|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 TUC has said it is crucial the government’s Trade Union Bill faces a robust challenge – not least because it could make work a far more dangerous place. Hugh Robertson, the union body’s head of safety, said the proposed measures would allow the government to restrict the time given to trade union health and safety representatives in the public sector, allow inexperienced and inadequately trained agency workers to substitute for skilled, safety savvy workers during strikes, and restrict the ability of workers to strike over safety issues. He notes that when the Bill was discussed by the Lords at the committee stage, they “were particularly critical over the attack on health and safety representatives… and were concerned that the government was now threatening to force unions to restrict the time taken by health and safety representatives by bundling all time off together and imposing a single cap.” His said the “stupidity” of the safety attack was compounded as it wouldn’t apply to ‘representatives of employee safety’, the safety-rep lite system for firms without a recognised union. This demonstrated “how ridiculous and unfair the trade union bill is,” he said. Writing in the TUC’s Stronger Unions blog, Robertson concludes: “We must keep up the pressure to make sure that the House of Lords sees the Trade Union Bill for what it is. A partisan and cynical attack on the trade union movement, it threatens to undermine the work done by the tens of thousands of trade union members who volunteer to be health and safety representatives, and, as a result, make their workplaces a much safer and healthier place.”
The TUC has warned that workplace employment and safety rights underpinned by EU rules would be at risk if the UK votes to leave in the June referendum. ‘UK employment rights and the EU’ says decisions on which rights to keep – and which to amend or drop altogether – would be left to the government as it reviewed all UK laws linked to the EU. And any changes could let employers cut the benefits and protections currently due to UK workers. The report notes that working time rules and UK health and safety laws covering a wide range of hazards “underpinned and extended by EU legislation” could be in the firing line. Other safety rights under threat could be those covering young workers, temporary workers and new and expectant mothers. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Working people have a huge stake in the referendum because workers’ rights are on the line.” She added: “The current government has already shown their appetite to attack workers’ rights. Unions in Britain campaigned for these rights and we don’t want them put in jeopardy. The question for everyone who works for a living is this: can you risk a leap into the unknown on workplace rights?” Patrick McGuire, a solicitor advocate specialising in personal injury and health and safety law with Thompsons Solicitors, said: “Brexit couldn't remove totally the right to rely on European health and safety laws but it would reduce them to a bare minimum.” He added: “It will mean eventually that there will be no industry or employee safe from the vagaries of bad employers. No-one will be immune. The idea of paternal employers won't work. People will be killed, injured and mistreated in their work.”
Ÿ TUC news release and full report, UK Employment Rights and the EU: an assessment of the impact of membership of the European Union on employment rights in the UK. TUC Stronger Unions blog. The Herald.
UNISON has welcomed a decision by the UK’s top court that means its fight can continue against imposition of ‘punitive’ fees to take a case to tribunal. The Supreme Court has granted the union permission to continue its legal challenge. UNISON says since the fees were introduced three years ago, the number of claims has plummeted as workers have been forced to find fees of between £160 and £1,200 before they can pursue a case. Claims related to victimisation for raising safety concerns fall into the top-priced category. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Three years ago the government introduced tribunal fees, immediately making it much harder for employees – especially those on low incomes – to challenge bosses who break the law. Unsurprisingly employment tribunal claims have since dropped by 70 per cent. As a result it’s too easy for bad employers to escape justice. Many low-wage workers now have to put up with unfair or discriminatory treatment simply because they cannot afford to take a case.” Last August the Court of Appeal rejected a UNISON appeal, but described the case as ‘troubling’, and expressed a “strong suspicion that so large a decline [in claims] is unlikely to be accounted for entirely by cases of ‘won’t pay’ and it must also reflect at least some cases of ‘can’t pay’.”
Pilots are calling for research into what would happen if a drone hit an airliner, after 23 near-misses around UK airports in a six month period last year. Reports from the UK Airprox Board reveal the incidents happened between 11 April and 4 October 2015. In one incident a drone passed within 25 metres of a Boeing 777 near London Heathrow Airport. Pilots’ union BALPA wants the government and safety regulator the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to back research into how serious a strike could be. The incident at Heathrow was one of 12 that were given an "A" rating by the independent board, meaning there was “a serious risk of collision.” It is the most serious risk rating out of five. BALPA wants the Department for Transport and the CAA to back research into the possible consequences of a collision with a passenger jet. Steve Landells, the union’s flight safety specialist, said there was a large amount of data on the effects of bird strikes on planes, but he said specific drone research was needed because “birds don't have a big lump of lithium battery in them.” The union is concerned that these powerful batteries on board drones could start an engine fire. It is now asking the government and the safety regulator to help pay for tests to determine the potential consequences of a drone strike.
Rail union RMT is targeting train operator Govia in a new phase in its fight over rail ticket office closures, a plan the union says will make the rail system more unsafe. RMT general secretary Mick Cash, who warned the company was looking to shed safety-critical staff cross at dozens of stations, said: “RMT has set the pace with our campaign to stop Govia’s Thameslink Railways from unleashing ticket office carnage across the routes that make up this franchise as they look to sacrifice jobs, services and safety in the drive to line their own pockets at the passengers’ expense… RMT has no intention of allowing these plans to be bulldozed through and Govia should be forced to pull the proposals in their entirety.” Warning that other operators are also planning similar cuts, he added: “The bottom line is that these plans are a disgrace and Govia should be slung out and these essential rail services taken into public ownership before these latest profit-driven cuts are allowed to rip through 84 stations from North to South. It is no coincidence that this threat comes as Southern are already gearing up to axe guards from their services in yet another lethal gamble with safety-critical jobs on some of Britain’s most dangerously overcrowded trains and platforms.”
The Supreme Court has backed a prison employee’s right to claim damages from the Ministry of Justice after she was seriously injured when an inmate dropped a 25kg bag of rice on her. The landmark case, brought by the prison officers’ union POA, will change the legal definition of ‘employee’ and the law around vicarious liability. Now, any prisoner working alongside employees of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will be classed as an ‘employee’. In September 2007, prison catering manager Susan Cox was seriously injured at Swansea prison as she supervised prisoners carrying food from a delivery van to the prison kitchen. As the POA member was clearing a spillage caused by one prisoner, another failed to listen to her instructions to stop, lost his balance and dropped the heavy bag on her back. The injury to Ms Cox’s spine was so severe that she was unable to return to her job. An original compensation hearing said as the prisoners were not classed as employees, no compensation was payable. However both the Court of Appeal (Risks 644) and the Supreme Court rejected this, concluding the MoJ was vicariously liable for the prisoner’s actions. POA general secretary Steve Gillan said: “This is a significant day for prison workers across the UK – they are now legally protected when working alongside prisoners. We are delighted that this loophole has been removed from the law, and that the Ministry of Justice can no longer shirk responsibility for the injuries that happen in their prisons.” Catherine Cladingbowl of Thompsons Solicitors, who acted for the union in the case, said: “It was clear to us that the Ministry of Justice should be held responsible for the prisoner’s negligence, and the Supreme Court agrees. Prison employees’ safety when working alongside prisoners will now have to be taken seriously.”
Unions should remember that health and safety has lots of ‘special’ features that make it good for members and good for organising, a union safety specialist has said. Sarah Page, the national safety officer with the union Prospect, said it was worth considering “how unions achieve health and safety ‘voice’ at work.” She said: “This is why I want to remind ourselves of an important legal duty on employers that is routinely forgotten, ignored or flouted - though I fear far too many employers have never known it in the first place! But when it comes to health and safety, it is their duty to create a culture of cooperation. A platform for engagement. Yes, the onus is on the employer.” She said section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act requires the employer both to consult with safety reps and to seek cooperation on safety, with the very extensive union safety reps rights fleshed out in guidance to the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations. She noted: “A culture of sharing, improving, promoting and upholding our collaborative efforts is vital to ensure that everyone at work goes home safe and well at the end of their working day.”
A worker has been killed in a building collapse at Didcot power station and three others are “highly unlikely” to be found alive, Thames Valley Police has said. The derelict building in Oxfordshire toppled on 23 February. The Birmingham-based Coleman Group was awarded the contract to dismantle the Didcot A coal and gas-fired station by RWE npower. The power station collapsed while its workers were preparing the structure for demolition. Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service chief fire officer David Etheridge said there had been “no signs of life detected” in the search for the three workers trapped in the rubble. Five other workers were hospitalised and around 50 were treated for dust inhalation. Thames Valley Assistant Chief Constable Scott Chilton warned that recovery of the bodies and the investigation will be complex and would take “many, many weeks”. In a 3 March update, Thames Valley Police said it “will be working in tandem with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to support the investigation into this incident. The collapsed building presents complex engineering challenges. The plan is to ensure a safe dismantling of the existing building while being acutely aware of its inherent instability.” HSE chief inspector of construction Peter Baker said: “We must also seek to understand what caused this incident. Given the sheer scale and complexity of the scene we’re looking at, this may take some time. A joint investigation by HSE and Thames Valley Police is underway, under the work related deaths protocol, and everyone is working very hard to identify the cause as quickly as possible, and what lessons can be learned to prevent such a tragedy happening again.” Construction union UCATT said the incident was “potentially the worst construction incident since January 2011 when four workers in Great Yarmouth died following the collapse of a steel structure they were erecting” (Risks 737). Acting general secretary Brian Rye said: “In 21st century Britain, everyone should be coming home from work safe and sound at the end of the day. There is no reason for it to be otherwise.”
Conservative proposals to cut disability benefit by £30 a week have been attacked by the government's equalities watchdog. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHCR) said the cuts to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) will “exacerbate, rather than reduce, existing inequalities”, in addition to disproportionately affecting disabled people. Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC chief executive, wrote in a letter to Labour MP Roger Godsiff: “This makes it difficult to understand whether the changes will affect, for example, people with some types of physical disability more or less than people with particular types of poor mental health or who experience bouts of ill-health and may therefore be in and out of work.” The letter, seen by the Independent, added: “These are the kinds of matters that we might have expected a more thorough analysis to have considered.” The latest benefit reductions would affect new claimants in the work-related activity group (Wrag) who are declared too ill to work but well enough to undergo work-related interviews or training from April 2017. The cuts are projected to save £1.4 billion over four years and would reduce Wrag members’ weekly unemployed benefits from £102.15 to £73.10.
Derbyshire waste firm Rainbow Waste Management Limited has been prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after a worker was crushed by the bucket of a motorised loading shovel. On 7 June 2013, Ashley Morris, known as Will, was working at Rainbow Waste Management’s site in Swadlincote. The 24-year-old sustained fatal injuries to his head and spine when the bucket of the loading shovel he was operating crushed him. Derby Crown Court heard that in the 10 days leading up to the incident, CCTV cameras had captured over 200 examples of unsafe working practices. These practices included dangerous operations with the shovel, such as workers being lifted in the bucket and workers having to take evasive action to avoid contact with moving vehicles. Rainbow Waste Management Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £136,000 and ordered to pay £64,770 in costs. Will’s mother, Josephine Morris, said: “Family events are a constant reminder that Will is no longer with us. Will would text his dad every Saturday over the football scores. My husband and Will used to play golf together but my husband hasn’t played golf since.” She added: “Will always used to end his phone calls to me saying ‘I love you Mum’ and even now every time when my grand-daughter says ‘I love you Nan’ I have a lump in my throat, as that is what Will used to say and that was the last thing he ever said to me.” HSE principal inspector Elizabeth Hornsby said: “Rainbow Waste failed to put in place basic legal requirements of training and supervision. The death of this young man was entirely avoidable.”
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is to receive a formal reprimand over the deaths of three soldiers on a training exercise in the Brecon Beacons in July 2013. Reservists Edward Maher, James Dunsby and Craig Roberts fell ill while on a training march. Mr Roberts and Mr Maher died during the exercise, while Mr Dunsby suffered multiple organ failure as a result of hyperthermia and died on 30 July 2013. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found a failure to plan, assess and manage risks associated with climatic illness during the training. These failings resulted in the deaths of the three men and heat illness suffered by 10 other on the march. HSE said if MoD had not been covered by Crown immunity, it would have faced criminal prosecution for the failings identified. HSE head of operations Neil Craig said while military training is inherently hazardous, “such testing needs to be managed effectively. The MoD has a duty to manage the risks during training exercises. It failed to do so on this occasion.” He added: “Since the incident HSE has worked closely with the MoD to ensure it has learned lessons on how it can reduce the risk of similar tragedies occurring in future without compromising or changing the arduous nature of the essential training and testing they need to provide.”
The TUC says an effective union needs two things: the first is a strong membership within the workplace; the second is high membership involvement. By encouraging members to participate, much more can be achieved than if members expect the union to ‘sort things out’. To make this easier, the union body has published ‘Health and safety and organising - A guide for reps’. It says the resource – which in a TUC first is now available online as both a pdf and an e-book - is designed to help you get more members and a more active membership, with a greater number of health and safety representatives. The TUC adds it “will make you more effective on the ground – where real gains can be made – and help create a greater culture of safety in your workplace.”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published its safety strategy for the next five years. The document, which repeats the same ‘six strategy themes’ announced in December 2015 ahead of the series of seven HSE ‘conversations’ around the country (Risks 733), does not include details of any concrete policy initiatives, targets or outcome measures.
Ÿ Helping Britain Work Well 2016, HSE strategy document, February 2016.
Unions in the Australian state of Victoria as setting out to build a ‘union safety army’ – and will be starting by meeting potential union members before they ever set foot in a workplace. Launching the new trade union safety network, Luke Hilakari, secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC), said union representatives will be visiting every high school in Victoria to talk about how union membership can help workers, with occupational health and safety (OHS) an integral part of the discussion. The campaign will be backed up with high profile social media activity. Hilakari said the new occupational health and safety network comes under the banner of its broader ‘We are Union’ campaign, but will have its own specific campaign focus. “We want to build this OHS safety army,” he said, identifying this as the union body’s ‘key performance indicator’ for the year. “That’s the only thing we really want to nail because when we build that army we can win campaigns.”
A union campaign exploding the dangerous flaws in the ‘better regulation’ strategy in operation in Europe has been launched. The campaign slogan adopted by UNI Europa, the European services workers’ union, is ‘Better regulation – It really isn’t.’ The campaign, which has already garnered support from a host of other Europe-wide union groups, showcases how the European Commission is stalling important social legislation, “the first example being the mockery of the agreement on the health and safety of hairdressers,” (Risks 730) it notes. A European Commission better regulation guide published last year included an illustration showing a hairdresser, next to a caption saying “the EU must not be big on small things”. In fact, the agreement was nothing to do with the EC, it was struck between UNI Europe and the hairdressing employers’ group, Coiffure EU. “UNI Europa and its allies will not stand idly by any more while the health and safety of thousands of, mostly young and female, workers is being held hostage. The health and safety of hairdressers is not a ‘small thing’– they are at very high risk of developing skin ailments, musculoskeletal diseases and occupational asthma,” said Oliver Roethig, regional secretary of UNI Europa. The union body said these problems, “combined with absences and untimely exit from the sector also cost Europeans millions of Euros due to increased demand for social security, healthcare services and ultimately a total retraining of hairdressers into other occupations.” Campaign posters are already appearing around Brussels, with a concentration around the European Parliament buildings.
The global transport unions’ federation ITF has issued a new guide “to help seafarers around the world to protect themselves from the Zika virus.” It says the virus, caused by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, is currently circulating in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. ITF adds there have also been reported cases of the virus being spread through blood transfusion and sexual contact. The Zika virus disease usually causes a mild fever, skin rash and conjunctivitis for a period of two to seven days but it is particularly dangerous for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, and has been linked to birth defects. There is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available. ITF maritime coordinator Jacqueline Smith said: “Our business is helping to protect the health and safety of seafarers. They are a particularly vulnerable group to this type of disease because they are in transit a lot of the time and there are a number of major trade routes passing through areas impacted by the Zika virus.” She added: “The reality for seafarers is that if they’re going to be able to take any precautions against contracting the virus – things like sleeping under mosquito nets, using repellent, wearing light covering clothing, covering water containers – they need to prepare in advance, before they are at sea for a number or weeks or even months.”
Explosions in a Russian coal mine have killed 36 workers, including rescue personnel. On 25 February, two explosions at the Severnaya coalmine in Vorkuta, believed to have been caused by methane gas, rocked the mine at a depth of around 748 metres, where 110 miners were working. Following this incident, 80 miners were safely brought up to the surface. In the following hours, four bodies were recovered. A massive rescue operation involving more than 500 rescue workers was launched in a bid to rescue the remaining 26 miners trapped underground. However a further explosion on 28 February killed six rescue workers. Rescue efforts were then halted. According to a statement from company management and Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry the missing 26 miners are presumed dead, bringing the total death toll to 36 people. Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL, the global union for the mining sector, said: “We are deeply shocked and saddened by the news of the 36 miners killed in this tragic accident. The industry is claiming yet more victims and we express our condolences to the families of the miners.” Ivan Mochnachuk, president of the Russian mining union Rosugleprof, said: “We are providing support and help to the victims’ families. We will take the necessary steps to find out the reasons of this tragedy, to prevent such tragedies in the future and to minimise the consequences of the accident on Severnaya mine.” Deputy prime minister Arkadii Dvorkovich will lead a special governmental commission to investigate the disaster.
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).