|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.
The UK’s network of 100,000 trade union health and safety reps not only reduce the toll of injuries and ill-health at work, but save the economy many millions of pounds, according to a new TUC report. ‘The Union Effect: How unions make a difference on health and safety’ reveals that workplaces with a union presence have a 24 per cent lower rate of injuries than non-unionised workplaces. The report highlights a 2013 campaign in Weetabix to increase union involvement in health and safety that led to a greater than 30 per cent reduction in all work-related injuries across all sites in the first 12 months. As well as having higher levels of safety training and participation in safety issues at work, the union safety role saves the economy many millions of pounds, the report notes. It says safety reps save society more than £181m each year by cutting down on the time lost from workplace injuries, and knock off 286,000 days from the sick leave total that would otherwise have been lost to work-related illness. The TUC said this positive contribution could be jeopardised by the government’s Trade Union Bill, that could led to cuts in the amount of time available to safety reps to perform their role (Risks 738). TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Union health and safety reps play a huge role in protecting people at work and save the economy millions. Good employers recognise the importance of working with unions to ensure their shops, offices and factories are safe. It’s a shame the government is putting this good work at risk with its ill-conceived Trade Union Bill.”
Ÿ TUC news release and full report, The Union Effect: How unions make a difference on health and safety.
Britain’s blacklisting scandal, which saw thousands of construction union reps victimised or denied work for raising safety concerns, provides ‘clear proof’ of the dangers posed by the government’s Trade Union Bill. TUC head of safety, Hugh Robertson, says the first tranche of compensation settlements – revealed this month and amounting to £5.6m shared between 71 workers (Risks 738) – “are no recompense for the thousands of ruined lives that resulted from the illegal actions of these companies, but they do show the importance of being in a union.” Writing in the Left Foot Forward blog, he noted: “Without the support that the GMB, Unite and UCATT gave and the work they did with the incredible Blacklist Support Group, the workers would have either received nothing, or, at the very least, some token amount.” He said more cases were due before the High Court in May, but added: “Of course it is more than just about money. The unions also want to protect future workers, which is why they are pushing for a full inquiry into blacklisting and strong laws to make sure that this scandal is never repeated. The Trade Union Bill is an attempt to stop us doing that by making it harder for us to recruit and represent members, campaign, and strike.” He warned that the Bill would give the Certification Officer new powers to investigate membership records, even where no complaints have been made. “This all raises concerns about the confidentiality of union membership and activism,” Robertson notes. “The blacklisting scandal is clear proof of why we need trade unions. Workers need them to ensure they are protected and, when things go wrong, to fight for their rights against employers, through the courts and to campaign for action from governments.”
New sentencing guidelines recommending much higher fines on firms that break health and safety laws (Risks 737) should increase the pressure on unsafe employers ‘to clean up their act’, the TUC has said. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said to make the system work better, there should also be more resources for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), to cover the costs of bringing more cases to court. He said fines historically have been low for criminal safety offences, even after a death. “Last year there were 682 convictions with an average fine of £27,860,” he notes in the TUC’s Stronger Unions blog. The new Sentencing Council guidelines followed a consultation last year, with a TUC submission saying any fines must recognise that health and safety offences are criminal acts to be treated no differently to other crimes involving violence. He said however that a ‘major omission’ in the guidelines is advice on when the courts should disqualify directors for their criminal safety offences. “Hitting irresponsible directors is one of the biggest deterrents going,” he noted. He added that while he had little sympathy with most of the complaints from the law firms acting for employers about the fines hike, he did share a concern “that more defendants will plead not guilty and fight charges or will appeal fines.” But he said the prospect of HSE facing a drain on resources preparing for these cases could be addressed by “increased resources for the HSE and for the HSE to be better at demanding that they get all their costs back, rather than an argument against the sentencing guidelines.” Robertson concluded: “We have had precious little good news about health and safety over the past five or six years, so let’s celebrate those few successes that we do get, and if courts do adhere to these guidelines properly they will act as a real incentive to employers to clean up their act.”
Employers face having to provide protective footwear for staff following a landmark court ruling involving a care worker who slipped on ice at work. GMB member Tracey Kennedy fell and injured her wrist as she made her way to the home of a housebound woman in the Crookston area of Glasgow in the harsh winter of December 2010. In 2013, a GMB-backed legal case found the 45-year-old’s employer was at fault for the fall on an icy path outside a patient's home. However the employer, Cordia (Services) LLP, successfully appealed the decision in 2014. On 10 February 2016, the Supreme Court overturned the appeal judgment and backed the care worker, saying the employer should have provided suitable footwear. Tracey Kennedy's solicitor, Iona Brown, of law firm Digby Brown, said: "This is an important judgment which will help protect individuals working for the benefit of others in testing conditions across the country. As the original decision noted, Miss Kennedy was on an errand of mercy, helping a vulnerable elderly member of the community. No-one should be exposed to any unnecessary risk of injury through just doing their job.” GMB organiser Louise Gilmour said: “This is a landmark decision in legal terms and a great decision for workers who suffer from accidents at work.” She added: “It is also a great result for Tracey. GMB has been fighting this case for the last five years. The result also means that Cordia cannot run away from its responsibility to assess risks faced by home care workers and provide adequate protective equipment to their staff.”
Lasers should be classed as ‘offensive weapons’ and banned in the UK, the pilots’ union BALPA has said. The union was speaking out after a New York-bound plane was forced to turn back to London Heathrow Airport after a laser beam hit the cockpit after take off, causing a ‘medical issue’ for one of the pilots. It is illegal to shine a light at a plane “so as to dazzle the pilot”, but not an offence to own or carry a laser. The union says they are “incredibly dangerous”, and could blind pilots. Virgin Atlantic flight VS025 turned back after it was struck by the laser on the evening of Sunday 14 February, about six or seven miles west of Heathrow. Jim McAuslan, general secretary of BALPA, said: “This is not an isolated incident. Aircraft are attacked with lasers at an alarming rate and with lasers with ever-increasing strength. It is an incredibly dangerous thing to do. Shining a laser at an aircraft puts that aircraft, its crew and all the passengers on board at completely unnecessary risk.” He added: “Modern lasers have the power to blind, and certainly to act as a huge distraction and to dazzle the pilots during critical phases of flight.” The union leader said: “We repeat our call to the government to classify lasers as offensive weapons which would give the police more power to arrest people for possessing them if they had no good reason to have them. This incident shows why this is becoming more-and-more urgent. Pilots across the world know how dangerous laser attacks are and therefore will join with me in commending the actions of the crew of VS25 who put their passengers’ safety first and took the decision to return to Heathrow.” In November 2015 it was reported that the eye of a British Airways pilot was damaged after a “military” strength laser was shone into his aircraft. Between January 2009 and June 2015 more than 8,998 laser incidents across the country were reported to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said ministers intended meet with CAA and airline officials to “determine what more can be done to protect the public from the potential dangers of certain laser products”.
Rail union RMT has warned that the risks from illegally wielded lasers are a threat to rail as well as aircraft safety. The union said any review in the wake of the Virgin Atlantic incident must include the impact of the ready availability of high-powered lasers on the wider transport industry. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The threat of lasers being shone into the eyes of train drivers is an issue that the government and the authorities must start taking seriously as the broader issue of the availability of these devices hits the headlines. Pilots work in pairs and at least have some back up whereas train drivers work alone and a laser in the eyes before approaching a signal could have a catastrophic impact. It is also a lot easier to target trains with these devices from alongside and above the tracks. De-staffing our railways, and cutting back on inspections, just opens the door for those with criminal intent.” The union leader added: “RMT wants to see the threat to our members, and the services they operate, from the widespread availability of these high-powered laser devices figuring as a priority in the safety considerations that we are being told are now underway.”
Around half of all police staff surveyed by the union UNISON said they had been bullied, with female staff significantly more likely to have been targeted. More than two-thirds (67 per cent) of female police staff told the union that bullying is a problem at work, and almost threequarters (72 per cent) reported they were not confident that their force will deal fairly with any complaints of bullying. UNISON said the survey of 1,000 police staff is the first to explore the prevalence of bullying in the police since the introduction of the police code of ethics in April 2014. Its research found women who work as police staff – 999 call handlers, police community support officers, crime scene investigators, fingerprint experts and detention officers – are 28 per cent more likely to be bullied than their male counterparts. Almost six in ten (58 per cent) of the female police workers surveyed said they had been bullied, compared to 45 per cent of their male colleagues. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “This survey reveals the unpleasant truth about what it can be like for women working in the police today. Such levels of bullying are completely unacceptable. It is high time the police and the Home Office acknowledged the extent of the problem and began to tackle bullying in a meaningful way. This is a real issue within police forces, and our findings should be a wake-up call for senior police leaders and politicians alike.” The UNISON leader added: “The scale of bullying means there is a real risk that policing will no longer be seen as an attractive career option for women. Bullying is specifically prohibited by the police’s own code of ethics. Top police officers ought to be taking the issue much more seriously than appears to be the case.” The union said it is keen to work with the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs Council in devising and implementing a strategy to tackle bullying.
A former pipe fitter who developed the debilitating asbestos-related lung scarring disease asbestosis has received an undisclosed compensation payout. Unite member Michael Adcock, 64, worked as a pipefitter for a Leicestershire engineering company from 1968 to 1986, where he refurbished boilers that were insulated with asbestos. He would manually remove asbestos lagging from a boiler in a confined space, which caused asbestos dust to circulate in the air and settle on his hair and clothing. He had worked at the company for four years before his employer provided him with any protection against breathing in asbestos or warned him about its dangers. In a Unite-backed compensation case, he has now received provisional damages for the incurable and progressive lung disease caused by excessive and prolonged periods of exposure to asbestos. Michael said: “It’s safe to say that I spent years working quite ignorantly with asbestos, not knowing the damage it could cause to my health. I guess by the time my employer had warned us about the dangers it was quite literally too little too late.” Unite’s Kevin Hepworth commented: “Michael, like many thousands of other industrial workers, worked unknowingly about the dangers of asbestos, which has caused irreversible damage to their health. Michael should have never worked unprotected but through his trade union membership he has had access to free, specialist legal expertise and has secured compensation for his employer’s wrongdoing.” He added: “By settling Michael’s claim for provisional damages it means that he has the benefit of receiving compensation now as well as legal protection for the future. Should he suffer serious deterioration to his health due to asbestos-related disease, he can reopen his claim and receive further compensation.”
London’s fire chief should listen to the public and drop unsafe plans to axe fire engines in the capital, the firefighters’ union FBU has said. The union call came after a London Fire Brigade (LFB) public consultation found the overwhelming majority of Londoners are against mayor Boris Johnson’s plan to permanently axe 13 fire engines. The consultation found that just 18 per cent of the London public support axing the appliances. Paul Embery, FBU regional secretary for London, said: “This consultation shows that the public acknowledge the dangers to life that will be posed by cutting appliances in our capital so severely. No-one wants this, and the LFB Commissioner has to now accept that public opinion does matter. Boris Johnson’s awful, unpopular idea to save money isn’t a good one. Lives and safety have to come first.”
A record of ‘short-termism’ and ‘salami slicing’ by government ministers could undermine a new blueprint to get more people suffering mental health problems back to work, Unite has said. The union was speaking out after the prime minister launched ‘The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health’, a report by the independent taskforce on mental health. David Cameron promised an extra £1 billion a year for mental health care and said it would mean tens of thousands of people in England with mental health conditions will be supported to find or return to work. He added: “I want to go even further and end the status quo that sees more than half of people with mental health conditions unable to find a job – ensuring tens of thousands are able to find or return to work over the next 5 years. The extra £1 billion a year will be used to support 1 million more people with mental health problems to access high quality care that they are not getting today and is an important step towards delivering the government’s commitment to put mental and physical health on an equal footing.” But Unite said a BBC freedom of information request had this week revealed that budgets for mental health trusts fell by two per cent from 2013/14 to 2014/15. Unite said this showed the government was promising money to solve a problem of its own making. Dave Munday, Unite’s professional officer for health, said: “This far sighted report risks being undermined by the short-termism of the government and its salami slicing to areas which support and act as a gateway to people accessing mental health services.” He added: “Mental health workers are working under considerable pressure to deliver the best service and help they can. They need to be confident that the cycle of robbing ‘Peter to pay Paul’ and then giving a little bit back will end. The prime minister and his government need to fulfil the broken promises of the past on mental health and implement this report in full, otherwise mental health will continue to be the ‘Cinderella’ of the health service.”
Most port health officers have not been told what they should do if they suspect air crew and travellers coming into the country have the Zika virus (Risks 738), the Association of Port Health Authorities has warned. Lynnette Crossley, a senior port health officer and APHA committee member, said Public Health England (PHE) had not yet circulated any guidance to ports other than those receiving direct passenger flights from the affected areas. “I believe that Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester have been in discussions with PHE, but apart from what is available through the media, we have received no specific guidance. The same thing happened with Ebola. It was some weeks before we got anything concrete from them,” she told Environmental Health News. “I am particularly concerned because there are indirect passenger flights and cargo flights from affected areas coming into the UK. There are South American, Central American and Caribbean air crew and seafarers, and seafarers who have recently visited ports in those areas. We want to be able to give them comprehensive, accurate and complete information.” Laurence Dettman, a chief port health officer and APHA committee chair, said authorities with airports were eagerly awaiting guidance from PHE. “The fear is that with Ebola there was a very long delay in issuing proper guidance to port health authorities. And here we are with the next one along Zika and fear the same thing is going to be repeated,” he said. Between January 2014 and 5 February 2016, a total of 33 countries have reported circulation of the Zika virus. There is indirect evidence of transmission in six additional countries.
Ÿ Environmental Health News. INSI advisory on Zika and related guidance from the National Travel Health Network and Centre, US Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organisation Zika factsheet. Public Health England guidance for pregnant women.
A firefighter found hanged at his station had been left traumatised by the death of a colleague, an inquest has heard. The coroner indicated that this tragedy may have tipped father-of-two Lee Gaunt, 41, over the edge, and said he was “concerned” at the adequacy of occupational health support provided to firefighters. Lee had been working a shift at Stalybridge fire station when he was found hanged on the site last October. His wife told the inquest that her husband “had never been the same” after the death of fellow firefighter Stephen Hunt, killed while tackling a large-scale fire in Manchester city centre in July 2013 (Risks 621). Crew manager Lee Gaunt was one of the 60 firefighters who also responded to the devastating fire. His wife Caroline said he went into “meltdown” after predicting “something catastrophic” would happen during the incident - and was deeply distressed by his colleague’s death. The hearing was told Mr Gaunt had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the incident and had experienced suicidal thoughts. It the period immediately prior to his death he was acting up, temporarily taking on the functions of a watch manager, and was concerned about a number of issues at work including faults with a new pager system. John Pollard, the senior coroner for Manchester South, said Mr Gaunt was having “pressure upon pressure piled upon him”. Recording a conclusion that he had intentionally killed himself, Mr Pollard said: “I think things that were really relatively minor became blown out of proportion.” He said he believed that before the Oldham Street incident Lee could probably “have dealt with these things.” The coroner added that there were a number of matters which caused him “concern”, including the level of occupational health support available to firefighters.
A factory owner who ran his bed-making business on a “slave workforce” of men paid as little £10 a day has been jailed for two years and three months. Mohammed Rafiq, 60, employed large numbers of Hungarians at his firm Kozee Sleep and its subsidiary Layzee Sleep, which supplied retailers like John Lewis, Next and Dunelm Mill (Risks 736). Police said the men had “no contract, no rights and were exploited terribly”. Rafiq was convicted of conspiracy to traffic. The jury also heard how ethical audits by the leading high street retailers failed to spot what was going on. The men were promised good wages, housing and food if they travelled to the UK but found themselves living in shared, cramped and squalid accommodation. Jailing Rafiq at Leeds Crown Court, judge Christopher Batty said he obtained his labour force from “ruthless gangmaster” Janos Orsos, whose “hideous exploitation” was only possible with the help of businessmen like Rafiq. The judge said: “You accepted the cheap labour that he found you regardless of how they were being treated. I'm satisfied you did nothing to help, you did not care.” Det Insp Andy Leonard, from West Yorkshire Police, said the men had been “controlled heavily” by the traffickers. “They had very little money, they were not allowed out and they were transported to and from the workplace. They worked long hours, they worked seven days a week, up to 15 or 16 hours a day, every single day of the week for little or no pay. They had no contract, no rights and were exploited terribly.” Orsos and his accomplice Ferenc Illes were jailed for five years and three years respectively in May 2014 after admitting people trafficking offences.
The director of a Shrewsbury company has been convicted of a criminal safety offence after a 45 gallon steel drum that previously contained flammable liquid caught fire and exploded while being cut in half. Shrewsbury Magistrates’ Court heard how an employee of SPEL Products had reported the incident, and indicated this particular method of work had been in operation for a significant period of time, and that previous incidents had occurred. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigated and immediately served a prohibition notice stopping the cutting of metal containers that had contained highly flammable liquid or vapour with metal cutting angle grinders. SPEL Products pleaded guilty to three criminal breaches of the Dangerous Substances and Explosives Atmospheres Regulations 2002, and was fined £13,666 and ordered to pay costs of £4,856. SPEL director Bryan Peacock was convicted of a criminal breach of the same law and was fined £4,000 and ordered to pay costs of £6,408. HSE inspector David Kivlin said: “Carrying out this type of activity…. is a well-known risk and there has been many incidents resulting in serious injury and death.”
A Star Wars production company is to be prosecuted over an injury to Harrison Ford during the filming of The Force Awakens, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has announced. Ford, reprising his role as Han Solo in the latest episode of the space blockbuster, was hurt by a hydraulic metal door of the Millennium Falcon during an on-set accident in June 2014 at Pinewood Studios near London. The incident saw the 73-year-old sidelined for almost two months with a broken leg, with director JJ Abrams forced to halt production in order for the actor to recover. The HSE is prosecuting Foodles Production (UK) Ltd over the incident. The firm, based at Disney’s UK headquarters in London, was the primary production company behind the film. HSE said the company would face four criminal safety charges. An HSE spokesperson said: “By law, employers must take reasonable steps to protect workers – this is as true on a film set as a factory floor. We have investigated thoroughly and believe that we have sufficient evidence to bring the case to court.” Ford, who was airlifted to hospital following the incident, was reportedly left with serious injuries. The Force Awakens passed $2bn at the global box office earlier this month and was easily 2015’s highest-grossing film.
The Irish prime minister Enda Kenny has condemned the threats made against a number of journalists in the Republic of Ireland. The threats follow two killings in a gangland feud in Dublin. The journalists have been “formally notified” by police that their safety is at risk from organised criminals. Mr Kenny said “journalists must be afforded the freedom to go about their jobs without fear of reprisal”. In a statement, Independent News and Media (INM), which owns the Irish Independent newspaper, said it was working with police to increase security around its reporters. Its editor-in-chief Stephen Rae said they “would not be deterred”. He added: “This is an outrageous threat to the freedom of the press in Ireland and we are taking the threats with the utmost seriousness. Our media group will not be deterred from serving the public interest and highlighting the threat to society at large posed by such criminals.” The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Irish secretary, Séamus Dooley, said he was “gravely concerned at the development”. He added: “Journalists and media organisations will not be intimidated by such threats, which have no place in a democratic society.”
Irish banana giant Fyffes has been accused of having “no respect” for workers’ rights, amid allegations that staff on Central American fruit plantations are being serially mistreated. The UK union GMB has called for Fyffes to be thrown out of the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI), which promotes labour rights, over reports of abuses by subsidiaries in Costa Rica and Honduras. In one case, 14 workers on a melon plantation, which is 60 per cent-owned by Fyffes’ subsidiary Suragroh were allegedly hospitalised after being poisoned by noxious chemicals. The GMB said the female workers had not been given safety gear to protect them while handling fruit. The union, which received the allegations from local trade union partners, said workers were also illegally charged for transport to the fields where they work. When they tried to form a trade union branch in January 2016, the GMB said, four members were abducted, threatened and held for 24 hours until they renounced membership. In Costa Rica, Fyffes’ Anexco pineapple subsidiary was accused of running “a purge” of union members, which led to 12 workers taking the company to court. GMB’s international officer Bert Schouwenburg said: “Fyffes is an appalling employer that cares nothing for its workers who toil in boiling heat to produce the fruit that makes the company’s profit. They have no respect for domestic or international law governing workers’ rights and must be brought to book.” The union called for Fyffes, the world’s fourth-largest banana importer, to be immediately expelled from the ETI, an organisation of companies, NGOs and unions. Fyffes, like other ETI members, has signed up to a code that includes rules about how they treat workers. Peter McAllister, the ETI’s executive director said: “We take all allegations very seriously.” He said the ETI could investigate if the matter could not be resolved locally between Fyffes and unions, and a complaint was raised by one of its members. Banana Link, an ETI member that advocates for fruit workers’ rights, said: “We absolutely hear the frustration from unions on the ground. We’re keen to engage in dialogue with Fyffes in the hope that they’ll speak to unions on the ground.”
A chemical giant responded to unexpectedly high numbers of brain tumours at one of its US plants by launching a flawed study to obscure the extent of the problem, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has found. The CPI investigation, the latest in its ‘Science for sale’ series, examined the cancer cluster affected workers at the sprawling Union Carbide plant in Texas City. More than 7,500 people had worked at the plant since it opened in 1941. It took three years, but by the late 1970s scientists at the federal safety regulator OSHA and its research arm NIOSH, discovered 23 brain tumour deaths there - double the normal rate. It was the largest cluster of work-related brain tumours ever reported, and in 1979 became national news. The leading suspect was vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make polyvinyl chloride plastic. Industry studies already had found higher-than-expected rates of brain cancer at vinyl chloride plants, and in 1979, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) took the unequivocal position that vinyl chloride caused brain tumours. “Yet today, a generation later, the scientific literature largely exonerates vinyl chloride,” notes CPI. A 2000 industry review of brain cancer deaths at vinyl chloride plants found that the chemical’s link to brain cancer “remains unclear.” Citing that study and others, IARC in 2008 reversed its position. However a CPI review of thousands of once-confidential documents showed that the industry study cited by IARC was flawed, if not rigged. Although the Union Carbide study was supposed to tally all brain cancer deaths of workers exposed to vinyl chloride, the company’s researchers counted only one of the 23 brain tumour deaths in Texas City. The Center’s investigation found that because of the way industry officials designed the study, it left out workers known to have been exposed to vinyl chloride, including some who had died of brain tumours. Excluding even a few deaths caused by a rare disease can dramatically change the results of a study, flipping a positive association on its head. CPI warned that the decline in public funding for studies meant the “dominance of industry-funded research for specific chemicals has become more common.”
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