Issue date
10 Dec 2015
TUC Risks E-Bulletins
 
Number 732 - 12 December 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

TUC COURSES FOR SAFETY REPS

UNION NEWS

Improving well-being at work – the union way

Unions need to know how to respond effectively to health and ‘well-being’ issues in the workplace, the TUC has said. New TUC guidance, ‘Workplace well-being programmes: A guide for safety reps’, sets out the importance of healthy workplaces and provides advice on how to handle specific issues such as smoking, obesity and stress. TUC says poorly designed and stressful jobs affect the health of hundreds of thousands of workers each year. The union body adds that many other problems such as obesity, diabetes, and increased alcohol and tobacco use can be linked to an unhealthy working environment. The new TUC guide emphasises that the key to securing healthy work is the prevention of injuries and illnesses, and changing the workplace through encouraging better working relationships, greater respect for workers, and improved involvement of unions. The guide says unions can make sure employers are supporting initiatives by Public Health England, Public Health Wales and Scottish Healthy Working Lives aimed at improving the health and well-being of workers. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Too many workers are still becoming ill through work and simply introducing ‘well-being programmes’ is not a substitute for stopping workers becoming ill, by addressing issues such as long hours, stress, unsafe conditions and a lack of respect at work. All these must be seen as part of the well-being agenda.” She added: “Employers have much to gain by improving conditions at work, as healthy, happy and motivated staff have a positive impact on productivity.” The union leader said the government’s ‘ill-conceived’ Trade Union Bill would make it more difficult for unions and employers to work together to secure health improvements at work.

Ÿ  TUC news release. Workplace well-being programmes: A guide for safety reps, TUC, December 2015. Other workers’ health resources.

Storm damage highlights emergency service cuts

The impact of the underfunding of the fire and rescue service has been highlighted by the firefighters’ union FBU as the country reels from the effects of Storm Desmond. The union said every fire and rescue service responding to the floods across northern England has seen unprecedented funding cuts over the past five years. FBU said a resources crisis is obstructing the ability of the service to respond to incidents on this scale and called on the prime minister to urgently reverse the latest cuts. Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “David Cameron has tweeted his sympathy for the thousands of people affected by the storm. Yet our fire and rescue service is being cut to pieces and the prime minister turns a blind eye to the results.” He added: “Over the past few years firefighters have saved thousands of people from the dangers of flooding. They are also central to efforts to protect livestock, industry and other private property. These are all essential for trying to limit the damage to local communities and economies as well as keeping people safe…  Firefighters are proud to serve our communities. They want to be out there saving lives and making people safer but cuts on this scale inevitably undermine what we are trying to do.” The concerns were echoed by firefighters in Scotland. Chris McGlone, FBU executive council member for Scotland, said: “The FBU has warned about the scale of cuts and job losses that have hit the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the inevitable impact on front line outcomes. The Scottish government need to immediately protect firefighter numbers in Scotland. Further cuts will simply undermine our ability to deal with everyday emergencies as well as the large scale challenges we see when storms and floods hit.”

Ÿ  FBU news release and briefing on the impact of firefighter job cuts. FBU Scotland news release.

Bus drivers strike over unsafe timetables

Over 200 Arriva bus drivers in Kent have taken two days of strike action over the introduction of unachievable, fatigue-inducing and unsafe timetables. Their union Unite has said the changes are making it impossible to deliver a safe reliable service. The walkouts, on 4 and 7 December, affected routes in Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham, Rochester, Hoo Peninsula and Strood. They followed a breakdown in last ditch talks and what Unite said was the continued refusal by Arriva to address concerns including driver fatigue. Unite said the changes have resulted in unrealistic running times on routes. Drivers are being kept at the wheel for five and a half hours at a time with as little as four minutes ‘recovery’ time and limited access to toilet facilities. Concerns over the new timetables were raised by Unite in June this year, leading to assurances from management that a solution would be found by September 2015. Unite said instead of addressing the union’s concerns, further changes to timetables imposed by Arriva worsened the situation. Unite regional officer Dave Weeks said: “Arriva has continually moved the goal posts over these timetable changes which make it impossible for drivers to deliver a reliable and safe service.” Speaking ahead of the walkouts, he added: “The blame for any disruption lays fairly and squarely at Arriva management’s door. We have continually raised major concerns about the changes which are leading to drivers being behind the wheel for excessive periods without even the time for a comfort break. We would urge Arriva to get back around the negotiating table and seriously address the concerns of Medway Arriva bus drivers.”

Ÿ  Unite news release. Kent Messenger.

RMT calls for a rail safety summit

Transport union RMT has repeated its call for a rail safety summit, saying current operational practices are ‘a recipe for disaster.’ The union was speaking out after it emerged that Oxford Circus was closed 113 times in the past year because of overcrowding. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said this “is the clearest warning yet that the Tube network is bursting at the seams. It also confirms that the only buffer between that overcrowding and a major tragedy is station and platform staff taking life-or-death decisions to manage the massive pressure on the system.” The union leader added: “RMT is now receiving regular reports from our reps of severe overcrowding on both the Tube and the commuter rail services. All the indicators are that passenger numbers will continue to surge, cramming more people into a capacity that is already at breaking point. RMT has repeatedly demanded a transport safety summit in London involving unions, TFL [Transport for London], Network Rail and the train operators where we can openly discuss the staffing, capacity and safety issues that have to be addressed. At the moment the transport authorities are winging it and that is a recipe for disaster.” The closure figures were revealed in a freedom of information response to BBC London.

Ÿ  RMT news release. BBC News Online.

Court fees go – and so should tribunal fees

Public sector union UNISON has said the government should follow up its decision to axe one unjust set of legal fees by ending another – the tribunal fees barring access to justice for many workers abused, victimised or unfairly dismissed by their employers. The union was commenting after the justice secretary Michael Gove admitted the criminal courts charge had 'fallen short' of what his predecessor Chris Grayling wanted. More than 50 magistrates quit in disgust after the scheme - which hits small-time criminals with flat fees of up to £1,000 - began in April. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Removing the criminal courts charge is right. I now call on Michael Gove to extend this move to employment tribunal fees.” He added: “Evidence shows that since tribunal fees were introduced, the number of employment tribunal claims has dropped by 70 per cent. It is obvious that fees are deterring working people from getting access to justice and leaving unscrupulous employers free to treat workers badly.” UNISON has campaigned for the removal of Employment Tribunal and Employment Appeal Tribunal fees – which can mean a £1,200 charge to take a safety victimisation cases - since their introduction in July 2013. It is seeking permission to appeal to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeal rejected its appeal against the government’s introduction of employment tribunal fees.

Ÿ  UNISON news release. The Mirror.

‘Box ticking exercise’ makes dismissal unfair

A Prospect member fired by BT for his work performance following a serious operation has won an unfair dismissal claim. Trevor Edwards, who was a programme manager with almost 40 years’ service with BT, was dismissed in 2014. This followed his return to work after a spinal operation in 2012, which coincided with a company reorganisation necessitating a change of job. Despite being new to the role, he was placed on a performance 'coaching plan' and his performance was assessed as unsatisfactory. This led to official warnings under the performance management system. With union support, he appealed against the warnings, but the appeals were rejected and he was given notice that his employment would be terminated. He was told he could continue to look for employment within the firm up until his termination date, during which time he applied for more than 50 jobs. However he was unsuccessful because of the under-performance label. He took his case to an employment tribunal with the support of Prospect. The tribunal found his dismissal was unfair. The judge held that BT had been unreasonable in not being more proactive in finding alternative employment for the veteran employee. The ruling concluded BT had “seemingly carried out a box ticking exercise with no regard to the practical realities of what they were doing.” Prospect legal adviser Jane Copley said: “I am pleased that the judge accepted our arguments in this case and that BT’s capricious approach to Trevor’s employment was rejected. It is appalling that such a large company would not do more to find a suitable job for a long standing manager with such a good record.” Prospect warned a year ago that while a long list of blue chip companies has abandoned the “rank and yank” performance management approach, many others are persisting with a system that is bad for staff and bad for performance (Risks 681). Studies have shown the approach to cause high levels of workplace stress, burnout (Risks 664) and ill-health (Risks 661).

Ÿ  Prospect news release.

Whistleblowing prison officer fights dismissal

A prison officer who revealed serious concerns about rising levels of violence in her jail and who warned that prison officers ‘are in danger’ is challenging the decision to sack her for speaking out. Kim Lennon, a member of the prison officers’ union POA, talked to the BBC, local newspaper the Argus and the Guardian of her concerns about the soaring levels of violence and overcrowding in Lewes prison. She said her complaints to management were not acted upon. Lennon was dismissed in November, when a disciplinary panel found she had brought discredit on the prison service by disclosing official information. Her union POA is backing her appeal against dismissal. “They tried to say I wasn’t a whistleblower; they didn’t see me as a whistleblower. But I had raised this with my management and they didn’t do anything,” she told the Guardian. “I spoke out because I wasn’t being listened to about serious concerns relating to safety. Everything was dangerous in the prison, not just for us prison officers but for inmates. A lot of what I said applies to a lot of prisons. I decided to use my name and not be anonymous because I felt it would have more impact. I would do it again, and I would say to other prison officers if they had such concerns to speak out, but maybe now I would advise them to remain anonymous.” The POA member warned: “We’ve not got enough staff to look after prisoners properly. They are becoming extremely frustrated and frontline officers are in danger.”

Ÿ  The Argus. The Guardian. BBC News Online.

Work on trains led to deadly cancer

A software engineer from South Yorkshire who was exposed to asbestos in a three year stint on the railways in the 1960s has been awarded £245,000 compensation after he developed a deadly cancer as a result. The 64-year-old father of two, whose name has not been released, started work in 1966 for a rail company as a trainee cleaner and fireman. After 18 months he was promoted to fireman, working on the footplate of the trains. He worked on the railway for three years and then left to join the Royal Air Force as an aircraft engineer, and later became a software designer at an IT company. The Unite member first noticed problems with his breathing in July 2014, when he travelling to Cyprus on holiday. In December 2014, it was confirmed that he had the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma. Unite regional secretary Karen Reay said: “The devastating effects of asbestos disease are clear – it is unacceptable that workers pay the price for negligent employers and unsafe working conditions. The diagnosis is distressing for the individual as well as those nearest and dearest to them. At this time, the importance of turning to specialist legal experts in this complex area of law should not be under-estimated. We made sure that our member received full compensation quickly and is now able to spend valuable time with his family knowing that they are financially secure.”

Ÿ  Thompsons Solicitors news release.

OTHER NEWS

INEOS warned about ‘multiple fatalities’ risk

The INEOS oil and petrochemical complex at Grangemouth in Scotland is facing a legal crackdown by the UK workplace safety regulator in a bid to prevent leaks, fireballs and explosions from killing workers. The concerns about the company’s safety and environmental performance have led to union calls for a greater worker voice on health and safety matters. A report released under freedom of information law to the investigative news website The Ferret reveals that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is demanding the Swiss-based multinational identify the “safety critical tasks” necessary to prevent a “major accident hazard” at its ethylene cracker plant at Grangemouth. One of the major hazards was described as “a leak or rupture from the top of the propylene tower with the potential for a fireball or vapour cloud explosion which could give rise to multiple on-site fatalities.” The company has been given until the end of April 2016 to comply. HSE also reprimanded INEOS for safety breaches at its refinery, which shares the 1,700-acre site at Grangemouth. On 4 September 2015, HSE served an improvement notice on the company to remedy “a failure to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the safety of persons which arise from dangerous substances”. This was the 12th improvement notice served on three INEOS facilities at Grangemouth – the refinery, the petrochemical plant and a site services operation – since September 2011. The Scottish secretary of the union Unite, Pat Rafferty, stressed that the safety of the 1,300-strong workforce at Grangemouth was paramount. He said the best way to secure safety at the site “is with a robust pool of trade union health and safety representatives.” It was “regrettable” that the trade union health and safety infrastructure at the site had been disbanded in the aftermath of an industrial dispute in October 2013, he said. “In recent times we have been working with the company to revitalise trade union safety rep numbers at the site. It is our firm belief that in order to manage safety properly, workers need a voice on the site reflecting their concerns.”

Ÿ  The Ferret. The Times.

London Assembly blacklists blacklisting

The London Assembly has criticised the blacklisting of construction workers who raised health and safety concerns. The elected body has also called on London mayor Boris Johnson to drive home the message to organisations under his jurisdiction that every employee must be protected if they identified health and safety problems. Assembly member Andrew Dismore, who proposed the motion noting many of those blacklisted were targeted ‘for raising legitimate health and safety concerns with their employer,’ said: “It’s absolutely abhorrent that for years construction workers and their families had their livelihoods destroyed by the disdainful practice of blacklisting. With the Kier Group a founder member of the Consulting Association, which was responsible for ruining people’s chances of employment on the basis of their personal relationships, employment history and trade union membership, it’s deeply concerning they are involved in the construction and maintenance of nine new fire stations in London.” He added: “With many of those who were blacklisted trade unionists, it falls to the mayor to make sure that no organisation under his jurisdiction ever allows any employee to be blacklisted because they’ve legitimately raised concerns about the health, safety and well-being of workers.”

Ÿ  London Assembly news release.

Construction safety faces new ‘red tape’ blitz

The freshly revamped Construction, Design and Management (CDM) regulations could be watered-down under a new government blitz on ‘red tape’. On 2 December, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) launched a Cutting Red Tape review for the house building industry. A news release announcing the review stated: “The new Cutting Red Tape review will look at the way the law is enforced, as well as whether the rules themselves are proportionate and fit for purpose.” It added the government is “keen to look at the changes made to the Construction, Design and Management Regulations, as well as any examples of EU rules that are being implemented too strictly.” The CDM safety regulations were revamped in April, placing greater responsibility on clients for the conduct and decisions of the people they employ to oversee health and safety. The role of CDM coordinator disappeared under the changes leaving clients to appoint a Principal Designer and Principal Contractor to fulfil their duties. Business secretary Sajid Javid said: “Where rules are too complicated, ineffective or poorly enforced, I want to hear about it and the government will take action. Together we can cut red tape and get Britain building.” The BIS news release stated: “The responses from house builders will lead to government taking concrete steps to remove burdens on business.” Unlike the more usual formal consultation processes, this ‘review’ adopts a more casual blog style approach where comments can be posted online, either attributed or anonymously. The invitation to comment is open to all, and not restricted solely to ‘house builders’.

Ÿ  BIS news release and review, Cutting Red Tape review of housebuilding (closes on 13 January 2016). Cabinet Office Cutting Red Tape website. Construction Enquirer.

Death firms fined in HSE inspector’s ‘most horrific case’

Two North West companies have been fined following the death of two workers in what a senior Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector described as perhaps the ‘most horrific case’ he had encountered. James Bibby, 25, and Thomas Elmer, 27, were both killed when carrying out maintenance work on a conveyor belt at the Sonae woodchip factory in Kirkby (Risks 486). Liverpool Crown Court heard that on 7 December 2010 Mr Elmer, employed by Metso Paper Ltd and Mr Bibby, a self-employed contractor for the same company, had been asked to replace part of conveyor belt at Sonae Industria (UK) Ltd’s Merseyside plant. While carrying out the work the conveyor suddenly and unexpectedly started to run, dragging both men into the machinery causing catastrophic fatal injuries. An investigation by HSE found multiple failings by both companies to properly assess the risks associated with the work James and Thomas were carrying out. Sonae Industria (UK) Ltd was fined £220,000, with costs of £107,000, after pleading guilty to a criminal safety breach. Valmet Ltd, which took over Metso in 2013, was fined £190,000 plus costs of £107,000, after pleading guilty to two criminal safety offences. HSE principal inspector Mike Sebastian said: “James Bibby and Thomas Elmer should not have died. This is perhaps the most horrific case I have ever had to deal with and has had a devastating effect on both families.” He added: “Carrying out straightforward risk assessments is about protecting workers from serious harm, suffering life-changing injuries or, in this tragic case, death. If both companies had put in place the simple steps to protect their workers’ safety these two young men would still be with us today.”

Ÿ  HSE news release. BBC News Online. Liverpool Echo.

National Grid fined £2m over boy’s death

One of the UK’s biggest gas distributers has been fined £2 million after admitting criminal safety failings in relation to the death of a young boy. On 24 April 2014, 11-year-old Robbie Williamson and two friends were crossing the Leeds and Liverpool Canal using a pipeline running on the outside of Dugdale Bridge in Burnley. As they were crossing, Robbie fell from the pipe and into the canal below. He was taken to Royal Blackburn Hospital but died later that day. The cause of death was recorded as being caused by drowning and a head injury. Preston Crown Court was told that National Grid Gas plc failed to take measures to prevent access to the exposed pipeline. The company’s records incorrectly showed the pipe was buried within the bridge rather than exposed on the outside of the bridge, so this crossing had not been subject to any inspections and had no access prevention measures fitted. National Grid Gas plc pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £2 million with £36,102.90 costs. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Ian Redshaw, said: “This was a tragic accident which has had a devastating impact on Robbie’s family and friends. The company failed to assess the risks associated with this pipe to members of the public, and as a result they had not put in place any measures to prevent or deter access onto the pipe. This was a significant cause in Robbie’s death.”

Ÿ  HSE news release.

Worker killed in fall from unsafe loft ladder

A sub-contractor has been given a suspended jail term after a worker was killed when he fell from a dodgy loft ladder during an inspection of a domestic boiler. Winchester Magistrates’ Court heard how on 19 March 2013, gas engineer David Wood, 64, was inspecting a boiler in the loft space of a private residence. The ladder had been incorrectly fitted which resulted in Mr Woods falling and suffering fatal injuries. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the incident found that sub-contractor Poitr Kowalczyk, who could not speak or read English and was not conversant with British health and safety standards, was tasked with carrying out refurbishment and improvement works at the residence. This included fitting a propriety loft ladder. The ceiling, which was not a standard height, was not compatible with either two or three section extendable ladders. Piotr Kowalczyk, 62, chose to fit the longer three section ladder. However, due to the restricted loft space it was not possible to fit the ladder’s retaining bar, a safety device that locks the ladder at a safe angle. When Mr Wood was on the ladder, the ladder slid forward causing Mr Wood to fall backward to the floor below. This resulted in fatal head injuries. Piotr Kowalczyk was sentenced to six months imprisonment, suspended for two years, and ordered to pay costs of £12,404 after pleading guilty to criminal safety offences.

Ÿ  HSE news release and ladder safety guide. Southern Daily Echo. Hampshire Chronicle.

Suspended sentence for director after site fall

The director of a construction company has been given a fine and suspended jail sentence for criminal safety failings after a worker fell from a ladder, resulting in brain damage and other injuries. Portsmouth Magistrates’ Court heard an employee of MP Jacobs fell from a ladder whilst replacing guttering on a two-storey block of residential flats in Havant on 29 October 2014. The 30-year-old, whose name has not been released, fractured his skull, broke his collar bone and suffered a brain haemorrhage. His injuries caused brain damage and he continues to have problems with memory and tinnitus. He is still attending hospital and is unable to work. Martin Paul Jacobs, director of MP Jacobs Limited, was sentenced at Portsmouth Crown Court and was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay £5,004 in costs after pleading guilty to a criminal health and safety offence. He was also given a six-month custodial sentence, suspended for 12 months. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Kate Leftly said: “Falls from height are the most common cause of injuries for those at work, accounting for nearly three in 10 fatal injuries and nearly 600 major injuries to workers every year. The work replacing the guttering in this case was not low risk or short duration and other equipment such as a mobile scaffold tower or mobile elevated working platform should have been used.”

Ÿ  HSE news release and working at heights webpages.

Unlicensed firm removed school asbestos

A construction firm removed an asbestos ceiling in a school despite not having the legally required licence to do the work. Luton Magistrates’ Court heard that Clarks Construction Limited was contracted by the board of governors of Caddington Village School to refurbish changing rooms, toilets and associated areas at the school complex. The school had arranged for a specific refurbishment survey to be carried out to determine if asbestos was present. The survey found asbestos in a ceiling of one of the rooms. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found Luton firm Clarks Construction Limited removed the ceiling in August 2013 without consultation with the school or effective reference to the asbestos survey. Clarks Construction Limited was fined £3,300 and ordered to pay £662 in costs after pleading guilty to a criminal breach of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 for carrying out work which should only have been undertaken by a licensed asbestos contractor. In June, teaching union NUT warned the government had no “long-term strategy” to deal with asbestos in schools. General secretary Christine Blower said there was “still no recognition that asbestos is a serious problem for schools” (Risks 708). It is estimated that up to 86 per cent of UK schools contain asbestos (Risks 695).

HSE news release and asbestos licensing webpage.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Azerbaijan: Caspian Sea oil rig fire claims many lives

Two oil workers have been confirmed dead and 30 more are missing presumed dead after a fire broke out on an oil rig in the Caspian Sea. Tragedy struck the oil platform off the coast of Azerbaijan on 4 December. The incident happened when a natural gas pipeline was ruptured during a storm that sent waves as high as 10 metres crashing against the rig, authorities said. Heavy storm conditions prevented some workers from escaping in lifeboats, according to a joint statement from the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, or Socar, and the Azeri Ministry of Emergency Situations. One lifeboat broke loose from its fastening and dropped the workers into the Caspian Sea, they said. Shortly after the incident, Socar and the government said 32 people had been saved, two had died and more than 30 were still missing. The fire on Platform Number 10 of the Guneshli oil field is thought to have spread to the oil and gas wells of the platform, and 28 wells were shut down to contain the incident, authorities said. Jahangir Aliyev, president of the Azerbaijani Oil and Gas Industry Workers’ union, is following the developments and reporting back to the global union IndustriALL. Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL assistant general secretary, said: “IndustriALL extends our condolences to the victims and their families, and urge the government of Azerbaijan to provide them with the support needed after this tragic accident. We also call on the government to include the trade unions when investigating the reasons behind the fire that has claimed workers’ lives.”

Ÿ  IndustriALL news release. Wall Street Journal. ABC News.

Canada: Firms alone can’t define work violence

A top Canadian court has ruled that employers cannot arbitrarily decide what constitutes workplace violence or rely on internal investigations when incidents occur. In a groundbreaking decision, the Federal Court of Appeal has supported a legal challenge brought on behalf of a member of the public service union PSAC. The case involved a workplace violence complaint filed by Abel Akon, a CFIA poultry inspector in Saskatoon and a member of PSAC. The complaint described the harassment and humiliation he suffered at the hands of his supervisor. After the employer dismissed the complaint, PSAC supported Akon in asserting that CFIA management had violated a regulation of the Canada Labour Code. The case landed in court after the Occupational Health and Safety Tribunal of Canada backed the employer’s position. However in a case initiated when PSAC when on to file for a judicial review, the federal court ruled last year that the way that Akon was treated did constitute workplace violence. “Psychological bullying can be one of the worst forms of harm that can be inflicted on a person over time,” wrote Judge Michael Manson. This was in contrast to the federal government’s position that workplace violence only involves physical force. In a 30 November 2015 ruling, the Federal Court of Appeal supported Justice Manson’s reasoning, upholding his decision. “In the context of the recent public service employee survey where one in five workers report being harassed in the public service, this decision is very timely,” said Robyn Benson, PSAC national president. “Employees alleging workplace violence deserve to have their concerns treated fairly and respectfully.” PSAC said it was significant that the court agreed that employers should not be allowed to conduct their own investigations in to workplace violence, saying this “would make a mockery of the regulatory scheme and effectively nullify the employees’ right to an impartial investigation of their complaints.”

Ÿ  PSAC news release. Canadian Labour Reporter.

USA: Tobacco farms are no place for teens

The US government and tobacco companies are failing to protect teenage children from hazardous work in tobacco farming, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said. A new 72-page report from the group, ‘Teens of the tobacco fields: Child labor in United States tobacco farming,’ documents the harm caused to 16- and 17-year-olds who work long hours as hired labourers on US tobacco farms, exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and extreme heat. Nearly all of the teenagers interviewed suffered symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning – nausea, vomiting, headaches, or dizziness – while working on tobacco farms. “Teenage children too young to legally buy a pack of cigarettes are getting exposed to nicotine while they work on US tobacco farms,” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at HRW and co-author of the report. “The US government and tobacco companies should protect everyone under 18 from hazardous work in tobacco farming.” Some US-based tobacco companies and growers groups took action in 2014 to ban employing children under 16 to work in tobacco farming, but excluded older teens from their policies. Teenagers are still vulnerable to the harmful effects of the work, HRW said. Under international law, the US is obliged to take immediate action to eliminate hazardous labour for those under 18, including any work that is likely to harm their health or safety. Tobacco companies, for their part, have a responsibility to work to prevent and eliminate serious human rights problems in their supply chains, said HRW. The US Department of Labor has acknowledged the risks to children who work in tobacco farming, but has failed to change US regulations to end hazardous child labour in the crop. “The US government needs to do much more to protect child workers from the dangers of tobacco farming,” HRW’s Wurth said. “The US government and Congress should take urgent action to ban everyone under 18 from hazardous work on tobacco farms.”

Ÿ  HRW news release, video and full report, Teens of the tobacco fields: Child labor in United States tobacco farming.

USA: Mine boss guilty over 29 coalminer deaths

More than five years after 29 miners were killed in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been convicted of safety crimes. In a statement following the 3 December verdict, the president of the mineworkers’ union UMWA, Cecil Roberts, said: “A measure of justice has been served through the conviction of Don Blankenship on federal charges of conspiring to violate mine safety standards. The truth that was common knowledge in the coalfields - that Don Blankenship cared little for the safety and health of miners working for his company and even less for the laws enforcing their rights - has finally been proven in court. This decision will not bring back the 52 people killed on Massey Energy property during Blankenship’s reign as the head of that company, including the 29 killed at the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010. Their families still must live without their loved ones, holding their grief in their hearts the rest of their lives.” The statement added “a message has gone out today to every coal operator in America who is willing to skirt mine safety and health laws: you do so at your own personal risk. I thank the jury for having the courage to send this message and establish a clear deterrent to this kind of activity. Hopefully that deterrent will keep more miners alive and intact in the years to come.” The tragedy, which was the largest loss of life in a mine in the United States since 1970, could result in a maximum sentence of one year in jail for Blankenship. Under US mine safety law, criminal safety violations, even were they lead to deaths, are classified and ‘misdemeanours’ and not felonies. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr, who has tracked progress on the case on his ‘Coal Tattoo’ blog, said while politicians in the state were quick to defend the coal industry from the threat of regulation, “it’s hard to find them really in any big hurry to do much of consequence to hold the executives who run those companies accountable for their safety practices.” He added “until the state’s political leaders and its people catch up to the jury on one simple notion - that running a coal company where violating safety laws is part of the business model is a serious crime - nothing here is really going to change.” The New York Times reported that Blankenship is “the most prominent American coal executive ever to be convicted of a charge connected to the deaths of miners.”

Ÿ  UMWA statement. AFL-CIO Now blog. Charleston Gazette ‘Coal Tattoo’ blog. The Pump Handle. The New Yorker. New York Times. Charleston Gazette.

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