion is underway.
A group of Italian doctors is calling for urgent action to stop the exploitation of thousands of migrants working in agriculture across Italy. Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Dr Claudia Marotta and colleagues said more than 1,500 migrant agricultural workers have died did in the country as a result of their work over the past six years, while others have been killed by the so-called “Caporali” who are modern slave masters. The cause of the deaths ranges from murders, to ‘accidents’ to exhaustion. The BJM opinion notes: “These people work to make it possible for people from London to Shanghai to buy and eat Italian tomatoes at a low cost any day of the year. But what is the human cost of these products?” The authors are part of Doctors with Africa CUAMM - the first non-governmental healthcare organisation to be recognised by the Italian government - that has been providing basic health services to these workers in partnership with local institutions since 2015. Migrant farm workers are paid according to the amount of vegetables they collect rather than the time spent at work, or paid 12 euros for 8 hours of work, under the supervision of Caporali, and they live in the so-called “Ghetti,” they write. These are isolated shantytowns without water, or proper standards of hygiene, sanitation or health services. There are an estimated 50-70 of these settlements in Italy, housing approximately 100,000 low-wage migrant workers. A specific law has been passed to recognise the existence of “Agromafia”, the criminal sector exploiting agricultural workers, but Marotta and colleagues argue that the exploitation continues. “Health, migration, the economy, sustainable development and justice are all interlinked facets of our world, and we feel a duty for the science and health community to care, and give voice to the voiceless,” they write. “All of us need to stand up and fight against exploitation, discrimination, racism, and egotism, however disguised their forms might be.”
Ÿ Claudia Marotta and others. Opinion: Stop the exploitation of migrant agricultural workers in Italy, British Medical Journal, 28 March 2019.
Representatives from governments in every continent have joined journalists’ unions, editors groups, public broadcasters and media organisations in a united call for the United Nations to adopt a Convention on the safety and protection of journalists. The joint call came during the 40th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Last year, on average, two journalists were killed every week – yet global journalists’ unions federation IFJ observes “impunity for crimes against journalists remains at 90 per cent.” Now a coalition involving the IFJ, media industry groups and press freedom campaigners have taken the demand for action to the heart of the UN's Human Rights Council. IFJ general secretary Anthony Bellanger said the event “was an important step in building support for the adoption of the Convention and more importantly putting action to protect journalists and tackle impunity higher up the agenda of the Human Rights Council. If impunity is allowed to go unchallenged, if journalists self-censor, if societies are deprived of information then media freedom and democracy suffer.” IFJ president Philippe Leruth added: "The International Federation of Journalists wants the fight against impunity to intensify. The common law which forbids to kill and the international protection of civilians in conflict zones fail to protect journalists because they don’t consider journalists as specific targets. When a journalist is murdered a disturbing voice is silenced but also the whole press as self-censorship increases: You don’t find heroes to take over the task of the murdered journalist.”
After yet another speed-up in a workplace notorious for its lightning pace of work, workers at a Minnesota Amazon warehouse walked off the night shift for three hours. The March walkout at Amazon’s fulfilment centre in Shakopee, Minnesota, marked the second time the workers had taken action in three months. US magazine Labor Notes reports the strikers worked in the stow department, shelving items after they have been unloaded from inbound trucks and processed. Once shelved, the merchandise is then compiled into customer orders by pickers. “Racing against a literal countdown clock, stowers have to find vacant space for incoming merchandise throughout the 850,000-square-foot warehouse,” reports the magazine. “Hanging over the heads of stowers are twin standards: ‘rate’ and ‘errors’.” Rate means productivity, measured in tasks per hour. Stowers are expected to keep up a standard of 240-250 tasks an hour. Any downtime, such as time spent drinking water or using the bathroom, is counted against productive time. Errors is a measure of accuracy in scanning and placing items. Since 2017, the number of acceptable errors has been reduced from one in 1,000 items to one in 2,200 items, according to Abdirahman Muse, director of a worker centre that has been organising workers at Amazon. At the same time, the rate has been consistently increasing. The result? Workers are constantly expected to work faster while making fewer mistakes. If workers make errors on two separate occasions, they can be fired. More than 50 workers walked off their shifts an hour early to participate in the action, in what Labor Notes reports could be the first coordinated strike at an Amazon facility in the US.
Ÿ Labor Notes.
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