Jobcentre workers are facing “intolerable” political pressure including the prospect of disciplinary action if they don’t reduce the number of benefit claimants, their union PCS has said. The union was speaking out after the House of Commons work and pensions select committee urged the government to provide incentives for Jobcentre Plus (JCP) to get people into work, not just off benefits. Launching its 28 January report, committee chair Dame Anne Begg said the system did not determine whether claimants “are leaving benefit to start a job or for less positive reasons, including being sanctioned or simply transferring to another benefit. We believe this risks JCP hitting its targets but missing the point. JCP must be very clearly incentivised to get people into work, not just off benefits.” The committee called for a review of whether the sanctions regime was encouraging claimants to seek work. Welcoming the committee report, PCS said the government’s stricter rules have led to target-like objectives being set for staff to sanction a certain number of claimants, regardless of their behaviour. Staff not meeting targets faced the threat of disciplinary action, the union said, a process it believes is unfair on both Jobcentre workers and the people entitled to benefits who they are there to help. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “No one joined the employment service to be in conflict with the people they are there to help, but this government is seeking to punish the unemployed, sick and disabled. This political pressure is making life intolerable for claimants and staff alike and we fully support the MPs’ call for a much wider review of the effect that sanctions are having.”
Train drivers traumatised after someone dies under their train must not be compelled to relive the experience in person at an inquest, their union ASLEF has said. In a meeting with the Chief Coroner of England and Wales, Peter Thornton, ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said affected train drivers should be allowed to submit written evidence. The union said the issue of its members being compelled to attend inquests into fatalities, usually suicides, was raised “frequently”. According to ASLEF, its reps “spent much time and effort negotiating rehabilitation policies for drivers involved in such incidents and all the help they receive can be undermined by having to give evidence in open court. It runs the risk of reopening old psychological wounds because of the long delays in holding a formal inquest.” ASLEF wants coroners to instead allow written evidence from the train driver, to be read aloud by a court official. Mick Whelan said: “Mr Thornton was surprisingly well briefed before we met and very sympathetic to our concerns. He said it was his aim to hold all inquests within three months of a person’s death and he was not averse to our members not attending inquests.” He added that the Chief Coroner believed “he could do nothing on the media naming drivers as inquests are statutory public hearings and the press are allowed to attend. The Chief Coroner said he will discuss the issues I raised with his colleagues before responding formally.”
The union GMB has won an agreement that will see the risks from an academy school’s faulty biomass boiler remedied. According to the union, faulty flues from the boilers at Bexhill High School have caused smoke to enter classrooms, sparking concerns for the health of those teaching and studying at the school (Risks 623). After a campaign by the union, Prospects Academy Trust, which runs the academy, has now agreed to rebuild the chimney stacks that have been allowing smoke to re-enter the school building since 2010. Rachel Verdin, GMB organiser, said: “Following a GMB union campaign and collective grievance, academy chain Prospects has agreed to rebuild the problem chimney stacks. This will ensure that the health and safety of everyone working and learning at the school is put first as staff and pupils have been suffering the effects of the bio-mass boiler emissions since the school opened in 2010. Prospects Academy Trust is now tendering to have the chimney stacks redesigned and replaced with a new extended height by the summer of 2014.” She added: “It has been a three year struggle to get to this point and hopefully with the redesigned chimney stacks this will be the last of this particular matter and Bexhill High’s pupil, staff and neighbours will be able to breathe again.”
Staff working in NATS, the UK’s air traffic control provider, protested outside the European Commission’s UK office in London on 30 January over fears that cost-cutting will lead to a drop in air traffic management (ATM) standards, service quality, safety and jobs. The protest was against the Single European Sky (SES 2+) proposals to hive-off support services. NATS’ staff argue that support services like communication, navigation, surveillance and aeronautical information are an integral part of the core business provided by air navigation service providers like NATS. Separating the activities and subjecting them to artificial market conditions will affect safety standards and fragment service provision in a drive for profits, their unions say. The protest was part of a second day of action organised by the European Transport Federation. Its affiliates across Europe organised walkouts, rallies, meetings, protests and strikes across Europe. UK air traffic management unions say the European Commission, which sets the legislation, wants to halve costs by 2020. The unions believe that mandatory centralising and outsourcing of support services under this SES 2+ plan will result in a poorer service to airlines and increased conflict between cost and safety. Prospect national secretary Emily Boase said: “Subjecting safety critical services to market conditions in a drive for economic returns is a step too far.” She added: “Our members, and colleagues across Europe, are concerned that separating air navigation from other air traffic services will break the safety chain and lead to a breakdown in accountability, as we have seen previously in the railway industry.”
The union Unite has told a committee of MPs that offshore workers want reforms to helicopter safety after a series of serious incidents involving 20 fatalities. The union said over 50 per cent of offshore workers who participated in Unite’s Back Home Safe consultation said they were not confident in the safety of offshore commercial helicopter transfers to installations in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS), with 77 per cent stating that confidence declined over the last year. The House of Commons’ transport select committee inquiry into helicopter safety took evidence from offshore trade unions and industry bodies in Aberdeen on 27-28 January. The inquiry was set up after last year's Super Puma crash off Shetland which killed four people. Since 2009, five serious incidents involving Super Puma helicopters offshore have seen 20 people lose their lives. Commenting before he gave evidence to the committee, Unite regional industrial officer John Taylor, said: “Helicopter transfers are the only efficient means of transferring workers to and from offshore installations but the industry and the operators have a moral obligation to make these transfers as safe as possible in order to get its people back home safe.” He added: “We believe our modest proposals for changes to helicopter seating configuration, improved on-board lighting, survival training and personal safety equipment present an opportunity to address this problem, not as a panacea but as a means of better protecting lives should a major incident occur and we hope MPs on the committee support this.”
Ÿ STV News.
Britain’s pilots’ union has called for a judicial review to probe helicopter safety problems in the UK sector of the North Sea. MPs on Westminster’s transport select committee heard concerns about the safety of offshore flights in Britain’s oil and gas industry had heightened as a result of the Super Puma crash off Shetland in August 2013 in which four oil workers were killed – the fifth incident involving helicopters in the British sector in four years, leading to 20 deaths. Captain Colin Milne, of the helicopter affairs committee of pilots’ union BALPA, warned the decision to make the European Aviation Safety Agency the “overarching authority” for aviation safety in Europe could lead to a reduction in Britain’s “gold standard” approach to helicopter operations in the North Sea. Capt Milne said a judicial review into offshore helicopter safety was needed to examine the amount of control exercised by oil companies on helicopter flights and the role of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in policing offshore safety in the aviation sector. He told MPs: “What pilots want is that they operate at a high minimum level and that can only be enforced by the CAA as the regulator. We want an independent and strong and well-resourced regulator.” Committee chair Louise Ellman MP said after the hearing: “Five serious accidents in four years is a matter of grave concern. We want to find out how to improve that record.”
Ÿ The Scotsman.
Blacklisting of workplace safety reps and activists will only be stamped out if stronger laws are introduced, construction union UCATT has said. Steve Murphy, the union’s general secretary, made the call in evidence last week to the Scottish Affairs select committee as part of its ongoing investigation into blacklisting. He was giving evidence along with representatives of unions Unite and GMB concerning the recent Hinkley Point Agreement with employers, which includes measures to ensure “cast iron protections” against blacklisting on the nuclear power station construction job (Risks 637). The agreement says: “All parties agree that it is not acceptable for any party to use or make any reference to any form of blacklist.” But the UCATT leader said that while anti-blacklisting clauses were a step forward, the voluntary agreement was not legally enforceable. He said that to stamp out blacklisting, stronger laws were needed. He explained that the existing regulations, where the only resort a blacklisted worker has is to take a case to an employment tribunal, were too weak. The definition of what constituted blacklisting was also too narrow, the union said. “UCATT is using every possible device to try to prevent blacklisting but our very best efforts are being hampered by the fundamental weakness of the anti-blacklisting regulations,” he said. “Until these are strengthened there will be companies willing to blacklist workers.” Reforms the union wants to see include making blacklisting a criminal offence and automatic compensation for blacklisted workers.
Shopworkers’ trade union leader John Hannett has said he is very concerned by latest official crime survey figures showing a 4 per cent increase in shoplifting, a week after trade group the British Retail Consortium (BRC) revealed a nine year high in shop thefts (Risks 639). He said the figures “confirm the findings of the BRC from their Annual Retail Crime Survey. It is particularly concerning that shop theft is increasing when overall crime is falling. So we are looking for employers, the police and government to work with us to make a real difference.” The union leader added: “One major worry is the leniency of sentencing for those who assault shopworkers. We are campaigning for a change in the law to provide stiffer sentences, by making the assault of a worker serving the public a separate offence additional to common assault.” Usdaw repeated its criticism of the government, which last month refused to support a stiffer sentencing law when it was debated in the Lords (Risks 638).
A college lecturer who suffered a serious hip injury is a fall at work has received compensation. UCU member Neil Brindley, a college lecturer from Romford, was teaching a class when he stepped on a faulty power supply cover in the floor. The cover gave way and Mr Brindley’s right hip was twisted around. He suffered soft tissue damage which was initially treated with a steroid injection in hospital. He had to take three days off work to rest and, when he returned – and despite taking pain relief medication– he still had problems managing the pain, which was often severe. Solicitors brought in by UCU to act for the injured lecturer sought to claim compensation from two defendants, the insurers representing the college and the insurers representing contractors who had been working there. While there was little doubt that Mr Brindley had been injured due to a defective power supply cover, there was disagreement over who was responsible. The case was eventually settled with both defendants agreeing to contribute jointly to a settlement of £16,500. Mr Brindley said: “I was unlucky to have stepped on a faulty power supply cover. However, it clearly should have been properly inspected, mended or marked. This was an accident that could have been avoided.” UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Our member’s experience is a reminder of the importance of rigorous systems of health and safety in the workplace. An easily avoidable accident has caused real and painful disruption to Mr Brindley’s life, but we are glad that a settlement has been reached.”
David Cameron has confirmed health and safety will remain a major target of his deregulation drive. He told a business event this week that 800 regulations had already been scrapped, as well as “needless” workplace health and safety enforcement. In a 27 January speech to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the prime minister said: “This government has already stopped needless health and safety inspections. And we will scrap over-zealous rules which dictate how to use a ladder at work or what no-smoking signs must look like. We’ve changed the law so that businesses are no longer automatically liable for an accident that isn’t their fault. And the new Deregulation Bill will exempt 1 million self-employed people from health and safety law altogether.” The attack on legal safety protections was condemned by unions, campaigners and safety professionals. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Stripping self-employed workers of health and safety protection – when construction is riddled with bogus self-employment scams – will make injuries more likely. And removing any obligation on employers to protect their staff from sexual and racial harassment by customers sends a very clear signal whose side the government is on.” She added: “The real problems facing small businesses are an economy that has been slow to recover due to austerity economics and the continuing failure of banks to lend.”
Ÿ Morning Star.
Ÿ The Guardian.
Safety campaigners and safety professionals have said the prime minister’s continuing attack on workplace safety protections will make work more dangerous and will not benefit business. Commenting after David Cameron’s address this week to a Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) conference, Hilda Palmer of the UK national Hazards Campaign said: “No-one supports pointless bureaucracy or rules for their own sake. But much of the ‘red tape’ Cameron is slashing and trashing is not imposed by mindless bureaucrats but carefully thought out, devised, evaluated and agreed by the HSE with industry and unions, to protect not only workers but the public and the environment.” Richard Jones of safety professionals’ body IOSH said: “As we have made clear to government, we think it would be unhelpful, unnecessary and unwise to exempt certain self-employed from health and safety law, as the government is proposing – causing more of a hindrance than a help.” He added: “We have one of the best health and safety records in the world. It would be a shame for legislation to be scrapped that could set us back as a society. The reality is that we need more action to prevent occupational cancers, diseases and road deaths, not less.” Louise Taggart of bereaved relatives group Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) said: “Deregulation and slashing enforcement won’t make workers safer, or protect ordinary people, it’s designed to let corporations and business off the hook.”
New guidance on working at height launched this week by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) forms “part of the government’s long-term economic plan to abolish or improve outdated, burdensome or over-complicated regulations which waste businesses’ time and money,” the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has said. More than a million British businesses and 10 million workers are estimated to carry out jobs involving some form of work at height every year. Falls are one of the biggest causes of death and serious injury at work. DWP says the new guide sets out “in clear, simple terms what to do and what not to do – and debunking common myths that can confuse and mislead employers.” Safety minister Mike Penning said: “As part of the government’s long-term economic plan, it’s vital that businesses are not bogged down in complicated red tape and instead have useable advice about protecting their workers.” HSE chair Judith Hackitt said: “It’s important to get working at height right. Falls remain one of the biggest causes of serious workplace injury – with more than 40 people killed and 4,000 suffering major injuries every year.” She added: “We have a sensible set of regulations and have been working with business to improve our guidance – making it simpler and clearer and dispelling some of the persistent myths about what the law requires. The result is advice that employers can count on to help them manage their businesses sensibly and proportionately.”
Less than seven hours after a worker was seriously injured in a fall from a Stockport industrial unit, a second worker suffered fatal injuries falling from the same roof. The tragedy last week prompted construction union UCATT to warn that workers often lack the confidence to refuse dangerous work. Police and paramedics were called to the former retail unit which was being demolished at 9.15am on Tuesday 21 January after an unidentified worker fell through the roof. The 45-year-old was taken to hospital and is reported to be in a serious but stable condition. At 3.55pm the police and paramedics were again called to the same site as another worker, 42-year-old Scott Harrower, had fallen 25ft through the same roof. He suffered serious head and body injuries, and died in hospital the following day. Both men are understood to be from Falkirk, Scotland. UCATT regional secretary Andy Fisher said: “Workers who are concerned that they are being placed in a dangerous situation have the right to refuse work. The challenge is to give workers the confidence to be able to refuse to place themselves in danger.” UCATT said workers, particularly those who are “falsely self-employed”, may continue working for fear of being dismissed. Construction workers concerned they are being placed in a dangerous situation should contact the union, it said.
Ÿ Daily Record.
A Liverpool building firm has been fined £105,000 after a roofer was paralysed when he fell from a ladder in Southport while carrying a bag of building materials. Michael Riley, 50, from Skelmersdale, now has virtually no movement below his neck and will need to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. W Carroll & Sons Ltd, which hired the worker as a subcontractor, was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation found roofers had needed to carry heavy bags on their shoulders while they made their way down ladders. Liverpool Crown Court heard that the company was working on a project to replace the roofs on approximately 350 properties and was using around 20 subcontractors to carry out the work. Michael Riley had been asked to remove cement sheets from the roof of a house, but had not been able to use the chute feeding general rubble into a skip as the sheets contained asbestos and needed to be disposed of separately. The only way he had of getting the bags of asbestos sheets down to the ground was to hold each bag on his shoulder, with only one hand on the ladder. The bags, which weighed around ten kilogrammes each, could not be tied and so had to be held upright. As he made his way down the ladder on 21 January 2011, Mr Riley lost his balance after just a few rungs and fell backwards for several metres. He hit the back of a truck that was parked next to the scaffolding and then fell onto the ground. Both his legs and arms were paralysed in the fall, and he suffered major internal injuries. The court was told W Carroll & Sons had failed to provide a method statement or risk assessment for the work, or suitable equipment – such as a gin wheel – so that the bags could be lowered to the ground safely. The company also failed to change the system for removing asbestos waste following the incident, which continued to put lives in danger. W Carroll & Sons Ltd was fined £105,000 and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £64,600 after pleading guilty to a criminal safety breach.
Over 30 workers changing rail tracks inside the Channel Tunnel have suffered suspected carbon monoxide poisoning. A total of 19 workers out of around 60 working overnight in the tunnel were affected on 26 January and taken to hospital, with one welder who was diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning reported to be in a serious condition. A further 13 workers were affected the following night and taken to hospital, making 32 in total. French newspaper La Voix du Nord reported the second incident prompted the evacuation of 65 workers who had been changing rail tracks on the line between Calais and Folkestone. The victims were sent to local French hospitals to give them “the time needed to remove the carbon monoxide from their system,” an official said. An investigation has been launched into the cause of the incidents. “We are trying to understand what is happening,” the French newspaper Figaro quoted Eurotunnel as saying. “Is it caused by a defective machine?” The company said there were 20,000 sensors in the tunnel to detect the level of carbon monoxide.
A sharp decline in fires in London should not lead to complacency, the firefighters’ union FBU has said, pointing to a recent upturn in the number of fire-related deaths. The union was commenting after London Fire Brigade (LFB) figures revealed the number of fires in the capital has fallen significantly over the past decade - down from 157 daily in 2003/04 to a 56 a day last year. Paul Embery, FBU London secretary, said the fall in the number of fires was “great news”, but warned “there are still over 100,000 incidents taking place every year, and recent cuts mean that our capacity to respond quickly and effectively has taken a big dent.” He added: “It also remains a concern that the number of fire deaths in London has risen since Boris Johnson came to power in 2008, and the reduction in the number of fires should not be used to conceal that. These figures cannot be used to justify further cuts to fire services in London.”
Lawyers representing a mum-of-four diagnosed with the same fatal asbestos-related disease that killed her husband say a landmark Court of Appeal ruling granting her full compensation is “a restoration of justice” for asbestos victims. Monica Haxton nursed her husband Ronald for nine months as he battled against mesothelioma – an horrific cancer in the lining of the lungs caused by exposure to asbestos dust – until he died the day after his 64th birthday in July 2009. In October 2011, the 66-year-old widow was diagnosed with the same incurable disease after inhaling asbestos dust on Ronald’s work overalls after his shifts at Philips Electronics, where he was exposed while dismantling boilers. Monica secured a compensation settlement from the company’s insurer after it admitted full responsibility for her husband’s asbestos cancer. After contracting mesothelioma herself, Monica was entitled to a second settlement from the company for the negligent exposure to the deadly dust which caused her own terminal cancer. However the company’s insurer claimed that because her life expectancy has been reduced she should not be entitled to £200,000 of the second settlement which was linked to dependency on her husband and based on a normal life expectancy – a figure the Court of Appeal last week ruled said must be paid. She was awarded £700,000. Nicola Maier from law firm Irwin Mitchell, who represented Monica, said: “This landmark ruling is a restoration of justice for victims of injury and illness. If this appeal had failed we would have had a system whereby a company was effectively benefitting from negligently exposing Monica to the asbestos which caused her fatal cancer.” She added: “We are pleased that the Court of Appeal has ruled in Monica’s favour and set a precedent which will help future similar victims who have suffered a double tragedy through no fault of their own.”
The failure of the European Commission to deliver legislation on endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) is alarming, leading members of the Socialists and Democrats grouping (S&D) in the European Parliament have said. A March 2013 resolution from the parliament called for EDCs, substances that can alter the functions of a person's hormone system and contribute to hormone-related disorders and diseases including breast cancer, called for action (Risks 598). However, an industry lobbying and product defence campaign (Risks 624) set out to dissuade the European Commission from acting. In January this year, the Commission said it would delay action for a least one year. The S&D author of the parliamentary resolution, MEP Åsa Westlund, said: “Naturally, we are alarmed that the European Commission seeks to escape responsibility in this way. The Commission's justification that scientific disagreement on the endocrine disruptors' effects on human health is the cause of the delays on deriving the criteria is simply not convincing.” Unions, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and other health and environmental groups have also criticised the Commission’s inaction.
Unions representing Norwegian offshore oil rig workers have pulled out of an industry-sponsored safety group amid harsh criticism of cutbacks in safety training. The four unions - Fellesforbundet, Industri Energi, Lederne and SAFE - announced last week they have suspended their membership in the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association's Network for Safety and Emergency Response Training (NSOB), which was established in the wake of the 1980 Alexander Kielland platform disaster in which 123 people died. The unions said they made the move reluctantly but were forced to make a stand after the industry group unilaterally instituted “a number of changes that impair safety and emergency training on the Norwegian continental shelf” despite the vociferous objections of workers. “It was not an easy decision, but we cannot sit still and watch the employers of Norwegian Oil and Gas ignore the employees' objections in such an important area,” Fellesforbundet secretary Mohammed Afzal said in a statement. Afzal said he hoped the move will be “noticed by the authorities” and that the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway, PSA, will take back control of safety and emergency training offshore. The unions contend training in everything from putting out fires, evacuations, saving lives and various rescue procedures has been weakened and replaced by the new curriculum, which was “instituted unilaterally without participation from employees.” Roy Erling Furre, vice president of SAFE, told the Norwegian daily Aftonbladet: “In Norway, we began taking safety seriously after the Alexander Kielland accident in 1980, in which 123 people died. But now we see that the number of teaching days have been shrinking for several years and the change now is dramatic.”
Ÿ UPI News.
The extent of the risks faced by migrant construction workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been laid bare by official documents revealing that 185 Nepalese men died last year alone. The Guardian reports that the 2013 death toll, which is expected to rise as new cases come to light, is likely to spark fresh concern over the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar and increase the pressure on football’s governing body Fifa to force meaningful change. According to the documents the total number of verified deaths among workers from Nepal – just one of several countries that supply hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to the gas-rich state – is now at least 382 in two years alone. The Nepalese make up about a sixth of Qatar's 2 million-strong population of migrant workers. Verified figures for the 2013 death rates among those from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere have yet to emerge. As long ago as 2011, Fifa said it would work with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to address labour issues with the Qatari authorities. But the ITUC has remained a strident critic of the lack of progress made by Qatari authorities on the issue (Risks 634), while groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have continued to highlight the appalling conditions suffered by some of the workers in a £137bn construction boom.
Ÿ The Guardian.
The theme for Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April this year will be: 'Protecting workers around the world through strong regulation, enforcement and union rights'. ITUC, the global union body coordinating the event worldwide, says it is also encouraging unions to use the slogan, 'Unions make work safer' on their materials.
Ÿ For news, resources and updates on UK Workers’ Memorial Day 2014 activities, see the TUC 28 April webpages.
COURSES FOR January to March 2014
The person responsible for the Risks e-bulletin is Hugh Robertson
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