The government’s disdain for regulating and enforcing to address real health and safety problems has led them to instead conjure up laws to tackle “a problem which does not actually exist except in people’s heads,” the TUC has said. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, writing in TUC’s Stronger Unions blog, notes the official dislike for regulation, which the government says is a ‘burden on business’, has led it to introduce an anything-but-regulation array of alternatives from ‘responsibility deals’ to non-binding guidance, with the intention of ‘nudging’ people into changing their behaviour. “The most obvious example is of course the new Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, which… is clearly aimed at countering perceptions,” the TUC safety specialist said (Risks 657). “It is not the only piece of legislation aimed at challenging perceptions. The proposal to exempt most self-employed people from the Health and Safety at Work Act is apparently intended to ‘help reduce the perception that health and safety law is inappropriately applied’. Of course in this case the law will be changed, and quite dangerously so. So we now have a new phenomenon of an anti-regulatory government proposing legislation which is aimed not at increasing protection or preventing harm, or even having any positive practical outcome, but simply with the intention of addressing ‘perceptions’, ‘creating peace of mind’ and ‘reassuring’ people. This is complete nonsense.” Robertson warns: “Now, having helped promote these myths and misconceptions they are inventing laws to deal with a problem which does not actually exist except in people’s heads and even then is only there because they put it there.” He said rather than pushing laws to cure non-existent ills, “why do ministers not try making some statements defending the right of people to claim damages if they are injured and to protection at work. That would be something really radical.”
Preventing employers from insisting their zero hours staff are allowed to work for them alone will be good news for some employees, but the government needs to go much further if the widespread abuse of these contracts is to be stamped out, the TUC has warned. Commenting on government plans to stop the use of ‘exclusivity’ contracts – which prevent workers on zero hours contracts from working for more than one employer - TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The ban is welcome news but it’s not nearly enough to really tackle the problem. A lack of certainty is the real issue. Far too many employees have no idea from one week to the next just how many hours they’ll be working or more importantly how much money they’ll earn. This makes managing household budgets stressful and organising childcare very difficult indeed.” She added: “The one change that would really make a difference would be for employers to have to guarantee their staff a minimum number of paid hours each week. And as the economy continues to grow that would give many zero hours workers struggling to get by a much-needed pay rise.” Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite, concurred, saying: “Zero hours contracts are a zero sum game for workers struggling to get by. The only winner is the employer.” Announcing the plans, business secretary Vince Cable admitted “unscrupulous” firms had abused the flexibility offered by the contracts, but added they “have a place in today’s labour market”. He also announced a consultation on how to stop rogue employers evading the ban through measures such as offering one-hour fixed contracts. The government says the measures will benefit the 125,000 zero hours contract workers estimated to be tied to an exclusivity clause.
Ÿ Morning Star.
The union Unite wants to talk about health and safety with workers employed by the firm operating the giant Asos distribution centre in Barnsley, hit this week by a massive fire. Asos was forced to suspend trading for two days following the 20 June fire, which the company said affected about 20 per cent of the stock held at its major global distribution centre. European transport and logistics company Norbert Dentressangle, which in September last year was awarded the contract to run the centre, employs about 1,200 workers at the Grimethorpe site. Unlike other UK sites run by the company, the Barnsley distribution centre does not recognise Unite. Unite regional officer Richard Bedford said: “We would like to talk the employees who work at Norbert Dentressangle to give them an opportunity to join a union, following this fire. Thankfully no one was injured during the incident, but one of the prime functions of a trade union is the promotion of health and safety issues.” He added: “The Barnsley management at Norbert Dentressangle has refused for the last 12 months to allow Unite access to the workforce, despite the fact that this trans-European company has recognition agreements with Unite at other UK sites.” Unite, which points out there is a clear positive ‘union effect’ on health and safety, said: “We hope that this fire will cause the management to have a rethink.”
Ÿ The Guardian.
Claims by justice secretary Chris Grayling that Britain’s overcrowded prisons are getting safer for inmates and staff is just ‘smoke and mirrors’, the prison officers’ union POA has said. In media interviews last week the Cabinet minister said self-harm and assaults in the prison system have fallen over the last two years, claims refuted by the union. “The POA don’t expect the minister to know absolutely everything that is occurring in the day to day running of the National Offender Management Service but we expect him to be briefed appropriately,” the union said. “For the record, in 2011 15,829 male prisoners self-harmed. In 2012 16,567 male prisoners self-harmed and in 2013, 17,213 male prisoners self-harmed. This is a dramatic increase and part of the problem is overcrowding, budget cuts and low staffing levels.” POA added that prisoner on prison officer assaults had risen from 3,132 in 2011 to 3,148 in 2013. “Serious assaults on staff have risen from 273 in 2011 to 356 in 2013,” the union said. “The POA as a trade union has been warning for several years that the prison closure programme along with officer redundancies and a climbing population is a recipe for disaster.”
A bus driver from Leicester has secured an undisclosed payout from First Group after he was injured by a dodgy chair the firm had neglected to fix. The Unite member, whose name has not been released, was injured when his seat collapsed as the bus passing over a speed bump. The force of the 12 inch drop caused a sprain injury to his lower back. First Group was aware of the seat was faulty as the Unite member had already filled in two defect cards to log the problem. The firm claimed to have tested the seat but it had not fixed the fault. The 39-year-old driver was assessed in hospital and was given pain killers. He required a week off work because his prescribed medication meant he could not drive. “Losing control when driving, and being responsible for the safety of the passengers on the bus, is very scary. Luckily I was able to pull the bus over safely without causing anyone else any harm,” he said. “It’s very frustrating that it took having an accident at work before my employers did anything to actually fix the fault. I first reported the problem around three weeks before my accident, and I know other colleagues who drove the bus in that time also reported the fault.” Unite regional secretary Annmarie Kilcline said: “First Group failed to implement an adequate system of inspection and maintenance on their vehicles. This is totally unacceptable, especially as it was a known fault which – by causing the driver to be distracted – could have put passengers at real risk.” She added: “They claimed that they could not find a fault with the bus driver’s chair, yet the facts of the case are clear for all to see - our member was put in an extremely dangerous situation when his chair collapsed, which could have had serious consequences.”
Staff are being “victimised and terrorised” by management using draconian sickness policies, public sector workers have said. Far too many workplaces are applying the same attendance management policies to all staff regardless of whether or not they have a disability, UNISON’s conference heard last week. This is leaving disabled workers feeling guilty for having a disability, delegates said, with many companies using sickness absence procedures to get rid of them “through the back door.” Steph Davies, a delegate from Newport, said: “I’m not alone in witnessing members being interrogated about their absence. But many managers don’t understand disability and mental health is an area that particularly worries me. Employers have no empathy and are afraid to approach them.” The Morning Star, reporting on the conference, said UNISON members are concerned employers are still using draconian sickness absence policies. The problem was amplified as during a time of cuts and redundancies, many employers use sickness absence to inform their decision, delegates heard, with workers with disabilities particularly vulnerable.
Ÿ Morning Star.
Delays to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and the rising cost of implementing the welfare cap provide further evidence the government’s welfare reforms are ‘unravelling’, the TUC has said. The union body was commenting after the implementation of the new benefit for people with disabilities was described as a “fiasco” by MPs and leaked government memos revealed concerns in Whitehall that costs were out of control. The public accounts committee said some disabled people had waited up to six months for their PIP claim to be decided. PIP is the replacement benefit for disability living allowance for people of working age and was introduced nationally from June 2013 for new claimants. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The government’s disastrous shake-up of the welfare system continues apace… revelations about the Personal Independence Payment and the Employment Support Allowance smack not only of incompetence but of a systematic attempt to remove the safety net people depend upon when they fall on hard times.” She added: “It is disgraceful that terminally ill and disabled people are being made to wait for months for vital benefits. Taking money away from the most vulnerable in our society is not the way to make work pay. The government’s welfare reforms are unravelling, with costs shooting through the roof and millions being made to suffer.”
Ÿ The Guardian.
Britain’s workplace safety law has probably saved more lives than any other piece of legislation, an article in the Telegraph has said. Telegraph leader writer Philip Johnston noted: “Health and safety has become synonymous with nanny statism, interfering jobsworths, ludicrous litigation and risk aversion. And yet the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAWA), which is 40 years old this summer, has arguably saved more lives than any other piece of legislation, including the ban on drink driving or the compulsory wearing of seat belts in cars. It may well have reduced deaths by 5,000 or more.” He added: “Forty years on, the Act has achieved what it set out to do, which is to insist upon high standards of health and safety in places of work. All we need do now is to apply the law with the common sense that inspired it in the first place.” The article mirrored comments earlier this year by HSE chair Judith Hackitt. In a January blog she wrote: “This year will mark 40 years since Health and Safety at Work Act received Royal Assent. Arguably it is one of the best pieces of legislation on the statute books – although we know it is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. It has protected millions of British workers, and driven sharp reductions in incidents of occupational death, serious injury and ill health.” This week the government’s latest attempt to weaken the lifesaving law, measures in the Deregulation Bill to exempt most of the self-employed from HASAWA’s scope, returned again to the House of Commons.
The manager and owners of a south Wales mine where four miners died have been cleared of manslaughter. Charles Breslin, 62, David Powell, 50, Philip Hill, 44, and Garry Jenkins, 39, drowned in 2011 when 650,000 gallons of water flooded the Gleision drift mine following a controlled explosion. Manager Malcolm Fyfield, 58, and mine owners MNS Mining had denied manslaughter through gross negligence. Key to the case was whether Mr Fyfield inspected the mine as he said he did. The former mine manager was working underground with the men when water tore into the pit after they blasted into old coal workings near Pontardawe. The prosecution claimed he should have known his workers would be breaking through an area called a “cautionary zone” where underground water was present. Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm representing the families of the four miners killed when the mine flooded, said the verdict was disappointing but “unsurprising.” Solicitor Anthony Welsh said: “Getting a conviction on a charge of corporate manslaughter is very difficult as the prosecution has to prove the manager’s actions amounted to gross negligence which is a hugely difficult legal burden. You can be careless, you can be negligent – and have men die as a result – but unless it is gross negligence you walk free.” He added: “This trial reignites the call for the law to be made simpler and for owners and directors to be held more accountable.”
Hospitals in Scotland are being told to reduce the working hours of junior doctors following the death of a young medic on her drive home from work (Risks 639). Scottish government health secretary Alex Neil said NHS managers must end all rotas that make doctors work seven night shifts in a row and more than seven days back-to-back. The move comes in response to a campaign initiated by Brian Connelly, the father of Dr Lauren Connelly, who was killed in an accident on the M8 after seven intense weeks in her first job. Mr Neil and Paul Gray, NHS Scotland chief executive, indicated they want not just the letter but “the spirit” of the European Working Time Directive (EWTD), which should limit junior doctors' working hours, to be implemented in hospitals. In a letter to NHS chief executives in Scotland, the NHS Scotland boss said no junior doctor should work seven full night shifts in a row from next February and no junior doctor should work more than seven day shifts in a row by 2016. Hospitals must also provide rest facilities that doctors can use during or after shifts. Mr Neil said external assessments would be carried out to ensure “that these actions are being taken forward by NHS boards and that junior doctors see the improvements in their work-life balance that we all desire.” In 2005 the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health warned junior medics working long shifts were twice as likely to be involved in a car accident leaving work. They were also five time more likely to have a “near miss” than colleagues on shorter hours. A 2006 UK study of 1,619 junior doctors by the former Royal College of Physicians vice president Professor Roy Pounder found one in six had had a traffic accident on the work commute.
Better regulation of hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to breast cancer, reproductive problems and other ill-effects could deliver massive cost savings, a new report has concluded. The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) says exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may be costing up to €31 billion (£24.8bn) per year across the European Union (EU). The calculation draws on a list of diseases and conditions that experts involved in EDC research have identified as “endocrine-related”. The report warns rates for many of these conditions, which include breast cancer, are increasing rapidly. A 2012 Stirling University study found working in a 'toxic soup' of these common industrial chemicals can double a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. High risk jobs identified included those in agriculture, plastics, food packaging, metal manufacture and the bar and gambling industry (Risks 583). HEAL executive director, Genon K Jensen, commenting on the new report, said: “A proportion of the spiralling rates of endocrine-related health problems seen in Europe today are probably caused by exposure to synthetic chemicals that end up in our bodies and disrupt our hormones. The EU should put health first and phase out these substances. Swift action could avoid massive human suffering and perhaps as much as €31 billion in health costs and lost productivity each year.” HEAL said the EU should set out a specific timetable by which EDCs must be identified and replaced with safer alternatives. “A year ago, we were expecting the European Commission to propose a package of EDC policies, including a new strategy for tackling EDCs,” Genon Jensen said. “We were also expecting a proposal for identification criteria so that the EU pesticide and biocide laws which prohibit EDCs could begin to work. We are still waiting for the package.”
A criminal failure to deal properly with asbestos was found in more than 1 in 8 schools inspected in a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) probe. HSE’s latest asbestos in schools inspection initiative investigated practices in a carefully selected random sample of 153 non-local authority schools between April 2013 and January 2014, which included independent, voluntary aided and foundation schools, free schools and academies. Fewer than six in 10 (58 per cent) required no action by HSE related to asbestos on their premises, with 29 per cent (44 schools) receiving written advice from HSE, and 13 per cent (20 schools) subject to enforcement action - improvement notices – after criminal breaches of safety law relating to their asbestos management were identified. Geoff Cox, the head of HSE’s public services sector, said “schools should not be under any illusion – managing asbestos requires ongoing attention.”
The poor working conditions likely to lead to ill health on building sites is being targeted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in a two week inspection drive. During the unannounced visits, HSE inspectors will be targeting respiratory risks from dusts including respirable silica, exposure to other hazardous substances such as cement and lead paint and manual handling, noise and vibration. The regulator says work-related health problems in the industry claim a much higher toll than injuries. While in 2012/13 there were 39 construction fatalities, HSE says, over 500 construction workers died as a result of diseases caused by silica exposure alone. HSE chief inspector of construction, Heather Bryant, said: “We need to tackle where workers are unnecessarily being exposed to serious health risks, such as silica dust, which can have fatal or debilitating consequences. This initiative provides a chance to engage with these firms to help them understand what they need to do, so they can put in place the practical measures needed to keep people safe.” But she added “let me be clear – poor risk management and a lack of awareness of responsibilities is unacceptable. Companies who deliberately cut corners can expect to feel the full weight of the law.”
A vehicle manufacturer has been told to pay nearly £180,000 in fines and costs for its criminal safety failings after a crane operator suffered severe crush injuries in a lifting operation at the company’s press shop in Luton. The worker, who does not wish to be named, suffered multiple injuries including fractures to the upper left arm, breastbone, right collarbone and ribs, as well as collapsed lungs. In the incident on 1 July 2011 at IBC Vehicles Ltd, the employee had lowered an eight-tonne die block – used to make van parts – into its storage position, and was unhooking it from the crane’s lifting chains when the 50-tonne crane started to move, dragging the block towards the worker and crushing him against another block behind him. The crane operator was hospitalised for two weeks and has had numerous operations since, but has not been able to return to work. HSE found a protective frame around the control levers of the crane designed to prevent inadvertent operation was missing. There were also serious shortcomings with the company’s maintenance of lifting equipment and management of lifting operations, including the provision of training and information for crane operators. IBC Vehicles Ltd admitted two criminal safety offences and was fined £155,000 at Luton Crown Court and ordered to pay £22,795 costs. In 2006, the Court of Appeal found IBC Vehicles liable for the death of employee Thomas Corr, 31, who killed himself six years after an ear injury suffered at the firm led to him suffering severe depression, headaches and tinnitus (Risks 251).
A Blackburn packaging firm has appeared in court after an investigation into a workplace injury discovered ‘appalling’ safety standards. Europlast (Blackburn) Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) because an employee had to have part of a finger amputated after his left hand became trapped in unguarded machinery in June 2012. HSE discovered that two other workers had been injured in similar machinery incidents less than nine months earlier, safety guards were missing or disabled on machines, and workers had not been given suitable training. Preston Crown Court heard that the 26-year-old employee from Blackburn, who asked not to be named, had been working on a machine used to produce bubble wrap when the incident happened on 6 June 2012. The worker was trying to remove small pieces of plastic which had become stuck when his hand was pulled between two rollers. It remained trapped for several minutes before another employee eventually found the emergency stop button. The court was told two other workers had suffered injuries when their hands became trapped in machinery in April 2012 and September 2011. HSE first made Europlast aware of the need to guard dangerous machine parts during a visit to the site in September 2009. This warning was repeated in July 2011 when an external health and safety consultant highlighted ‘intolerable risks’ from missing guards on machines at the factory. Europlast (Blackburn) Ltd was fined £50,010 plus £23,102 costs after admitting criminal safety offences. HSE principal inspector Mike Sebastian said: “When we visited the factory following the incident, we found an appalling state of health and safety with no safe system of work in place for any of the machines. What’s even more shocking is that the company had failed to take any action to improve safety despite receiving numerous warnings and at least two other workers also suffering injuries.”
A Hertfordshire engineering firm has been fined for criminal safety failings after a toppling fan unit crushed a worker as it was being manoeuvred into a ground floor plant room. The 54-year-old, who does not want to be named, injured his spine and was unable to work for several weeks as a result of the incident in Woking on 17 December 2012, at the new head office for the World Wildlife Fund. He was working for Wilden Services Limited, of Hemel Hempstead, which had been sub-contracted to install a ventilation system in the new building. Guildford Crown Court heard the large fan unit, weighing some 630kg, fell over as it was being moved on a pallet truck and pinned him underneath. Wilden Services Ltd was fined £15,000 and ordered to pay £7,148 in costs after pleading guilty at an earlier hearing to a criminal safety offence. HSE inspector Denis Bodger commented: “The employee was seriously injured and could have been paralysed had his spinal cord been damaged by the falling unit.” He added: “Companies should always ensure that extreme care is taken when moving heavy items, and that includes properly assessing the risks in advance and agreeing a safe system of work. The incident was entirely avoidable with better planning and management.”
IndustriALL has urged investors in mining and metals giant Rio Tinto to demand the truth about aggressive management practices that are dangerously undermining safety, employment and environmental standards. The global manufacturing union federation made the call this week, ahead of a meeting between 25 analysts and investors and Rio Tinto in North America. “Rio Tinto has established a pattern of conflict with key stakeholders at its operations in North America and around the world,” said IndustriALL assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan. He points to IndustriALL’s new report, ‘Unsustainable: The ugly truth about Rio Tinto’, which documents Rio Tinto’s failure to live up to its own sustainability claims. This documents how Rio Tinto has alienated a broad array of stakeholders through uranium spills, worker deaths, environmental violations and a lack of respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. Rio Tinto claims it has a zero harm culture, the IndustriALL report says, but in 2013 a total of 40 workers were killed at operations fully- or partially-owned by the company. In Indonesia, where a disaster accounted for 28 of these deaths, a national human rights commission found the tragedy could have been avoided. “Rio Tinto brands itself as sustainable in order to maintain access to profitable opportunities. Its failure to live up to its own sustainability claims potentially jeopardises that access and is of material concern to the investment community,” said Kemal Özkan. IndustriALL’s affiliated unions represent thousands of workers employed by Rio Tinto in 19 countries.
For every worker who dies each year as a result of an accident in a South African mine, nine more die of tuberculosis, the country’s health minister Aaron Motsoaledi has said. “There are 41,810 cases of active TB in South African mines every year. It is 8 per cent of the national total, and 1 per cent of the population, very unfortunately,” he told parliament. “It is the highest incidence of TB in any working population in the world. It affects 500,000 mineworkers, their 230,000 partners, and 700,000 children.” High rates in miners are linked to working in dusty environments, with silicotuberculosis a recognised occupational disease. The minister said in 2009, there were 167 mining fatalities. “But, in the same year, there were 24,590 cases of TB, which resulted in 1,598 TB fatalities.” Gold mines were the worst affected, he said, with 17,591 TB cases and 1,143 deaths in 2009. “So for every death of a mineworker due to accident, there are nine who die of TB,” Motsoaledi said. Health screening and new primary care teams were targeting the problem, he told MPs.
Ÿ Cape Times.
An estimated 820 people were killed in Turkish workplaces in the first six months of 2014, a senior trade union representative has said. Publishing the figures, Kani Beko, head of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), said: “In our talks with prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, we have proposed to shut down all mines for three months so that all security precautions, including rescue chambers, could be taken. After that we’ll re-open them.” The union leader’s statement came weeks after the 13 May Soma coal mine tragedy that killed 301 workers (Risks 655), as a monument to dead workers was reinaugurated. Çankaya mayor Alper Taşdelen, speaking at the ceremony on 19 June, said: “We renovated this monument, which was erected here in 1991, in order to not forget the pain we have suffered after the deaths of the 301 workers in Soma.” He recalled that the monument symbolised the struggle of mine workers, and was erected after a huge demonstration pressing for better working conditions in 1991 was prevented by the government of the day. “Today we have merged the struggle of the past with the pain of today,” Taşdelen said.
A US chemistry professor has avoided jail after settling criminal charges relating to a horrific fire in his lab that led to the death of a research assistant. UCLA professor Patrick G Harran agreed a package including a fine and a five year programme of unpaid teaching working and community service with the Los Angeles County district attorney (DA). It followed the death of Sheri Sangji, who was hired primarily to set up lab equipment, but on 29 December 2008 was assigned to use highly reactive tert-butyllithium (tBuLi), which ignites spontaneously when exposed to air. A flash fire critically injured the 23-year-old, who died on 16 January 2009. After an investigation by the California Bureau of Investigations (BOI) and the state’s official safety regulator Cal/OSHA, the DA issued an arrest warrant in December 2011 for Harran and the Regents of UCLA for wilfully violating worker safety standards (Risks 538). On 21 June this year, the DA and Harran signed a non-prosecution agreement to settle the case. Over the next five years, if Harran violates the terms of the agreement, the charges against him will proceed to a trial. A UCLA statement following the announcement of the “deferred prosecution agreement” noted that both Harran and UCLA, one of the world’s leading universities, “have agreed not to deny responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated at the time of the accident.” Professor Harran also offered a public statement of remorse, although Sheri Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, noted his remarks were a condition of the settlement.
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