The UK government has been asked by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to explain its decision to abandon preventive health and safety inspections in most workplaces. The move follows a complaint from the TUC, which told the global labour standards body the new inspection regime does not comply with ILO standards. ILO has also taken up the union body’s concerns about the potentially damaging effect of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) ‘fee for invention’ scheme, which critics say could drive problems underground as firms fear a bill if they draw issues to the attention of the watchdog. Also on ILO’s radar is the government’s claim that “the system of labour inspection continues to apply to all workplaces”, something the TUC told ILO is untrue. ILO’s Committee of Experts on international labour standards has asked the UK government to provide “detailed information” on “the functioning of the new targeting and intelligence system and the selection process of workplaces liable to inspection, including the involvement of the social partners in this process.” It wants to know how HSE can ascertain the safety performance of firms not subject to inspections. The government has also been asked to report “on the impact of these reforms”, including on the number of “infractions detected”, on HSE inspection visits and resources and on the number of workplace injuries and occupational diseases.
Ÿ Report of the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of International Labour Standards 2014.
The union UNISON has vowed to appeal after its court challenge to “punitive” employment tribunal fees was rejected by High Court judges. The fees introduced on 29 July last year mean workers can be required to pay up to £1,200 for taking a tribunal complaint about issues including victimisation for workplace safety activities (Risks 615), sexual harassment or race discrimination. Announcing their decision to dismiss UNISON’s judicial review application, Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Irwin said the “fundamental flaw in these proceedings is that they are premature and that the evidence at this stage lacks that robustness necessary to overturn the regime.” UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “We provided clear evidence that since the fees were introduced, the number of employment tribunal cases has collapsed. It is doubly disappointing therefore that it was decided that our case had been taken too early. The sad fact is that workers are being treated unfairly now.” According to UNISON, from September 2012 to September 2013, there was “a fall in all claims of 56 per cent, while sex discrimination claims fell 86 per cent and unfair dismissal claims dropped by 81 per cent,” a change the High Court accepted was “dramatic”. TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady commented: “The decision of the High Court is very disappointing, and it's good to see that UNISON plans to appeal. It's important that the fight for access to justice for anyone who has been wronged at work continues.” UNISON said one concession had already been won as a result of its justice campaign. Dave Prentis said: “We are pleased that pressure from our case did win a significant concession from government so that workers winning their claims are entitled to have the fees reimbursed by their employers.” He added: “The bottom line is that the government should not put a price on justice. We strongly believe that these fees are unfair and should be dropped, which is what we will argue in the Court of Appeal.”
Ÿ Morning Star.
The Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) has said it is “deeply disappointed” that victims of work-related injury and illness in Scotland are going to be denied a new, more efficient route to redress with proper representation. Commenting on newly announced provisions of the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill, STUC general secretary Grahame Smith said: “Having engaged constructively in the long process of review and consultation leading up to this Bill, STUC is both frustrated and deeply disappointed that our two key concerns have been ignored by the Scottish government.” He added: “Having been initially led to believe that the reforms would allow victims the choice of having their case heard in the new specialist Personal Injury Court, we now understand that for many, possibly the majority, this facility will be denied. This despite the fact that UK government legislation has fundamentally changed health and safety law in a way which will complicate many of the workplace personal injury cases previously thought to be straightforward. We also anticipate major blockages in the system, and justice delayed is justice denied.” He added that a decision to increase the threshold at which cases can be heard by the sheriff court from £5,000 to £150,000 “combined with the removal of the automatic right to counsel will allow significant inequality of arms issues to emerge. We will face the potential of trade unions being outgunned by the massive resources of the insurance industry and the big businesses they represent. We fail to see any other beneficiary from this measure which will save the courts little or no resource whilst rebalancing the civil justice system in favour of the powerful.”
Britain's most senior tax officials say they have been forced to resort to industrial action over the imposition of new employee appraisals that require one in 10 revenue workers to be designated as underperformers regardless of how good they are at their jobs. Leaders of the senior civil servants union FDA have told the chief executive of HMRC, Lin Homer, they fear their members will be penalised if they do not identify 10 per cent of staff who need improvement. Speaking ahead of a planned 14 February one day strike, Gareth Hills, president of FDA’s revenue and customs section, said his members voted for industrial action because they remain concerned by the imposition of quotas for staff who will be marked as underperforming and could later lose their jobs. “Our members in HMRC are not faceless bureaucrats, but real people striving every day to serve the government and the public. They deserve a fair performance system, one which allows them to do their job, free from the tangle of bureaucracy,” he said. The dispute stems from HMRC's introduction of elements of Francis Maude's Civil Service Reform plan and a requirement to review terms and conditions. The union has been told that there will be an increased dependence on “guided distribution” with a 10 per cent quota for those identified as needing improvement. FDA revenue section members are concerned that the guided distribution would in practice become forced distribution leading to fixed quotas. “Must improve” ratings can result in inefficiency action and eventually lead to dismissal, the union said. Studies in other workplaces have found performance improvement programmes can be a fast-track to dismissal (Risks 624).
Communities secretary Eric Pickles has found himself at the centre of a storm entirely of his own making after attempting to blame the Environmental Agency’s (EA) chronically over-stretched, exhausted and rapidly dwindling number of staff for some of the country’s flooding woes. Pickles, whose “grandstanding” is said to have infuriated environment secretary Owen Paterson, accused the agency of giving ministers bad advice. EA chair Lord (Chris) Smith responded by saying government budget cuts and rules on spending had limited the agency’s capabilities. This was borne out by unions. “There is no additional money for flood defences, works programmes will be cut and 1,500 staff will still be made redundant by October 2014,” said Prospect deputy general secretary Leslie Manasseh. He added that “the people who are working day and night to prevent flooding – our members in the Environment Agency – will see their revenue budgets cut from £275m in 2010 to £226m in 2014/15. Who will maintain these defences if the agency's revenue budgets are cut?” UNISON national officer for the EA, Matthew Lay, said: “Environment Agency staff have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances for more than seven weeks now. Continued funding cuts will see staff levels at the Agency reduced by a quarter since the Coalition came to power in 2010. This sort of reduction compromises the ability of the Environment Agency to respond to emergencies as there is simply not enough staff on the ground to manage a prolonged incident. What we need is long-term investment in the Environment Agency.” Justin Bowden, GMB national officer for EA, said: “Chris Smith has come out fighting at last in defence of the Environment Agency and its exhausted and overstretched staff and laid the blame squarely where it belongs - at the door of central government and their the penny wise and pound foolish cuts.”
Ÿ The Guardian.
The union Unite is demanding an independent inquiry by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) into a long-running Yorkshire ambulance dispute over a plan to impose new shift patterns for paramedics and ambulance staff as part of a package of cuts. Unite’s 375 members, who have been involved in a programme of industrial action related to the changes, say the imminent introduction of elongated shift patterns could mean staff are required to work 10 hours without a meal break. The union was derecognised by Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust after raising these concerns. Unite regional officer Terry Cunliffe said: “We would welcome an independent enquiry by the CQC to determine whether it is Unite or the trust’s executives who are misleading the public about the facts in this dispute, including the reason for Unite’s derecognition; patient safety; and whether the trust’s plan is focused on patient care or is just a five-year £46 million cost cutting exercise.” He added: “We are continuing to work with community representatives, commissioners and MPs throughout the region to reach a fair settlement for the Yorkshire public and our dedicated members.” Unite said that the trust’s proposals would impact on patient safety as ambulance staff could go more than 10 hours without a meal break, “as such breaks would be at the whim of managers.” The union wants a protected meal break of 30 minutes after six hours.
Six unions representing staff in further education (FE) colleges have rejected a new sick pay scheme drawn up by the Association of College (AoC) employers. A joint statement from the unions notes that “after lengthy deliberation and consultation, there is a consensus that the final offer on sick pay is unjustified and unacceptable.” The changes would reduce the period many workers could receive sick pay, with even the most long-serving workers only qualifying for a maximum of four months on full pay and two months on half pay. Entitlements would be much lower for workers with less than three years’ service. The unions are calling for further talks to prevent a stand-off, noting that staff are already under considerable stress because of funding cuts and attacks on their pay and conditions. Jon Richards, UNISON head of education, said: “There is no evidence to suggest that there is a problem with sickness absence in the FE sector, in fact the number of staff needing time off has fallen. We believe it is important to manage sickness absence so as to not put additional strain on the rest of the workforce. However, the key is in good management, not in this heavy-handed approach that adds insult to injury.” He added: “We have offered to negotiate around a sickness management policy with the employers, which would be a far more equitable route to go down. Instead, this attack on sickness arrangements runs the risk of alienating staff and removing current good will practices. The vast majority of such absences are currently covered by staff, which means the employers are not liable for any additional expense.”
Betting shop workers must not be compelled to work on their own, their union Community has said. Following a parliamentary debate last week on single staffing in bookmakers’ shops, the union called on the industry to engage with the union, government and MPs on the issue. Labour’s Chris Evans, who worked in a south Wales betting shop from 1997 to 2001, told MPs he wanted to see all betting shops install CCTV, more than one member of staff working, double locks on doors and panic alarms fitted. John Park, Community's assistant general secretary, commented: “What is clear is that nobody should be forced to work on their own if they don't want to. When single staffing, members have concerns about their safety and security, they can find it difficult to tackle issues of anti-social behaviour or problem gambling and, in some cases, they feel they don't get proper rest breaks or comfort breaks. These are all valid issues that deserve to be properly addressed by the industry.”
A new body which aims to get the long-term sick back to work more quickly in England, Wales and Scotland must have its focus on improving health not reducing sickness costs, the TUC has said. The union body was speaking out after the government announced its Health and Work Service, which from April will accept GP referrals of workers absent for over four weeks. The non-compulsory occupational health assessments will include medical advice and retraining, with the results given to the GP, the worker and their employer. The government said the initiative was to “tackle sickness absence”. Safety minister Mike Penning said: “More than 130 million days a year are lost to sickness absence in Great Britain, which has a substantial impact on workers, employers and taxpayers. As part of the government’s long-term economic plan, we are taking action to improve get people back into work. This is a triple-win. It will mean more people with a job, reduced cost for business, and a more financially secure future for Britain.” TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said “the problem is that an assessment in itself is of no use unless it is acted upon, and the new Health and Work Service stops there. There is nothing to compel employers to act on the assessment, and many will ignore it or be unwilling to pay the cost of a referral to a physiotherapist/consultant/ergonomist etc. Our other concern is that the focus of the assessment is to get them back to work, not to get them healthy again – and the two things are not necessarily the same. There is always a danger of people being rushed back into work too quickly, resulting in them going off sick again.” He said unions have also expressed concerns over confidentiality, possible conflict between advice given by the assessment and the GP, and the effect on existing occupational health services provided through employers. The TUC safety specialist criticised the government’s presentation of the scheme as a crackdown on soaring levels of sickness absence. “In fact sickness absence is at its lowest level for over 20 years and Britain’s sickness rates compare favourably with other European countries.” He added: “Of course what the government is actually proposing is a long way from our ideal which would be early access to NHS occupational health provision both in the workplace and through GPs, but at least it is a small step in the right direction, and we don’t see many of these nowadays.”
More detail is needed on the planned role of the government’s new return-to-work service with worrying questions remaining about how it will treat sick workers, the union UNISON has indicated. The union is urging its members to take advice from their safety reps and stewards if they are likely to be off sick for lengthy periods of time and don't know when they will be fit to return to work. Commenting on the planned introduction in April of the Health and Work Service, UNISON’s Tracey Harding said: “We simply do not have enough detail at the moment.” The union’s head of health and safety added: “We are in favour of a service that supports workers who are off sick for lengthy periods, and identifies and provides what they need to make a recovery and return to work,” but said: “We cannot support anything that forces sick workers back to work. We also have concerns around patient confidentiality, how it will be commissioned, the funding of the service and whether, once they have been assessed, they will get the treatment they need.”
The UK is the worst performing OECD country when it comes to supporting workforce mental health, a new report has found. ‘Mental health and work: The United Kingdom’, published this week by the OECD, says better policies and practices by employers and the health system are needed to help people deal with mental health issues and get back to work. It notes the majority of benefit claimants with mental health problems need a combination of health and employment interventions to improve their chances of finding a suitable job, adding that the new Health at Work Service should “have a strong focus on mental health”. Speaking at the launch of the report, Professor Stephen Bevan, director of the Centre of Workforce Effectiveness at The Work Foundation, said: “One in six workers in the UK experience mental health difficulties with depression, stress and anxiety the most prevalent. As today’s report reveals, the UK has the highest number of new disability benefits claims in the world with mental health difficulties the leading cause. The impact is felt not only in lost productivity and high sickness absence, but on individual self-esteem and quality of life. We welcome the OECD’s recommendations which will better support people with mental health difficulties to enter and remain in work.”
Experts on workplace dust and chemical control are pressing a message to government, employers, workers and the public that ‘almost all’ occupational cancers can be prevented. Commenting on the 4 February World Cancer Day, BOHS, the Chartered Society for worker health protection, highlighting “the unacceptably high number of deaths due to occupational cancers”. BOHS pointed to comments from the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) go-to expert on occupational cancer, Lesley Rushton, who said without preventive action annual deaths from occupational cancers will by 2060 have risen by 5,000 from today’s yearly toll of 8,000 deaths. The real toll could be much higher – unions and campaigners point to Rushton’s own admission that her calculations are “conservative” and say thousands of occupational cancers were not included in her calculation. BOHS said it believes “that with appropriate focused efforts, almost all occupational cancers could ultimately be prevented.” Steve Perkins, chief executive of BOHS, said: “BOHS is calling on the government, employers and worker representatives to join us as we plan to eliminate occupational cancer in the UK and drive down the burden inflicted on the working population.”
The owner of a Nottinghamshire alloy firm has received a suspended jail term after employees Brook Northey, Paul Collins and Martin Bytheway became seriously ill with lead poisoning. Northey, 28, required specialist treatment at the West Midlands Poisons Unit after working at LDB Light Alloys Ltd, owned by Mansfield businessman Laurence Brown. He had been working with his two colleagues at the Boughton-based company making lead sheeting from molten lead. His job was to scrape off the solid impurities, or dross, in a crucible containing the molten lead and to pour the excess into containers. The problem was uncovered when he was hospitalised for three weeks in May 2011, with his treatment continuing for over a year. He was off work for a year and can never work with lead again. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found conditions at Mr Brown’s company were so bad that a prohibition notice was served halting all work with immediate effect. Nottingham Crown Court heard that extraction systems, personal protective equipment, respiratory protection, hygiene and rest facilities were all unsatisfactory, and that no air monitoring or medical surveillance was provided. HSE also established that lunch breaks were taken in an old, lead-contaminated caravan with no running water. Staff had not been told about the effects of lead – which include cancer, reproductive problems and brain and other organ damage - or how to recognise the symptoms of over-exposure. Laurence Dennis Brown, 65, was sentenced to six months in prison, suspended for 18 months for a criminal safety offence. He was also fined £45,000 plus £35,000 costs. Sentencing Brown, His Honour Judge Dickinson said: “It would take the skill of Charles Dickens to adequately describe the conditions in which your staff worked.”
The owner of a Lincolnshire stained glass firm has been fined after one of his employees suffered severe lead poisoning. David Doherty had seven times the normal amount of lead in his blood after five years of restoring windows for Lincolnshire Stained Glass, using techniques such as soldering, wire brushing and wire wooling. Lincoln Magistrates’ Court was told Mr Doherty had been ill for a number of years before his diagnosis in October 2011. He had complained of nausea, feeling unwell and tired, and had suffered with frequent infections. He lost his appetite, was unable to sleep and felt depressed. It was only on a visit to his local surgery after contracting another infection that the practice nurse asked where he worked and realised his illness could be lead poisoning. Mr Doherty, now 26, has been undergoing hospital treatment for over a year and has had to leave Lincolnshire and return to live with his family in Lancashire as he has been unable to work since the diagnosis. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that David Sear, sole owner of Lincolnshire Stained Glass, failed to provide controls to protect his six workers from lead, despite being advised of the requirement to do so in 2005 when blood tests carried out on the advice of HSE showed his workers were at significant risk of lead poisoning. Mr Doherty said: “This whole experience has just ruined my life. It was just one thing after another and I was constantly going back to the doctors. I was feeling and being sick, lost my appetite and I found myself getting really angry all the time, losing my temper with people. My friends noticed a real change in me and I fell out with people as a result. I did not know what was happening to me only that it wasn’t at all nice.” David Sear, 59, pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002 and was fined £18,000 with £18,000 costs.
A Redditch recycling company has been sentenced for safety failings after a worker was killed by a bale of waste weighing more than a tonne. Kenneth Swaby, 43, was struck by the falling bale at R&S Recycling Ltd in Beoley on 11 February 2011. Three of the bales toppled off a five metre stack and one landed directly on top of him, killing him instantly. Worcester Crown Court heard that stacks of unstable material, such as baled paper and plastic, should slope backwards towards the top, and the bales should be interlocked to prevent them from falling. The stability of the stack should be checked regularly, and where bales can fall, workers on the ground should be kept well clear. On this occasion, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the stacks of bales were uneven and too high, with no measures in place to prevent employees approaching them on foot. R&S Recycling Ltd was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay costs of £57,927 after pleading guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005. HSE inspector Jan Willets said: “Mr Swaby’s tragic death could have been prevented had R&S Recycling Limited made simple and adequate provisions to protect employees working with and alongside stacks of baled waste.”
Two owners of a Bangladesh garment factory where 112 workers died in a fire two years ago have turned themselves in to the authorities. Delwar Hossain and his wife were charged with homicide in December 2013 (Risks 637). Although arrests warrants had been issued in December for the couple and 11 others, they had been living freely in the capital Dhaka. They face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted. The Tazreen fire was the country's deadliest garment factory fire. Months later, the Rana Plaza garment factory complex collapsed on the outskirts of Dhaka, killing 1,135 people and highlighting again the dire conditions in the country’s garment sector. Investigators said the nine-storey Tazreen factory had no emergency exits, and workers desperately trying to leave found that some of the gates were locked from the outside. The factory produced clothing for international retailers. The BBC reports this is the first time Bangladesh has sought to prosecute factory owners in the influential garment industry, which is the world's second largest after China and a vital part of Bangladesh's economy.
Ÿ Times Union.
Workers at a World Cup stadium in Manaus, Brazil, threatened strike action last week, to add weight to their demand for better conditions following a third construction-related death at the Arena da Amazonia. “We have to guarantee the workers’ rights and their safety,” union leader Cicero Custodio told Brazilian news media. A 55-year-old Portuguese man was killed while disassembling a crane that was used to install the stadium’s roof, the third worker to die at the venue in less than a year. Work on five stadiums for the finals is behind schedule. Organisers said the Arena da Amazonia was nearly 97 per cent completed when the latest tragedy occurred. The victim was identified as Antonio Jose Pita Martins, who was working for the Portuguese steel construction company Martifer. Seven workers have died at World Cup venues in Brazil so far.
Ÿ ITV News.
Russia’s Sochi Winter Olympics have been organised at a deadly cost, global building unions’ federation BWI has said. “There is blood in the snows of Sochi and the impunity of workers’ exploitation has to stop,” BWI said in a statement. “The most expensive Games in history is also the deadliest for building workers.” The union said the blame for the deaths in the preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics was shared between the Russian government and the International Olympics Committee (IOC). Ambet Yuson, BWI general secretary, said: “We have estimated that more than 60 workers have died in Sochi. Official statistics from 2009 to 2011 showed 71 accidents and half of them fatal. Our onsite check revealed 20 deaths in 2010 alone while in 2012 25 lost their lives. As late as 20 November 2013, 1 worker died and 2 were injured in the main stadium… These are tragic costs of human lives and this impunity of workers’ exploitation in mega-sports events has to stop.” BWI says it has identified wide-ranging abuses, from unsafe working conditions, to excessive hours, non-payment of wages, poor housing and trafficking of migrant labour. Ambet Yuson said “this serial exploitation in the Olympics and World Cups has no place in these times. We call on the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation to investigate these bad practices and to hold governments and global sports associations as well as their contractors-suppliers accountable for their actions.”
If staff who regularly work unpaid overtime did all their extra hours from the start of the year they wouldn’t get paid until 28 February 2014. Now in its tenth year, Work Your Proper Hours Day celebrates the unsung – and unrewarded – hours that staff put in to help their employers and boost the UK economy. On the last Friday of this month, the TUC will urge bosses to let their staff take a proper lunch hour and to leave work on time. Managers are being encouraged to lead by example and work their proper hours too. This year Work Your Proper Hours Day will look at whether the recent recovery in the labour market has led to a rise or a fall in the number of unpaid hours as more people join the workforce. The TUC will also highlight which jobs and regions of the UK do the most unpaid overtime.
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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