|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.
Why is the government committed to clamping down on the directors behind cold calls, but willing to let off deadly directors scot free, the TUC has asked. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson was commenting after the government’s announcement last week that it intends to make individual directors personally liable for cold calling fines – facing penalties up to £500,000 - by amending the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations. Robertson said this is in marked contrast to its response to directors sometimes deadly workplace safety crimes, where unions had been calling for director responsibility for over decade. “For years directors have been able to make a company insolvent to avoid a fine for a health and safety offence, or even to avoid paying compensation where they did not take out insurance,” he said, citing a series of deadly incidents involving the insolvency ruse that resulted in no or single figure fines. “This trend is likely to get worse now that the penalties for health and safety offences have been increased to a reasonable level.” He noted: “It is far too easy in the UK to allow directors of a company just to declare the company insolvent and either walk away or else buy back the assets and continue under another name as though nothing had happened.” TUC comments to a consultation on the latest sentencing guidelines (Risks 739) called for action to close the insolvency ‘pheonix’ firm loophole. Robertson said the government needs “to ensure that directors have a positive duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act in the same way as the company has, and also ensure that the law is changed to allow directors to be made liable after insolvency where the company is guilty of a corporate manslaughter or health and safety offence or where there is compensation payable that is not covered by insurance.” He concluded: “After all, if they can do it for annoying cold callers, surely they can do it for those who kill workers.”
The TUC has welcomed a government ‘u-turn’, which it says should see an additional union-backed member added to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) board. It said a decision last month to appoint a former employer and business leader to a ‘workers’ interests’ seat on the HSE board ‘caused uproar’ (Risks 767), with unions, politicians and many others roundly condemning it. The move also prompted a critical emergency motion at TUC Congress. Now, following a meeting with TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, work secretary Damian Green has said a new workers’ representative seat will be advertised, adding he will “welcome the active engagement” of the TUC. According to TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson: “This represents a complete reversal and is a result of the fantastic campaigning that unions and others have done. I hope that in the future we can put this behind us and work together to protect the health and safety of workers.” But he said “it does not change the fact that the original appointment of an employer to represent workers’ interests should never have been made and, at the time, it showed that the government just does not understand the importance of unions, or worker involvement. So, while this is a very welcome move, it has to be only the start of the process of getting back to allowing unions to do the job they are there to do which is represent and support workers. That means that the government and HSE have to ensure that we have proper joint structures that allow us to do that.” The TUC has warned repeatedly about a shift towards an HSE board stacked with consultants from a business background.
Violence against Scotland’s public service workers has doubled in a decade, union research has found. UNISON’s Violence at Work Survey 2016 shows recorded violent assaults have risen from 20,000 to over 40,000 per year over the last decade, the highest level since the annual survey began in 2006. The union says part of the increase reflects greater awareness of the problem, better reporting and possibly changes in reporting methods. “However the doubling of reported incidents in decade cannot be explained just by better awareness and reporting. Violence against workers happens too often and must be addressed by employers and government,” the union notes. It adds that the “significant rise” in violent incidents affecting local authority staff “is after a few years of seeing the figures drop.” Scott Donohue, UNISON health and safety committee chair, said: “Violence against public service workers has increased, with significant increases against local authority workers. We cannot ignore a doubling of the figures over 10 years.” He added: “It is also reasonable to make the correlation between the swingeing cuts to councils and increase in violence to council workers. Staff tell us if you have to wait longer, or the service you need is no longer available, or a support worker has less time to spent with a client, it’s being taken out on those working face to face with the public.”
A rail union has called for a security summit after a controlled explosion was carried out on a suspect device on a London Underground train. The device was discovered on a Jubilee Line train mid-morning on 20 October. Members of the Met's bomb squad carried out the “controlled detonation”, after the device was described as looking “real enough”. An arrest was made in connection with the incident. TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes commented: “Once again we are reminded of the real threats now posed to public transport passengers and, in this case, our Tube and station staff. I have called for an urgent security summit with TfL [Transport for London], London Underground, unions, British Transport Police, Scotland Yard and the City Hall.” He added that the chancellor, Phillip Hammond, “must immediately restore the cut made last year by George Osborne to Transport for London's operating subsidy which means TfL are trying to make £700 million pounds of cuts by 2020. Without reversing Osborne's devastating cuts, it will simply not be possible for TfL managers, or British Transport Police or my members to exercise the levels of vigilance now necessary to keep London open for business and our people and our passengers safe.”
Retail giant Asos has been told to respect its workforce and employ some basic fairness in the workplace, ahead of full-year results last week confirming a profits surge. The online fashion retailer, which has faced union criticism over working conditions at its Barnsley warehouse, this week announced a 37 per cent increase in underlying annual profits to £63.7m on the back of a 26 per cent increase in sales to £1.4bn. But the news for the company has not been all good. Earlier this month, GMB regional secretary Neil Derrick said investigative reports had established “that employment at Asos is not only stressful, invasive, and deeply exploitative but also hazardous to workers’ health. Ignoring the concerns of GMB members has now become downright dangerous” (Risks 771). Anticipating the latest profits figures last week, he said: “We're seeing a familiar story play out - massive profits for those at the top, made on the back of poor pay, terms and conditions for those making 'fast fashion' a reality.” He added: “Asos are quite literally coining it in while agency workers worry whether they'll get enough hours next week to pay the bills. We're simply asking Asos to treat the people who keep their warehouses moving with a bit of respect - that can't be too much to ask in the 21st century.” The union regional secretary added: “If Asos bosses are serious about providing fashion with integrity - which is one of their slogans - then they can make sure their working conditions are fair, that wages and contracts mean people can live a decent life and that no one is subject to oppressive security and surveillance measures just for doing their jobs.” The union said it is combining on-the-ground organising at Asos with a high profile digital campaign.
The TUC has accused Southern Rail of ‘gambling’ with passenger safety. The train operator is looking to downgrade the role of 375 guards, who are trained to assist elderly and disabled passengers, provide direction in emergencies, keep order and dispatch trains. The TUC says the plan to increase the number of trains without a safety-trained guard on board is “reckless and ill-thought through.” A Transport Select Committee report on Southern Rail, released on 13 October, criticised the firm for “inadequate staffing” on trains (Risks 773). The TUC says rather than picking a needless fight with unions, the company should be investing in improving safety and staffing on services. Southern Rail last year paid out £22 million to shareholders – enough to pay for 750 train guards, says the TUC. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Southern should not be gambling with passenger safety. Having a properly-trained guard on board is the very least commuters deserve.” She added: “Southern needs to stop blaming unions for its own failures. Passengers will be at a loss to understand how a company that has been cancelling so many rail services can generate such massive profits and not be held to account by the government. The travelling public deserve a much better deal.”
A former plumber and heating engineer has received £20,000 in damages after developing the disabling lung scarring condition asbestosis. Retired Unite member Albert Bingham, 72, was an apprentice for a building firm from 1957 to 1963, where he lagged boilers in schools, factories and hotels across Lincolnshire with asbestos insulation. He also cleaned storerooms where asbestos was present, which caused fibres to spread in the air and settle on his skin and clothes. His employer, whose identity has not been disclosed, never provided him with personal protective equipment (PPE) or warned him about the dangers of exposure to asbestos. When Albert started to suffer from breathing difficulties he visited his GP, who referred him to a respiratory clinic. Tests found he had scarring on his lungs, otherwise known as asbestosis. In a union-backed claim, he was awarded a provisional settlement, meaning his case can be reopened if his health deteriorates because of his asbestos disease. Unite regional legal officer Kevin Hepworth said: “Unfortunately, Albert is one of thousands of industrial workers whose lives have been changed because of the devastating effects of asbestos-related diseases. Despite being exposed to asbestos more than 40 years ago, it has left him with serious breathing difficulties today which can only be managed by taking regular medication.” He added: “Through Albert’s membership of Unite, we were able to provide him with specialist legal advice about asbestos claims, which ensured that he has been compensated now for his conditions, but that he also has a safeguard in place for a future claim should he need to.”
Breast Cancer Awareness Month has provided a welcome focus on a condition that has risen sharply over the last 40 years, but campaigners are concerned the government and breast cancer charities are resolutely ignoring the host of preventable occupational and environmental causes of the condition. To address this, campaign group From Pink to Prevention has produced a new ‘toolkit’ with an interactive webpage, posters and an action guide. As a first step it says it wants the annual awareness event renamed ‘Breast Cancer Prevention Month’. The campaign says it “is disturbed to discover the failure of leading breast cancer charities to inform women about all the risk factors, and questions the exclusive focus on lifestyle factors (alcohol, exercise and smoking) and the 10 per cent of cases linked to genetic factors, to the exclusion of the impact toxic chemicals are having on the health of every single one of us.” From Pink to Prevention adds: “Given that the vast amount of existing research into lifelong (womb to grave) exposures to environmental and occupational risk factors and the fact that breast cancer is a hormonal disease, this selective narrative could be seen as a barrier to official and public recognition of the right to know.” Green Party MP Caroline Lucas is backing the campaign for a greater emphasis on preventive action. Her early day motion notes “that along with lifestyle causes, better treatment and care, women's everyday exposure to environmental and occupational toxicants is the crucial missing piece of the breast cancer jigsaw and the public's right to know demands urgent attention.”
Prison unions and governors have called for action after a prisoner was stabbed to death. Two others prisoners were seriously injured in the incident at London's Pentonville prison on 19 October. The family of Jamal Mahmoud, the 21-year-old of Somali descent who was killed, hit out at the prison for “neglecting him.” Pentonville prison was last year singled out by former justice secretary Michael Gove as “the most dramatic example of failure” in the prison service. Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of the prison union Community, said: “For a number of years now, colleagues throughout the justice sector have been warning of a safety crisis in UK prisons, from prison governors to the Chief Inspector. Our calls for urgent action from the government have been ignored and it’s long past time the government stopped paying lip service to this issue.” He added: “This government has a responsibility to those in its custody and those who continue to put themselves at risk every day as they go to work in our prisons. To continue to ignore it will only lead to further serious assaults and deaths in custody.” A statement from the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said “the unprecedented rise in violence in all of our prisons must not be underestimated.” The statement added the union intended to ask the Ministry of Justice “to fully investigate this matter and the underlying problems within the Prison Estate.” The Prison Governors Association (PGA) demanded an inquiry the state of jails in England and Wales. It said the stabbing incident was a tragedy, but said it was “no massive surprise” given the cuts to staff and funding.
A Nottingham company has been fined after a worker died from carbon monoxide poisoning while using an accommodation unit. Southwark Crown Court heard that father-of-three Roman Kohut from Nottingham was carrying out pile testing for Non Destructive Testing Services Limited at a construction site in Brixton, London on 29 May 2012. The accommodation unit the 41-year-old was using was fitted to a vehicle. While he was inside this vehicle, Mr Kohut was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes generated by a gas appliance inside the unit. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that the accommodation unit had been set up with two gas appliances. Gas bottles had been stored within the inadequately ventilated unit for a number of years. The company had not planned how the welfare unit would be equipped when deciding to fit it to the vehicle. HSE determined it had also failed to carry out suitable and sufficient inspections of the cabins over a long period of time. Non Destructive Testing Services Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £70,000 and ordered to pay costs of £45,944. HSE inspector Darren Alldis commented: “This case shows the importance of planning out properly the design of welfare accommodation. The consideration of risks associated with gas and carbon monoxide is essential. This unit should never have been set up in this way and posed a risk throughout the whole time it was being used.”
The owner of an unsafe North London vehicle repair garage who gave a false name in a bid to avoid justice has been given three suspended jail sentences. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation into a guard dog attack at the premises in January 2014, which left a mechanic with ‘horrific’ injuries to his thigh, uncovered a series of serious health and safety breaches at the garage. These included spray painting without appropriate control measures to prevent workers and members of the public from breathing in dangerous hazardous chemicals, an unsafe vehicle lift, and a lack of adequate welfare facilities. HSE had previously taken enforcement action against the garage’s owner Mehmet Salih, in relation to these offences. Westminster Magistrates Court heard how 54-year-old Salih gave HSE a false identity, claiming the business owner was out of the country and claimed that the business did not carry out certain tasks. He pleaded guilty to three criminal safety breaches and was given a six month prison term for each charge suspended for two years, and ordered to undertake 300 hours of unpaid work. He was also ordered to pay £2,000 in costs and £5,000 compensation to the victim of the dog bite. HSE inspector Nick Faber said: “The horrific injury suffered by Mehmet Salih’s employee was completely avoidable and even basic control measures such as putting a muzzle on the dog would have eliminated the risk.” He added: “The wide range of safety failings at the garage exposed a number of other people to serious risk including health effects which may only become apparent later in their lives. HSE supports businesses who work to comply with the law. This was not the case here, and this prosecution sends a clear message to those who cut costs and put people in harm’s way, failing to respond to enforcement action will put your business and freedom at risk.”
A Kent recycling company has been fined after a worker was injured whilst repairing a shredder. Maidstone Magistrates’ Court heard how, on 7 October 2013, a plant mechanic employed by Countrystyle Recycling Limited was in the process of repairing a shredding machine after the metal plate forming the roof of the hammer drum became detached. The worker was kneeling on a conveyor belt inside the shredder when it restarted and he was thrown from the machine. He suffered a fractured right leg and left arm. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the company did not have adequate or suitable systems in place to protect the health and safety of their employees, including failing to enforce the ‘safe stop’ process that should be followed when using dangerous machinery. The company had instead allowed unchallenged poor practice to become the norm. Countrystyle Recycling Limited was fined £300,000 and ordered to pay £8,903 in costs after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence. After the hearing, a spokesperson for Countrystyle said: “Following the submission of a guilty plea in this case, the company is surprised by the extent of the fine imposed which seems disproportionate to the circumstances of the offence and the actual harm suffered. Accordingly, the company is considering the possibility of an appeal with its legal advisers.”
Liverpool City Council and two of its contractors have been prosecuted following two separate incidents including a fatality at roadworks on a busy city centre road. One pedestrian died and another was seriously injured while attempting to cross Queens Drive in Liverpool during major resurfacing works in the summer of 2012. Enterprise Liverpool Limited and Tarmac Trading Limited were contracted by Liverpool City Council to carry out the works. Liverpool Crown Court heard how on 3 July 2012 a 74-year-old man suffered head injuries after he was hit by a car while using a crossing. The temporary pedestrian lights were not working. The court also heard that on 19 August 2012, 69-year-old Ernest Haughton died after he was hit by a car while attempting to cross a single lane of traffic on the same road using a temporary pedestrian crossing. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that Liverpool City Council failed to ensure that the arrangements for managing the roadworks were suitable, including failing to appoint a co-ordinator for the work. Instead they had sought to delegate responsibilities to Enterprise Liverpool Limited. The investigation also found that Enterprise Liverpool Limited failed to ensure its designs for traffic management were checked or approved, the construction plan for pedestrian routes and provision of barriers was being followed, and at the time of the incidents provided no safe means of pedestrians crossing the works area or the carriageway. Tarmac Trading Limited, which was responsible for the provision and installation of the traffic and pedestrian management system, failed to provide alternative assistance for pedestrians at the time of the first incident despite it being known that the temporary lights were broken. The council and both contractors pleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches. Liverpool City Council was fined £15,000 and ordered to pay £100,000 costs. Enterprise Liverpool Limited was fined £25,000 with £80,000 costs. And Tarmac Trading Limited was fined £1.3 million and ordered to pay £130,000 costs.
Over 40 trade unions and civil society organisations from across Europe are calling for improved protection for workers who blow the whistle on wrongdoing, from financial misdemeanours to environmental and workplace safety abuses. “Member States have either no whistleblower protection or laws with mixed track records,” said ETUC confederal secretary Esther Lynch at the coalition’s www.whistleblowerprotection.eu launch in Brussels last week. “There is an opportunity now with the preparation of the European Pillar of Social Rights to live up to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees of freedom of expression, protection from unjustified dismissal and a right to effective remedies by bringing forward measures that will mean that workers can come forward without fear of retaliation and with a sense that their disclosures will be listened to.” A statement agreed by the initial 44 signatories notes: “Whistleblowers often risk ending up paying a high price for disclosing information. Yet whistleblowing can be essential in bringing to light – for example – illegal activities, corruption, activities which are contrary to public interest and threats to public health and safety. Whistleblowing can save lives, the environment and money. It is high time for legislation on EU-wide whistleblower protection.”
Quality assurances by Samsung in the wake of the chaotic recall of the prone-to-burn Galaxy Note 7 smart phone fail to address the company’s record on labour rights and working conditions which are at the root of the product safety problem, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). “As sure as night follows day, a culture of repression against a collective voice for Samsung employees has led to the disastrous quality failures at the company. When the workforce is afraid to speak out about real problems on the production line because of an arrogant and domineering management culture, workers and consumers alike face risks to their health and safety,” said ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow. “Samsung’s priorities are all wrong. Initially they tried to minimise the problem and avoid the consequences, and they still show no signs of recognising the human and financial costs of the way they treat employees.” An ITUC dossier includes evidence of poor workplace safety practices at the company’s international production plants, problems it reports were covered-up during inspection audits. “Samsung has indeed got its wires crossed. It should be concerned about customer safety and quality, but without concern for workers, corporate greed will be responsible for more deaths and injuries,” said Burrow. The union leader was speaking out ahead of an extraordinary general meeting of Samsung shareholders on 27 October, which reported a dramatic fall in Samsung’s revenue and profits.
On-going pressure from the Russian government has secured a substantial delay to Sri Lanka’s proposed ban on chrysotile asbestos. A 10 October story in the Mirror Business newspaper first revealed a ban scheduled for 2018 had now been pushed back to 2024, after Russia warned the ban could damage relations between the countries. The article, headlined ‘Russian experts ready to educate Lankans on safe use of chrysotile asbestos’, quoted Russian ambassador Alexander Karchava, who said he had discussed the issue with Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister. He warned a ban on Russian sourced chrysotile could strain relations between the two countries. He added he was willing to bring in a group of experts to Sri Lanka to educate the country on the ‘safe use’ of asbestos. This has been the sales pitch used by the asbestos lobby for decades (Risks 595), with Russia recently taking off the lead promotion role from Canada, whose asbestos mines have gone bust. “Thanks to the goodwill of the Sri Lankan government, we managed to postpone the ban on the import of chrysotile asbestos until 2024,” Karchava told the 13th annual general meeting (AGM) of the Sri Lanka-Russia Business Council in Colombo. Meanwhile the ambassador called on Sri Lankan businesses to step up their activities in Russia. “We are not only talking about seafood and tea companies, but also apparel, agricultural producers,” he said. Tea is top Sri Lanka’s top export to Russia, making up about half of all exports.
A set of trailblazing regulations to prevent workplace violence in California’s hospitals and health care facilities have gained unanimous approval from the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board. The rules were issued under 2014 legislation backed by the union California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CAN/NNU). “This is a landmark day for the entire country, as California has now set the bar with the strongest workplace violence regulation in the nation,” said Bonnie Castillo, the union’s director of health and safety. Health care workers experience rates of non-fatal injuries due to workplace violence five to 12 times greater than for other workers, according to an April report by the Government Accountability Office. In July a coalition of eight labour groups petitioned the US Labor Department to issue a national standard. In a written statement, CNA/NNU said California’s new regulations “define workplace violence broadly to encompass actual acts of violence, as well as the threat of violence; emphasise prevention over criminalisation; and require employers to develop a comprehensive Workplace Violence Prevention Plan including prevention, training, and worker participation.” CNA/NNU’s Bonnie Castillo said: “We know that these protections are necessary across America, and that’s why it’s so important - thanks to the OSHSB vote -that California can now serve as a model for the nation.” She added: “Our nurses will not stop fighting until federal OSHA has the same workplace violence protections in place, because these regulations will save lives.”
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