|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.
A proposed new labour standards tsar must be given the resources to effectively coordinate regulators and combat exploitative employers, the TUC has said. The union body was speaking out this week after the government opened a consultation on proposals to tackle the exploitation of workers, including a new position of Director of Labour Market Enforcement. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Better coordination between labour enforcement agencies could be helpful, but only if properly funded. There should be no hiding place for cheapskate bosses who try to cheat their workers out of their rights.” She added: “The proposed Director of Labour Market Enforcement must have sufficient resources and a broad enough remit to ensure that all workers receive at least the national minimum wage and basic employment rights.” Commenting specifically on the proposals to extend the remit of the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority (GLA), which would give the watchdog the power to investigate “regulatory breaches and criminal offences… wherever they affect employees and workers and in whatever sector they take place”, Frances O’Grady added: “The GLA has played an important role in clamping down on rogue employers and has increased compliance with standards across the board. If the GLA remit is to be extended it must be given the money it needs. A weaker GLA risks the rights of workers in agriculture and the fresh food industry. We cannot have another Morecambe Bay tragedy.”
The Conservative government’s repeat refrain that European health and safety laws are a costly burden has been comprehensively discredited. Previous reports have dismissed the notion that there has been ‘goldplating’ by the UK of EU regulatory requirements, as have claims that the EU laws themselves are unnecessary and burdensome. And “there is now pretty conclusive proof that it is not true,” notes TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson. Writing in the TUC’s Stronger Unions blog, he says this is the conclusion of European Commission-funded “massive research exercise into the practical implementation of all the main 24 directives on occupational safety and health in the 27 member states.” But Robertson says the final report, running to over 400 pages plus some lengthy appendices, is being “kept under wraps”, with the EC having no intention of publishing until at least next year. However he says it is by a “wonderful twist of bureaucracy” possible to see the findings, as they have been published online alongside an opinion on the report by the EC’s own Advisory Committee on Safety at Work, which includes government, employer and union representatives. As well as noting no significant problems or burdens arising from the regulations, the advisory committee opinion notes: “Strong evidence suggests that employee representation has noticeable influence on the proportion of establishments performing risk assessments and an even more pronounced impact on other key requirements.” The opinion also stresses the importance of enforcement and inspection, adding in the case of stress, musculoskeletal disorders and aging workers, new action is needed. Robertson concludes: “So there you have it. A majority of the representatives of the European employers and governments saying that they seem to like what we have, and perhaps we might need a bit more of it.”
Trade unions have welcomed a ‘massive breakthrough’ in the long-running legal case over blacklisting of safety and trade union activists in the construction industry. It follows an admission last week by some of Britain's biggest construction firms that they defamed workers and infringed their rights. The companies have issued an unreserved apology. In a submission to the High Court on behalf of Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O’Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska UK and Vinci, the firms accepted that construction companies had provided much the information used by the covert blacklister The Consulting Association and had used it to vet workers seeking employment. The High Court legal action was brought by Unite, GMB, UCATT and the Blacklist Support Group on behalf of over 200 affected workers. In the court submission, the companies accept that the vetting system “infringed workers’ rights to confidentiality, privacy, reputation and latterly data protection”. The companies offered an “unreserved apology” for their part in operating the system, for any adverse employment consequences and for the distress and anxiety caused to workers and their families. Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “The admissions from the blacklisters and the damages for the blacklisted are an important step on the road to justice in righting that wrong.” Unite said an admission by the firms that blacklisted workers had been ‘defamed’ would result in larger payouts. The construction union UCATT described the development as a “massive breakthrough”. Acting general secretary Brian Rye said: “This is a highly significant step forward in the battle for blacklisting justice. Finally the companies have admitted their guilt and have begun to apologise. However we will continue fighting until justice is achieved for all our affected members.” GMB legal officer Maria Ludkin said: “The fact that the companies have acknowledged the distress and anxiety caused to workers and their families now gives us a firm basis to make sure members are given the very substantial compensation they deserve, and that the true nature of the secretive Consulting Association is known.”
Construction workers involved in the nuclear decommissioning and renewal project at Sellafield have hailed a ‘groundbreaking’ victory at the end of a major dispute over health and safety and productivity. The deal secured by their union, Unite, sees Sellafield Ltd and the 14-strong group of on-site sub-contractor companies drop their refusal to a union demand for a senior shop steward to deal with health and safety, workplace welfare and training issues. The agreement, which comes after a campaign of industrial action, including walkouts and action short of a strike, also sees the formation of a health and safety committee spanning all contractors on the site. Unite regional secretary for the north west Mick Whitley said: “This victory for common sense would not have been achieved without the resolve of our members who stood shoulder to shoulder to get a better deal on health and safety.” He added: “A healthy workplace is a more productive workplace. The creation of a new senior shop steward on maximum facility time at Sellafield will help make the site safer, reduce accidents and enable workforce issues to be dealt with speedily. It’s a win, win for everyone involved in the decommissioning and renewal project at Sellafield and once again underlines the importance of trade unions in making the workplace a safer more productive place.”
Nearly one in four shopworkers has taken time off work because of worry, anxiety or depression, a survey by Usdaw has found. The retail union also discovered over half of those affected said that they didn’t feel able to be honest about the reason for their absence. The research was conducted as part the union’s ‘Is worry tying you up in knots’ campaign and looked at the pressures and concerns affecting members. Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: “Many people are feeling under pressure at work and at home; having to cope with changes to hours, rising food and fuel bills and changes to benefits. When times are tough people can feel anxious and worried, which can in turn affect their mental health.” He added: “Almost one in four survey respondents said they had needed some time off work for reasons relating to their mental health at some point in their working lives. This is clearly a cause for concern, but of equal concern is that the majority of people needing time off because of stress, anxiety or depression don’t feel able to be open about it. When a person isn’t able to talk about what is really causing them problems at work, it is much harder to address and resolve those difficulties.” The union leader said: “Usdaw would like to work with employers to develop policies and procedures that will support staff who might be worried about their mental health. By working together we can make a real difference.”
Sports Direct’s treatment of workers and poor corporate governance have been exposed this week at the start of criminal proceedings against the company’s chief executive, David Forsey. A protest was organised by the union Unite outside Chesterfield magistrates’ court to mark the start of proceedings. The criminal charges relate to the collapse of Sport Direct’s fashion retailer USC. David Forsey, 49, is accused of failing to notify authorities of plans to lay off warehouse staff in Scotland, around 200 of whom were given just 15 minutes notice by USC’s administrator in January that they were losing their jobs. The charges relate to an offence contrary to section 194 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Brought by the UK Insolvency Service, the charges are part of an investigation into the conduct of the retailer’s directors. The legal action comes on the heels of an investigation by BBC’s Inside Out programme which revealed ambulances were called to Sports Direct’s main warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire on 76 occasions over a two-year period, 36 of which included ‘life threatening’ incidents (Risks 723). Unite regional officer Luke Primarolo said: “A pattern is emerging where workers are held in contempt and low paid agency staff are subjected to working conditions more in line with a ‘Dickensian’ workhouse than a FTSE 100 company’s warehouse. Sports Direct and its board need to clean their act up to avoid further controversies and continuing charges of being run like some ‘back street’ outfit.” He added: “It’s time too for the government to stop trying to make it harder for trade unions to stand up to abusive employment practices and employers, who seek to bend the law, by dropping its ideologically driven Trade Union bill.”
Traffic wardens in Hackney, east London, have been driven to industrial action in a bid to get a fairer sick pay policy. The five day walk out this week was by 30 employees of APCOA Parking, the private firm that has the contract from Hackney council to run the service. The Unite members also rejected a 1.5 per cent pay deal for this year. Unite has warned that the council will lose revenue from parking tickets not being issued and said that the chances of car users in the borough getting booked for a parking offence will be much reduced. The dispute arose because the privately-employed traffic wardens, known as civil enforcement officers, have worse pay and terms and conditions than staff employed directly by Hackney council. In a letter to councillors, Unite regional officer Onay Kasab wrote: “Presently, the company pays statutory sick pay (SSP) only, which is set at £88.45 per week. The scheme only applies after three consecutive days of sickness – so the first three days are not paid.” The dispute comes against the backdrop of a Fair Deal For Local Government campaign by Unite’s London and Eastern region. The campaign is against privatisation and austerity in local government.
PCS has called on ministers to tackle bullying in the civil service. The union was speaking out after the Independent revealed a review commissioned by the government and “slipped out on the Cabinet Office website in the run-up to the election” had warned that the senior civil service is like a 'snake pit' with a 'macho culture'. Catherine Baxendale, the former human resources director of Tesco who wrote the report at the request of the then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, found “most worryingly, that there were various descriptions of the civil service culture as a ‘bear pit’, ‘snake pit’, ‘bullying and macho culture’, and an ‘uncollaborative, poisonous environment’.” PCS has urged ministers to ensure fair treatment for all government employees and that, as a top priority of government, the civil service is properly managed. The union said that any culture of bullying at the top impacts on all employees. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “At a time when civil service departments are going through swingeing cuts, which is producing unacceptable pressure and stress for our members, our concern is that people are treated fairly across all departments and grades and that the impact on middle and lower grade staff of any negative culture that hinders recruitment and retention at the top is properly dealt with.” He added: “The emergence of the report, which was slipped out on the Cabinet Office website in the run-up to the election, comes as the civil service faces an exodus of senior staff brought in from the private sector to improve performance.”
A Unite member is to receive £5,750 in compensation after his hand was damaged in a faulty machine. The production operative, whose name has not been released, was employed by Rhondda Cynon Taff County Borough Council in south Wales making double glazed windows and doors. He was shown just once how to use a machine that cleaned plastic used for welding and then left unsupervised to carry on with the job. The machinery jammed and he attempted to unblock it. It turned itself on without warning while his hand was still inside. Despite pressing the emergency stop button, his right hand was trapped in the moving parts of the machine. He suffered soft tissue and nerve damage to his hand, particularly affecting the webbing between his thumb and index finger. The injury made his pre-existing Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) more pronounced. The operative needed nearly four months off work because of his injury, and four years later he still suffers from nerve damage in his right thumb. Unite regional officer John T Toner said: “This is a clear example of an employer not taking the necessary time to adequately train staff. Not only was our member left to complete a skilled job without any support but his employer also failed to address the known issues with the machine.” He added: “If a proper risk assessment had been completed then this accident could have been avoided. Thankfully our member had the backing of Unite Legal Services to ensure that he was not left to shoulder any element of blame for what happened, and his employer was held responsible for breaching the most basic of health and safety regulations.”
A production fitter who was forced to retire after being injured in a road traffic accident has received an undisclosed payout in a union-backed claim. Kenneth Welham, 67, suffered serious fractures to his lower right leg when he was hit by a motorcycle as he stood on a central reservation. The damage to his leg was so significant it required multiple operations and plastic surgery. As a result of his injury, the Unite member developed osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone or bone marrow, which meant there was a real risk that he would lose the limb. Amputation was avoided, however, Kenneth needed further surgery that involved removing two and a half inches of the damaged bone. His leg was fitted with steel rods, pins and wires, with an external fixator to prevent movement. After his accident, Kenneth was immobilised for months and suffered from nightmares and flashbacks that led to the diagnosis of psychological trauma. The seriousness of the injuries forced him to take early retirement from his job as a production fitter. The biker, who failed to stop at a red light, was later convicted of driving without due care and attention. Unite regional secretary Mick Whitley said: “We worked to ensure that Kenneth and his family received specialist advice and practical, medical and emotional support, including a co-ordinated rehabilitation package of psychological therapies and interim payments. And we strongly advised against settlement of the claim until the risk of amputation had fully passed… He is lucky to have made the positive recovery he has done, and avoid amputation, but the cost to him is physical and psychological injuries that will impact Kenneth for the rest of his life.”
A Merseyside scaffolding firm has been fined £300,000 after a dad-of-three fell to his death on a cut-price roofing job. Adrian Smith, 44, had returned to work at Kings Scaffolding in Netherley on light duties after having had a heart attack just two days before he died at work in September 2012. The company pleaded guilty to corporate manslaughter after failing to heed health and safety warnings or take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of employees tasked to carry out work on the roof of the shed at the firm’s headquarters. In the days prior to Mr Smith’s death, three men were seen on neighbouring CCTV working on the roof at various times. The men were carrying out repairs to storm damage in preparation for a valuation on the property. A hand-painted notice inside the building read: “Bad Roof”, and a previous insurance claim to hire specialist contractors with the necessary experience, training and equipment costed the job at £100,000. But the court heard the insurance claim only resulted in a £20,000 payout and a decision was taken for workers from Kings Scaffolding to carry out the work instead. The court heard that minutes before the fatal accident at the company’s site in Wheathill Industrial Estate, two individuals - believed to have been company director John King and his son David King - were seen on the roof. Adrian Smith fell more than four metres through a perspex skylight onto the concrete floor below. He suffered multiple fractures to his skull, a brain injury and fractures to his wrist. Police and paramedics were called to the scene but Mr Smith died later that day in hospital. Mr Justice Turner, sentencing, said: “These sort of cases are extremely difficult because whatever fine is imposed will never bring a victim back to life and whatever fine is imposed will never measure the value of the life of that person.” He added: “This death was entirely foreseeable. The state of this roof was well known to management and the defendant company and the sort of precautions that ought to have been taken to prevent this man falling to his death were obvious. The whole business of setting about repairs to this roof was done without regard for the safety of those who were there.” The court heard Kings Scaffolding had a previous conviction for serious criminal health and safety breaches in 2002 in which scaffolding defects led to a man suffering serious injuries. Mr Justice Turner said in imposing the £300,000 fine he had to balance the need to punish the company against the risk of punishing innocent employees who would lose their jobs if the company went out of business. He ordered the fine be paid at £30,000 a year for 10 years.
New research has found long hours and a focus on operational demands over employee wellbeing is fuelling an increase in in the numbers working while sick. Nearly a third of employers reported an increase in people coming to work while they are ill, according to the annual CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management Survey. The survey of nearly 600 employers found that 31 per cent of employers had seen an increase in ‘presenteeism’ in the last 12 months. It also showed that presenteeism was more likely to have increased where there was a culture in which working long hours was seen to be the norm, and where operational demands took precedence over employee wellbeing. Employers that had noticed an increase in presenteeism were nearly twice as likely as those that hadn’t to report an increase in stress-related absence, and more than twice as likely to report an increase in mental health problems amongst their staff. Ben Willmott, CIPD’s head of public policy, commented: “This is the fifth year in a row in which 30 per cent or more of employers have reported an increase in employees coming into work when they are ill. It’s a real concern that the problem of presenteeism is persisting, as we might have expected it to drop during the economic recovery as people tend to feel more secure in their jobs.” He concluded: “The message to businesses is clear: if you want your workforce to work well, you have to take steps to keep them well and this means putting employee health above operational demands.”
Ÿ Morning Star.
Campaigners and politicians have called for drastic action amid revelations eight out of ten schools in Sheffield contain asbestos. Figures obtained by the local newspaper, the Star, revealed 86 per cent of primaries and 35 per cent of the city’s secondary schools contain the potentially deadly dust. John McClean of the union GMB, who coordinates the joint union campaign on asbestos in schools, said: “What I would say to parents who may be concerned is: Check the management plan at the school. Every school should have plans detailing where the asbestos is and how much of a risk is posed.” He added: “Every council in the country will tell you that they manage it fine and it is not a problem. But what we’re saying is: ‘Tell us how you do that’. It’s all about transparency and educating people on the issue.” He warned state schools were being denied the funds to make their premises safe. “This current government has an ideological drive towards academies and free schools – but funding should be spread evenly across the board.”
A specialist piling contractor has been fined after it was found to be operating a powerful rig without a safety guard around the rotating auger. Sevenoaks Magistrates’ Court heard how Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Melvyn Stancliffe visited the site in Maidstone, Kent, in December 2014 and witnessed the piling rig in operation without a safety guard. HSE had previously visited three sites where the same company, Southern Piling Limited, had been carrying out work and had raised concerns about the guarding standards on each occasion. After this latest visit, HSE was told that the machine had been in use for at least two-and-a-half weeks, without the guard. Southern Piling Limited was fined £16,000 and ordered to pay nearly £5,000 in costs after pleading guilty to two criminal safety offences. HSE inspector Melvyn Stancliffe said: “There was simply no excuse for the way the machine was being used. It was in the middle of the site and there was nothing to prevent the guard from being fitted. I dread to think, even at low speed, what might have happened had someone inadvertently fallen on to the unguarded auger. This is incredibly powerful machinery, capable of causing life-changing or even fatal injuries. There has been industry guidance and HSE guidance on the guarding of piling and drilling machines for some time.”
A company that erects steel frames has been fined for its criminal safety failings while cladding a steel framed building. Swindon Magistrates’ Court heard how a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) site inspection on 15 May 2015 found that Industrial Steel Frames Limited was not taking suitable measures to prevent falls from height, putting its workers at risk of serious injury. The firm was fined £15,000, and ordered to pay £580 in costs after pleading guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005. HSE inspector Ian Whittles said: “This company was not adopting known standards for carrying out roof work. HSE will take enforcement action where standards are found to be poor.”
Latest official figures show there have been 126 workplace fatalities in Australia already this year. The Safe Work Australia statistics for the year up to 12 October reveal workers are dying at a rate of three every week. Data from the agency also shows 531,800 workers are injured – 118,000 of those seriously – each year, costing Australia more than $60 billion (£29bn) annually. Michael Borowick, national secretary of the union federation ACTU, said: “Worker safety is just another in a string of issues where the government is prioritising its big business backers, rather that supporting the rights of everyday Australians. With three workers losing their lives every week on average in Australian workplaces so far this year, it’s clear that this is an area that needs more attention, not less.” Speaking ahead of the union body’s national health and safety conference this week, he said workplace safety regulations and compensation for workplace injuries and diseases “are not prohibitive red tape to be cut in a misguided deregulation drive, they are a sensible, best-practice approach to ensuring workers can get on with their jobs without having to worry about the risk of injury or death. Employers, governments and unions must work together to ensure safety is at the highest level in our workplaces because we can do a lot better than we currently are.”
Search and rescue teams officially gave up hope on 7 October, after a failed five-day effort to locate 33 cargo ship workers lost at sea in the waters near the Bahamas. The sailors and other shipboard workers are presumed dead in the wreck of the US-flagged commercial vessel El Faro, which disappeared on 1 October in the high winds and heavy seas of Hurricane Joaquin. Among the lost seafarers are 28 members of the regular crew, all American citizens, and five Polish nationals, who had been hired as a temporary “riding gang” to do special maintenance work. Family members have expressed concern that the ship went to sea even though it was well understood that a dangerous storm was approaching. They gathered through the week at the Jacksonville hiring hall of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), the union that represented most of the US crew members. Officials of the shipping company, TOTE Maritime, have already attempted to deflect questions about why the ship went to sea as a hurricane approached. In a press conference, TOTE president and CEO Philip Greene told reporters that Captain David Wilkinson was not under any pressure to sail into dangerous waters. Richard Trumka, president of the national union centre AFL-CIO commented: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of 28 of our brothers and sisters aboard the cargo ship El Faro. These brave men and women left an incredible mark on their communities, both on land and at sea via their hard work and steadfast commitment to the maritime trade.”
The affluent don’t only have more, they get to live longer too. Life expectancy at birth for males in Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest boroughs in the country, is 85.1, and 89.8 for females. In Glasgow, men’s expectancy is 71.6 and women’s is 78 (Risks 637). Now new research from the US is indicating a major contributor to this difference in how long you can expect to live is the job you do. Research published this month in the journal Health Affairs examined the effect of workplace exposures on racial and educational disparities in life expectancy. The study analysed General Social Survey data and considered 10 “workplace exposures”: unemployment and layoffs; lack of health insurance; shift work; long working hours; job insecurity; work-family conflict; low job control; high job demands; low social support at work; and low organisational fairness. The authors noted “people who have less education and lower socioeconomic status are more likely to hold jobs that have a higher prevalence of these unhealthy workplace practices, compared to people who are better educated and have higher socioeconomic status.” They found that between 10 and 38 per cent of the difference in life expectancy across demographic groups could be explained by different job conditions. In particular, the study found that people with the highest educational attainment had only 5 to 10 per cent of their mortality associated with workplace exposures. In contrast, people with the least formal education had 12 to 19 per cent of their mortality associated with workplace conditions. The authors conclude: “The results suggest that policies to encourage healthier psychosocial work environments, especially for jobs likely to be held by the most disadvantaged demographic groups, should be seriously considered as part of any comprehensive strategy that aims to reduce the extent of these health inequalities.”
Ÿ Joel Goh, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos Zenios. Exposure to harmful workplace practices could account for inequality in life spans across different demographic groups, Health Affairs, volume 34, number 10, pages 1761-1768, October 2015. Pump Handle blog.
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/
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