|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.
Every year more people are killed at work than in wars. Most don't die of mystery ailments, or in tragic "accidents". They die because an employer decided their safety just wasn't that important a priority. Workers’ Memorial Day (WMD) commemorates those workers. The 28 April annual event is marked all over the world, as workers and their representatives conduct events, demonstrations, vigils and a plethora of other activities to mark the day. As preparations begin for this year’s event, the TUC has announced the global campaign focus. “In 2016 the theme for the day is ‘Strong Laws - Strong enforcement - Strong Unions’ because across the world we are seeing growing attacks on health and safety protection, including in Britain where the government have removed protection from millions of self-employed workers, and across Europe where the European Commission is pursuing a dangerous deregulatory strategy,” the union body said. “However strong laws are not enough if they are not going to be enforced. That is why we need proper inspections and enforcement action against those who break the laws.” The TUC said that in UK the number of inspections has fallen dramatically in the past five years, while in many other countries enforcement is non-existent. “That is why we also need strong unions. Unionised workplaces are safer, yet the government is trying to stop unions protecting the health and safety of their members by restricting the right of health and safety representatives to take time off to keep the workplace safer, and also trying to reduce our right to strike when things go wrong.”
Ÿ TUC news alert. TUC 2016 Workers’ Memorial Day activities listing. Add your 28 April event to the TUC . For tweeters, use the #wmd16 ITUC/Hazards global events listing. For Workers’ Memorial Day resources including ribbons and car stickers, contact the Greater Manchester Hazards Centre by email or phone 0161 636 7557.
A Scottish government committee has called on the UK Coastguard Agency to respond to safety concerns after offshore union RMT condemned conditions aboard some vessels operating in the North Sea as “purgatory.” Trade unions told the Scottish parliament’s economy, energy and tourism committee that British seafarers were being increasingly excluded from North Sea work due to “employers using gaps in employment legislation to employ non-UK seafarers below the UK minimum wage.” RMT regional organiser Jake Molloy said the conditions aboard some ships were “appalling” with “less competent, less able and less willing workers being exploited in order to exploit our natural resources.” He added: “I have done International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) inspections on some vessels that have been flying the flag of convenience, and I know that the Filipino and Indonesian workers look upon us as the police arriving to save them from purgatory.” The Scottish TUC said there was “no doubt” that the health and safety of British seafarers was being compromised, and also warning that there was a continued risk to the future of jobs - in part due to tumbling oil prices.
Rail workers in Scotland have warned a train operator it will face industrial action if it presses ahead with cuts to the numbers of “safety critical” control staff. White collar rail union TSSA said plans to reassign ScotRail Alliance train control staff - the rail equivalent of air traffic control - will place a huge strain on the safe management of Scottish trains and so increase the risk of accidents on the network. ScotRail Alliance management are seeking to redeploy at least seven Control staff, mostly from the Cowlair Control Centre near Glasgow. TSSA members are resisting these changes, their union arguing their specialised jobs are essential to both passenger and industry safety. The union represents around 80 control personnel who manage decisions about train movements across Scotland. TSSA leader Manuel Cortes said: “We are deeply concerned that the reassignment of our members to other duties is in fact a reduction in staffing numbers in control will impact negatively on the safe running of the Scottish railways.” He added: “This is not a pay issue, this is a safety issue. Our controllers are already working flat out,” noting that members indicate “being just one member of staff down increases stress and fear an accident. They are therefore desperately worried that a loss of seven members of staff is courting a rail disaster.” He said strike action will only be averted if the ScotRail Alliance’s top management “gives immediate written assurances that control staff numbers will not be reduced.”
Sheffield council workers are being balloted for industrial action after a private firm sacked a union member for asking a question about safety and employment conditions on a BBC local radio phone-in programme. GMB member Martin Lyons was fired by Veolia-run Green Co on 14 January after the company claimed he had brought it into disrepute by asking council leader Julie Dore on air about a long-running dispute on the contract. Strikes have been threatened and a work-to-rule is still ongoing since the dispute over safety standards began in November 2014. GMB Sheffield organiser Peter Davies said union reps had already been sacked for challenging management. “It is clear to me who is responsible for damaging the company and it’s the set of bullies now running the operation,” he said. GMB general secretary-elect Tim Roache said the union would “defend our members to the hilt and continue in our fight with this company until we get justice, a safe working environment and our sacked members back to work.”
Construction union UCATT has warned that the government’s proposal to relax the licensing of gangmasters will lead to greater exploitation and the mistreatment of workers by employment agencies. The union was commenting on the government’s plans to reform the powers, function and scope of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), changes the TUC warned could increase exploitation of vulnerable workers (Risks 734). UCATT said: “Once again this Tory government looks to favour the bosses over protecting the workers and is prepared to let the exploitation of the most vulnerable workers continue in order for employment agency bosses to make more money.”
Brian Rye, UCATT’s acting general secretary, said: “This proposal is a craven attempt to release employment agencies from the obligation of treating workers fairly. For ‘flexible licensing’ read ‘look the other way’.”
A former prison officer has been awarded £185,000 in compensation after he suffered a permanent shoulder injury when taking part in mandatory control and restraint training at work. Robert Warren, a member of the prison officers’ union POA, was working at HMP Wealstun in West Yorkshire at the time of the incident. The control and restraint training required prison officers to take part in a role playing exercise. Robert was playing the role of a violent prisoner and was held against a wall by three of his colleagues. He should have been brought down from the restrained position, facing forwards towards the floor in a controlled manner, but a colleague swiped Robert’s legs, which caused him to fall and two officers to fall on top of him. As a result, Robert suffered nerve damage to his left shoulder and despite having medical treatment and physiotherapy, he was left with permanent pain and numbness in his left shoulder and upper arm. The injury meant that he could no longer do his job properly and he was forced to retire from work after 30 years as a prison officer. Robert said: “I wasn’t physically able to do my job anymore and I was obviously very upset to have to retire after 30 years. I have permanent pain in my shoulder and occasionally I get sharp, stabbing pains too, which affects what I’m able to do day-to-day.”
Payouts of more than £150,000 have been offered by major construction firms to victims of the construction blacklist. The compensation offers, which are ten times higher than original offers, have been increased as the High Court action brought by unions and campaigners progresses. Site unions and the Blacklist Support Group are bringing a class action for around 700 workers against contractors caught up in the scandal. The High Court case is due to be heard this year. Last year eight contractors – Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O’Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska UK and Vinci PLC – set up The Construction Workers Compensation Scheme in a move intended to settle with victims out of court. Trade journal Construction Enquirer reports that a statement from the employers’ group on the latest, increased, offers said: “We have made these offers in an attempt to settle as many claims out of court as possible in order to save further unnecessary legal costs and to speed up the payments to affected workers.” In a statement, the Blacklist Support Group said: “The High Court litigation has reached a crucial point with the companies offering money in an attempt to buy themselves out of any justice. Many blacklisted workers have point blankly rejected the insulting offers and are determined to carry on to full trial.”
Unions, human resource experts and employers’ bodies have said that snooping on staff is an unwelcome and sometimes unhealthy intrusion. The organisations were speaking out after Europe's top court ruled a Romanian man whose employer read his messages had not had his rights violated. He broke company policy by using a work account to communicate with his family. Commenting on the European Court of Human Rights ruling, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “People should have a right to privacy in the workplace. Big Brother bosses do not get the best out of employees. Staff who are being snooped on are less productive and less healthy.” She added: “It is essential that employers have clear policies on internet use so that people are not caught out. British workers put in billions worth of unpaid overtime every year. They shouldn’t be punished for occasionally checking private emails and going on social media.” Institute of Directors (IoD) director general Simon Walker said: “Employees should not be subject to Stasi-style surveillance at work. We would strongly urge businesses not to read an employee's personal messages, apart from in the most exceptional circumstances.” And the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) said: “Employees that feel under excessive surveillance are also more likely to suffer from stress, so there needs to be a clear case for monitoring.” Reports from the International Labour Organisation, the Institute for Employment Rights and Hazards magazine have all warned about the adverse health effects of snooping on workers (Risks 147).
The ethical audits used by global companies to establish their adherence to decent labour, safety and environmental standards could in fact be a convenient and damaging alternative to effective regulation and enforcement, according to a new report. Researchers’ from the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI), a part of Sheffield University, interviewed business executives, non-profits, supplier firms and auditors, and concluded “ultimately the audit regime is ‘working’ for corporations, but failing workers and the planet. Audits are ineffective tools for detecting, reporting, or correcting environmental and labour problems in supply chains. They reinforce existing business models and preserve the global status quo.” The authors point out that disasters including the devastating Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh (Risks 729) took place within certified, audited supply chains. The report argues that workers can be the biggest losers, with problems inherent in the voluntary auditing process meaning corporations tend to prioritise the environment over labour concerns. Report co-author Genevieve LeBaron said governments around the world must take a more active role in monitoring and enforcing labour and environmental standards. “Inspectorates need more funding and a stronger mandate, and workers need to be empowered to exert their rights to prevent abuses in the first place,” she said. Research published this week by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has revealed the global supply chains of 50 companies employ only six per cent of workers in a direct employment relationship. “Just 50 companies including Samsung, McDonalds and Nestle have a combined revenue of $3.4 trillion and the power to reduce inequality. Instead they have built a business model on a massive hidden workforce of 116 million people,” said Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary. She said the system results in “indefensible workplace injuries and deaths”, adding: “Only by exposing the practices of these companies to consumers and citizens around the world will companies begin to take responsibility for their supply chains and follow the rule of law.”
Ÿ SPERI news release. Ethical audits and the supply chains of global corporations, SPERI Global Political Economy Brief No.1, Sheffield University, January 2016. TUC Touchstone blog. The Guardian. ITUC news release and report, ITUC Frontlines Report 2016: Scandal Inside the global supply chains of 50 top companies.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of sacking an employee just days before Christmas after telling her she had taken too much time off work while undergoing chemotherapy. Pauline Fisher, 65, who has been diagnosed with incurable kidney cancer, had worked at a DWP-run disability centre in Blackpool for 10 years before being signed off sick for six months last June. She had insisted that she would return to work after a course of chemotherapy but was told in October – with two months remaining on her sick note - that her employment was being terminated because she had “failed to maintain an acceptable level of attendance.” She said she appealed against that decision only to be told just days before Christmas that the decision to terminate her employment would be upheld. She told ITV News: “I’ve not made myself ill. I don’t want to have cancer. I don’t want to be terminal. I want my life back.” She added: “I loved my job. I mean everybody moans about their job sometimes, don’t they? But the people that I worked with were lovely… I’m just a bit sad really. They shouldn’t treat people like this.”
Workers driving home after a night shift are at an increased risk of a road traffic accident, a US study suggests. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Liberty Mutual Research Institute examined the experiences of 16 night shift workers as they participated in two two-hour daytime drives on a closed test track. The study participants undertook one driving test after working a night shift and another after a typical night’s sleep. The team found that more than 37 per cent of the post-night shift drives involved a near-crash event, while nearly 44 per cent were ended early for safety reasons. However, researchers documented zero near-crashes during post-sleep drives and did not have to end any of the post-sleep drives early for safety concerns. The study published the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found indicators of impaired driving after just 15 minutes of driving following a night shift, with a marked increase in the rate of slow eye movements and drowsiness after 30 minutes of driving. Researchers described impairments as “severe” after 45 minutes of driving. “The number of near-crash events that occurred during the study starkly emphasised the statistics of nearly half a million crashes and 6,500 fatalities annually that directly result from driver fatigue,” said study co-author William J Horrey, principal research scientist at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. “While we are all generally aware of the risks associated with drowsy driving, these outcomes really underscored just how dangerous a homeward commute can be for this working population.” In 2014, following the death of a seriously fatigued young medic on her drive home from a hospital night shift (Risks 635), the Scottish government instructed NHS managers to end all rotas that make doctors work seven night shifts in a row and more than seven days back-to-back (Risks 660).
Ÿ Michael L Lee and others. High risk of near-crash driving events following night-shift work, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, volume 113, number 1, pages 176–181, 5 January 2016. Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety news release. Pump Handle blog.
Occupational exposure to textile dust is associated with almost three times the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, according to new research published online in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases. The research, which led the authors to call for better control of dust in the textiles industry, also linked exposure to genetic changes that hasten progression of the disease. The researchers based their findings on 910 Malaysian women who had been diagnosed with early stage rheumatoid arthritis and 910 women of similar age, but free of the disease. The women were all asked if they had ever worked in the textile industry, and had been exposed to certain chemicals and silica dust – other factors that are associated with heightened risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. Forty-one of the women with rheumatoid arthritis (4.5 per cent) had been exposed to textile dust compared with 15 (1.7 per cent) of the women free of the disease. Those who had been exposed to textile dust were almost three times as likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis as those who had not worked in textiles. “From a public health perspective, our results imply that efforts should be considered to reduce the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis by reducing occupational exposure to textile dust,” the study’s authors concluded.
Ÿ BMJ news release. Chun Lai Too and others. Occupational exposure to textile dust increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis: results from a Malaysian population-based case-control study, Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 14 January 2016. doi 10.1136/annrheumdis-2015-208278
Building products manufacturer Stressline Limited has been fined after an agency worker suffered serious cement burns on his first day of work. Leicester Magistrates’ Court heard how the inexperienced 21-year-old – on his first day of full-time employment – was exposed to alkaline cement slurry while standing in a drainage pit. The young worker suffered chemical burns to his feet and ankles. He required plastic surgery and his feet and lower legs are scarred for life. He was in hospital for three weeks. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the incident on 28 April 2014 in Stoney Stanton found that the company had not appreciated that slurry from cured concrete dust posed the same risks as that from cement or wet uncured concrete. They had no risk assessment for the slurry or suitable and sufficient controls to eliminate, reduce or control the risks. A mechanical system to remove slurry from the water pit would have prevented these life changing injuries. Stressline Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £12,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2,121.HSE inspector Dr Richenda Dixon said: “The risks from concrete and cement are well known in this industry. Companies need to protect agency workers as they are as likely to have injuries in the first six months of employment as in the rest of their working lives.”
The company director of a sash restoration company has been fined for his criminal safety failings after a worker fell three metres through an unprotected skylight. Salisbury Magistrates’ Court heard how on 14 July 2014, an employee of the Sash Restoration Company (Dorset) Limited fell through an unprotected skylight while replacing sash windows on a large manor house, breaking his wrist. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the work was not adequately planned to take account of the risk of working near to a fragile surface. The incident was not reported by the company and only came to HSE’s attention following a query about the incident from an unnamed source. David Richard Garrett, the director of Sash Restoration Company (Dorset) Limited, was fined £3,300 with costs of £1,526, after pleading guilty to criminal breaches of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Disease and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations) 2013.
Unions in Canada have said health and safety laws across the country now have real clout, following the jailing of a construction manager for this role in the death of four employees. Vadim Kazenelson, 40, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail for an incident in which four workers died and another was critically injured after falling 13 storeys from a scaffold outside a Toronto apartment building on Christmas Eve 2009. The project manager for Metron Construction was found guilty last June of four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily injury. Unions welcomed the ‘historic’ sentence. Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) president Chris Buckley said this marks the first time a supervisor in Canada has been sent behind bars for the death of a worker. “Justice has been served,” Buckley said. “It sends a strong message, and employers should have shivers up their spines today.” The OFL launched a campaign immediately after the tragedy, with the slogan “Kill a Worker, Go to Jail.” The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the national union federation, said employers as well as the managers and supervisors should take heed. “Employers have a responsibility to ensure safe workplaces and safe work practices. It’s a responsibility that unions have always taken very seriously, but having strong laws that courts are willing to enforce ensures that everyone’s health and safety is protected,” said CLC president Hassan Yussuff. The jail sentence is the first of its kind since the federal government passed Bill C-45 in March 2004. The law – introduced after a lengthy union campaign - added a section to the Criminal Code that imposed criminal liability on organisations and individuals that don’t take reasonable steps to prevent their workers from being injured or killed on the job. In earlier court proceedings, Metron Construction was ordered to pay a Can$750,000 fine after pleading guilty to criminal negligence causing death. The 2012 penalty was the highest fine in Canadian history for criminal corporate liability. The company’s owner, Joel Swartz, was ordered to pay Can$112,500 after pleading guilty to four violations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Children as young as seven are working in perilous conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to mine cobalt that ends up in smartphones, cars and computers sold by household brands including Apple, Samsung and Sony, according to an investigation by Amnesty International. The human rights group claims to have traced cobalt used in lithium batteries sold to 16 multinational brands to mines where young children and adults are being paid a dollar a day, working in life-threatening conditions and subjected to violence, extortion and intimidation. More than half the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the DRC, with 20 per cent of the cobalt exported coming from artisanal mines in the southern part of the country. In a joint-investigation with African Resources Watch (Afrewatch), Amnesty International says it interviewed 90 adults and children working in five artisanal cobalt mine sites. Workers spoke of labouring for 12 hours a day with no protective clothing, with many experiencing significant health problems as a result. The report says that child miners as young as seven carried back-breaking loads and worked in intense heat without face masks or gloves. The report traced the supply chain from these mining sites to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), one of the largest mineral processors in the DRC and a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt). “What is very worrying is that none of the companies that we identified through our research and named in investor documents could trace the cobalt they use in their products back to the mines where it originated. Around half of all cobalt comes from the DRC, and no company can validly claim that they are unaware of the human rights and child labour abuses linked with mineral extraction in the region,” said Mark Dummett, business and human rights researcher at Amnesty International.
Ÿ Amnesty International news release, video and report, This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt. The Guardian. BBC News Online.
Workers’ and migrants’ rights activist Andy Hall has faced the courts in Thailand again, after exposing the abuse of migrant workers in a Thai pineapple canning factory. Andy, a British passport holder, faces a seven-year prison sentence and a hefty fine for his part in writing a research report critical of the Natural Fruit Company Ltd’s employment practices. In the latest in a series of court appearances (Risks 717), a court last week confiscated his passport and required £6,000 in bail, which was put up by two concerned Thai tuna companies and Finnwatch, the Finnish organisation that published the report. Andy’s case has attracted international attention. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, whose organisation is among many worldwide supporting the human rights advocate, said: “If modern slavery is to be eradicated from global supply chains, unions and campaigners must have the right to speak out. The number of court appearances Andy Hall has had to make – in none of which he has been found to have broken any laws – show that this is nothing more than judicial harassment.” She added: “Thailand’s Attorney General should be ashamed of helping bad bosses keep up their appalling practices, and the Thai government should be cracking down on slavery and trafficking, not on human rights defenders and trade unions.”
Dale Arnold, who worked for plastics maker Flambeau in Wisconsin, USA, chose not to take his work-sponsored health assessment and biometric screening. The company responded by pulling his health insurance coverage. Like many US employers, Flambeau uses a wellness programme to cut insurance costs by encouraging healthy employee habits. In the past, submitting to on-site tests of blood pressure, body-mass, and cholesterol meant receiving a credit worth a few hundred dollars. Now companies such as Flambeau have replaced this carrot with a stick, denying healthcare entirely to those who don't participate. People like Arnold must instead pay for more expensive coverage through a government programme. And the courts appear to be siding with the companies. In a case filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the US government argued that Flambeau's wellness program didn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which limits companies from requiring medical exams or personal health information from workers. Denying employer-sponsored health coverage crosses the line from voluntary to coercive, the EEOC contended. But a federal judge hearing Arnold’s case ruled in favour of the company. Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan, said the ruling turns “voluntariness” on its head. “It would make it all but impossible to enforce the voluntariness requirement for requests for medical information,” Bagenstos said, questioning the judge’s interpretation of law. A December 2015 TUC guide to workplace well-being programmes said 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. Highlighting the findings in Hazards magazine, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson noted: “Unfortunately many employers seem to be focusing, not on keeping workers safe, but instead trying to encourage them to look after their own health by encouraging them to eat well and exercise.”
Ÿ Bloomberg News. Workplace well-being programmes: A guide for safety reps, TUC, December 2015. Hard to swallow, Hazards magazine, Number 132, December 2015.
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/
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