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Unite’s campaign for urgent action to remedy ‘industrial scale abuse’ at Sport Direct has been given added impetus after a committee of MPs identified a disregard for health and safety law among a catalogue of exploitative practices at the company’s vast Shirebrook warehouse. The 22 July report, published by the influential House of Common’s Business Select Committee, follows months of campaigning by Unite and others to shine a spotlight on the endemic bad practices at the retail warehouse. Unite said there was a 'culture of fear’ at the Derbyshire warehouse, with workers scared to report the frequent calls to the emergency service to deal with unwell workers (Risks 723). One woman worker, terrified of losing her job, gave birth in the toilets because she was too afraid to take time off. Reacting to the select committee report, which found the company treated staff as ‘commodities’, Unite said that this was “absolutely not the last word, this can only be the beginning” in the fight against the mistreatment of working people. Steve Turner, Unite’s assistant general secretary, said: “This has been a long and difficult journey but finally we are getting closer to justice and decent treatment for the Sports Direct workers. The scale of the abuse we found was shocking, even to this union.” He said “the way to put things right at Shirebrook is simple – put the workers on fixed hour, permanent contracts. Give them some security and the dignity they deserve.” He said Shirebrook was not an isolated case. “The sad truth of the matter is that where people can be hired and fired at whim, bad bosses are never far away. If the prime minister is serious about tackling corporate abuse, then she should start in our workplaces by restoring security, decency and fairness to working life.”
Trade unions are seeking the support of City investors for a resolution to be put to Sports Direct’s annual general meeting calling for a fully independent review of working practices at the embattled retailer. At a 19 July meeting the TUC and Unite presented their resolution to representatives of leading fund managers including Aberdeen Asset Management and HSBC’s investment arm. Influential pension funds such as the Railways Pension Scheme were also at the crowded meeting at the TUC’s headquarters in London as well as a representative from the Investor Forum, which works behind the scenes to put pressure on companies. Unite intends to submit the resolution at the Sports Direct AGM on 7 September, to take place at its head office in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, where the company also has the giant warehouse that has been the focus of much of the controversy. The Guardian reports that it is unusual for big fund managers to consult with trade unions about how to bring about change at a company. But investors have become increasingly alarmed about how Sports Direct is run, particularly after financial performance suffered, and are prepared to back the resolution. The meeting was held before MPs published their scathing 22 July report into Sports Direct that accused Mike Ashley, the company’s majority owner, of running the company like a “Victorian workhouse”. Iain Wright MP, chair of the House of Commons business select committee, said: “For this to occur in the UK in 2016 is a serious indictment of the management at Sports Direct and Mike Ashley, as the face of Sports Direct, must be held accountable for these failings.” The extent of business disquiet with the revelations was evidenced in the reaction from the Institute of Directors. IoD director general Simon Walker said: “I implore Mike Ashley to reflect on the deep damage he has done to public trust in business. He, the chairman Keith Hellawell and the board of Sports Direct should take immediate steps to improve conditions for his staff.”
A Sports Direct HGV driver who suffered a jarring injury to his left shoulder when he was struck by a falling cage at work has received £12,500 in damages. On arriving at the company’s store in Uxbridge, Greater London, 59-year-old Unite member Stuart Valente found that he needed a ramp to manoeuvre cages in and out of the shop’s delivery area. The area was only accessible by a seven-inch step and was blocked by a number of empty cages. The driver pulled the empty cages from the elevated delivery area to the ground below. As he did so, one of the cages fell and struck him, jarring his left shoulder. He phoned his employer to report the injury but was told to continue his shift as normal. Although he completed the delivery, he was in a lot of pain and he visited his GP as soon as he could. After three months of persistent pain, a scan revealed damaged tendons in the shoulder. As a result of the injury, he needed intermittent spells off work for the rest of the year, during which time he had an operation to repair the tendon and ease the pain in his shoulder. He couldn’t drive for several weeks following the operation and had physiotherapy to rebuild the muscle in his arm. Unite regional secretary Peter Kavanagh said: “The build-up of cages made working at that particular store difficult and dangerous. Sports Direct should have had an effective system in place to monitor delivery areas to make sure they were fit for purpose and not let them become a dumping ground. If it had done this, then Stuart’s accident would have been avoided and it would have and stopped him from having time off work, suffering pain for months and needing an operation.”
A Worcester school has received an official reprimand after the union UNISON raised concerns about dangerous work with asbestos. Two 18-year-old workers were seen knocking asbestos down from the roof of a small outbuilding at Christopher Whitehead Language College during the October half term in 2013. Following a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation, the college has now received a letter of contravention of health and safety, upholding the union complaint. UNISON said it had complained to the safety regulator after becoming concerned that the removal of the asbestos breached health and safety guidelines. Charlie Sarell, UNISON West Midlands regional organiser, told Worcester News: “We are glad that the Health and Safety Executive have concluded their investigation into issues at the school, after concerns raised by UNISON. If it wasn't for the hard work and determination of our members, this issue would never have seen the light of day.” Headteacher Neil Morris said: “The only thing we didn't get right was two of the young lads, 18-year-old employees, were knocking it down from the roof so the asbestos was falling down. The concern was could we have done it in a safer manner. With hindsight, we could and should have done it in a better manner.” The Joint Union Asbestos Committee, a grouping of school unions including UNISON, has updated its guidance for safety reps on asbestos in schools.
Ÿ Worcester News. Updated guide for safety reps on asbestos in schools, JUAC, July 2016.
Almost 400 members of the offshore unions Unite and RMT working for Wood Group across eight Shell oil and gas platforms in the North Sea have taken strike action for the first time in a generation in a dispute over an erosion of their terms and conditions of employment. The first 24-hour stoppage took place on 26 July, with a series of other stoppages planned over the coming weeks. The action follows a 99.1 per cent vote in favour of strike action by Unite members, and a 98.5 per cent vote in favour of strike action by RMT members. The unions say members working in some one of the most hostile work environments on the planet are angry over Wood Group’s proposal to cut pay and allowances and move from a two-week working cycle to a three-week working cycle, which means working extra weeks offshore for the same salary. Unite regional officer John Boland said their members “work in some of the most hazardous conditions in one of the toughest jobs in the world and deserve better than Wood Group’s bogus claims that their proposed pay cuts won’t amount to much.” RMT regional organiser Jake Molloy said: “We have a long history of good relations in the North Sea. The last time we had a dispute was 27 years ago, and some of the workers involved then are involved this time too. Workers are clearly very angry, because it feels like all the progress we made has been torn up. It is time the UK oil and gas sector got in line with the Scandinavian countries and reduced hours for health and safety reasons.” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The TUC fully supports the striking North Sea Unite and RMT members.”
Seafarers’ union Nautilus has welcomed a UK government decision to reprieve the last remaining emergency towing vessel (ETV), based in Orkney. The union described the decision to provide a further five years’ funding for the vessel as ‘a long-overdue victory for common sense’ and urged the government to reconsider the provision of other ETVs around the UK coast. The union has run a lengthy campaign against the axing of the crucial safety vessels (Risks 587). The four ETVs were introduced after the Braer and Sea Empress tanker disasters, but three were withdrawn following the 2010 public spending review. The contract for the final vessel, covering northern Scotland, was due to expire at the end of March this year but was extended by the government in the face of warnings about the threat to safety. A Maritime and Coastguard Agency review had concluded that commercial firms could not provide a reliable, dedicated service to cover the seas around Scotland. Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson commented: “This is a victory for common sense and a victory for safety at sea. It is wrong that short-term cost-cutting was given priority over the need to safeguard lives at sea and protect our coastlines from pollution. The logic used to ensure the future provision of the Orkney ETV ought to be extended to the reinstatement of the other vessels in other high-risk areas around the UK.” He added. “There is no room for complacency over maritime safety and we should not ignore the ever-present risk of collisions, groundings, fires and other accidents in our waters.”
Live performance risk assessments take time and bring their own set of stresses, the Musicians’ Union (MU) has said. But it hopes a new, free online tool will take the worry out of risk. The Online Interactive Risk Assessment (OiRA), which was developed by the European Agency (EU-OSHA) and has tailored versions for sectors including ‘live performance’, provides a simple checklist that can be supplemented by the user and has other interactive functions. OiRA has been produced by representatives of employers, unions, government ministries and those working on the ground, and it aims to make risk assessment easier. MU health and safety specialist Roger Sutton was on the OiRA working party. “The tool fills an important gap for the industry. It does cover the key problems facing those who have to get involved in risk assessment. It goes much further than most in risk assessment roles could do without its assistance. For the small outfits that have to do risk assessments there is nothing similar available and is far better than most commercial offerings - and is free,” he said. “It is mainly designed for those in smaller set-ups or those with no health and safety experience but it has proved useful well beyond these categories. Health and safety officers in larger organisations have found it useful as an aide memoire on the many things that may need looking at in a production or show. It can similarly give a guide to safety reps as to what managers should be looking at. It is also an educational tool for those wanting to find out more about risk assessment in the industry.”
Two safety bodies are urging the government to publish a schedule for exit negotiations so that employers can develop plans that will assure the safety, health and well-being of their workforce in the short to medium term. The British Safety Council (BSC) and the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management (IIRSM) have written a joint letter to prime minister Theresa May, warning: “Uncertainty over the future work status of EU nationals in the UK is already causing anxiety and stress, which could adversely impact on the mental health of affected individuals.” They add a reduction in skilled workers from the EU “will increase the pressure on those that remain causing fatigue and potential for an increase in accidents and poor mental health.” The safety groups’ urged the prime minister to “prioritise publication of a schedule and structure for exit negotiations so that employers can develop plans which will assure safety, health and well-being for their workers in the short and medium term whilst the formal negotiations take place.” BSC and IISRM said that since the UK has voted to leave the EU, it is possible that there will be calls for changes to the established framework of legislation. “If this does occur, caution will be required to maintain current standards and protect the health and safety of workers in the UK,” they told the prime minister. “The objective must be to judge each element of the legislative framework on its own merits and effectiveness, not just on its origin, in order to retain an effective framework which doesn’t place unnecessary burdens on business.”
The bodies of five African workers who died after a wall collapsed on them at a Midlands recycling plant are to be flown to their home countries for their funerals. The men died at the Hawkeswood Metal recycling plant at Nechells in Birmingham on 7 July (Risks 759). Four were from Gambia and one from Senegal. Their bodies were released on 22 July by the coroner after an inquest into the deaths was opened and adjourned earlier in the week. Birmingham’s Gambian Association secretary Lamin Sonko said: “The coroner has now released the five bodies and we are making funeral arrangements. As soon as these arrangements have been finalised the bodies will be flown back to be repatriated in Gambia and Senegal.” The men died under tons of rubble when a wall collapsed, and an investigation is under way involving the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the police. A team of 20 detectives is involved in the investigation, which will establish whether any criminal liability exists for the wall collapse.
An Angus firm has been fined £120,000 over the death of a worker killed when he became attached “like velcro” to a spinning pipe in a metal spraying booth. Andy Fraser, 26, died when he became attached to a pipe spinning at between 50 and 80 rpm inside an aluminium spray coating machine at Gemini Corrosion Services Ltd in Montrose. He suffered multiple horrific injuries in the incident on the afternoon of 17 September 2014. He was airlifted to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee where he underwent emergency surgery, but succumbed to his injuries at 2am the following day. Mr Fraser was operating a machine that took in long metal pieces along a track before passing them across spray nozzles as the objects rotate. Forfar Sheriff Court heard the piece being worked on had been treated beforehand giving it a surface texture “similar to coarse sandpaper”. Fiscal depute Gavin Callaghan told Forfar Sheriff Court: “It would readily attach to fabrics such as the sweatshirt Mr Fraser was wearing under his overalls. It would attach in a similar way to velcro.” Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors estimated he had been attached to the spinning pipe for approximately two minutes before being found. Gemini Corrosion Services Ltd pleaded guilty to criminal health and safety offences and was fined £120,000, to be paid within six months. The fine was reduced from £180,000 in light of the guilty plea. The company provides specialist coating services to offshore oil companies, coating equipment such as drill pipes with aluminium.
An Essex school has been fined after poorly-planned and managed refurbishment and maintenance activities exposed school staff and others to asbestos. Chelmsford Crown Court heard that managers at The Boswells School, Chelmsford, decided to convert an old boiler room at the school into a cleaning store. During the course of this work, asbestos residue on the walls was disturbed and caretakers swept contaminated debris from floors. Their exposure to risk only came to light after a later asbestos survey was completed in the area. Headteacher Paul Banks reported the health and safety breach after he was made aware of it. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigated the incident and learned that asbestos containing materials (ACM’s) were also present in other areas. School caretaking staff and contractors disturbed the fabric of school buildings over many years without being alerted to the presence of the material. The Boswells Academy Trust pleaded guilty to criminal health and safety breaches and was fined £26,000 and ordered to pay costs of £20,000. HSE inspector Glyn Davies said: “The Boswells Academy Trust should have controlled this potentially lethal risk by identifying the type, location and condition of any asbestos-containing-materials within the fabric of the school, and by implementing suitable precautions to prevent its disturbance. It should then have ensured that such information was shared with anyone liable to disturb this fabric. It may also have arranged for a licensed asbestos contractor to remove any dangerous asbestos safely before commencement of any work.” The inspector added: “This prosecution should act as a reminder, not just to schools but to all persons in control of the repair and maintenance of non-domestic premises, of the need to ensure that a suitable and sufficient assessment of risk from asbestos is carried out, and that correct control measures are put in place to ensure that exposure to asbestos is prevented, so far as is reasonably practicable.”
A manufacturing company has been fined for criminal health and safety failures that exposed workers to a highly toxic chemical for almost two years after the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) first told it to act. South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court heard how South Shields-based Templetown Canopies Limited used styrene in their production of fibre glass door and window canopies. Styrene can cause health effects including irritation to the nose, throat and lungs. It can also have a neurological effect including difficulty in concentrating, drowsiness, headaches and nausea. An HSE inspection on 1 May 2013 led to an improvement notice being served on 3 May 2013, requiring measures to be taken to control styrene exposures. However, the company did not take action to comply with the improvement notice until they moved premises in March 2015. HSE’s enforcement database shows that the original compliance date set by HSE was 2 August 2013, this subsequently revised to 29 August 2014. The company should have had an extraction system to remove the fume and provided masks with the correct filters to prevent operators breathing it in. Templetown Canopies Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) and was fined £8,500 and ordered to pay costs of £4,500. HSE inspector Fiona McGarry said: “Workers’ health was put at risk from exposure to styrene for a period of 22 months, even after the company had been made aware of the actions it needed to take. Whilst HSE is sympathetic to the pressures faced by small businesses, this is simply not acceptable. Employers need to take action to ensure they are providing adequate control to protect the health of their employees.”
Seafarers can now access up-to-date information and guidance about HIV/AIDS on their mobile devices, thanks to a new well-being app launched by the global transport workers’ union federation ITF. ITF maritime co-ordinator Jacqueline Smith said: “Seafarers – like many transport workers – are particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. We hope this app will help them understand more about the disease and be able to find information quickly and easily, whether they’re at sea, in port or at home. We want to help seafarers keep themselves and their families safe.” The free app is available for both Android and iOS devices. It provides the basic facts on HIV/AIDS – how it is transmitted, what the symptoms are, how you can prevent being infected and what treatment is available. It also gives examples of workers who have challenged the stigma around the disease, and sets out the international and national rights of an HIV-positive worker. ITF says it plan to add other well-being topics to the app.
The operators of an Australian recycling company have sought to escape penalties for the death of an employee by shutting down the business and resurrecting it under another name. Australian Box Recycling [AB Recycling] - listed as a cardboard recycler for major high street retailers - was found guilty of grave safety violations that led to the 2014 death of worker Steve Bower. A slew of deadly defects in the construction and configuration of a four-metre-high box-stacking lift caused it to come crashing down under a 240kg load, crushing Mr Bower to death at a Melbourne warehouse. The company was found guilty by a County Court jury and fined Aus$800,000 (£455,000) in criminal penalties. But the operators of AB Recycling put the company into voluntary administration after the investigation by safety regulator WorkSafe, and there now appears no chance it will pay up. Documents filed with Australia's corporate regulator reveal that AB Recycling manager Leandro Guisasola set up a new company, High Heat, on 28 May last year, and listed AB Recycling as its sole shareholder. The next day, shareholding was transferred to Mr Guisasola. He told journalists the reasons for closing AB Recycling were WorkSafe's looming criminal charges and heavy fines he knew were coming. “Legal costs were not covered by the insurer,” he said. “And the fine that was coming was definitely not covered by the insurer.” AB Recycling did not appear at the July 2016 criminal trial, and did not enter a plea. The company attempted to deregister itself to avoid the criminal proceedings, forcing WorkSafe to apply successfully to the Supreme Court to have AB Recycling re-registered so the trial could proceed. WorkSafe health and safety executive director Marnie Williams said: “Their attempt to wash their hands of their responsibilities by shutting down the company once charges were laid, refusing to take part in court proceedings, and starting up a similar company just nine months after their employee died is utterly contemptible.”
All nail salons in New York State will be required to have ventilation systems to protect manicurists and others from the potentially dangerous health effects of chemicals used in nail products, the state’s governor has announced. The new rule is among the most sweeping changes in the state’s initiative (Risks 702), more than a year long, to make the industry safer and more equitable for workers, many of whom say they suffer ill-health effects as a result of their jobs. The clampdown follows a high profile campaign by grassroots safety campaigners. The rule means any nail salon that opens on 3 October 2016 or later will have to have a ventilation system. Existing salons will have five years to comply. “Immigrants take some of the most dangerous jobs and are exposed to conditions that can literally kill them, if not destroy their health,’’ Governor Andrew M Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a statement. “We focused on the nail salon workers who, as a class, have been grossly exploited and exposed to dangerous chemicals without any protection. These new ventilation requirements will make nail salons in New York the safest in the nation.” The New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition welcomed the move. “We have been pushing for these health and safety regulations since day one of the coalition’s work – the worker leaders we’ve met through health and safety trainings and organising truly highlight what’s most significant: this life-changing rule protects and strengthens the rights of primarily immigrant Asian and Latina workers.” Governor Cuomo also announced several other initiatives to improve worker health and safety, including a multi-agency investigation into the exploitation of drycleaning workers and a coordinated effort to ban harmful chemicals, such as perchlorethylene (PERC), that are commonly used in the industry.
Dozens of lawsuits are pending in the US as a result of a December 2008 dam collapse in Tennessee which saw workers exposed to clouds of toxic coal ash. An army of clean-up workers were drafted in after a dyke failure unleashed a billion gallons of ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plant 36 miles south-west of Knoxville. The TVA spill marked a turning point in the debate over the dangers of coal ash, an often-toxic byproduct of coal-fired electricity. The cascading waste deluged nearly 400 acres in grey muck, destroying houses and dirtying a river, along with several inlets. It ranks among the largest industrial disasters in American history. “This whole question of worker exposure has been vastly underexplored,” said Barbara Gottlieb, the environment and health director at Physicians for Social Responsibility, who co-authored a report on illnesses caused by the ash’s most common contaminants in 2010. “I’m sure there is a lot of routine exposure,” she said, but “we aren’t paying attention to this class of workers.” Now, some workers are stepping forward and filing lawsuits targeting specific ash sites. Gottlieb said there was a problem with fugitive coal ash dust on the TVA spill site. This alone would have posed an “exceedingly high” risk to workers toiling on the site for long shifts over years. Fine-ash particles can adhere to the lungs and penetrate deep into the body. Many of these particles contain silica, a scourge of the respiratory system, as well as metals such as arsenic, chromium and cadmium, which can cause pulmonary and neurological problems and cancer. The metals mix together in the dust and can attack the same organ at once - the kidneys, for example - amplifying the damage.
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