|Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others. To receive this bulletin every week, click here. Past issues are available. Disclaimer and Privacy Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at firstname.lastname@example.org.|
The union Unite has embarked on a campaign to nip workplace health and safety problems in the bud. A new national ‘Looking for trouble’ health and safety campaign is urging Unite safety reps to: “Look for it. Find it. Fix it.” The union says: “Unite is committed to improving the working conditions of all its members. That is why Unite is looking for trouble on workplace health and safety issues. If the union does not look for trouble, trouble will develop anyway, and potentially get worse before it is identified.” Unite says worker participation is central to a successful campaign strategy, and the tools used by its union reps make full use of this. They include hazard and body mapping, workplace audits, accident and near miss investigations, designing work to fit the workers and ensuring workers can raise concerns without fear of victimisation. The union notes that strong health and safety organisation, good agreements and good training are other crucial components of its strategy.
Any government move that would restrict or outlaw ransom payments when seafarers are kidnapped by pirates could have deadly consequences, seafarers’ union Nautilus has warned. The union has written to UK shipping minister John Hayes to express its concern, which it says is shared by marine insurers, over the possible impact of proposed new counter terrorism laws. The union is urging the minister “to ensure that the government clearly retains the legal distinction between terrorism and piracy.” General secretary Mark Dickinson pointed out that a significant number of Nautilus members have been held hostage in recent years — and as recently as October one was held captive for a fortnight in Nigeria before a ransom was paid for his release, and that of other shipmates who were taken from his vessel. “We continue to believe that any attempt to make the payment of ransoms illegal — or even to delay the payments — would jeopardise the safety of seafarers held captive and that pirates would have little reluctance to carry through threats to kill and/or cause environmental damage if they are not paid,” the union leader warned. “At no stage has any minister provided us with the requested assurances or information on what the alternative to non-payment of ransoms would be.”
The attitude of many employers to the protection of pregnant women at work is decades behind the times, a new report from the TUC has concluded. The union body says despite 40 years of protective legislation, the sacking, bullying and sidelining of expectant mothers remains commonplace. ‘The Pregnancy Test’, launched this week at a Westminster event, notes that evidence of poor employer attitudes towards mums-to-be can be seen in the rise in the number of cases taken to employment tribunal. During the recession, tribunal complaints involving pregnant women went up by a fifth, and in the five years from 2008 to 2013, more than 9,000 women took their employers to a tribunal. Problems facing women in pregnancy and motherhood go beyond pay discrimination and a lack of flexible working options, the TUC report notes. Survey findings published in the report include examples of workers being sacked for being pregnant, receiving unpleasant comments and negative reactions to their pregnancy announcements, and being given dangerous jobs to do. Other concerns included being disciplined for pregnancy-related sickness absence. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady commented: “The law might have changed 40 years ago, but the way many employers behave when they discover an employee is pregnant suggests they are stuck in a 1970s time warp – back to an age when starting a family meant the end of paid work for women.” She added: “This report shows that for many women what should be one of the happiest times of their lives soon becomes full of anxiety and stress – one where bullying, harassment and ill-treatment in the workplace is an unacceptably common experience. More needs to be done to drag old-fashioned employers into the 21st century so that mothers who work are as valued by their bosses as working fathers.”
A survey of more than 15,000 school support staff from the across the UK has found a demoralised workforce that harbours serious concerns for their ability to adequately support students, unless crucial issues such as workload, job security, overtime and pay are addressed. The survey by UNISON, which represents more than 250,000 school support staff, revealed 80 per cent are concerned about workload, with 81 per cent admitting the only way they can keep on top of their work is by doing unpaid overtime and working out of hours. Over half (53 per cent) said they feel significant levels of stress in the job. Additionally, 1-in-6 (16 per cent) reported being forced to take a second job to supplement their income, including work in bars and restaurants, delivering free newspapers, sweeping roads and packing internet orders. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Our members in schools help nine million pupils in 30,000 schools across the UK every day. They make a significant contribution to the ability of students to learn, and for teachers to teach, but they are a forgotten workforce, mostly ignored by this government. We desperately need school support workers to have their responsibilities recognised in their pay and conditions, with permanent contracts and decent conditions.” A US study published in January 2014 found people who hold down more than one job not only experience an increased risk of injury at work, but when they’re not at work as well. The study authors said the additional risk outside of work may be associated with fatigue or the “potentially hectic structure” of working two jobs (Risks 637). Other studies have linked low pay to higher workplace injury and diseases including diabetes (Risks 674).
Abused migrant construction workers in Qatar have been arrested after striking against the exploitative conditions that have seen the massively wealthy nation condemned worldwide. It was the abuse of workers from South Asia that prompted the TUC to launch its ‘Playfair Qatar’ campaign. Unions have warned thousands of migrant workers denied basic employment protection could die in the preparations for the 2022 football World Cup, being hosted the oil rich Gulf state. TUC’s Stephen Russell, writing in the Stronger Unions blog, notes that while no action has been taken to end sometimes deadly abuses of the migrant workforce, observers “have been stunned by the swift and firm action carried out by Qatar’s authorities to deal with an appalling example of workers being paid unfairly low rates – by arresting the workers. Despite taking no action when one of the site supervisors apparently started hitting the striking workers with a piece of plastic pipe, police dutifully enforced laws against workers taking action in their own defence, and carted 100 of them off to prison.” They now face deportation. Russell concluded: “The rapid suppression of workers demanding fair wages shows that Qatar is more than capable of enforcing its laws. If it wants us to believe that it is serious about change it needs to use its existing laws to protect workers, not to attack them. No-one trusts a referee that only blows the whistle against one side.”
The UK government is breaking international rules requiring safety inspections of all workplaces, an International Labour Organisation (ILO) ruling indicates. In November, ILO issued is findings on a complaint by Dutch unions about their government’s failure to comply with a number of ILO conventions. The unions believed cutbacks and reorganisation meant an effective inspectorate and related medical service no longer existed. Like the Netherlands, the UK has ratified and is required to abide by the ILO’s Labour Inspections convention. This states: “Workplaces shall be inspected as often and as thoroughly as is necessary to ensure the effective application of the relevant legal provisions”. Other parts of the convention lay down requirements for inspectors’ independence, training, access to advice, and provision of local offices. The ILO ruled the Dutch government was breaching the convention’s requirements because of its failings on the number and frequency of inspections, the support provided for inspectors and the system for notification of occupational diseases. The ILO also stressed the importance of unannounced inspections, noting the provisions applied to “all workplaces, particularly in enterprises that are not considered to be in high-risk sectors and in small enterprises.” According to TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, the majority of UK workplaces are exempt from unannounced inspections and the Health and Safety Executive’s medical service has been decimated. He concluded “many of the arguments used by the Dutch trade unionists apply equally or even more so in the UK, where the Coalition government has slashed inspections, while at the same time reducing the number of HSE offices and level of support available. The Dutch government has been told to put their house in order. We will be asking the UK government to do the same.”
Ÿ ILO Governing Body report, 6 November 2014.
Plans to give the Scottish parliament new powers over health and safety at work were pulled from the Smith Commission report at the 11th hour, leaked drafts obtained by the Herald newspaper have revealed. Commission chair Lord Smith of Kelvin, whose commission was set up by the UK government in the wake of September’s devolution vote, presented his report to the media last week. Absent from the 27 November final report was an agreement to create a separate Scottish Health and Safety Executive. This had been in the near final report days earlier, but its removal came at the “behest of the UK government”, the Herald reports. A draft dated November 21 stated: “Power to establish a separate Scottish Health and Safety Executive to set enforcement priorities, goals and objectives in Scotland will be devolved to the Scottish parliament. This body would be required to operate within the reserved UK health and safety framework….” but it would “set and achieve the health and safety objectives of most relevance and importance to Scotland." This was struck out and relegated to the “additional issues for consideration” annex of the final report, which said the Scottish and UK governments should just “consider” changes. STUC general secretary Grahame Smith said the union body was “underwhelmed by the package as a whole which does not meet our aspirations.”
There could be between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK, higher than previous figures, an analysis for the Home Office suggests. Modern slavery victims are said to include women forced into prostitution, “imprisoned” domestic staff and workers in fields, factories and fishing boats (Risks 682). The Home Office said the victims included people trafficked from more than 100 countries - the most prevalent being Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam and Romania - as well as British-born adults and children. The figure for 2013 is the first official “scientific” estimate of the scale of the problem and was published as the Home Office outlined its strategy to tackle slavery. The Modern Slavery Bill going through parliament aims to provide courts in England and Wales with new powers to protect people who are trafficked into the countries and held against their will. Scotland and Northern Ireland are planning similar measures. Aidan McQuade, director of the charity Anti-Slavery International, questioned whether the government's strategy went far enough. He told the BBC: “If you leave an employment relationship, even if you're suffering from any sort of exploitation up to and including forced labour, even if you're suffering from all sorts of physical and sexual violence, you'll be deported. So that gives an enormous power in the hands of unscrupulous employers. And frankly the protections which the government has put in place are not worth the paper they're written on in order to prevent this sort of exploitation once they've given employers that sort of power.” The TUC is calling for wide-ranging reforms, including an expansion of the scope of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and a clearer role for the new Modern Slavery Commissioner.
The parents of one of the four miners killed in the Gleision mine disaster have called for a public inquiry into the incident. Charles Breslin, 62, David Powell, 50, Philip Hill, 44, and Garry Jenkins, 39, drowned in 2011 when 650,000 gallons of water flooded the drift mine following a controlled explosion. Manager Malcolm Fyfield and owners MNS Mining were cleared of manslaughter. The prosecution claimed the manager had been warned about the existence of underground water, but Fyfield said an inspection the day before the incident found only “ponding” water on the floor. Garry Jenkins’ father, Malcolm Jenkins, himself a former miner, called for a public inquiry. He said his family wanted to know who and why the decision was made to mine in the direction of underground water. “We only want to know what happened on that day,” he said. Last week, Neath Labour MP Peter Hain raised the issue in a Westminster hall debate. He said the absence of a full inquest had left the families without a full explanation of what caused the men's deaths. “They do not seek vengeance and scapegoats and nor do I. All they have asked for is justice, but they have still not received that,” he said. Safety minister Mark Harper responded that a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report on the tragedy will be published in the new year. But Peter Hain said he was concerned the HSE report “will be constrained by the trial verdict,” adding that he believed “a catastrophic misjudgement” of the water dangers in the mine had been made by the mine’s management.
Ÿ Hansard, 26 November 2014.
The new compensation scheme for mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, has paid out over £15 million in its first 7 months, according to the government. But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says there are hundreds more victims who may be eligible for compensation and is calling for them to come forward, estimating that £32 million could be paid out by the end of March 2015. The new package of support – funded by the insurance industry – has been available since April this year. It is designed to provide compensation for people who might otherwise miss out on compensation from mesothelioma, or the families of those who have died from the disease. It is estimated that every year 300 people struggle to find a relevant party to sue for damages, because companies become insolvent or insurance records cannot be found. DWP minister Lord Freud said: “This scheme is already up and running but we know that there are many more victims and their families who could receive compensation averaging £125,000 and I encourage them to come forward.” The number of mesothelioma deaths increased to 2,535 in 2012 from 2,311 in 2011. The number of new cases of mesothelioma assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) increased from 2,125 in 2012 to 2,145 new cases in 2013.
Twenty years ago the TUC warned that one in five cases of adult asthma were related to work, a figure disputed at the time by both safety and medical authorities. Now it is accepted as fact after being been confirmed repeatedly in health studies. But TUC also warned that workplace exposures were also a major problem for workers with pre-existing asthma. Now the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is investigating this problem. HSE’s Health and Safety Laboratory wants to get in touch with adults of working age with asthma, so it can evaluate the numbers adversely affected by exposures at work and the extent of those effects. Participants will be sent a short questionnaire by post to complete in their own time. Then they just have to post it back to the researchers in the freepost envelope provided. HSE says the information from this survey will help the researchers to better understand the relationship between “work aggravated asthma” symptoms, work efficiency, days missed off work due to illness, and the procedures put in place by employers to support people with asthma.
To take part in the study, email Jade Sumner at HSL. Telephone: 01298 218 803.
A Rochdale fabric firm has been fined after an employee fell into a vat of bleach and suffered severe chemical burns over most of his body. PW Greenhalgh and Co Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation into the incident at Newhey Bleach Works found there was not a safe system in place for using the bleaching equipment. Trafford Magistrates’ Court heard that the 47-year-old worker from Shaw, who has asked not to be named, had climbed onto the container on 3 June 2014 to try and free some cloth which had become entangled between mangle rollers. As he did this, he slipped and fell into an open container of the corrosive solution used to bleach fabric. He suffered serious chemical burns to his lips, arms, chest, groin and legs as well as a large cut to his eyebrow and the bridge of his nose. The worker was airlifted to Wythenshawe Burns Unit. He was off work for more than three months. The HSE investigation found that PW Greenhalgh had not carried out a risk assessment for using the bleaching equipment. It was common practice for employees to climb onto the containers, which did not have lids, when the machine became jammed. Staff had also not received any specific training on working with hazardous substances. HSE issued four enforcement notices relating to unsafe working practices. The company has since carried out risk assessments and implemented safe systems of work, using lids, handrails and fitting permanent stepladders to all the bleach containers. PW Greenhalgh and Co Ltd was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £718 in prosecution costs after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence. HSE inspector Emily Osborne said: “An employee has suffered severe chemical burns because PW Greenhalgh and Co’s safety procedures weren’t good enough.”
Furniture manufacturer Ercol has been fined for criminal safety failings after an employee suffered severe injuries when his hand was caught in poorly guarded machinery. The 42-year old from High Wycombe, who does not wish to be named, was using a lathe to produce chair legs at Ercol Furniture Ltd’s factory in Buckinghamshire on 4 October 2013. When he decided to change the felt on the drill locators, he reached across the machine to access a vertical drill at the rear. However, the drill started to operate, caught his hand and completely pierced his right palm. He managed to free himself by pushing his right arm down with his left hand and was taken to hospital. He needed an operation to repair the wound and was unable to work for around three months. He has now returned to Ercol, although not on the lathe machine. The firm had since installed a perimeter fence around the machine which prevents access to the drill. Ercol Furniture Ltd was fined £8,000 and ordered to pay costs of £816 after pleading guilty criminal safety offences. HSE inspector Karl Howes said: “The painful injury to this employee could easily have been avoided but Ercol failed in its responsibilities to assess what risks this piece of equipment presented and to put measures in place to address them.”
Ÿ Bucks Herald.
A crane operator has long-term memory loss after suffering an electric shock while moving steel sections at a new rugby clubhouse site. Subcontractor Lee Burge 38, who lives near Bristol, was using the crane to move sections of steel at Trowbridge Rugby Club on 20 March 2013, where a new clubhouse and play area were being built by Ashford Homes (South Western) Ltd. Swindon Crown Court heard that as Burge started to lift a section of steel using the crane, the hook block came into contact with an 11kV power line and he suffered an electric shock. Burge was resuscitated but now suffers from long term memory loss. An HSE investigation established that Ashford Homes had been warned by the electricity company about the presence of overhead power cables, and had received advice on the removal of the power supplies running across the site. But no measures were put in place by the company to prevent plant and equipment accessing the area beneath the power lines or for the power supply to be diverted or isolated. Ashford Homes (South Western) Ltd was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay costs of £5,159 after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence. HSE inspector Ian Whittles, said: “Work near overhead power lines should be carefully planned and managed so that risks from contact or close proximity to the lines are adequately controlled. Ashford Homes failed to do this, and had been operating a range of machinery capable of coming close to the lines before Mr Burge was seriously injured.” He added: “Luckily Mr Burge was resuscitated, but he now suffers from life changing complications due the electric shock he received. He was extremely close to losing his life and this is down to the failure of the construction company to adopt a safe system of work.”
A firm of architects has been fined for criminal safety failings in the construction of a new timber frame care home. Teesside Magistrates’ Court heard that Mario Minchella Ltd had not given contractors relevant information about the flammability of the timber frame used in the construction of the new building in October 2012. A routine inspection of the work by a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector found that the separation distance between the new timber frame building under construction and an adjacent occupied care home was insufficient. As a result, had the timber frame caught fire there was a serious risk that the radiant heat would cause the fire to spread to the care home, putting the lives of residents and staff inside at risk. HSE found there was nothing in the design specification produced by Mario Minchella Ltd to alert construction workers erecting the timber frame to the additional fire risk it created, and the need to take action accordingly. The court was told that it would have been reasonable for Mario Minchella Ltd to have specified in its design that fire-resistant timber be used or that it considered the sequence of construction so that the timber frame of each floor was clad before the next one was constructed, reducing the amount of timber exposed at any one time. The firm was fined £1,500 after pleading guilty to two criminal breaches of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007. The company was also ordered to pay £816 costs.
A Cheshire building firm has been fined after a plasterer broke his back when he fell three metres during the construction of a six-bedroom house. CB Homes Ltd, which was the main contractor for the development in Little Budworth, was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation found the company had failed to make sure adequate guard rails were in place on the first floor landing to prevent falls. Trafford Magistrates’ Court heard that the 58-year-old from Wrexham, who has asked not to be named, had been fitting plasterboard when he fell from the open landing on 22 May 2013. He suffered two cracked vertebrae along with damage to his spine, hips and legs. The court was told CB Homes had been managing a project to build seven new homes. The company had hired a plastering firm to plaster the inside of the houses but failed to make sure this work could be carried out safely. The plasterer had needed to use a ladder to reach the first floor, and there was no guard rail in place along the open edge on the landing. He was carrying a piece of plasterboard when he lost his footing and fell to the ground floor below. CB Homes Ltd was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £1,376 in prosecution costs after pleading guilty to two criminal breaches of the Work at Height Regulations 2005. HSE inspector Laura Moran said: “Companies who take on big construction projects have a legal duty to make sure the tradesmen they bring onto the site can do their job safely. CB Homes fell well below that legal requirement on this occasion.”
Unions in Australia have warned they will take legal action to block any application to the Supreme Court to have asbestos victims paid compensation in instalments. In a unanimous vote, the ACTU Executive committed to the action in response to a shortfall in the Asbestos Injuries Compensation Fund (AICF) set up to compensate asbestos sufferers. ACTU secretary Dave Oliver said the average mesothelioma victim dies within 155 days of diagnosis. “Asbestos victims do not die by instalments and should not be paid in instalments,” he said. The fund was set up to compensate victims of the Australian building materials giant James Hardie. The firm has indicated the fund is running out of cash, and has raised the issue of phased payouts. “James Hardie needs to recognise that the assumptions used to set up the compensation fund may no longer be adequate – the sad reality is that more people are dying and at a much younger age than was predicted,” said Dave Oliver. He added that legal advice obtained by unions established there is nothing in the asbestos compensation fund agreement to stop James Hardie from making a one-off ex-gratia payment to top up the fund. “James Hardie has projected profits between US$205-$235 million in 2014-15, pays little to no tax and its CEO earns $11 million a year,” said Mr Oliver. “It’s outrageous that its management is seeking to avoid its moral obligation to fully compensate the victims of asbestos-related disease and cannot shirk that responsibility.”
Ÿ Working Life.
Trade unions in Georgia are urging the authorities to push through legislation to improve working conditions. The Georgian Trade Union Confederation says there is a need for action to combat the high fatality rate, but at the moment the government does not record workplace fatality statistics and the country no longer has even a labour inspectorate. Confederation deputy chair, Gocha Alexandria, says that the safety record of Georgian industry is disastrous, with the mining, construction and transport sectors particularly deadly. Georgia’s official ombudsman, Ucha Nanuashvili, has called for closer oversight of working conditions and safety. Pointing to the alarming statistics for injuries, his annual report published in May noted that despite changes to labour laws brought in after Georgian Dream came to power in 2012, nothing had really happened to improve workplace safety. “An integral part of the right to work is the right of those employed to have as safe and healthy working conditions as possible,” the report said. “Unfortunately in Georgia, the state has not developed a consistent policy on employment, health and the working environment. Nor is there a mechanism to monitor safety in the workplace environment.” The Georgian Trade Union Confederation says this has been the case ever since 2006, when the then president abolished the labour inspectorate. “There is only one way to remedy the situation - the government must re-establish the labour inspectorate,” Gocha Alexandria said. “There is currently no institution to oversee safety measures at work.” The idea of reinstating the labour inspectorate was a central theme at an international conference on workplace safety held in the capital Tbilisi last month. Irakli Petriashvili, the chair of the confederation, said: “Businessmen have neither the will nor the ambition to invest in safety. Under the current legislation, they hardly lose out at all unless the unions intervene and bring cases to court.” The government says it has plans to re-establish a labour inspectorate, and pressure from the European Union will lead to improvements in safety law.
A video message honouring the 325 health workers killed so far in the current Ebola outbreak has been issued by the global public service union federation PSI. Rosa Pavanelli, PSI’s general secretary, names the doctors, nurses, midwives, cleaners, ambulance drivers, pharmacists, community health workers and others who have lost their lives after toiling on the frontline against Ebola. She says they died because they were exposed to infected people or contaminated materials, lacking personal protective equipment and the necessary tools to do their work safely. “They are not only the victims of a virus, they also belong to societies oppressed by endless conflicts and civil wars,” she says. “They are victims of a non-inclusive and insecure system, where international financial institutions have imposed unsustainable development programmes, based on health privatisation, to the sole benefit of foreign corporations. They are victims of a careless international community that has allowed such conditions of exploitation and poverty to flourish.” The union leader concludes: “PSI wants to remember all of those workers one by one, name by name. We will honour their sacrifice by pledging to ensure that all workers enjoy safe working conditions everywhere and to strengthen the fight for quality public healthcare for all.”
The public prosecutor of the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation has overturned the conviction of Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, who had received an 18 year jail term for causing the deaths of thousands of asbestos victims (Risks 608). The 19 November ruling means the former head of the Eternit Group is no longer a fugitive, because the public prosecutor ruled the original charges were filed too late. In February 2012 a Turin court sentenced the 67-year-old Swiss billionaire and major Eternit shareholder Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne - who has since died - to lengthy jail terms for their wilful failure to protect their employees and factory neighbours, resulting in thousands of deaths from asbestos (Risks 543). Maurizio Marcelli, head of the health and safety department of the metalworkers’ union FIOM-CGIL, called the decision of the Court of Cassation “a shameful page of the Italian legal system.” He added: “The judges preferred to hide behind the ‘quibble’ of a statute of limitations, defending an abstract right rather than do justice to many workers and citizens who died because of asbestos.” Giuseppe Farina, general secretary of the CISL union confederation, said: “This request for statute of limitations analysis is surreal as the harmful effects from exposure to asbestos in many cases continue for more than 40 years and therefore have nothing to do with the timing of judicial proceedings.” The unions said they would continue to work with the Italian Association of Relatives of Victims of Asbestos (AFEVA) and would explore bringing new legal charges of voluntary homicide – in Italy, murder is not subject to the statute of limitations.