Long-established Health and Safety Executive (HSE) committees that assess the risks from some of the most dangerous substances used at work could soon exclude workers and employers, if the regulator gets its way. One, the WATCH committee on hazardous chemicals, has already been quietly disbanded. Another, the Advisory Committee on Toxic Substances, is under threat, internal HSE papers show. The “tripartite” committees – made up of union, employer and government representatives – are set to be replaced by panels of HSE-selected “expert” advisers. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson says this would be “problematic” as “they may have no knowledge of what is actually happening in the workplace. They are also, it has to be said, often reliant on the government, or bodies such as the HSE, for much of the funding for their work.” He says it is important that representatives of unions are retained on these bodies “because they act as brokers for the experience of their members in the workplace. Often they identify issues years before the academics can show conclusively there is a health problem. Asbestos is a case in point but silica, wood dust and a wide range of other products have been identified as problem areas by unions long before academics had the evidence to ‘prove’ there was harm being caused.” He says this, combined by the long time lag or ‘latency period’ before many occupational diseases strike is why “unions believe in the ‘precautionary principle’ which is that to take action on the basis that there may be a risk until proven otherwise.” Robertson says there may be a darker reason HSE wants to axe the committees. It doesn’t like what the committees have to say. “ACTS has consistently called for tighter standards on a range of hazardous substances with union representatives supported by the employers only to have their conclusions ignored by the HSE.” He warns: “If you exclude workplace representatives, you create a bubble filed with technocrats who are divorced from the reality of working lives. Instead we should accept that academics have a major role - and give them proper funding for work on occupational health - and use their research to apply to the very real problems we have in the workplace today. ACTS and WATCH have been doing that pretty well to date, so let’s not throw it all away.”
The Lord Chancellor has given the public sector union UNISON the go-ahead for a new challenge to the government’s tribunal fees system. In a hearing last week at the Court of Appeal, the Lord Chancellor agreed with the union that a new hearing should take place as soon as possible, in light of new evidence. Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics show a dramatic fall in claims being brought to employment tribunals and to the employment appeal tribunals. Prior to the introduction of fees, employment tribunals received on average 48,000 new claims per quarter. Figures for April to June 2014 show there were only 8,540 new claims in the quarter, however – 81 per cent fewer than the number of claims lodged in the same period of 2013, according to the latest MoJ figures (Risks 672). Under the fees system workers can be required to pay up to £1,200 for taking a tribunal complaint about issues including victimisation for workplace safety activities. Welcoming the appeal court ruling, UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “The statistics from the past year are damning and paint a shocking picture of tens of thousands of workers being priced out of justice. The government must put an end to these unfair and punitive fees which disadvantage workers and open the door to unscrupulous employers.”
Prominent members of the shadow cabinet have added their support to the union campaign for rights and justice for migrant workers in Qatar. Jim Murphy, the shadow international development minister, shadow minister for sport Clive Efford and fellow Labour MP Stephen Hepburn joined with UCATT activists in a photo call behind the union’s “Show Qatar the Red Card” banner. The MPs, clad in football gear, added their public support for the campaign ahead of the traditional pre-Labour Party conference football match between MPs and journalists at the Ethiad Arena in Manchester on Sunday 21 September. UCATT is part of the global trade union campaign applying pressure on FIFA to tell Qatar that they have 12 months to end the abuse of migrant construction workers or be stripped of the right to hold the World Cup in 2022 (Risks 672). Steve Murphy, general secretary of UCATT, said: “Pressure is growing on Qatar to end the exploitation and deaths of migrant workers. FIFA must act and tell Qatar that unless this abuse is ended then they will be stripped of the right to hold the World Cup.”
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and its international sister organisations have called for a thorough and immediate investigation to be carried out into an attack on a BBC news team in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan. According to the BBC, the team from its Moscow bureau was in the city to investigate reports of Russian servicemen being killed near the border with Ukraine. They were in their car when they were approached by a number of aggressive individuals who confronted them, violently grabbed the team’s camera and smashed it on the road, and then escaped with it in a getaway car. During the attack, the team’s cameraman was knocked to the ground and beaten. Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “This was an appalling attack on BBC journalists and press freedom. It is totally unacceptable behaviour designed to intimidate innocent people going about their work in the public interest. I would appeal to all those in positions of influence to unite against this type of behaviour and ensure journalists can do their jobs.” Beth Costa, general secretary of the global journalists’ union IFJ, said: “We join international condemnation of this attack and we call on Russian authorities to ensure that a detailed investigation is carried out so the perpetrators of this crime face the full weight of justice.” She added: “Journalists must be free to move and report without fear of intimidation of attack. Those responsible for this appalling attack must answer for their crimes.” In a formal protest to Russian authorities, the BBC said the attack was “clearly part of a co-ordinated attempt to stop accredited news journalists reporting a legitimate news story.” It called on the Russian authorities to carry out a “thorough investigation and condemn the assault on our staff.” Authorities in Astrakhan are reported to have launched a criminal case into the attack.
Journalists’ union NUJ has condemned a video in which kidnapped British photojournalist John Cantlie delivers a message under duress in what he admits is an attempt to save his life. The union statement came before the release on 23 September of a second video featuring the journalist, who it is believed has been held hostage by Islamic State (ISIS) militants since his kidnapping in Syria in 2012. Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “It is outrageous that a journalist who went to Syria to do his job, reporting on an unfolding crisis and its devastating impact on its citizens, was kidnapped and has been held now for two years. This video, in which John has been forced to deliver a message on behalf of ISIS knowing that his life is on the line is yet another disgraceful and cowardly attempt to target and intimidate reporters from carrying out their work. Its intention is clear, to spread fear and to send a message that journalists – along with other workers – are fair game and mere political pawns to be exploited as their captors see fit.” She added: “The threats facing journalists in the region need to be urgently tackled – we need action internationally to protect journalists covering events in Iraq and Syria, doing a vital job at a critical moment in history for the region. Around the world journalists show enormous courage, routinely risking their lives to tell the stories of people caught up in conflict. That’s why we must do all we can to ensure that the targeting of media workers as a weapon of war is internationally condemned and tackled.”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been accused of leaving workers at double jeopardy from cancer-causing, lung scarring silica (Risks 664). A report in the workers’ safety magazine Hazards criticises HSE for resisting a union-backed call for it to halve the current exposure limit for the common workplace dust. And it says the government-imposed, hands-off, HSE enforcement policy combined with swingeing resource cuts mean even the current “deadly” standard is not being enforced effectively. Most of the highest risk industries for silica exposure – brick, cement, ceramics, concrete products, glass, mineral industries and quarries - are no longer subject to any unannounced inspections. And figures obtained by Hazards on the outcome of this summer’s HSE inspection blitz in construction (Risks 665) - one of a short list of industries still subject to preventive HSE oversight - found silica exposure was the runaway top health risk identified, topping manual handling, noise, vibration, asbestos and all other hazardous exposures. The report cites the US safety watchdog OSHA which, putting its case for a halving of its 0.1mg/m³ standard – a standard it shares with the UK – reported that at the current standard, for lung cancer “the excess lifetime risk to workers exposed over a working life is between 13 and 60 deaths per 1,000 workers.” Other silica-related conditions, including silicosis, obstructive lung diseases and kidney disease, more than treble this toll, which OSHA says would be markedly lower at the tighter standard. The Hazards report notes assumptions about workplace conditions inevitably improving over time, as knowledge and technology advances, don’t work so well for silica. Greater use of face masks, respirators and other control technology coincided with mechanisation, increasing the pace of work and volumes of dust produced. And it dismisses claims by HSE that it is not technically feasible to measure dust levels at a tighter standard. The US regulator OSHA has concluded it is perfectly possible to monitor and enforce a more protective standard, Hazards notes, while some jurisdictions like British Columbia in Canada already operate to a standard a quarter the current UK limit.
Silica, part 2: A line in the sand, Hazards, number 127, 2014. Silica, part 1: Dust to dust: Deadly silica standard is killing UK workers, Hazards, number 126, 2014.
‘Health as well as safety’ will be the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) message as poor standards and unsafe work on Britain’s building sites are targeted in its latest inspection blitz. During a month long initiative that kicked off on 22 September, the watchdog says it will carry out unannounced visits to sites where refurbishment projects or repair works are underway. HSE says it intends to “ensure high-risk activities particularly those affecting the health of workers, are being properly managed,” including work with harmful dusts such as silica and asbestos, and other hazardous substances. HSE says it is urging the industry to ‘think health’ as its figures indicate over 30,000 construction workers are made ill by their work every year. Philip White, HSE chief inspector of construction, said “for every fatal accident, approximately 100 construction workers die from a work-related cancer. During the recent health initiative [Risks 665], enforcement action was taken on one in six sites. Time and again we find smaller contractors working on refurbishment and repair work failing to protect their workers through a lack of awareness and poor control of risks.” He added: “This isn’t acceptable – it costs lives, and we will take strong and robust action where we find poor practice and risky behaviour. Through campaigns like this we aim to ensure contractors take all risks to their workers seriously, and not just focus on immediate safety implications. They need to put in place practical measures to keep workers both safe and well.” Poorly controlled silica exposures topped the list of health-related breaches spotted in HSE’s summer inspection blitz.
Construction firms should think about removing the risks on site before they cocoon their workers in protective clothing and other safety gear, a top construction health expert has said. Scott Schneider, the director of occupational health at the US union-backed Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA), said the emergence of zero accident programmes at firms is “commendable”, but added “too often the first solution proposed to achieve this goal of zero injuries is to put all workers in personal protective equipment (PPE).” Explaining the flaws in this approach, he said: “Personal protective equipment is at the bottom of the hierarchy of controls for a reason. It is the least reliable form of protection. It can be uncomfortable, may not offer complete protection and workers don’t like wearing it. It also shifts the burden of protection from the employer, who by law must provide a safe workplace, to the worker.” Writing in Hazards magazine, he added: “The hierarchy of controls says first you should attempt to eliminate the risk. Where that is not possible you can reduce it by changing the substances or processes used. And only when all else fails, do you resort to engineering or administrative controls or personal protective equipment. Shouldn’t it be our goal to protect workers in such a way that no one needs to wear PPE to be safe? It may sound far-fetched, but zero PPE is not an impossible dream.” Better design of work processes and equipment, substitution of hazardous substances and improved job planning could eliminate or minimise the risks, he indicated. “By challenging ourselves to focus on zero PPE as a goal, we could make the industry safer as a whole and make safety easier for millions of construction workers. It may sound unrealistic, but it can happen if we unhook ourselves from our attachment to PPE. There’s no doubt that PPE helps keep workers safe, but it may not be the best solution and certainly shouldn’t be the only solution.”
Safety unmasked, Hazards magazine, number 127, 2014.
Major construction firm JB Leadbitter and Co Ltd has been convicted of a criminal safety offence after a worker was critically injured when he was run over by a nine tonne dumper truck. Delivery driver David Windsor, 62, suffered life changing injuries, including a severe brain injury, in the incident at a building site in Devonport on 7 October 2010. He also sustained facial fractures, serious injuries to right arm, fractured ribs, a fractured pelvis, leg fractures and foot injuries, all on his right side where the dumper ran over him. He spent two weeks in intensive care, a month in a high dependency unit and was finally discharged home from a brain injury rehabilitation unit in April 2011 – more than six months later. Oxfordshire-based JB Leadbitter was sentenced last week after an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company failed to adequately manage and control workplace transport. Plymouth Crown Court heard that Mr Windsor was delivering a mortar silo to the Leadbitter site, a former MoD property where 159 new homes were being built. He was wearing high-visibility clothing, but was hit by the dumper as he was crossing the site to return to his lorry. HSE established that there was no segregated, defined area provided for people on foot like Mr Windsor. JB Leadbitter, as the principal contractor for the site, had not produced or put in place a suitable traffic management plan to ensure the separation of vehicles and pedestrians using the roadway at the site. The firm was convicted of a criminal safety offence and was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay full costs of around £100,000.
The owner of a solar panel business has been fined for criminal safety failings after two brothers fell 15ft through a fragile roof that had not been identified as a risk. Brynley Perrett, 37, suffered a compression fracture of his back and sternum in the incident at Llan-y-nant Farm, near Trellech, Monmouthshire, in June, 2013. His brother Anthony escaped injury. They were installing solar panels on a building at the farm on behalf of Andrew Green, trading as Green Park Power. He was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation found there was no equipment or measures in place, such as nets or scaffold edge protection, to prevent or mitigate a fall.
Cwmbran Magistrates’ Court heard that Mr Green failed to make an adequate assessment of the risks of working on a fragile roof and did not take sufficient action to reduce those risks. Andrew Green pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £4,500 and ordered to pay costs of £1,500. HSE inspector Steve Richardson said: “Both brothers were fortunate not to have suffered far more serious injury in this easily avoidable incident. Had nets or other safety measures been installed then the fall risk would have been significantly minimised and the likelihood of injury reduced.” He added: “The onus was on Mr Green to ensure the safety of those in his employment, but he failed to do so. Those in charge of the work must be properly qualified and competent to ensure that the work is carried out safely.”
BAE Systems Global Combat Systems Munitions Limited has been fined £80,000 for a serious criminal safety breach after a worker’s leg bone was shattered while test firing a gun on a range in Northumberland. The 46-year-old employee from Hexham was injured when a metal bolt weighing 7kg ejected from the back of the gun and into his left leg. He spent six weeks in hospital and his injured leg is now 20mm shorter than his right. The incident, on 3 April 2008 at the company’s Ridsdale range, was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which prosecuted the BAE Systems munitions subsidiary. Newcastle Crown Court heard that an aiming device, known as a boresight, had been left in the barrel of the medium-calibre gun when it should have been removed before firing. When the worker fired, a round smashed into the boresight, causing the round to collapse and jam at the end of the barrel. As a result, the gas which had propelled the round was trapped in the barrel and pressure began to build. As the employee turned the handle on the breech bolt holding the round, it was expelled with great force into his leg by the trapped gas. An HSE investigation found that although BAE Systems Global Combat Systems Munitions Limited recognised the hazards of not removing a boresight before firing and had interlocked other guns to avoid this type of incident, they had failed to implement the same measures on this weapon. The firm was fined £80,000 and ordered to pay £100,000 costs after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence. HSE inspector Philip Smith said: “BAE Systems Global Combat Systems Munitions Limited was fully aware of the dangers of not removing a boresight before firing and had fitted interlocks onto their other guns to prevent this type of incident from occurring. However, the company neglected – for whatever reason – to make sure a similar guarding mechanism was in place with this weapon. This incident emphasises the need for management to ensure preventative measures are effectively implemented on all equipment used at work.”
The Environment Agency has been fined after an employee was badly injured when his finger was caught by an unguarded circular saw. The 48-year-old from Coniston, who does not want to be named, had to have the middle finger on his left hand amputated to the top joint as a result of the incident on 19 April 2013. The environmental regulator was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation found it had become standard practice for employees to use the saw without a guard after they initially found it difficult to cut large pieces of wood with the guard in place. Kendal Magistrates’ Court heard the worker had been using the circular saw on a multi-function woodworking machine to cut some two-inch thick pegs. The Environment Agency planned to use the pegs to hold wooden boards in place for new steps until the concrete set. The circular saw was used to cut pegs once every few months, but no risk assessment had been carried out for the work and supervision had been insufficient. This meant managers were unaware it was being used without a guard. The Environment Agency was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay £1,364 in prosecution costs after pleading guilty to a criminal breach of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 by failing to prevent access to dangerous parts of machinery. HSE inspector Anthony Banks said: “The Environment Agency has now decided that the machine isn’t suitable and no longer uses the saw. If it had considered the risks from the start then the employee’s injury could have been avoided.”
A company has been fined £200,000 over the death of a worker who was thrown from a cherry-picker in East Ayrshire. Glasgow-based SW Global Resourcing admitted two criminal breaches of health and safety laws over the death of Leslie Watson. The 47-year-old was carrying out maintenance work on the Annick Water Viaduct, Stewarton, on 13 April 2010, when the raised platform overturned. Kilmarnock Sheriff Court heard the fatality could have been avoided had adequate precautions been taken. The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) and the Health and Safety Executive found that plinths, put in place to create a level working surface, did not have any end stop or edge protection. The cherry-picker had gone off the edge of a plinth and overturned. Mr Watson died at the scene from his injuries. Gary Aitken, head of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) health and safety division, said: “The company failed to ensure the safety of its employees and as a result of this Leslie Watson died. This was an entirely avoidable tragedy which has left family and friends devastated at the loss of a loved one.” ORR railway safety director Ian Prosser said: “SW Global Resourcing has a duty to all its employees to ensure their safety when working on our railways and on this occasion we found unacceptable failings.”
Calls have been made for Network Rail chiefs to donate their bonuses to charity because of their poor safety record. Labour MP John Mann is asking that company executives hand over their “retention bonuses” after it emerged that they were leaving the company (Risks 641). Echoing concerns raised by unions, the Bassetlaw MP said it was “unacceptable” in the first place that taxpayers paid executives at Network Rail to stay in their jobs. “Now they have pocketed the money and are leaving anyway,” he said, adding: “One of these executives is Robin Gisby, head of operations and safety. Considering that Network Rail was severely criticised by a Parliamentary Select Committee this year for its poor safety record at level crossings it is particularly inappropriate for him to retain his bonus” (Risks 639). The MP said: “I am now calling on these executives to donate their bonuses to a charity which provides support to those who have lost loved ones to accidents on level crossings.” According to the rail union TSSA, Network Rail executives Patrick Butcher, Simon Kirby and Mr Gisby had been set to receive a £300,000 "retention bonus" in April on top of their annual bonuses of £51,000, £48,000 and £48,000 respectively. In the face of criticism, the company in May agreed to cut the bonuses, however TSSA said it feared base salaries would just be hiked to compensate (Risks 653).
The TUC has produced a revised guide to tackling stress using the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) management standards. The publication is intended as a resource of use by safety reps, and comes ahead of the stress-themed European Health and Safety Week, which this year runs from 20 October. The Wednesday of the week, 22 October, is the TUC National Inspection Day.
In an unprecedented move, eight major fashion retailers have said they are prepared to pay more for clothes made in Cambodia. It follows a global day of action by unions in support of garment workers’ demands for a higher wage. The campaign gathered momentum after repeated reports of workers collapsing at work as a result of poor working conditions and malnutrition. A number are believed to have died (Risks 668). Now brands, which include one of Cambodia’s biggest buyers, H&M, as well as Inditex (Zara) and Primark, have written to the Cambodian deputy prime minister and the chair of the Garments Manufacturers Association (GMAC) saying they are ready to factor higher wages into their pricing. Furthermore, the brands, which also include Next, New Look, C&A, Tchibo and N Brown Group, say they want to see cooperation with trade unions in the workplace. The letter was sent the day after a union-orchestrated global day of action on 17 September (Risks 672). Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the global union IndustriALL, which has eight affiliated garment worker unions in Cambodia, said: “Factory owners have no excuse not to pay their workers more. What's more, the Cambodian government should raise the minimum wage significantly. The letter also shows the brands recognise that unions are key to securing better worker rights, a fair living wage and a stable market.” Thousands of garment workers donned orange t-shirts in their lunch hour to demonstrate outside factories on 17 September for an increase in the minimum wage from US$100 to US$177 per month. The action was supported by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the global unions IndustriALL and UNI. Scores of NGOs also supported the initiative, which saw protests at stores across the world. Cambodia’s Labour Advisory Committee is expected to announce the new level for the minimum wage in early October.
An “individualisation” of work and a marked increase in work intensity and speed is putting the health, welfare and negotiating power of workers at risk, a new report has warned. ‘Individualisation of the work relationship: a challenge for trade unions’ notes: “Recent decades have been marked by a process of work intensification that actually influences the nature of the work entailed, for a job performed at differing degrees of intensity is no longer the same job. This is a phenomenon of which ergonomists have been aware for a long time but it is hardly rocket science: anyone can observe that the more the pressure of work is stepped up, the more it becomes essential to focus on those aspects of the job that one regards as having priority and to reduce the amount of attention accorded to secondary goals.” The new policy briefing from the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) examines the practical implications of the creation of an increasingly isolated and over-stretched workforce. “For a majority of employed workers, at all levels of the hierarchy, to perform their job is to select, within the mass of all that is supposed to be done, what will actually get done and what aspects or tasks will have to be sacrificed on the altar of speed and efficiency.” This, the briefing concludes, had increased “job-related suffering,” with the phenomenon now affecting a much broader group of workers. A lack of control over what you do and how you do it has been linked in other studies to higher rates of occupational stress, injuries and occupational disease. The ETUI briefing recommends measures to “regain control over work.” It notes that management is detached from the human consequences of their production driven decisions, and it “is the employees who seek to humanise the work organisation and that particular fragment of the world which, through their work, they help to shape.” It concludes unions need to develop strategies to increase their influence and to do this will require better information flow from the workers they represent. “In order to perform this task, these representatives need not only to develop their own skills and knowledge so that they are qualified to conduct surveys among employees but also to obtain the rights required for them to take on this role,” the briefing notes.
Individualisation of the work relationship:a challenge for trade unions, ETUI policy brief no.3, 2014.
A new expert report on a mining disaster that killed 301 miners in the western town of Soma in May (Risks 661) has concluded production pressure pushed safety off the agenda at the privately-run, state-owned mine. The report identified 20 instances of gross negligence that led to the disaster. According to the report, which has been submitted to the public prosecutor's office that is investigating the disaster, sensors in the coal mine had reported a risk of fire, but no action was taken. The report noted there was no refuge chamber in the mine, and the mine operator did not provide workers with functioning gas masks. The experts stated in their report that the necessary inspection of electrical systems and gas sensors had not taken place, and that both systems were inadequate. Ventilation and communication systems were also substandard and miners were not provided with the necessary training or an escape plan. The mine was also producing coal way beyond its agreed volumes. “Production in the mine was 2.5 times more than planned. More miners than planned were working in the mine, but the ventilation system was not strong enough to provide the miners with clean air,” the report noted. The mine, though operated by Soma Kömür İşletmelerli A.Ş., is owned by the state-run Turkish Coal Enterprises (TKİ). The service procurement system allowing private companies such as Soma Kömür İşletmelerli A.Ş. to operate state-owned mines was introduced by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in 2013. Critics say this followed a relaxation of work safety rules intended to increase investment. Eight people, including a general manager and the chief executive of the mining company, have been arrested on charges of “causing multiple deaths by negligence.”
A runaway mouse, escapee ferrets and the accidental mailing of dangerous bacteria by a bioterrorism lab are among incidents which have heightened concern in the US Congress and wider population about controls on laboratory work with deadly pathogens. Scientists wearing spacesuit-like protective gear searched for hours in May for a mouse - infected with Lassa virus, which causes Ebola-like symptoms - that went AWOL for a day inside Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana, one of the federal government’s highest-security research facilities. The same month, a laboratory worker in Memphis suffered a cut while trying to round up escaped ferrets that had been infected with a deadly strain of avian influenza. Four days later at Colorado State University's bioterrorism lab, a worker failed to ensure dangerous bacteria had been killed before shipping specimens - some of them still able to grow - to another lab where a worker unwittingly handled them without key protective gear. The details of the May incidents were revealed in minutes of those labs’ institutional biosafety committees and related reports obtained by Edward Hammond, former director of the Sunshine Project, an independent lab watchdog group that operated from 1999-2008, until it lost funding. Hammond said it is difficult for policymakers and the public to judge the safety of labs and weigh the risks and benefits of proliferating bioterror-related research projects without data on how often incidents occur and details about what happened. “We need to require reporting and for reporting to be public,” said Hammond, now a researcher based in Austin. House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee member Diana DeGette said: “It used to be we only had a few labs doing this very high level and risky research,” but now it was work conducted in a wide range of institutions including hospitals. “It appears none of these breaches have led to any kind of infection. But it's only a matter of time,” she warned.
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