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TUC Risks E-Bulletins
Number 721 - 26 September 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








Unite warns that ‘welding fumes can kill’

New guidance from Unite is warning that ‘welding fumes can kill’. The union says it is concerned about the long term health risks of being exposed to the fumes generated during welding operations. It says breathing these fumes can cause conditions including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia. Welding certain metals is also linked to ‘welding fume fever’, it notes, which causes delayed flu-type symptoms. And welding-related lung cancer is on the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) top 10 priorities list for occupational cancer prevention (Risks 697). According to Unite: “Employers have a clear legal responsibility to make sure that any welding, or similar, work can be done safely. This can be achieved through the use of local exhaust ventilation, or, if that is not effective, the use of respiratory protective equipment.” The union adds: “It is very important welders are told and understand the risks, as without their employers and them taking the right action, even proper control measures might not work effectively. The long term effects mean that welders will probably not realise their health is being affected until it is already being damaged.”

Fit for work could mean bullied back to work

UNISON has warned that government changes to the role of the fit for work service could increase bullying of sick staff. The public service union says prior to the change only GPs could refer to the Fit for Work Service, but now employers can refer employees “who have been off sick from work, or are likely to be off sick from work, for 4 weeks or more” (Risks 694). UNISON is concerned that this change to the service, which is now available nationwide after a delayed roll-out, “could increase bullying in the workplace as employers use undue influence to make sick and vulnerable staff return to work before they are fully ready or before adequate support is put in place by the employer.” Echoing concerns raised by the TUC, UNISON said: “The scheme is supposed to be designed to give first-line support for employees, employers and GPs in a bid to get sick staff back to work. It is not an alternative to occupational health provision provided by the employer.”

We are teachers, not boxers

Teaching union NASUWT has expressed concern about the increase in violence towards teachers. Speaking at the TUC’s September Congress in Brighton, the union’s general secretary, Chris Keates, said: “It’s wholly unacceptable that increasing numbers of teachers are reporting that they are being told that being abused and assaulted is part of the job. No teacher or other worker should go to work with an expectation that they should tolerate violence and abuse.” She added: “Where violence occurs, employers should operate a zero tolerance approach. In schools this would send a strong message to parents, pupils and local communities that such behaviour has no place in schools.” NASUWT president Graham Dawson said: “We are proud to serve the public but it is time all employers are made to take their responsibilities seriously and do their jobs as well as we do our own. In schools, tolerance of violence and abuse is irresponsible as such an attitude betrays the young people and the staff who teach them. The only people who go to work expecting to be hit are professional boxers.”

Shopworkers get recognised at TUC awards

Usdaw reps Brenda Shaw and Janise Corfield have been honoured at the national TUC awards. Janise Corfield received the 2015 TUC health and safety rep award for her extensive campaigning to improve safety for staff in her workplace, an out-of-town large supermarket. She pushed Usdaw’s Safer Journeys to Work campaign to help staff on early and late shifts get to and from work safely. Brenda Shaw collected the TUC Women’s Gold Badge for her commitment as a workplace rep and for campaigning on mental health. Brenda lost her niece to suicide and realised that she had to do something to tackle the shame, stigma and prejudice that still surrounds mental health. She said: “My campaign to raise awareness about mental health started in my workplace, but it soon spread across the union and I am grateful to Usdaw for their support.” Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: “Our union is only as strong and effective as the volunteer reps who are active in the workplaces we organise.” He added: “Brenda and Janise both highlight the breadth of service that we as a trade union offer. It isn’t just about negotiating wages and dealing with disciplinary hearings, as important as those are. Tackling mental health and safety at work are difficult issues and quite often a union rep is the one of very few people who can do something significant to help.”

Your best defence at work is to be organised

With the government intent on introducing more anti-trade union laws and continuing its attack on workers’ rights and essential safety protections (Risks 718), your best defence at work is to be organised and active, according to Mick Holder of the train drivers’ union ASLEF. In a pep talk for safety reps in the new issue of Hazards magazine, he spells out how union health and safety reps can ‘turn it on’, using their rights and organising power to protect and improve workplace health and safety. He notes “with health and safety at work a major concern for most working people, making it an area of work for the union can and does show what being in a union is all about, helping to retain members and recruit non-members. Stress, bullying, long hours, shiftwork, lousy working conditions, toilets, cleaning facilities, working alone, computers, dust, noise, chemicals - these are all issues trade union health and safety representatives can get active on in support of the membership.” Holder argues that involving the workforce is key, with certain tools in the safety rep armoury sometimes more effective than others. “Surveys of the membership on health and safety problems can uncover problems, but don’t provide as much ‘ownership’ as participatory research like bodymapping or risk mapping,” he observes, adding: “For now safety reps retain unparalleled legal rights – training, paid time to perform the role, to inspect and investigate, to be consulted - many unwritten by European directives. Use them.”

Nearly half of teachers in Wales ‘think of quitting’

Nearly half of teachers surveyed in Wales said they are thinking of leaving the job in the next two years. The union NUT Cymru asked 450 teachers about their intentions for the future. The main reasons given for considering leaving the job were ‘unreasonable demands from managers’, workload and ‘seeking a better work-life balance’. The union survey also suggested 85 per cent of teachers believed morale had declined over the past five years. Asked if they were thinking of leaving the teaching profession in the next two years, 46 per cent said yes. Many teachers also raised concerns about their mental and physical health as the reason for considering their future in the profession. The survey also found budget cuts had led to fewer support staff, fewer courses on offer on the curriculum and a reduction in activities such as school trips.


Fit for work ruling ‘caused suicide’

A man with severe depression hanged himself as a direct cause of being deemed “fit for work” by a medically unqualified government assessor, a coroner has ruled. The Disability News Service (DNS) unearthed the coroner’s report, saying that it appeared to be the first case in which a coroner explicitly linked Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) sanctions to a death. Michael O’Sullivan, 60, killed himself in September 2013 after his employment support allowance (ESA) was stopped despite evidence from three health professionals confirming his serious health problems. His GP declared that he was unable to work while a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist both confirmed that he was suffering from chronic depression, anxiety and agoraphobia. But the assessor did not request the doctors’ supporting documents before making the decision after a 90-minute assessment, the coroner said. In her formal findings, senior coroner Mary Hassell wrote in January last year that his “anxiety and depression were long-term problems but the intense anxiety that triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment by the [DWP] as being fit for work, and his view of the likely consequences of that.” The coroner further outlined her concerns in a separate document, known as a Prevention of Future Deaths report. She wrote: “I found that the trigger for Mr O’Sullivan’s suicide was his recent assessment by a DWP doctor as being fit for work… In my opinion, there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.” Disabled People Against Cuts cofounder Debbie Jolly, speaking to the Morning Star, said: “Once again we have evidence that the work capability assessment system is literally killing people. The government can no longer say there is no causality, now that we know there is.” In August, the TUC called for an urgent enquiry after government figures revealed over 1,000 people a year are dying shortly after being told during benefit checks they are fit for work (Risks 717).

Scaffold horrors captured by passer-by

A scaffolder has been given a suspended jail sentence after repeatedly ignoring official warnings about seriously unsafe work above a busy London street. Greg Pearson, trading as ‘Pearsons Scaffolding’, was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after a member of the public raised concerns about scaffolding work being carried out on Tavistock Street in central London. She was so concerned for the safety of passers-by and workers on the 15 metre high scaffold that three separate complaints including photographs and videos were passed to HSE. HSE visited the site twice and found the incomplete scaffold to be poorly erected and unsafe work practices were putting workers at risk. Neither had measures been taken to prevent any falling scaffolding equipment hitting members of the public below. HSE served a prohibition notice ordering work to be stopped until the scaffold was made safe, but Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard that Pearson ignored this and other warnings. The court also heard Pearson failed to respond when required to produce documents for inspection during the investigation, hindering the HSE’s efforts to ensure future work was carried out safely at other sites. Pearsons Scaffolding’s involvement at the site only ended when a second prohibition notice was served and the project’s principal contractor decided to take on another scaffolder to complete the work. Greg Pearson, 33, pleaded guilty to two criminal safety breaches and was given two prison sentences of 10 weeks to run concurrently, suspended for 12 months. He was also ordered to pay costs of £200 and a victim surcharge of £80.

Abattoir worker’s hand maimed by pig saw

An abattoir worker suffered severe hand injuries in an incident with an industrial saw that led to a major Scottish food processing firm being prosecuted. Recent recruit Steven Murray was working at the AP Jess plant on the outskirts of Brechin when his left hand came into contact with an unprotected band saw on the production line used for killing all of the Tulip bacon company’s Scottish pigs. He lost part of his left index finger and suffered serious injuries to two other fingers. While he was receiving hospital attention, the saw was scrubbed down, disinfected and brought back into use for the rest of the shift, Forfar Sheriff Court was told. Quality Pork Processors (QPP), formerly known as AP Jess (Brechin) Ltd, admitted an accelerated indictment before Sheriff Pino Di Emidio relating to the criminal safety breaches in May 2013. The court was told the band saw, which had an exposed blade, was being used as a replacement for the usual saw which was inoperative. The replacement band saw was not fitted to a conveyor to carry the sections of cut meat away from the blade and towards the employee. This meant that the employee’s hands had to be in close proximity to the exposed cutting blade. The victim was taking a piece of meat that had passed through the leg saw away when his left hand came into contact with the blade. Senior health and safety depute fiscal Gavin Callaghan told the court that following the incident, the company had changed its name to QPP as a result of coming under new ownership. He said Mr Murray had been with the firm for around seven weeks prior to the incident, and in the cutting room for only three to four weeks. Quality Pork Processors Limited was fined £28,000.

A creative guide to organising for safety

Dave Smith’s long history as a workplace safety activist, union safety rep and trade union health and safety tutor has meant he’s heard many union reps relate inspiring examples of the most creative ways to get a workplace safety message across. And now he’s writing them down, in a regular ‘Organising 101’ column in Hazards magazine. His first column related how union reps used flower power at work, to defend a worker facing dismissal for sick leave arising from a workplace injury. Five minutes before she was due to face a final stage capability hearing, her workmates congregated outside the meeting room, hugging their colleague and presenting her with the flowers and a gigantic get well soon card that had been purchased earlier by the union rep. When the meeting started, the manager’s opening remark was: “OK, we get your point.” The appeal was granted and the member was referred to occupational health, with reasonable adjustments to her job implemented a few weeks later. Another column illustrates how to conduct an effective workplace inspection. Dave relates a case where he took a trade union safety reps’ course to a park to test out their newly acquired skills. The reps found hardly any problems of note. It was only when they talked to the park keeper they learned the real challenges of the job - needlestick injuries, poor training, excessive hours, an absence of welfare facilities and a high frequency of assaults. Dave concludes: “What is the most important thing to remember when becoming a union safety rep? Make sure you spend most of your time talking to people!” He says the combination of creativity and collective action is the best way to win improvements.

Maintenance firm firmed after joiner’s electric shock

Berneslai Homes Ltd has been fined following an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into safety standards on a council maintenance contract. Barnsley Magistrates Court heard that HSE was following up an incident involving a Berneslai Homes Ltd joiner who received an electric shock while replacing a wooden garden fence around a domestic property in Barnsley on 26 November 2013. The joiner, who struck an underground electric cable with a metal spade while excavating a post hole, did not suffer any lasting ill-effects. However, the court was told that incidents of this type can be deadly. The court found that Berneslai Homes Ltd, which is responsible for managing 18,800 homes on behalf of Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, had failed to minimise the risk of a cable strike. The company was fined £7,500 with £8,562 in costs after pleading guilty to a criminal breach of the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989.


Tackling HIV discrimination at work

There are more than 100,000 people living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in the UK, mostly of working age, of whom a quarter are unaware of their status. Most of those who live with HIV in the UK have normal life expectancy and lead fulfilling working lives. However, some people are unaware of the facts, and this can mean people living with HIV face prejudice and discrimination in the workplace. ‘Tackling HIV discrimination at work’, a new TUC guide, provides basic facts to help trade unionists deal with issues that might arise.


Bangladesh: Shipbreaking deaths lead to action call

The deaths of four workers in a single incident in a Bangladesh shipbreaking yard underline the importance of the global campaign for ratification of the Hong Kong Convention, aimed at making perilous shipbreaking jobs safer, the global union IndustriALL has said. The union body was speaking out in the wake of the 5 September fatalities in the Shital yard in Chittagong. A gas cylinder exploded killing four and injuring a further four workers, all members of the Bangladesh Metalworkers’ Federation (BMF). The injured workers suffered life-threatening burns. The tragedy occurred while the eight shipbreakers were getting ready for work. A union organised human chain on 10 September protested the “shocking” working conditions in the industry in Bangladesh, said IndustriALL. On 14 September the BMF again formed a human chain demanding proper safety provisions at the Shital yard. BMF is also working to ensure proper compensation is paid to the families of the killed and injured workers. IndustriALL shipbuilding and shipbreaking sector director Kan Matsuzaki said: “The IndustriALL affiliates in this sector are taking action as part of our campaign for ratification of the Hong Kong Convention. Over the last three weeks major trade unions in Japan, Germany, Australia and Denmark have reasserted their demand for their governments to ratify this international convention that will secure health and safety and save the workers’ lives.”

Global: Unions dismiss KiK’s comments on fire payouts

Global unions and labour rights campaigners have criticised German retail multinational KiK for stalling on a commitment to properly compensate victims of a deadly garment factory fire in Pakistan. The 11 September third anniversary of the Ali Enterprises factory fire, Pakistan’s worst garment industry tragedy, had prompted renewed calls on German retailer KiK to pay compensation to the relatives of the 254 workers killed and to the 55 others serious injured making KiK clothes (Risks 720). But global unions IndustriALL and UNI and the Clean Clothes Campaign have expressed dismay at the company’s “attempts to obfuscate issues related to compensation for the victims of the Ali Enterprises factory fire in Pakistan.” In a joint statement, the groups say the US$1m provided by KiK as emergency assistance in the immediate aftermath of the disaster did not provide for long-term compensation to those affected. The statement notes: “We welcome KiK’s proposal for compensation for loss of income and medical costs based on ILO Convention 121, which KiK initially rejected,” but adds the groups “invite KiK to return to the negotiating table in good faith and reach an agreement to pay long-term compensation to all victims, including those victims who have filed legal cases, without further delay. We also call on KiK to develop a robust strategy to prevent such accidents from happening again.”

USA: Common solvent is killing people

Methylene chloride, a powerful solvent whose use is heavily restricted in Europe, remains widely used and poorly regulated in the US – and is continuing to kill as a result. The solvent is common in paint strippers, widely available products with labels that warn of cancer risks but do not make clear the possibility of rapid death. In areas where the fumes can concentrate, workers and consumers risk asphyxiation or a heart attack while performing seemingly routine tasks. That hazard prompted the European Union to pull methylene chloride paint strippers from general use in 2011. However a Center for Public Integrity (CPI) investigation found US regulators failed to follow suit – with deadly consequences for workers and consumers. “People have died, it poses this cancer threat… and everybody knows it’s a bad chemical, and yet nobody does anything,” said Katy Wolf, who recommends safer alternatives to toxic chemicals as director of the non-profit Institute for Research and Technical Assistance (IRTA) in California. “It’s appalling and irresponsible.” She said an alternative containing benzyl alcohol is a reasonably effective replacement for commercial and consumer furniture stripping because it loosens all the same coatings for approximately the same overall cost. It doesn’t do so as quickly as methylene chloride – also known as dichloromethane - in some cases. But it doesn’t have the expense of methylene chloride’s OSHA-required protections, she noted.

USA: Chemicals killed him; but they only tested for drugs

Cindy Simpson will probably never know why her husband died. She says Oklahoma officials promised her they'd find out after David Simpson died last year. Fellow oil workers found the 57-year-old truck driver slumped over a tank hatch at an oil well. But officials didn't do an autopsy or test for petroleum exposure. Investigators from the federal workplace safety regulator suspect Simpson was killed by a hydrocarbon vapours from an oil storage tank at the XTO Energy Inc. site. The inspector who investigated the case for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) deemed the safety practices at the facility ‘UNACCEPTABLE’ in his report. But OSHA dropped the case after the Oklahoma medical examiner listed Simpson's cause of death as “unknown.” Officials at Oklahoma's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner say they didn't need to test for petrochemicals or do a full autopsy. He wore a meter to detect hydrogen sulphide, or ‘sour gas,’ a well-known killer in the oil field. But it was not designed to detect hydrocarbons. Though his was an unattended death at an oil and gas site, the medical examiners didn't test his blood for industrial chemicals. They said they didn't need to because Simpson's hydrogen sulphide monitor didn't go off and testing done for XTO showed no sour gas. “Really, the only thing of concern in areas like that is you can get high exposures to hydrogen sulphide,” said Byron Curtis, toxicologist with the medical examiner's office. “We just did what we usually do for on-the-job, which is an alcohol and drugs of abuse screen.” Simpson’s death is one of at least nine that officials at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – the government’s occupational health research arm - have linked to toxic vapours at oil production sites. Cindy Simpson is dismayed at the lack of a serious investigation into the cause of her husband’s death. “If you don't know what happened,” she said, “you can't do anything about it.” But beyond that, she said, “I would have really liked to know what killed him.”

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