|Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others. Sign up to receive this bulletin every week. Past issues are available. Disclaimer and Privacy Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at email@example.com.|
Government plans to exempt most self-employed workers from safety law have stalled. A 3 February debate in the House of Lords to discuss the move, included in Clause 1 of the Deregulation Bill, was curtailed after the government said it needed more time to consider responses to a consultation on the measure. Labour had tabled an amendment that would have radically changed a proposal that has been criticised in consultation responses from unions, organisations representing employers and safety professionals and Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, whose report the government claimed had prompted the proposed change (Risks 680). In fact, Professor Löfstedt had written to ministers criticising the government proposal, which he said “may increase injury and death in the workplace.” In a surprise move, the government this week told the Lords it needed more time to consider the responses to last year’s consultation. Lord Wallace, a government whip in the Lords, said “the government are currently considering the comments just received following the 2014 consultation on the draft regulations already produced. These raise a number of important issues which the government will consider further.” The eight week Health and Safety Executive (HSE) consultation closed on 31 August 2014 (Risks 662). Pressed by Labour’s Lord McKenzie of Luton, the government whip said he “was willing to have further consultations,” leading to the withdrawal of the Labour amendment. Lord Wallace added “we are struggling in this area. That is, of course, why we are considering it further.” As a consequence, the debate of the self-employed exemption will now not take place until the report stage in three weeks’ time, which means any new government proposals will miss this debate stage, something of concern to the TUC. Hugh Robertson, the union body’s head of safety, said: “The claims by the government that they had not had time to consider the responses to a consultation that finished several months ago is ridiculous and this now means that any government proposal will not be able to be scrutinised.” He added: “Responses from employers’ organisations to the consultation said the proposals ‘are not fit for purpose’, with the CBI adding they ‘will be ‘costly to implement, without bringing the intended benefits.’ Employers don’t want it, unions don’t want it and the government should do the right thing and bury this dangerous proposal for good.”
Ÿ Lords debate on the Deregulation Bill, Hansard, 3 February 2015.
The deaths of some UK firefighters “could and should have been prevented,” a research report has concluded. Research commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) looked into 14 deaths of firefighters in the last 10 years and warned “good practice” had sometimes been ignored. The union is now calling for urgent meetings with all stakeholders. “We want this report to focus minds on what can be done to improve public safety and firefighter safety,” said union general secretary Matt Wrack.
In the UK over the last ten years, 14 firefighters have died in the line of duty. The FBU said it recognises that its members work in a dangerous environment. However, commenting on the publication of the report commissioned from Stirling University by FBU, Matt Wrack said: “Firefighters should expect to be able to go home to their families after their day’s work. They do not go to work to die.” He added: “We assess the risks and take carefully planned action to rescue people, to deal with incidents and to make communities safe. Our members have the right to demand the best possible procedures, training, equipment and resources to enable us to do our job safely, effectively and professionally. That is not too much to ask.” The FBU leader said he fears that ‘radically reduced’ budgets for the service will lead to more tragic deaths. “This report demonstrates a need for investment, not cuts to the fire and rescue service. Budget cuts mean reductions in training, staffing, equipment and fire stations and continued operational duties of older firefighters. This will lead inevitably to further fatalities in the future.” Calling for action to prevent further needless deaths, he said: “Fourteen firefighters have died at fires in the past decade. We owe it to them to review all our systems now. I call on government to treat this report with the same urgency that it would if 14 Members of Parliament weren’t going home to their loved ones.”
Ÿ Morning Star.
Ÿ Firefighter fatalities at fires in the UK, 2004-2013: Voices from the fireground, report by Andrew Watterson, Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group, University of Stirling, Scotland, January 2015.
Jobs cuts across the UK offshore oil industry will compromise safety and lead to the loss of key skills, Unite has warned. The union said “the seeds of another disaster on the scale of Piper Alpha” could result from cutbacks linked to the oil price fall. The union was speaking out at an oil and gas industry summit in Aberdeen, hosted by the city council and attended by leading figures from across the industry and from both the Scottish and Westminster governments. With oil companies set to reduce spending on investment and exploration by $170 billion - 37 per cent of spend - by 2017, Unite is urging the UK government to step in with support for the sector to help ensure that safety standards are upheld. Unite regional officer John Taylor said: “The rush by firms to cut jobs and reduce costs is placing enormous pressure on the remaining workforce, and is harming the industry’s reputation. Unless something is done soon to stem the flow of job losses, key skills will be lost. Our worst fear is that these cuts could create the potential for another health and safety disaster on the scale of Piper Alpha.” He added: “We are seeing already that in the shift to working three weeks on followed by three weeks off in an intensely harsh and demanding environment is taking its toll on workers. The climate of cost-cutting that is descending is not consistent with maximum public and worker safety.” This week, Lord Browne – who stepped down as a non-executive director in the Cabinet Office on 31 January and whose cost-cutting programme when he headed BP was linked to the deadly Texas City refinery explosion – said the oil firms “need costs to come right down” and said companies would have to “slim down” to compete.
Whether you work in an office, a laundry or factory, hazardous substances in your workplace are a risk you can’t afford to ignore. A TUC survey is now looking to establish the extent of the problem, with the union body wanting to establish how many workers are exposed to substances in the workplace that could injure them or make them ill. It also wants “to know whether employers are taking appropriate action to remove them or prevent exposure.” It says the risks could be posed by anything from cleaning chemicals in offices, to hairdressing products in salons to body fluids and drugs in hospitals. TUC adds: “Dust, including the killer asbestos, is present in over a million potential workplaces.” TUC is urging Risks readers and others to “think about what type of dangerous substances you might well be exposed to” at work and then complete the short online survey by 31 March. The results will be used to help the TUC campaign on the hazardous substances-themed International Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April 2015.
Local authority waste management workers across Scotland are under pressure, facing increasing targets and declining budgets, a UNISON survey has found. Dave Watson, UNISON Scotland’s head of bargaining and campaigning, said local authorities in Scotland “can't expect staff to meet more stringent targets when they are being cut back.” A union report – ‘Dumped on: working in Scotland's waste management services’ – reveals staff in waste management are having to deal with demands for more and more complex recycling at the same time as budgets have been put under pressure. These burdens, in what the report notes is already one of the most dangerous sectors, are set to increase as targets for more waste to be recycled or reused are going up and council budgets are being squeezed still further. Dave Watson said: “Every political party claims they want to increase recycling rates and is signed up to the idea of a Zero Waste Scotland. They need to be prepared to put their money where litter is.” He added that councils and government “can't expect to get ever more complex demands from a reducing and overstretched workforce.”
London mayor Boris Johnson has been accused of mounting his “biggest and most expensive vanity project” as his plan to close over 250 Tube ticket offices in London started to take effect. As the first offices were shut in the capital, rail union TSSA said the Tory mayor was rushing through the plan - and the opening of the Night Tube scheme in September - to boost his long term campaign to become the leader of the Conservative Party. “The safety and comfort of millions of passengers is being sacrificed to help Boris Johnson achieve his lifelong ambition; firstly to become Tory leader and, ultimately, prime minister,” said union general secretary Manuel Cortes. “This is his biggest and most expensive vanity project to date - it will cost well over £150 million in year one alone. And that is not taking into account the fact that the Night Tube will not break even until 2033 after losing £19 million in its first full year.” The union leader said talks with unions on the safety implications at the 256 stations targeted for closure had yet to be concluded, adding the closures were being rushed through to meet the mayor's electoral timetable of getting back into the House of Commons on 7 May.
Ÿ The Standard.
Rail workers have highlighted the ‘continuing scandal’ of the dumping of sewage on the tracks in protests outside Glasgow railway stations. RMT members leafleted travellers outside Glasgow Central and Glasgow Queen Street stations on 3 February. RMT said the action forms part of its on-going campaign “to bring forward the date when the filthy and disgusting practice will be stopped on the Scotrail franchise from December 2017 to the union target date of April 2016 - one full year after Abellio take over the franchise.” RMT said claims by a Network Rail director that the health risk to exposed staff was low reflected “a dangerously complacent attitude that the union disputes.” The firm also confirmed it would not offer staff any jabs to protect against sewage-related conditions, for example hepatitis. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said the protest was “to raise awareness that this filthy and disgusting practice continues in 2015 with little or no regard for the health, safety and wellbeing of rail workers. RMT is determined to force rail bosses to bring forward the date when this scandal is brought to an end once and for all.”
Threequarters of school support staff work over their contracted hours because their workload demands it, according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). Over 1,600 support staff working in UK state-funded schools responded to the survey and 21 per cent reported having to work between four and six extra hours a week. Just over one in 10 said they regularly have to work seven extra hours or more. Dr Mary Bousted, ATL general secretary, said: “It is totally unfair to expect support staff to teach classes without the appropriate training or remuneration - it sells both them and their pupils short. Clearly support staff are feeling the knock-on effects of teachers’ excessive workloads. The government must recognise they should not be the ones picking up the slack.”
When the weather burns bad, employers should not punish staff who find they are unable to make it in to work, unions have said. Midlands TUC regional secretary Lee Barron said bosses must not dock pay or force workers to take holiday if they are prevented from getting to work by hazardous conditions or if, for example, their child’s school has closed. While workers should make every reasonable effort to get into work, he said that staff should not be pressured into to travelling if it is unsafe to do so. “Scrooge bosses that dock pay and take away holiday will add to their business woes by creating resentment among staff. Workers who have been prevented from working through no fault of their own should not have to foot the bill for the bad weather conditions,” he said. “Instead we urge all employers to look after their staff during these adverse weather conditions and to be flexible, especially if employees need to work from home if their children’s school has closed.” Tony Rupa of the union CWU, the union representing postal workers and telephone engineers, stressed the importance of working safely and making use of the right equipment. “We've spent a lot of time working with both Royal Mail and BT to ensure the safety of our members, which is the number one priority.” He said: “As the UK experiences adverse weather conditions we urge our members not to put themselves in unnecessary danger,” adding they should “get in touch with their local area safety rep or union safety rep, if they have a problem or need advice.”
Rising prisoner number and falling budgets are putting prison staff at risk, the union Community has said. The union was commenting after latest Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures revealed assaults on prison staff are at the highest level since 2006. Assaults on staff had increased to 3,470 incidents in the 12 months to end of September 2014 from 3,178 in the 12 months to end of September 2013. The number of serious assaults on staff increased by almost one-third, to 431 incidents from 328. Community said this represents the highest figure since new recording methods were introduced in 2003. The figures are contained in the Ministry of Justice's quarterly Safety in Custody report. Community’s Adrian Axtell commented: “When at least one prison officer is seriously assaulted every day it’s time for the government to wake up and take action. These figures merely illustrate the consequences of increasing the prison population at the same time as reducing the number of prison officers. Our members have serious and legitimate concerns for their safety, which should be addressed.” He added: “Safety in custody does not appear to be a priority for this government, which has presided over a 40 per cent increase in serious assaults on prison officers. We want to work with the government and employers in the sector to find solutions to these problems but that will not happen while the government refuses to acknowledge that investment in officers and staff is fundamental to addressing some of these issues.” There were 15,763 assault incidents, including fights, in the 12 months to the end of September 2014, up from 14,207 incidents in the previous 12 months, an increase of 11 per cent.
England football star Stuart Pearce is warning tradespeople of the deadly risks posed by asbestos. The former electrician said he could have breathed in asbestos while working as an electrician before his football career took off. He is now backing an asbestos safety campaign by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) urging all tradespeople to take sensible measures against the hidden killer. HSE estimates 1.3 million tradespeople are still potentially at risk of being exposed to fibres that can prove fatal if breathed in. The former England defender said: “I was working as an electrician for four and a half years and it’s chilling to think I could have been exposed to it without knowing, we were simply ignorant about the risks back then. Today there’s no excuse – most people know how dangerous asbestos is but many think it’s a thing of the past, it’s not, it’s still there. It can be found in walls, ceilings, even floor tiles and guttering – basically in any type of building built before the year 2000.” He added: “Making sure you’re aware of where it can be found and how to deal with it safely, even on basic jobs like drilling holes or sanding, really could mean the difference between life and death.” The football legend is encouraging workers to use HSE’s free web app for phones, tablets and PCs that identifies where they could come into contact with asbestos as they go about their day-to-day work and provides easy-to-follow guidance.
Ÿ The Mirror.
Hundreds of North Sea oil and gas workers could have been exposed to deadly asbestos while drilling offshore. Fears for their safety arose after a retired rigger was awarded a five-figure legal settlement after contracting asbestos-related pleural thickening. Asbestos was used in Flosal, a powdered substance used in the 1970s to lubricate pipes being drilled into the sea floor. Bill Jones, 68, from Merseyside, won the payout from his former employer, Shell UK, after he developed the debilitating asbestos disease. “I discovered bosses knew the danger of Flosal long before they stopped asking workers to use it,” he told the Sunday Post. “It makes me furious. We were using material that was up to 95 per cent asbestos when it was widely known even a little can be fatal. I only found out by accident what was in it when bosses on another drilling job told me it was banned. I later came across a company memo which proved Shell knew about the risk in 1970, a year before I finished working with them. I worked with plenty of people from Scotland and England who were also exposed.” Bill’s symptoms emerged six years ago, when he became breathless after climbing the stairs on a rig. Fearing he’d fail his survival training, he went to a GP. “When he asked if I’d ever worked with asbestos I feared the worst. I felt sick at what might lie ahead.” Dianne Foster, who works for Asbestos Action Tayside, told the Sunday Post the group had been approached by a number of offshore workers with asbestos-related illnesses. There have been seven figure settlements in the US to former oil workers who developed asbestos-related diseases from the use of Flosal and other asbestos products in drilling operations.
Ÿ Sunday Post.
An offshore services company has been fined for serious criminal safety failings following an incident in which a worker died after plunging 23 metres from a platform into the sea. Lee Bertram, then 37, was working for Bilfinger Salamis UK Limited on a platform in the North Sea when the incident happened on 16 June 2011 (Risks 511). Mr Bertram, from Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, was using ropes to access below the deck and carry out a sweep for dropped objects that could fall into the water, potentially injuring divers working in the sea below. Aberdeen Sheriff Court heard that he had successfully abseiled around an area about eight square feet taking photographs and removing debris. Both the main and the safety rope sheared against the sharp edge of a hatch and he fell to the sea – a distance of 23 metres – striking steelwork as he fell. He died from his injuries before reaching the onsite hospital. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the job Mr Bertram was undertaking had not been properly planned and was contrary both to industry (IRATA) guidelines and the company’s own procedures. Bilfinger Salamis UK Limited was fined £100,000 after pleading guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005. Commenting after the case, RMT offshore organiser Jake Molloy told the Morning Star: “We welcome the fact that the courts have seen fit to hold the company to account. That said, it has taken the best part of four years to get there.”
Ÿ Morning Star.
A Staffordshire dairy farm director has been handed a four-month prison sentence, suspended for a year, after criminal safety failings led to a 75-year-old worker being crushed by a bull. James Leech died in hospital nine days after he was rammed several times against a gate by a Holstein friesian bull weighing around a tonne. Stafford Crown Court heard that on 9 July 2012 Mr Leech was moving cows and the bull into a cubicle shed at Dunston Dairy Farm, run by Betholt Ltd, of which Mark Holt is a director. After a colleague heard shouting, Mr Leech was found in a sitting position in the corner of the yard with the bull directly in front of him. Farm workers managed to get the bull away and secure the area. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigated the incident and served an improvement notice after finding the company had failed to carry out an assessment of the risks related to handling cattle. Mark Holt of Acton Hill Farm, Eccleshall, was sentenced to four months in prison, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to pay costs of £10,073 after admitting two criminal safety offences. Betholt Ltd was fined £133,333 and ordered to pay costs of £19,421 after admitting the same two criminal breaches.
A Preston-based company that installs solar panels has been fined £45,000 following the death of a worker who fell through a barn roof. Gregorz Sobko had been working on the roof of a cowshed when one of the clear plastic panels, designed to let in light, gave way. The 34-year-old from Southport fell five metres to the concrete floor below and died in hospital ten days later. Eco Generation Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) following the incident at Tower View Farm in Hutton on 15 November 2011, after an investigation found the company had failed to provide vital safety equipment. Preston Crown Court heard that the company had been hired to fit solar panels to the flat roof on the cowshed, which was about 20 metres wide by 60 metres long. Each worker had only been given two wooden planks, known as youngmans boards, to stand on while they worked, despite there being dozens of fragile plastic panels on the roof. Mr Sobko had been fitting a solar panel just over a metre away from one of the fragile roof panels when he stepped on it and fell through the roof. The court was told there were several measures Eco Generation could have taken to protect workers, such installing netting under the panels, placing protective covers over them or putting up barriers. The company had installed netting under some of the panels but not under the one the worker fell through. Eco Generation Ltd was fined £45,000 and ordered to pay £20,515 in prosecution costs after pleading guilty to two criminal breaches. HSE inspector Chris Smith said: “Gregorz tragically lost his life because his employer failed to make sure basic safety measures were in place to protect workers.”
A Gloucestershire housebuilder and the company’s managing director have been fined after poor welfare facilities and unsafe excavation work were discovered at a construction site near Cinderford. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) identified a string of concerns at the new-build development in Buckshaft in December 2013. They included a lack of hot running water and washing facilities, and an unsupported excavation for a new sewer. Local firm KW Bell Group Ltd and company MD Keith Bell, 74, admitted at Cheltenham Magistrates’ Court that welfare and safety standards at the site fell short and the criminal safety offences had been committed with the consent, connivance or were attributable to the neglect of, Keith Bell himself. The court heard the firm was building five homes at the site, overseen by Keith Bell. The sanitation and excavation failings were found during an HSE site visit on 11 December 2013, leading to the regulator serving an improvement notice requiring urgent welfare improvements. A prohibition notice was also served to stop any further excavation work with immediate effect until the excavations were properly supported. KW Bell Group Ltd was fined £4,000 and ordered to pay £765 in costs after pleading guilty to two criminal breaches of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007. Keith Bell, of Elton, Gloucestershire was fined £9,000 with £3,502 costs after also pleading guilty to the same breaches.
A fire swept through a plastic packaging factory on the night of Saturday 31 January in the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, killing at least 13 people, a fire department official said. Mohammed Farhaduzzaman said survivors told him about 70 workers were inside the building when the fire broke out at the five-storey factory in Dhaka's Mirpur district. He said at least 13 bodies were recovered from the gutted building, and three people were hospitalised with burns. Local residents told the Daily Star newspaper that the factory recycled plastic and made packaging for food for the domestic market. Safety conditions at Bangladeshi factories have come under international scrutiny in recent years. A fire at a garment factory killed 112 workers in 2012, and in 2013 more than 1,100 people died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building housing five garment factories. After a high profile union campaign, major fashion brands agreed to fund safety inspections in garment factories that began last year (Risks 677).
Ÿ Times Union.
Ÿ The Guardian.
Europe’s workplaces are using 5,675 chemicals that manufacturers or importers consider to be carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction (CMR). The figures come in a January report of notifications to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). ECHA compared the data supplied by manufacturers and importers when notifying the classification and labelling of hazardous substances under the classification, labelling and packaging regulations (CLP) with the registration dossiers submitted by firms handling larger quantities of chemicals under the REACH rules. Of the 5,675 chemicals marketed in the EU that manufacturers or importers regarded as CMRs, just 1,169 were registered – a discrepancy that alarmed the union thinktank ETUI. “Why this is – and what makes NGOs and trade unions deeply unhappy – is that the REACH regulation only requires CMRs produced in Europe or imported in quantities of one tonne or more a year to be registered,” said the ETUI’s chemical risks expert Tony Musu. ETUI said “a large number of CMRs are floating around the EU market outside the REACH registration procedure” intended to keep tabs on the risks of these hazardous chemicals to consumers’ and workers’ health.
The US mine safety regulator MSHA took action on a record number of safety whistleblower cases last year. The mine safety watchdog filed 49 complaints, more than in any previous year. These complaints, filed with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC), involved allegations of discrimination made by miners who were fired, suspended of victimised for raising safety concerns. Additionally, MSHA filed 45 complaints in 2014 requesting temporary reinstatement of victimised miners, the second highest number ever filed. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 states a miner cannot be discharged, discriminated against or interfered with in the exercise of statutory rights because he or she has engaged in a protected activity such as filing a complaint alleging a health or safety violation, or refusing to work under unsafe or unhealthy conditions. “The Mine Act provides miners the right to a safe and healthy workplace and protects them if they suffer unlawful retaliation for exercising those rights,” said MSHA head Joseph A Main. “These - along with unlawful interference in the exercise of their rights - are critical protections for miners, and MSHA will not hesitate to see those rights are enforced.”
Workers at US refineries and chemical plants took strike action last week after the firms and the union USW failed to reach agreement over pay, benefits and safety issues. “Shell refused to provide us with a counter-offer and left the bargaining table,” said USW international president Leo W Gerard. USW international vice president Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s national oil bargaining programme, said: “This work stoppage is about onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it; the industry’s refusal to make opportunities for workers in the trade crafts; the flagrant contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job; and the erosion of our workplace, where qualified and experienced union workers are replaced by contractors when they leave or retire.” USW international vice president of administration, Tom Conway, said: “The oil companies do not want to work with us to improve the workplace and safety at oil refineries and facilities. This industry is the richest in the world and can afford to make the changes we offered in bargaining. The problem is that oil companies are too greedy to make a positive change in the workplace and they continue to value production and profit over health and safety, workers and the community.”