|Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others. Sign up to receive this bulletin every week. Past issues are available. Disclaimer and Privacy Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at email@example.com.
For every £1 spent on paid time off for public sector union reps to represent their members, taxpayers get at least £2.31 back in savings, according to a new study published by the TUC. The safety contribution is even more stunning - half of these savings come from the union success in reducing work-related injuries and ill-health. The report, based on a new analysis of official figures by the University of Bradford, shows that allowing union reps time off to represent their members improves staff retention, reduces illness and boosts industrial relations. Ministers say the Trade Union Bill currently before parliament seeks to cut the “excessive” number of union representatives - and therefore the amount of facility time available - in the public sector. However, the report notes that just 2.8 per cent of public sector workplaces with recognised unions have a union rep that spends all or nearly all of their working time on their representative duties. The new report calculates the savings delivered by unions across the economy could exceed £1 billion every year, falling in a range between £476m and £1,250m. And prevention of workplace injuries and work-related ill-health contributes over half of the overall union-related savings, at 2014 prices the equivalent of £130m-£360m in union safety related savings each year in the public sector alone. The TUC argues that the time available to union safety reps to do this work – not classed as facilities time and protected by law – would nevertheless be hit by the government plans, despite assurances to the contrary (Risks 738). The union body says the planned cap on all time for union activities would inevitably mean unions would have to choose between undertaking safety or other essential union functions. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Union reps help save taxpayers millions of pounds a year by making workplaces healthier and more productive. Paid time off for public sector union reps to represent their members is granted by employers because it is good for staff well-being, improves communication and stops problems escalating into disputes.”
Ÿ TUC news release and full report, The benefits of paid time off for trade union representatives, TUC, February 2016. The Union Effect: How unions make a difference on health and safety, TUC, February 2016.
An incident this week where a Tube line was closed after contractors drilled through a tunnel roof highlights the folly of London Underground plans to cut track patrols and introduce driver-only trains, the union RMT has said. Parts of the Central Line were closed for over an hour on the evening of 22 February after piling work at the Westfield shopping centre extension in west London breached the roof of the tunnel. Masonry fell on the track outside Shepherd’s Bush station forcing the closure of the line between Marble Arch and White City. Rail union RMT said the incident reinforced its argument against driverless trains and for protecting track patrols. General secretary Mick Cash said: “This incident of falling concrete from development works above the Central Line is not the first of its kind and with whole swathes of London now a building site it rams home the dangers for the Tube network as developers rush ahead with their projects.” He condemned the “lethal plans” of Conservative mayor Boris Johnson and mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith for a driverless Tube network. “RMT will also now step up the fight to defend and expand in-house track patrols against the threat of casualisation and privatisation,” he added.
Civil service unions have defended in the appeal court a 2015 High Court ruling that said the Department for Transport (DfT) broke employees’ contracts by introducing new, more punitive, sickness absence policies without reaching agreement with unions. Prospect, the FDA and PCS were at the Court of Appeal on 16 February to defend the judgment, which held that the sickness absence policies applied to employees in the central Department for Transport and its agencies are contractual (Risks 690). The central DfT staff handbook says the contract of employment cannot be changed without agreement from employees or recognised unions. Despite this, in 2012 the DfT had attempted to impose harsh changes in sickness absence procedures, including reducing the “trigger points” for acting against workers taking sick leave. One change would have meant a formal written warning would result from absences of eight working days and this would start the dismissal procedure. Judgment in the Court of Appeal has been reserved and this will be reported in due course.
Action is being taken to protect tenants and maintenance workers in Wales against the danger of asbestos, after discussions between the union UCATT and the Welsh government. As a result of the talks, communities minister Lesley Griffiths has written to every local authority and registered social landlord in Wales calling on them to ensure contractors are fully informed of asbestos in a property before starting maintenance work. She has also warned organisations against relying asbestos surveys that only check a sample of homes so may be unreliable, and to ensure all workers are fully trained in how to spot and deal with asbestos. In the letter, Ms Griffiths said: “I would like to emphasise the need for action to minimise the risk for both tenants and for those who work in the repair and maintenance of social housing. Where contractors are used by a social landlord for improvement works it is important for information from surveys and the asbestos register to be passed to the contractor in a timely and accurate manner.” Welcoming the breakthrough, UCATT regional secretary for Wales, Nick Blundell, said: “If you don’t take asbestos seriously, more and more people will continue to die from exposure. Our members in the social housing maintenance sector face this danger on a daily basis. Poor and inadequate surveying can leave maintenance workers up to their eyeballs in asbestos dust – without any protection.” He added: “The minister’s words and the intentions of the Welsh government to enshrine asbestos procedures into new legislation for Wales is not only sensible, timely and progressive - it’s lifesaving.”
People across York probably breathed in deadly asbestos dust from the former York rail carriageworks in the late 1950s and 60s, a former union leader has warned. Former Unite (TGWU) rep and branch secretary Paul Cooper, 72, who worked at the factory in the city from 1959 until it closed in 1996 and has long campaigned about employees' exposure to asbestos, said huge extractor fans were fitted in an asbestos spraying workshop in the late 1950s which pumped dust into the air. He has now written a statement outlining what he witnessed of the spraying and stripping of asbestos at the carriageworks to ensure details are kept available for future reference. He told his local paper he hoped the information might be useful to any lawyers who might in future wish to fight for compensation for either former employees or other York residents who contract asbestos-related cancers. “The dust could be blown by any wind, back into and around the factory or to the four corners of York, north, south, east and west, thereby putting thousands of residents at risk,” he said. Spraying with 'limpet asbestos cement', one of the most hazardous of all asbestos jobs, commenced at the carriageworks in 1955, he said, and was in full operation when he started work there in 1959, but soft asbestos sheeting was already being used beforehand as insulation in coaches to prevent wooden floors overheating and catching fire. In 2015, law firm Slater and Gordon said there had been over 140 reported victims of asbestos who were employed at the carriageworks.
Ÿ York Press. Slater and Gordon briefing on York carriageworks and asbestos. IBAS 2007 paper on rail union asbestos campaigns in the UK.
Union warnings about the dangers of toxic chemicals inside aircraft have been borne out by a new scientific study. Earlier this year, Unite called for a public inquiry into ‘aerotoxic syndrome’, with the union raising concerns about both short- and long-term health risks associated with in-air exposures (Risks 737). Now a study carried out by researchers in Germany has confirmed flight attendants and passengers are exposed to toxins in cabin air. Researchers from the University of Göttingen tested 140 patients, many of whom were cabin crew, and found organophosphates and volatile organic compounds in their blood and urine samples. The study suggests that these compounds may have been leaked into the cabin air supply from engine fuel, oils or antifreeze. Organophosphate compounds cause symptoms such as nausea and light-headedness and can attack the nervous system, circulation and airways. David Robinson of the law firm Thompsons said: “These latest findings support long-term concerns over aerotoxic syndrome and underline the serious health risks associated with contaminated cabin air. As it stands, there are no official guidelines on what is a ‘safe’ level of exposure for cabin staff and passengers, despite growing concerns around aerotoxic syndrome.” He added: “The passenger airline industry must acknowledge the findings of this latest research and a thorough investigation is urgently needed to establish how cabin crew, pilots and passengers can be better protected from the risks of exposure to contaminated cabin air.”
A British Airways flight approaching Heathrow airport has been targeted with a powerful laser in the second attack on an aircraft over west London in 10 days. The high powered laser beam is thought to have struck the pilot of the BA plane in the eyes as he made his final approach to the runway on 22 February. However, he was able to land the flight from Amsterdam without incident and police said the aircraft was not “endangered.” The attack comes just nine days after a flight to New York was forced to turn back to Heathrow after a laser was shone into the cockpit while it flew at 8,000ft (Risks 739). The prompted pilots’ union BALPA to call on the government to reclassify lasers as ‘offensive weapons’ after the attack on the Virgin Atlantic flight to New York on 14 February. The union said aircraft were being attacked with lasers at an “alarming rate” with devices of ever increasing strength. The Civil Aviation Authority has logged more than 9,000 laser dazzling incidents since January 2009, involving passenger and military jets, police helicopters and air ambulances. Rail union RMT said laser attacks were also a problem for train drivers.
A corporate accountability group has welcomed news that for the first time, a British businessman has been prosecuted and sentenced for human trafficking offences, but has questioned why there has been no prosecution in a similar case involving a company described by officials as the ‘worst UK gangmaster ever’. Bed factory owner Mohammed Rafiq was handed a two-year prison sentence after becoming the first businessman in the UK to be convicted of conspiracy to traffic, after using Hungarian ‘slave labour’ provided by gangmasters (Risks 739). “The use of slave labour in UK supply chains must be stamped out,” said Marilyn Croser, director of CORE, the UK coalition on corporate accountability. “As well as greater vigilance among business, criminal prosecutions are needed to prevent and punish such abuses, and we welcome efforts by UK police to prosecute traffickers in the UK.” But the organisation has expressed concern at a similar case where Lithuanian workers were trafficked to the UK and put to work in chicken farms by British company, DJ Houghton Catching Services Ltd and its director, Darrell Houghton, and company secretary, Jackie Judge. The firm’s Kent property was raided by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) in 2012, with GLA describing DJ Houghton as the ‘worst UK gangmaster ever’. Sixteen of the men who used to work for DJ Houghton are now suing the company, Darrell Houghton and Jackie Judge in the High Court, seeking compensation for their ordeal. But while Houghton and Judge were arrested following the police raid in 2012, no prosecutions have taken place. Shanta Martin, a CORE board member and partner at law firm Leigh Day, who represents the Lithuanian men in the civil claim, said: “It is difficult to understand why there has been no prosecution in respect of our clients’ case. There seems to be an enormous amount of documentary evidence and readily accessible witnesses willing to testify. Members of the public have also recently come forward to provide information on the whereabouts of a Lithuanian middle man with whom the Houghtons allegedly worked.”
Chemical safety rules are not a burden on businesses, but deliver a substantial net benefit, a new report has concluded. ‘The bigger picture’, published by the chemical safety think tank ChemSec, concludes chemical regulation creates opportunities for many progressive companies. It uses case studies to show these companies are not only opting for safer chemicals, but are finding the alternatives are frequently better too. ChemSec said the Europe-wide REACH chemical safety framework “offers an opportunity for Europe's economy to keep evolving; the question is in which direction.” Anne-Sofie Andersson, the director of ChemSec, commented: “Do we really want to accommodate laggard companies that aim to keep using hazardous chemicals, which in turn will work against the purpose of circular economy, or do we want to look to the future and stimulate innovative businesses creating safe products fit for a new economy?” The report notes that using hazardous chemicals is itself a costly option. Frida Hök, ChemSec’s policy advisor, said: “We urge policy makers to include several aspects in their assessments whether to regulate a chemical or not, similar to the way progressive companies do when they assess the benefits of substitution.” She added: “They do not just consider chemical prices in a straightforward per kilo comparison, rather they look at the bigger picture and include more parameters, like costs of waste handling, worker safety, consumer satisfaction, to name a few. Combining all these factors makes it clear that substitution can give a competitive advantage on the market, making it economically beneficial.” The report features the case of US firm Lumber Liquidators, whose share price plummeted when it was found their products contained high levels of carcinogenic formaldehyde, leading to the resignation of the company CEO in May 2015. Further revelations this week about formaldehyde emissions from Lumber Liquidators products saw the share price sink still further.
Ÿ ChemSec news release and full report, The bigger picture: Assessing economic aspects of chemicals substitution, ChemSec, February 2016. BBC News Online.
A Scottish farm has been sentenced after a teenager worker was killed while trying to clear a blockage in a grain bin. Jedburgh Sheriff Court heard how Zach Dean Fox, 19, was working for Seamore Farming at their premises at Deanfoot farm in Hawick. The court was told that large metal containers known as bins were used on the farm for storing grain during harvest time. The young worker was trying to clear a blockage on 1 August 2014 from within the bin while it still contained a quantity of grain. He became immersed in the free flowing grain and died as a result of asphyxiation. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the system of work in place to clear blockages in the grain bin was inherently and obviously unsafe. Seamore Farming pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £45,000. HSE inspector Allison Aitken said: “This was an entirely avoidable tragedy which resulted in the death of a young man. The dangers associated with working within the confined space of grain silos and clearing blockages in grain silos are well known within the farming industry and well documented in HSE guidance.” She added: “Farmers should ensure that they have a safe system of work in place for clearing blockages in grain silos which avoids the need for anyone to enter inside them. This can be easily achieved, where necessary, by making some minor modifications to working practices to enable the task to be completed safely from outside the grain silo”.
A London based company that fabricates structural steel products ignoring official safety notices demanding improved practices. Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard how William Fry Fabrications Limited failed to thoroughly examine two cranes used by the company, despite receiving both improvement and prohibition notices on this issue for its cranes in 2011. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that between 2012 and 2015 the cranes had not been thoroughly examined at least every 12 months despite an absolute legal duty to do so. William Fry Fabrications Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998, and was fined £13,333 and ordered to pay full costs of £2,527.
An Australian union campaign to ‘Make Black Lung History’ has taken a big step forward with the announcement of a public inquiry into the devastating occupational lung disease. Tony Maher, president of the union CFMEU’s mining and energy division, said he was now confident there would soon be a solution to the growing health crisis. “This national inquiry allows victims and experts to have their say in an open public forum, make submissions and get all the issues out in the open,” he said. “Australia’s coal miners deserve the safest possible conditions at work and if mining companies are not properly managing dust levels that must be addressed by government as an urgent priority.” The mining union’s general secretary, Andrew Vickers, said he expected mining companies and regulators to cooperate with the Senate Inquiry and called on all involved to work cooperatively in the interests of workers affected by the disease. “We’ve already had six victims diagnosed and our members are concerned right across the country – in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia where mining is a key industry. They deserve to know they are safe when they go to work.” The union campaign - Dust to dust: Make black lung history - is seeking commitments from government. These include an independently policed law requiring monitoring of dust levels, sufficient suitably qualified staff to review lung x-rays, and for health screening to be extended into retirement.
A union has welcomed a new law in Ontario, Canada, recognising post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in emergency first responders. Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), said: “This is great news for all Ontario first responders. I’m particularly pleased for the correctional and ambulance staff that OPSEU is proud to represent. We know these heroic individuals risk life and limb every working day to keep our communities safe. Now the government has finally woken up to the fact that first responders also put their emotional and mental well-being on the line.” The legislation includes a presumption that PTSD diagnosed in first responders is work-related, leading to faster access to resources and treatment. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) would process claims faster, the provincial government indicated, allowing first responders to get the help they need sooner. The union leader applauded the activism by first responders and opposition politicians that led the Liberal government to take action. “Finally, the Liberals seem to have come to their senses, thanks in part to the media, who helped lay bare the PTSD crisis among first responders,” Thomas said.
Unions, the Italian government and human rights advocates have called for justice for Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Cambridge university postgraduate student tortured and brutally murdered in Cairo. Global union confederation ITUC said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi must ensure there is a full investigation. Regeni had been researching Egypt’s independent trade union movement when he disappeared from the streets of Cairo on 25 January. His body was found on a waste dump nine days later. Multiple stab wounds and cigarette burns were evident, indicating torture and a “slow death”, according to Egyptian prosecutor Ahmed Nagy. Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary, said: “This atrocity, against an innocent young researcher, must be fully investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. The heavy-handed tactics of Egypt’s police, the string of disappearances in recent months and the mounting repression of civil society show that President Sisi’s government is heading in the wrong direction.” She added: “The prospects for fundamental democratic rights and freedoms, including the right to freedom of association for the country’s workers, are receding by the day. We call upon the government to change course, to support and protect human rights and avoid yet more bloodshed and the possibility of further mass unrest.” Education International, the global union for the education sector, has sent a letter to the Egyptian authorities to request a full investigation. It said FLC-CGIL, an EI union affiliate in Italy, has with other affiliates urged the Italian authorities to exert “maximum efforts to shed light on what happened,” and has called for a “transparent investigation.”
Ford Motor Company spent $40 million on scientific studies designed to cast doubt on the link between asbestos brake linings and cancers including mesothelioma, an investigation has found. The probe by the Washington DC-based Center for Public Accountability found the firm, stung by asbestos disease lawsuits involving mechanics, first retained toxicologist Dennis Paustenbach, then vice-president at the consulting firm Exponent, in 2001. “Thus began a relationship that, according to recent depositions, has enriched Exponent by $18.2 million and brought another $21 million to Cardno ChemRisk, a similar firm Paustenbach founded in 1985, left and restarted in 2003,” CPI claims. “All told, testimony shows, Ford has spent nearly $40 million funding journal articles and expert testimony concluding there is no evidence brake mechanics are at increased risk of developing mesothelioma.” This finding, recounted countless times in courtrooms and law offices over the past 15 years, is an attempt at scientific misdirection aimed at extricating Ford from lawsuits, critics say. John Dement, a professor in Duke University’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, said: “Fifteen years ago, I thought the issue of asbestos risk assessment was pretty much defined. All they’ve accomplished is to try to generate doubt where, really, little doubt existed.” David Egilman, a clinical professor of family medicine at Brown University and editor of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, argues that the papers are deceptive by design. “They can throw a lot of things at the wall and hope something sticks with the jury,” he said. “It forces people like me or other scientists to try to clean up each thing that was thrown at the wall, one at a time. And by the end of the day, that could be confusing to a jury or judge.”
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/
Want to hear about our latest news and blogs?
Sign up now to get it straight to your inbox
To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).