|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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Concerns that government policies are behind an upturn in workplace injuries and diseases could be heightened if the Trade Union Bill becomes law, the TUC has warned. The union body was responding to figures published this week by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that show the number of people killed at work increased in 2014/2015. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This is a very worrying trend and highlights once again the folly of the government’s Trade Union Bill. Unions play a crucial role in keeping people safe at work but these new reforms will make it much harder for unions to work with employers to identify potential hazards.” She added: “Today’s worrying figures on workplace deaths show why we need stronger unions not weaker ones. After decades of progress, the number of people dying at work every year is now on the up again. This government’s cavalier attitude to health and safety is going to put even more people at risk of serious injury.” The TUC leader said the small recorded fall in people taking sickness absence because of a work-related illness or injury was welcome, “but may be more down to pressure on workers from employers who are increasingly linking time off with disciplinary processes. From the huge levels of musculoskeletal disorders such as back pain and occupational stress, it’s clear that the message on preventing injury and disease is still not getting through. Instead of attacking unions, ministers should be addressing workers’ safety through strong regulation and proper enforcement.” The HSE statistics report estimated 27.3 million working days were lost due to work related ill-health or injury in 2014/15. As well as 142 workplace fatalities – up from 136 in 2013/14 - there were 611,000 injuries in the workplace. Of the estimated 1.2 million people who suffered from a work related illness, 516,000 were new cases. HSE also indicated that around 13,000 people a year die from work-related lung disease and cancer, although these were excluded from its calculation of the cost to society of workplace injuries and ill-health, which HSE put at £14.3bn for the year. The cost of these omitted items would exceed those included in HSE’s estimate.
Government plans to allow firms to use agency labour to replace striking workers will lead to “very serious safety concerns”, the TUC has said. The union body has previously warned that other proposals included in the Trade Union Bill, including restricting the right to strike and limiting the amount of time off that trade union health and safety representatives in the public sector can take to protect their members, would be bad for safety. But it says another provision of the Bill, allowing employers to use agency workers to break strikes, would allow “inexperienced replacement workers to be brought in to the workplace with no knowledge of any of the safety risks.” TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson explained: “In normal circumstances, when new workers start, they are working alongside the existing workers and there will usually always be people there who know the basic safety procedures. On the other hand, take a group of people from an agency, put them into a workplace at a few days’ notice, and you have an accident waiting to happen.” In some instances, the effect could be “catastrophic”, he said. Use of replacement workers during a strike at a Honeywell factory in the US led to a series of explosions and toxic gas releases and to official enforcement action, including a six figure fine (Risks 512).
Tube union RMT has demanded immediate action from Transport for London (TFL) after an automatic currency machine was placed directly in front of the memorial to victims of the 2005 7/7 bombings at Kings Cross station (Risks 709). The union says Tube staff are furious that the memory of those who died and were injured, and the personal risks that underground staff themselves took in the rescue operation, “is being tarnished in such a disgraceful and cynical fashion.” RMT members at the station have launched a petition demanding the removal of the machine. General secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT members are furious that this cash machine has been jammed right in front of the Kings Cross 7/7 memorial and we want it removed and removed right now. It's hard to imagine the thinking behind this disgraceful move which shows a cavalier disregard to the memories of those who were killed and injured and those who risked their own lives in the rescue operation.” He added: “Those responsible should be ashamed of themselves and should waste no time in taking swift and decisive action to remove the machine.”
Firefighters’ union FBU has warned that government plans to hand control of Britain’s fire services to the police could undermine public trust and increase the risk from fires. The government wants to transfer control of fire services to police and crime commissioners (PCCs), removing control from fire authorities which are made up of councillors from local authorities. The union said removing the fire services from democratically accountable control would put public safety at risk and jeopardise the trust and respect in which firefighters are held. It has written to the Home Office expressing its opposition to the proposals. FBU general secretary Matt Wrack told the Morning Star: “Firefighters provide a humanitarian service and this just does not mix with law enforcement. Firefighters rely heavily on public trust in order to gain access to their homes, not just to extinguish fires but for all the safety checks they do, the fitting of smoke alarms and other work in the community such as keeping an eye on vulnerable people and the elderly.” He warned that if PCCs are allowed to take over the running of the fire and rescue service there is “no doubt” that public safety will be “put severely at risk.” The FBU leader added that the PCC mode of governance is “significantly less democratic” than the current fire authority model.
The decision by London mayor Boris Johnson to close a fire station last year may have contributed to the death of an elderly man in a fire, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has said. The fire broke out on 26 October at a property in Camden Road, London, but firefighters from Kentish Town fire station, the nearest to the scene, were unavailable as they were tackling another large fire. As a result London Fire Brigade were forced to mobilise fire crews from other stations, resulting in a wait of 13 minutes before any fire crews reached the scene – more than double the six minute response time target. By the time the fire engines arrived, the pensioner had already either jumped or fallen from his window and had died. FBU said the Belsize fire station in Camden - one of the 10 stations closed in the capital by Boris Johnson in 2014 - may have been able to mobilise fire crews to Camden Road in time to save the man’s life. FBU London regional secretary Paul Embery said: “Boris Johnson has got serious questions to answer after this tragedy. Last year, he forced through massive cuts in the London Fire Brigade, and we warned him that it would lead to longer response times and jeopardise public safety. It is not nice to be proved right.” He added: “His cuts meant that the brigade’s response to this incident was severely delayed. Closing fire stations and slashing firefighter jobs costs lives. It is scandalous that the safety of Londoners is being sacrificed because of the mayor’s fixation with cost-cutting. Last year alone 600 frontline firefighter jobs were slashed.”
A prison officer who suffered a career-ending fall at work has secured a six-figure compensation payment in a claim backed by his union, the Prison Officers Association (POA). The 48-year-old, whose name has not been released, was on guard dog patrol at a prison when he slipped on a stretch of path which had not been gritted, fracturing his right foot. His two decade-long career was cut short after medical complications saw him medically retired from the prison service. The once-active dog handler has been told by doctors that he faces a 25 per cent risk amputation in future. The POA-backed case for damages against his employer, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), was heard at the London High Court this month. The court ordered the MoJ to pay almost £500,000 in compensation to ensure the injured man’s future care needs can be met. Glyn Travis from the POA said: “Yet again the MoJ has carelessly thrown both a career and public money down the drain. Our member was an active and dedicated member of the prison service whose career was cruelly cut short by an accident that was entirely avoidable.” He added: “With staffing levels stretched and the prison population growing, the UK prison service has lost a veteran with over 20 years of experience at a time when experienced prison officers are needed the most.” Christalla Christodoulidou, from Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm brought in by POA to act in the case, said: “Unbelievably the Prison Service refused to discuss a settlement of this case, despite our repeated requests for them to do so. Their first offer came at 4pm on the day before trial and was inadequate. Their failure to deal with the case properly will have wasted more public time and money.”
The skills scheme for certifying construction workers has been called into question after a string of test centres were caught rigging health and safety exams. Construction workers across the UK are required to hold a Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card to prove skills and grasp of health and safety. But a joint BBC London/Newsnight investigation revealed widespread, organised cheating, allowing untrained builders on to dangerous sites. CSCS cards, launched by the industry in 1995, are seen as a benchmark. Nine of the UK's 10 biggest construction companies demand them. But the BBC investigation found numerous test centres are offering guaranteed passes for cash. Wep:HSE was among three centres exposed by undercover reporters. Garet Estensen, director of the west London company, read exam answers from a big screen, instructing candidates: “Follow me on screen, guys. I'm going to shout the correct answer, you just click. We're going to make a couple of mistakes - what I don't want is everyone making the same mistake.” The firm received a British Safety Council (BSC) international award in 2012. Also exposed was Future Training 4 Jobs in Ilford, east London. For £450, the company’s Anna Calancia issued the BBC with a supervisor qualification. A CSCS card acquired with fraudulent qualifications was used by the BBC to get offers of work at building sites, a school and a power station. A BBC Freedom of Information request to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), which administers the scheme, revealed steeply rising cases of CSCS fraud. There were 96 reports in 2012, 264 in 2013 and 311 last year. Graham Wren, the scheme's chief executive, said: “CSCS takes fraudulent activity extremely seriously, and it's essential that steps are taken to prevent it. CSCS relies on awarding organisations to verify an individual has achieved required qualifications before CSCS issues the appropriate card.” He added: “CSCS is confident the vast majority of cards issued are a result of a legitimate qualification.”
Companies are continuing to expose workers to excessive levels of silica dust, which can cause deadly cancers and lung diseases, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has admitted. HSE this week urged the stone industry to do more to protect workers’ health after an inspection initiative in the south of England found a failure to control the potentially lethal dust was commonplace. HSE inspectors visited 60 stone businesses, including work surface manufacturers, stonemasons and monumental masons, in the period from June to September 2015. The initiative, supported by trade association, Stone Federation Great Britain, visited both federation members and non-members. HSE found serious breaches at over half (35) of the premises that were visited, with inadequate control of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) one of the “common areas of concern... found throughout the initiative”. It issued four prohibition notices, 54 improvement notices and provided verbal advice to others. HSE said “a number of businesses” were unaware that in 2006 the workplace exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica was revised from 0.3 mg/m3 to 0.1mg/m3, requiring more stringent controls. The new information from HSE adds to concerns about the effectiveness of official efforts to address the workplace silica hazard. Last year, HSE was accused of leaving workers at double jeopardy from the cancer-causing, lung scarring dust (Risks 664). A report in the workers’ safety magazine Hazards criticised HSE for resisting a union-backed call for it to halve the current 0.1mg/m3 exposure limit for the common workplace dust. And it said the government-imposed, hands-off, HSE enforcement policy combined with swingeing resource cuts mean even the current “deadly” standard is not being enforced effectively (Risks 673). The report concluded that HSE’s strategy to address the long-established risks has not worked. A 2009 baseline study by HSE found that all the major industries with a potential for high silica exposures, including the stone industry, were failing to control the risks effectively.
A major fracking firm has gone on the offensive, attacking claims by a campaign group that there are potentially serious occupational and environmental risks associated with the controversial process. Cuadrilla hit out after a leaflet from the campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE) highlighted warnings, many made by official US government agencies, about the dangers posed by the toxic chemicals and crystalline silica used in large volumes in fracking operations. Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, said the FoE claims about chemical risks were “irresponsible and shameful”. The firm said it was referring the “wilfully misleading” leaflet to the Charity Commission, Advertising Standards Authority and the Fundraising Standards Board. FoE responded that there had been a number of stories in recent days “that seem designed to undermine the credibility of those campaigning to stop fracking. It’s no surprise to see this happening, as the anti-fracking movement really has been getting in the way of government and industry plans.” FoE added the “risk to the health and safety of workers should be properly investigated, not made a mockery of.” The stories critical of FoE’s approach, included articles in The Times and on the BBC website citing Cuadrilla, prompted a group of top academics to back publicly FoE’s stance on the dangers posed by fracking. A letter signed by occupational and environmental health specialists from the UK, US, Italy and Australia, notes: “It would be folly not to learn from the US experience of fracking. The refrain in the UK that, if properly regulated, fracking can be performed with no significant risk to health assumes that the risks have been properly assessed and the regulatory system is robust. Neither is true.” It warns: “Fracking without question involves exposure to substances linked to cancer, asthma and other health impacts. It is not scaremongering to say so.”
The UK’s second most senior judge has dismissed the government-promoted notion that the country is suffering from “compensation culture” (Risks 657). Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls and Head of the Civil Justice, said in a speech that “we should remind ourselves of what the law actually requires and do what we can to explode the false perception of compensation culture.” Speaking this month at the High Sheriff of Oxfordshire's Annual Law Lecture, Dyson described how media stories about claimants being paid huge sums in compensation in cases involving minor injuries are furthering “the perception that something has gone badly wrong with civil justice in this country”, when they are often simply not true. “The reality of what goes on in our courts does not match the perception that we are in the grip of a compensation culture,” Dyson said. He pointed out that claimants must establish a duty of care, breach of that duty, causation and loss, adding that the courts adopt a ‘robust common-sense approach’ to claims for compensation. Tom Jones, head of policy at the union law firm Thompsons Solicitors, commented: “We have repeatedly said over a long period of time that Britain’s so-called ‘compensation culture’ is a myth. Every government study and now one of the most senior judges in the UK has said that there is no ‘compensation culture’ in the UK and everyone apart from the insurers and the journalists who swallow their stories and stats agree that the myth is extremely damaging to victims of injury. If it puts anyone off from pursuing a claim for compensation it blocks access to justice.” ‘The compensation myth’, a TUC report released last year, dismantled the claims that there had been a rise in risk aversion driven by a compensation culture and that there had been an increase in claims (Risks 651).
British veterans who develop terminal cancer caused by asbestos exposure during their military service are being unfairly treated by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), campaigners and victims have claimed. Current laws mean that the MoD does not have to pay compensation for accidents or injuries suffered before 1987, which rules out those with mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure decades ago. While veterans may be eligible for a war disablement pension, this is a fraction of what civilians are paid in compensation. Unlike their civilian counterparts, veterans are not allowed to take a lump sum. This means those with mesothelioma, a cancer usually resulting in death within a year or two of diagnosis but caused by exposures often many decades earlier, get very little compared to those who did not serve. The unequal treatment amounts to a serious breach of the Armed Forces covenant, which is supposed to ensure veterans are not disadvantaged because of their service, according to the Royal British Legion. It notes a 63-year-old old civilian could expect to receive around £180,000 in compensation under the Mesothelioma Act passed last year. Yet one year’s worth of war pension paid at the maximum rate for a non-married naval veteran amounts to just over £31,000. “The government’s current compensation arrangements for those veterans suffering with asbestos-related cancer are unfair, and have to change,” a spokesperson for the charity told the Independent.
A company that manufactures and supplies high-strength bar and cable systems has been fined £200,000 after a worker was pulled into an inadequately guarded machine and killed. Alan Gerrard, 47, suffered fatal crush injuries when his clothing got caught in the machine, used to apply adhesive tape to bars to stop corrosion. Sheffield Crown Court heard that the father-of-two was an agency worker who had been working for McCalls Special Products Limited in Sheffield for only three weeks when the incident occurred in January 2013. The firm, trading as Macalloys, pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined £200,000. It must also pay £16,804 in costs. Alan Gerrard’s wife, Debra, said: “I am completely devastated at losing Alan. He was my soul mate and we had been together for 25 years. We shared everything and had a very happy life. I miss him in all kinds of ways. He was my world.” Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Denise Fotheringham, who investigated and prosecuted this case for HSE, said: “The law requires that employers take all reasonable steps to guard against access to such dangerous parts of machinery. This risk associated with this machine should have been assessed by the company – and it was not. It should have been adequately guarded – and it was not. Simple safety precautions would have prevented this awful incident happening.”
A company has been fined £200,000 over the death of a teenage deckhand who fell from a River Thames ferry. Ben Woollacott, 19, died in 2011 after being dragged from the Woolwich Ferry while mooring ropes were being untied. The then company in charge, Serco Ltd, was found guilty of failing to ensure the health and safety of its crew. At Inner London Court the company was told it must pay the fine and court costs of £220,000. The court cleared it of failing to ensure the safe operation of the Ernest Bevin. Mr Woollacott had been preparing the ferry for service when he was dragged overboard by a mooring rope, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said. A report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch in 2012 found he suffered head injuries and was most likely dragged violently against the side of the ferry by the rope which was being wound in and had tangled in the vessel's propeller. He drowned despite his life jacket bringing him to the surface and the quick actions of his colleagues, the report said. Andrew Rudge, from the MCA, said: "This was a tragic incident and our sympathy goes out to the family of Ben Woollacott. This case serves as a reminder that owners and operators of ships should review their procedures and risk assessments regularly, ensure they are fit for purpose and are being used correctly by their employees."
Two companies have been sentenced for criminal safety failings after a worker was electrocuted during work on a data centre in Middlesex. Balfour Beatty Engineering Services Ltd (BBES) was contracted to carry out multi-million pound infrastructure upgrade works at the data centre in Hounslow, while Norland Managed Services Ltd (NMS) was already contracted to provide mechanical and electrical maintenance and had effective control of the site. Ipswich Crown Court heard Martin Walton, 27, was killed on 16 October 2010 at Morgan Stanley’s Heathrow Data Centre. The court heard the existing power supply was under the control of Norland Managed Services Ltd while a new supply was under the control of Balfour Beatty Engineering Services Ltd. Last minute modifications required tests involving two live supplies to ensure units functioned correctly before being connected to the data centre’s existing infrastructure. The first unit was successfully modified, tested and connected to the existing infrastructure. However, Martin Walton, a cable jointer employed by subcontracted company, Integrated Cable Services Ltd, was electrocuted when his forehead made contact with the 415V live terminals of a second unit. During the sentencing hearing and the earlier trial, HSE told the court the underlying cause of the incident was a succession of failures indicative of the complete breakdown of BBES’s management of health and safety on the project, particularly the breakdown of communication. Balfour Beatty Engineering Services Ltd was fined £280,000 with £42,240 costs, after admitting two criminal safety offences. Facilities management company Norland Managed Services Ltd was found guilty after an earlier trial of a criminal safety offence and was fined £100,000 with £106,670 costs. HSE inspector Loraine Charles said: “Although BBES claimed to have been under pressure from a difficult and demanding client, they cannot be excused for having lost sight of the need for the effective control of risks arising from the work being carried out under their control at this data centre.” She added: “Permit to work systems were operated poorly or not at all. Not one person involved in the work at the time of the accident had an accurate overall understanding of the work being carried out and, as a consequence, Martin Walton and others were unknowingly working in the vicinity of exposed live electrical terminals.”
The managing director of a Hertfordshire company specialising in recycling of wood waste has been prosecuted for criminal safety failings. Stevenage Magistrates’ Court heard how Janbor Limited was served with three Health and Safety Executive (HSE) improvement notices in October 2014 relating to work activity at its plant, but failed to comply with them. HSE prosecuted the firm’s director, rather than the company, for its failure to comply. Jan Willem Boruch, the sole director of Janbor Limited, was fined £8,000 and ordered to pay £2,089 in costs after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence. HSE inspector Alison Ashworth said: “This case highlights the importance of complying with enforcement notices, and the potential consequences for the directors of companies where there is a failure to do so. This prosecution arose from relatively minor breaches observed during a routine inspection of a small company that could have been easily avoided had the defendant taken the simple remedial action required.”
The notoriously deadly shipbreaking yards operating in Bangladesh have claimed three more lives. The latest tragedy occurred on 20 October at the Chittagong yard of SR Corporation, one of the main shipbreaking companies in Bangladesh. The workers who died were cutting a gas cylinder when it exploded. Kan Matsuzaki, director for the shipbuilding and shipbreaking sector at the global union federation IndustriALL, said: “Every occupational death is avoidable. And every time a shipbreaking worker is killed at work it strengthens our resolve to campaign for the ratification of the Hong Kong Convention [a shipbreaking safety initiative]. When we succeed in making that resolution a reality the lives of workers in the world’s most dangerous job will change.” Two local unions, the Bangladesh Metalworkers’ Federation the Bangladesh Metalworkers’ League, are pursuing justice and compensation for the families of the deceased workers. On 5 September, four workers were killed following a gas cylinder explosion in the Shital Shipbreaking yard in Chittagong (Risks 712). According to INdustriALL, “such deadly accidents are the result of a continued lack of proper procedures, inadequate infrastructure, insufficient training and no compliance with safety norms.”
The European Commission is considering far more stringent controls on the use of substances in consumer goods that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction (CMRs). The first consumer products covered would be clothes and textiles, according to the environmental news service ENDS. It reports that the Commission, which on 22 October launched a consultation on the proposals, will look into a possible ban on 291 hazardous substances – including certain phthalates, flame retardants and pigments. Legislation would be sped up using a fast track available within REACH, making it possible to avoid the usual lengthy restriction processes that require substantial amounts of documentation. As well as clothing, swimwear, accessories, and footwear made of synthetic material, the restriction would cover curtains, carpets, towels and bed linen. The consultation comes as a Swedish study reported that highly toxic chemicals leftover from the manufacturing process can be found in garments sold in popular clothing lines. "Exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of allergic dermatitis, but more severe health effect for humans as well as the environment could possibly be related to these chemicals," said co-author Giovanna Luongo, an analytical chemist at Stockholm University. "Some of them are suspected or proved carcinogens and some have aquatic toxicity.” The European Commission consultation will close on 22 January 2016.
Chemical industry claims that its ‘Responsible Care’ self-regulation programme is protecting the public are untrue, new research has indicated. ‘Blowing Smoke’, a report and interactive map released by the Center for Effective Government (CEG), warns that a “significant number of chemical manufacturing facilities are endangering workers and the environment, despite what the chemical industry tells policymakers, regulators, and the American public.” CEG president Katherine McFate said “the chemical industry keeps telling us companies can regulate themselves and no new oversight is needed.” But CEG’s research had found: “Every two days, there is a reportable leak or explosion at a US chemical plant,” she said. The report is critical of the industry lobby, which “spends tens of millions of dollars a year fighting bills and standards designed to better protect the workers in their facilities and the communities nearby.” It dismisses the voluntary Responsible Care programme operated by the industry’s trade association, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), as an ineffective industry initiative intended to avoid regulation. “The Responsible Care® programme at the ACC is not working. Self-regulation leaves workers and communities at risk,” said Brian Gumm, author of the report and senior policy analyst with CEG. "The environmental and workplace safety violations at these facilities are clear evidence that we need to strengthen enforcement of our nation's existing chemical safety policies and require the use of safer substances and manufacturing processes to reduce the risks of harm to American workers and people in communities near these plants.” CEG is calling for a requirement on all companies to shift to safer chemicals and technologies, more workplace inspections and great financial and criminal penalties for safety and environmental violations “to create a real deterrent for risky corporate behaviour.”
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