Issue date
21 Aug 2015
TUC Risks E-Bulletins
 
Number 716 - 22 August 2015
 
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 protected]
 
Contents

UNION NEWS

OTHER NEWS

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

UNION NEWS

Tell us how you make work safer and healthier

We know organised workplaces are safer workplaces, and that the role played by trained and effective trade union safety reps is a major reason why. Even the government has admitted this – and acknowledges there’s also a big cash boost to the economy as a result (Risks 712). But that hasn’t stopped the Conservatives from pushing forward with a dangerous Trade Union Bill that could hobble safety reps, restricting their ability to perform their role and get the training they need. The TUC says this means it is now more important than ever that trade unions build organisation around health and safety at the workplace level, and is developing new resources to help this happen. Central to these resources will be case histories showing how the day-to-day activities of union safety reps makes work safer and makes work healthier. TUC wants to hear about the inspirational work you are all doing, so it can showcase the lifesaving impact of union safety organisation in the workplace. Get moving and tell TUC how a safety rep presence delivered better, healthier working conditions where you work.

Send your case histories by 4 September to the TUC health and safety department.

Case exposes real dangers of trade deals

A Canadian goldmining company is using a trade agreement between the UK and Romania to demand £2.5 billion in compensation from the Romanian government after its mining application was blocked. Gabriel Resources was refused permission on health and safety and environmental grounds to mine for gold and silver in the Transylvania region of Romania. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said the case exposed the dangers of international trade deals that demand a levelling-down, lowest common denominator approach to labour, environmental and safety standards. He noted: “This is yet another example of what could happen under the system of Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) or ‘corporate courts’ system that is included in the free-trade deal being pushed between the EU and USA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). It shows that UK taxpayers could end up paying billions of pounds to private companies that complain that they are being denied the right to make huge profits because of government regulations aimed at protecting workers or the environment.” GMB international officer Bert Schouwenburg said Gabriel Resources was abusing UK jurisdiction by using a “shell” or “mailbox” company registered in Jersey so it could invoke the UK/Romania trade agreement. “It has no real business activities in the UK to make use of an investment agreement to launch claims before an ISDS tribunal,” he said. “Cheerleaders of TTIP, the toxic trade deal being pushed by the EU and the USA, have accused its many critics of exaggerating the threat that it poses to democracy. But this is a clear example of how we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to an enormous corporate power grab. Why should UK taxpayers in future foot the massive bills for compensating greedy corporations when the government rules that their operations are harmful to communities or the environment?”

Amazon makes its staff physically and mentally ill

Staff working for Amazon in the UK have developed physical and mental illnesses because of the “regimes” they work under, the union GMB has warned. Employees at the online retailer’s distribution centres across the UK were under pressure to be an “above-average Amazon robot”, the GMB’s lead officer for Amazon, Elly Baker, told the Times. Baker’s comments followed a New York Times article that alleged punitive performance management systems at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle, including gruelling working conditions and harsh treatment of staff suffering personal crises, such as cancer and miscarriages. The article prompted a message to Amazon staff from company founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, saying it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know”. However GMB’s Elly Baker said: “It’s hard, physical work, but the constant stress of being monitored and never being able to drop below a certain level of performance is harsh. You can’t be a normal person. You have to be an above-average Amazon robot all the time.” She said some employees were suffering from musculoskeletal problems, work-related stress and anxiety. “We’re seeing this specifically because of the regimes they work under.” Earlier this year, GMB warned that ‘impossible’ targets were imposing unbearable stresses and strains on Amazon workers who were then being invited to leave their jobs (Risks 697). More than 7,000 staff work at Amazon’s UK distribution centres in Hemel Hempstead, Milton Keynes, Swansea, Peterborough, Rugeley near Stafford, Doncaster, Dunfermline and Gourock in Inverclyde.

Unions are the solution to Amazon problems

A union presence backed up by decent employment rights is the solution to oppressive working conditions at Amazon, observers have said. A New York Times exposé found the firm pushes staff to their limits in the name of productivity and efficiency. Based on interviews with more than 100 former and current Amazon employees, the investigation identified widespread dissatisfaction with management methods, “performance improvement” programmes and workloads at the global company. In a message to staff prompted by the New York Times investigation, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, who is worth $49.5bn, said the article “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR.” Commenting on the Amazon founder’s message to his employees, Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott wrote: “What he should be doing is inviting them to form a trade union. Rarely can the case for organised labour have been made more powerfully than in the claims of bad management practice catalogued by the NYT.” TUC head of economic and social affairs Nicola Smith said the Amazon approach was “extremely detrimental to employee health and productivity.” She added: “I think there are some really concerning practices described in The New York Times report, including employment practices that are not legally acceptable in the UK. Yet we know bad employers still exploit workers in this way.” She said the concerns raised in the US highlight the need for continued vigilance against the dilution of union powers and workers’ rights in Britain. Amazon-style performance management systems have come a major concern to unions in UK workplaces (Risks 681).

Unite calls for respect for toilet breaks

Too many workers are facing difficulty getting a toilet break at work, research by Unite has found. The union, which has launched a national toilet breaks campaign, says mobile workers, for example delivery drivers, can be particularly badly affected. But it says problems have been encountered in diverse workplaces from offices, to aircraft to factories. According to Unite, poor management practices can be as big an issue as a lack of adequate facilities. It cites examples of workers being required to put up their hands to request permission to go or having their pay stopped while they take a break. Women can face additional problems, the union notes, with many male-dominated workplaces like bus garages failing to provide designated facilities for women. Unite warns that a lack of access to welfare facilities is bad for workers’ health, linked to serious, chronic health problems, and can affect concentration. It has published a 10-point action checklist for Unite safety reps, with recommendations including that toilet and washing facilities form part of regular safety inspections, members be encouraged to report problems and ensuring that agreements and health and safety policies provide for paid rest breaks, toilet breaks, provision of suitable welfare facilities and easy access to them during the working day. Unite says safety reps should also work with Unite equality reps “to ensure that you have covered all the issues of concern raised by members.”

North Sea chopper pilots want safe staffing

A move by North Sea helicopter companies to rush through redundancies could put safety at risk, the pilots’ union has warned. BALPA said over a third of helicopter pilots operating in the North Sea attended a union meeting last week and were “appalled to hear the employers’ approach to the redundancies, at the ruthless exploitation of the weak market by the oil and gas majors and at the consequent real risk to safety in the North Sea.” There was an overwhelming call for BALPA to run a ballot for strike action, the union said. BALPA general secretary Jim McAuslan said: “We want decent voluntary terms to attract willing victims, more part-time working options to save jobs and objective and transparent redundancy selection criteria, which pay proper regard to flying experience - a critical factor in maintaining safety offshore.” Calling on the government to “knock heads together”, he added: “For pilots safety is our number one priority and there is a fear that these redundancies may lead to corners being cut and pilots flying when their focus is not 100 per cent on task. Overall the redundancies are bad for employees, bad for business, bad for the UK economy and bad for safety.”

Players’ safety ‘must come first’ in professional sport

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) has said that safety should always come first when players are injured during a game. Karen Middleton, chief executive of the physios’ union, was commenting after Chelsea Football Club demoted two health professionals, Eva Carneiro and Jon Fearn, both of whom were then banished from the dugout for last week’s match. The action came after they ran onto the pitch to assist an injured player at the previous match, something the club management felt adversely affected the team’s chances. Questioned by journalists ahead of the following game about the decision to exile the experienced health professionals from the bench, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho threatened to walk out of the press conference. The Herald reported: “Chelsea – or at least their manager – failed to realise the many hot-button issues it would trigger: workplace bullying, sexism, player health and safety.” CSP’s Karen Middleton commented: “Player safety must always be paramount, regardless of the scoreline or the time left in the game. Physiotherapists and other health professionals, like Eva Carneiro and Jon Fearn, working in sport do an important job under intense pressure.” She added: “They are employed to make professional judgments about the most appropriate action to take when an injury, or suspected injury, occurs and deliver the best possible care to players. Ultimately, it is in the interests of managers, clubs and fans that the welfare of players comes first.” The role of health professionals in sport came to prominence last year, after several controversial incidents where players suffering head injuries and concussion were allowed to stay on the pitch, including cases at the World Cup (Risks 667). In August last year, football players’ union the PFA said it would be offering an education programme to help raise awareness amongst players of the potential dangers, in conjunction with the Premier League, Football League and League Manager’s Association (LMA).

RMT slams ‘shocking complacency’ of private rail firms

Rail union RMT has accused private rail companies of “shocking complacency” after new figures revealed a sharp upturn in sexual assaults on the network. Responding to official figures released by the British Transport Police (BTP), RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “These horrific statistics, showing that sexual assaults on our railways rose by nearly 25 per cent over the year, expose the shocking complacency of the private train companies who are still pressing ahead with plans to de-staff our stations and remove the safety-critical guards from our trains in line with government instructions.” He added: “We note that there has also been a major increase in crimes of violence against the person, including racially-aggravated assaults, which is all consistent with our railways becoming a haven for thugs and racists as staff cuts are bulldozed through. RMT has pledged to step up the fight to retain guards on services currently under attack, including Northern and First Great Western, and the union will be reinforcing the message that our campaigns have public and staff safety right at their very core.” BTP recorded 1,399 sexual offences in 2014-15 in England, Scotland and Wales - up 282 on the previous year. Recorded violent crimes also increased - up 8 per cent to 9,149 - but overall crime fell for the 11th year in a row. BTP said the rise in sex crimes was mainly due to a campaign to encourage reporting of these offences.

OTHER NEWS

HSE criticised over deadly bin lorry crash inaction

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been criticised for its decision to treat the Glasgow bin lorry crash as a road traffic accident. A QC representing three of those killed in the incident questioned whether the decision was “hasty and ill advised” and a campaign group said HSE had ignored a legal precedent set in a similar case in 2000. HSE inspector Barry Baker told a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) at Glasgow Sheriff Court this week that the incident on 22 December 2014, in which six people were killed by a runaway bin lorry, was “clearly a road traffic accident”, adding it was “investigated by the correct regulators.” The FAI heard that a meeting was held the day after the crash with representatives from the police, the Crown Office, the HSE and others. It was agreed at this meeting that the crash was a road traffic incident and would be investigated by police. Mark Stewart QC, acting for the family of Erin McQuade, 18, and her grandparents Jack Sweeney, 68, and Lorraine Sweeney, 69, suggested that the medical records for bin lorry driver Harry Clarke, who had a history of dizzy spells and fainting, were not obtained until 7 January this year. It is thought he blacked out at the wheel prior to the crash. Stewart said: “So, this incident was written off within 30 hours by a group who convened without the benefit of what could have been significant information in relation to this particular driver, that could have had a bearing on the issue of contravention of the Health and Safety at Work Act?” HSE’s Barry Baker said: “I disagree with that. If there's a problem with medical fitness to drive, that's a matter for the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency). We would become involved if there were systematic issues.” Mr Stewart said: “The idea that this accident was categorised as a road traffic accident, it must seem that that was hasty and ill-advised?” The HSE inspector replied: “No. I disagree that it was hasty. It was clearly a road traffic accident, it was investigated by the correct regulators.” However, campaign group Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) said HSE had ignored the findings of a judicial review in 2000, which ruled HSE was wrong not to investigate a case where a member of the public was killed by a forklift truck driving on a public road. The forklift driver’s company and its director were subsequently prosecuted by HSE (Risks 11). FACK spokesperson Hilda Palmer said: “FACK urges the FAI to look into the HSE’s failure to investigate the Glasgow bin lorry incident as a work–related incident and consider all action that can be taken to remedy this unsatisfactory outcome which has denied the families any justice and also failed to correct problems in workplaces that may put others at risk.”

Action needed on workplace bullying

The TUC has called for action to prevent workplace bullying after new research found most workers have experience of bullying at work. Personal injury law firm Slater and Gordon found almost six in 10 people have witnessed or suffered bullying in the workplace. Over a third (37 per cent) said they had been bullied themselves. The poll of 2,000 workers found that while most people had witnessed or believed they had faced bullying in the workplace, less than half (48 per cent) did anything about it. Claire Dawson, an employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, said: “They are concerned for their own positions and aren’t willing to put their necks on the line, especially when they don’t know how an employer will respond to the issue. Our advice to anybody being bullied would be to stand up and take action. You have to confront the bully, either directly or through HR or a manager, to let them know that what they are doing is unacceptable.” Commenting on the findings, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Office bullies must be banished from the workplace. The stress and anxiety felt by victims can make them physically ill, lose all self-confidence and mean that they dread coming into work. No-one should be put in this position.” She added: “Employers who fail to tackle bullying will pay a price too. Staff who are bullied are more likely to take more time off because of the stress caused by their harassment and will be less productive at work. Every organisation needs to have an anti-bullying policy, and every manager should ensure that there is zero-tolerance of bullying either by line managers or workmates. This research shows why people should join a union to ensure they are treated fairly at work.”

Manslaughter convictions after farm worker’s death

A construction site manager and the site owner have been convicted of manslaughter following the death of a farm worker in 2011. Jason Morgan, from Bristol, died when his ladder touched an overhead 11,000 volt cable at Great Brynn Barton Farm near Roche. Norman Treseder, 54, who was managing the construction at the site at the time of the incident, was found guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence at Truro Crown Court. Roger Matthews, 47, who was the site owner, was also found guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence. Philip Tucker, 57, who engaged Mr Morgan to carry out the work, was found guilty of a criminal health and safety offence. Matthews Plant Hire Ltd was also found guilty of two criminal safety breaches. Following the verdict, Detective Inspector Stuart Ellis of Devon and Cornwall Police said: “It has been over four years since the tragic death of Jason Morgan at Great Brynn Barton Farm. I can only imagine the emotion and consequences for Mr Morgan’s family and friends during this time.” He added: “Under the Work Related Death Protocol, I have worked closely with the Health and Safety Executive and Crown Prosecution Service during this time to establish the facts of this incident and identify those responsible. I hope that this trial will help those concerned with Jason to understand more fully what happened on that day, and that the verdicts will help to bring some form of resolution for them.” The men will be sentenced on 14 September at Bristol Crown Court.

Paper mill worker killed by unguarded machine

A worker died as a result of being pulled into unguarded machinery at a Devon paper mill, a court has heard. John Stoddart, 42, who was attempting to smooth out felt on a conveyor at the Higher Kings Mill in Cullompton, suffered fatal injuries in the incident on 24 September 2011. Exeter Crown Court heard that Mr Stoddart, an operations manager at DS Smith Paper Ltd, was trying to identify a problem that was causing creases in the large rolls of industrial paper being produced. Although no-one witnessed what happened to Mr Stoddart, it is likely he was dragged onto the felt belt which then ripped and he fell into the machinery below, causing fatal crush injuries. He was pronounced dead at Royal Devon and Exeter hospital having been taken there by an ambulance. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found the company had failed to place any guard around the belt and did not have a suitable risk assessment for work which needed to be carried out to find the cause of creases and for working on the gantry. DS Smith Paper Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £400,000 plus £34,761.67 costs. HSE inspector Simon Jones commented: “DS Smith’s failure to guard a dangerous piece of moving machinery tragically cost Mr Stoddart his life and has left his family without a husband, father and brother.”

Engineering firm bypassed safety guards

A north east engineering firm has been fined for deliberately compromising machine safety guards for production reasons. South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court heard H Mullins (Earby) Limited, which produces precision engineered components, used Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines as part of the production process, including machining centres, milling machines and drilling machines. The guards on the machines comprise of a sliding door which is interlocked. In February this year, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector found the interlocks had been deliberately defeated on three CNC machining centres and a CNC milling machine and the interlock was broken on a CNC drilling machine. The court was told this action allowed employees to access dangerous parts of the machines during automatic CNC operations, leading to a risk of serious injury. The company had been served with HSE improvement notices following an inspection in 2008 and a letter sent in 2012 highlighting similar issues. HSE inspector Fiona McGarry said: “The deliberate defeating of safety devices in any workplace is not acceptable. This company had received advice on two previous occasions in relation to the guarding standards on CNC machines and had not taken appropriate action.” She added: “HSE will not hesitate to take enforcement action against companies who continually flout health and safety law and put their employees at risk.” Mullins (Earby) Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £13,500 with £1,439.10 costs.

Oil giant sentenced over criminal safety failure

The firm running the Grangemouth Oil Refinery in Scotland has been fined for criminal safety failings after a worker was injured at the plant. In October 2012, a Petroineos employee was carrying out a cleaning operation on a vent pipe and while opening a vent valve on a walkway 25 metres above ground, was sprayed in the face by low pressure steam. Despite wearing personal protective equipment including a hard hat and safety glasses the worker was left injured and disorientated, and as he was working at height, in danger of falling from the platform. Falkirk Sheriff Court heard the subsequent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation revealed a failing in the risk assessment process which had not identified the potential hazard of the discharge of steam directly towards an operator. The court was told simple, low cost steps could have been taken to eliminate the hazard, such as fitting a short pipe extension to ensure any steam was discharged safely away from the operator. Crude oil refiner Petroineos Manufacturing Scotland Ltd - previously known as Ineos Manufacturing Scotland Limited - pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined £24,000.

Timber worker loses fingers in poorly guarded machine

A timber gate manufacturer in Daventry has been fined after an employee lost two fingers on his left hand while working on machinery. The 27-year-old employee of Main Line Timber Limited was pulled into the rotating blade of an inadequately guarded circular saw on 25 July 2014. Northampton Magistrates’ Court heard that the employee had been working on the saw alone and was both feeding and removing large pieces of timber from the saw when a piece of wood snagged and pulled his left hand into the blade. The employee’s left hand was severely injured, and his little finger and ring finger were subsequently amputated. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company had failed to ensure that required safety features were installed on the machine and also failed to maintain the condition of the top guard on the saw. In addition to these failings, the employee did not received adequate training for use of the saw and there was an unsafe system of work in operation. Main Line Timber Limited was fined £10,000 with costs of £1,000 after pleading guilty to a criminal safety breach. HSE inspector Jenna McDade said: “Had the company taken suitable measures to ensure workers did not come into contact with the rotating blade, had the saw been properly guarded and fitted with relevant safety features and had employees been provided with adequate training, this young man would not have lost two of his fingers.”

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

China: Disasters take a huge toll on workers

Two massive explosions and the subsequent inferno around a warehouse in the industrial city of Tianjin on 12 August killed over 100 workers and injured several hundred more, including local residents. At least 21 firefighters are believed to be among the dead, with many more reported missing. It is believed the final death toll could exceed 200. The explosions, which were visible from space, occurred when a storage facility containing hazardous chemicals caught fire, setting a chain reaction. Chemicals involved in the explosion at the port in north China included calcium carbide, sodium cyanide, potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate and sodium nitrate. Chinese media reported that at least one member of staff from Tianjin Dongjiang Port Ruihai International Logistics, which owns the warehouse, has been arrested. Campaign group Australia Asia Worker Links (AAWL) said this is the latest of a succession of deadly incidents in China. A few days earlier, a landslide buried the accommodation quarters at a coal mine in the central province of Shaanxi, killing at least 12 workers. At another coal mine in the province of Guizhou a fire killed another 10 workers. AAWL noted: “While the appalling safety record of China’s coal mine industry is well known, the widespread suppression of independent trade unions, a profit at all costs system, and widespread corruption has created a lethal environment for millions of workers across all industries in China.” Environmental campaign group Greenpeace commented: “What we have witnessed over the last few days is just the tip of the iceberg. Just this year 13 other explosions have occurred in the provinces of Jiangsu, Fujian and Shandong according to media reports. In fact, as recent as last month an explosion hit a chemical plant in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing spreading to three other chemical tanks nearby. What lies beneath the surface is years of negligence in regards to hazardous chemicals policies and their implementation.”

Lebanon: Union action on rubbish mountain at port

Work in the port of Beirut stopped on 13 August as workers staged a cautionary strike over serious health and safety concerns following the dumping of tons of municipal waste near the port. “We will not accept our port becoming the capital’s dumping ground. The health of all who enter the port is at risk, workers, visitors and customers. We want the port authorities to talk to the union; we want to avoid further escalation to open-ended strike,” said Bchara Asmar, president of the Union of Beirut port employees. The rubbish crisis came after collections were halted in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, following the closure of a large landfill site. The union reports that the Lebanese government has not provided a viable waste management solution, so the municipalities have resorted to a very unhealthy alternative. The union says a potential environmental crisis faces the general public in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Reports state some 20 tons of rubbish have been dumped in the streets in the searing heat. A global campaign by the international transport union federation ITF has been launched in support of the Beirut union, with transport workers being asked to demonstrate their solidarity and call on the government for immediate action.

Philippines: Rescued fishers launch 'worker safe' boats

Five months after internationally coordinated union action secured the release and repatriation of 43 fishing crew detained in Indonesia and abandoned by Philippines tuna giant Citra Mina (Risks 700), the Citra Mina Workers' Union and its allies have celebrated the launch of three newly built fishing vessels owned and operated by the union. After returning to the Philippines, the abandoned crew testified at a Congressional hearing on human rights violations by Citra Mina. With Citra Mina refusing compensation, the union secured funds from the integrated livelihood programme of the government’s Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) to finance the construction of the boats. The boats were built by the 43 returned fishing workers and will be crewed by them as part of the 'Worker Safe' tuna campaign to make workers’ rights, decent working conditions and workers’ health and safety integral to the sustainability of the tuna industry in the Philippines. The Citra Mina Workers Union, which is affiliated to the global foodworkers’ union IUF through the Food & Beverage Workers' Council of the national union federation SENTRO, continues to fight for the reinstatement of union leaders and members dismissed nearly two years ago for exercising their human right to join a union.

USA: Food firm to pay $6 million after horror death

A California food firm is to pay a $6 million fine after a 62-year-old worker was cooked to death in an industrial pressure cooker. In October 2012, Bumble Bee Foods employee Jose Melena, needing to make a quick repair to the cooker, stepped into massive industrial vessel used to sterilise thousands of cans of tuna at a time. Not realising Melena was inside, fellow employees shut the machine door behind him and turned the oven on. With temperatures reaching about 270 degrees, Melena was cooked to death. Bumble Bee Foods agreed the fine for “wilfully violating worker safety rules,” according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. “You don’t have warm blood running in your veins if you’re not affected by the way this guy died. It’s horrific,” said Hoon Chun, assistant head deputy district attorney for the office’s Consumer Protection Division, who helped prosecute the case. “I cannot imagine a worse result of violating safety rules than something like this.” Melena’s death, he said, will force the company to change the way things are done at the plant. The company will pay $3 million to replace its outdated tuna ovens with new ovens that don’t require workers to set foot inside. Bumble Bee will also pay $1.5 million in restitution to Melena’s family. The district attorney’s Environmental Enforcement Fund will receive $750,000 from Bumble Bee, and the company will pay an additional $750,000 in combined fines, penalties and court costs. Two plant managers were also fined and ordered to undertake community service. “I hope it sends a message that safety rules are not a recommendation, they are a legal requirement,” Chun said. “I’m hoping people will... realise shortcutting safety rules to make a few extra bucks and improve the bottom line is not a tolerable equation.”

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