|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 protected]|
The TUC has condemned employment tribunal fees that it says have allowed bad bosses to get away with discrimination and unfair treatment. New figures published by the union body show that the number of working people challenging discrimination or unfair treatment at work has fallen by 9,000 a month since 2013, when charges of up to £1,200 came in (Risks 609). Workers wanting to challenge victimisation including sacking for their workplace safety activities have to pay this top charge. The TUC analysis shows that in 2012-13, the year before tribunal fees were introduced, an average of 16,000 people per month took a claim against their employer to tribunal. But in 2015-16, the average number of people taking claims had dropped to 7,000 a month. This includes a drop of nearly threequarters (-73 per cent) in unfair dismissal claims. The TUC says the figures show that a key mechanism to stamp out discrimination and stop unfair sackings is broken. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “These figures show a huge drop in workers seeking justice when they’ve been unfairly treated. Now bosses know they can get away with it, discrimination at work can flourish unchecked and people can be sacked without good reason.” She added: “The evidence is there for all to see. These fees – of up to £1,200, even if you’re on the minimum wage – are pricing out thousands each month from pursuing cases. Theresa May has repeatedly said she wants to govern for ordinary working people. Here is a perfect opportunity. She could reverse employment tribunal fees, and make sure workers can challenge bad employers in court.”
Unite has warned British Airways against downplaying harmful fume events on aircraft by reclassifying them as ‘odour events’. The union says the company’s ‘spin’ could mean the true number of fume incidents across the airline industry is ‘far higher’ than thought. The union was speaking out as more details emerged of the 25 October in-flight diversion to Vancouver of a British Airways flight from San Francisco to London Heathrow after ‘toxic’ fumes entered the cabin. The incident led to crew members vomiting, donning oxygen masks and being taken to hospital, but the incident was recorded as an ‘odour event’ despite exchanges between the flight crew and air traffic control stating it involving ‘toxic fumes, toxic-gas like fumes’. Unite said it understands that a separate fume event occurred the following day on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles, which the airline reportedly dismissed as an ‘odour event’. The union said it understands that a full fume drill was performed on the flight deck, which would have involved crew putting on oxygen masks. Unite said it is calling on the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to release figures on fume incidents and investigate how airlines classify ‘fume events’, as well as urging people who have been involved in a fume event to record it on Unite’s dedicated fume register. Unite director of legal services Howard Beckett said: “Downplaying serious toxic fume events on board aircraft as ‘odour events’ smacks of spin and an attempt to manipulate official statistics to downplay how widespread the problem really is in the industry.” He added: “Fume events and continued exposure to contaminated cabin air can lead to serious ill-health with long term debilitating effects on people’s well-being. Brushing these serious incidents under the carpet is shameful and we urge the CAA to investigate and for people involved in fume events to use our register or phone our hotline.”
The failure of a construction company to recognise an elected union safety rep and a shop steward on Europe’s largest rail infrastructure project has been branded ‘a subtle form of blacklisting’ by Unite. The union says it is angry that Laing O’Rourke is not recognising the election of shop steward Terry Wilson and health and safety rep Martyn Prue, electricians working at the Crossrail project on London’s Tottenham Court Road. The union says the company’s stance contravenes the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act which permits the free election of union reps – and adds that failure to do so is a form of the blacklisting. Unite regional officer Guy Langston said: “Our members are furious that basic trade union freedoms, such as the election of union reps, are being attacked by Laing O’Rourke.” He added: “When you can’t even have a health and safety rep recognised – and construction sites are very dangerous places – it puts the company in a very poor light when it comes to good employment relations practice. What we are seeing here is a subtle form of blacklisting and we call on the management to rescind its decision not to recognise our democratically-elected reps.” He said the company’s stance contravened a Crossrail labour relations policy to which Laing O’Rourke has signed up.
The government must not forget private prisons when making funding available for recruitment of additional prison staff, the union Community has warned. Responding to an announcement last week by justice secretary Liz Truss, Community said it welcomed the fact the government has started to respond to many issues identified by its ‘Safer Justice Sector’ campaign. A White Paper released by the justice secretary indicated 2,100 extra prison guards were to be deployed in prisons in England and Wales (Risks 775). Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of Community, said: “Our members may work in the private sector but they perform a public duty. Prisoners don’t choose between public or private establishments and neither they nor our members working on the frontline should be forgotten. There is a strong case for action because the ongoing safety crisis runs across both the private and the public prison estate.” He added: “It is vital that the prison safety crisis is resolved but to do so will require calm heads and considered responses and Community stands ready to work with both the government and employers to improve safety across the justice sector. Community has been campaigning for a safer justice sector and we welcome the fact the government has recognised that more must be done.” Earlier this year, Community launched its campaign for the government and prison contractors to adopt a ‘Safe Operating Solutions’ charter to secure a safer justice sector for prison staff and prisoners (Risks 751).
Pilots employed by easyJet have voted to accept an improved offer from the company which addresses concerns about fatigue risks. Earlier this year, members of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) in easyJet voted for industrial action over pilot fatigue concerns within the airline (Risks 770). Commenting after the new offer was accepted, with 68 per cent of pilots voting in favour, BALPA general secretary Brian Strutton said: “This is a positive outcome for BALPA and easyJet and the fact we have managed to reach a deal that satisfies most of our members is testament to BALPA’s ethos of ‘professional engagement’. BALPA will now be working closely with easyJet to ensure this agreement delivers real improvements to pilots’ lifestyles.” A July 2016 TUC guide for union safety reps warned fatigue at work could be particularly deadly in sectors like air, sea and road transport (Risks 759). And ‘Tired Out!’, a new guide from Hazards magazine, noted that a series of workplace disasters had fatigue as a key causative factor.
Ÿ BALPA news release. Fatigue - a guide for health and safety representatives, TUC, July 2016 [pdf]. Tired out! Don’t take fatigue risks lying down, Hazards, number 135, 2016.
A Unite member has received a six-figure settlement after he was left partially blind in one eye after under-pressure workplace chemicals shot into his face. The 45-year-old man, whose name has not been released, works as a manufacturing technician for an unidentified chemical processing firm. He was involved in flushing out a large section of pipework for maintenance work. However, a blockage in the pipework had led to a fluid build-up and when this was released the process fluids were ejected under pressure. The force with which the fluids sprayed out dislodged his hard hat and protective goggles. The man was rushed to a nearby safety shower and was taken to hospital, where the fluids were washed from his eyes but not before the chemicals had caused severe burns to his head, face and eyes. Over the years that followed he had to undergo multiple surgeries, including a replacement of his cornea and the removal of a cataract. The technician was off work for six months and returned on light duties. His skin has since healed but he has permanently damaged vision in his right eye. The six-figure payout came in a union-backed compensation claim. Unite regional secretary Mick Whitley said: “Our member was wearing protective gloves and goggles while he was working near the pipework, but if his employer had completed an adequate risk assessment it would have identified that the PPE wasn’t enough to protect him if he came into direct contact with the chemicals.” He added: “The man’s membership of Unite meant that not only has he received substantial damages but he has also been supported throughout the rehabilitation process and has received compensation to help recover financial losses for his sustained period away from work.”
Almost one-fifth of people (18 per cent) diagnosed with cancer face discrimination from employers or colleagues on return to work, research by the charity Macmillan suggests. The survey of 1,009 patients, all in work when diagnosed, indicated that 15 per cent returned to work before feeling ready. Others said they felt guilty for taking time off work for medical appointments. Liz Egan, who leads the ‘working through cancer’ programme at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “People living with cancer should know that they have the full support of their employer to return to work, if they want and are able to do so. It’s appalling that, during an already difficult and often stressful time, so many employers are not offering the right support to people with cancer, leaving them with little choice but to leave.” She added: “We know that, for many people living with cancer, work helps them to feel more in control and maintain a sense of normality. Returning to work after cancer can also be an integral part of their recovery, so it is crucial that employers show support and understanding to make this a reality.” Equality law requires that employees are not treated unfairly because of their cancer diagnosis, and requires employers make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to any elements of the job that place the employee at a substantial disadvantage. Last year the TUC updated its guidance for union representatives, employees, line managers and employers on how best to support colleagues with cancer at work (Risks 722).
Ÿ Macmillan news release. BBC News Online.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) agency that labelled the world’s most widely used herbicide a probable cause of cancer in humans has hit back after the agrichemical industry responded with a savage attack on its science and funding. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) panel of scientists made the evaluation on glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand, in March last year. The IARC ranking prompted the TUC to call on safety reps to ensure members were not exposed to the pesticide (Risks 703). The global farming union IUF called for a ban (Risks 744). For its part, CropLife America, the industry’s lobbying group, demanded that US authorities repudiate the IARC ranking and cut funding to the UN agency. Monsanto labelled the IARC findings as “junk science,” and claimed the IARC members are part of an “unelected, undemocratic, foreign body.” The attack came as a surprise to the IARC working group, which is comprised of recognised independent experts from scientific agencies around the world, including the US. Aaron Blair, a scientist emeritus at the US National Cancer Institute, served as chair of the IARC team. Australian epidemiologist Lin Fritschi, a member of the IARC working group, said the team’s work was solid and the industry attacks on the team’s credibility are unwarranted. “I definitely wasn’t expecting anything at all,” said Fritschi, who specialises in the occupational causes of cancer. “We were independent and just looked at the science. We had strict rules on what was admissible and came to a conclusion based on that evidence. We made the right decision based on the evidence.” Fritschi, a distinguished professor at Curtin University in Australia, added: “The people most at risk are people who use glyphosate a lot, such as farmers and gardeners, and they are the ones who should try and reduce their use.”
A cross party group of MPs has said fire and rescue services in England should be given greater funding to enable them to respond effectively to flooding incidents, echoing union calls (Risks 722). In a report investigating flood management in England, the environment, food and rural affairs select committee warns that continued pressure on resources could undermine the fire and rescue service’s ability to deliver a high standard response. The committee recommends that the government give fire and rescue services a statutory duty to respond to flooding. Matt Wrack, general secretary of the firefighters’ union FBU, said: “We wholeheartedly welcome the recommendations for a statutory duty to be placed on the fire and rescue service around flood rescue in England. We have been pushing for a statutory duty for nine years, during which time the flood threat has become increasingly severe. Scotland and Northern Ireland have a statutory duty for flooding, and it’s time for Westminster to follow their lead.” The union said the recommendation was “another victory for the FBU who have long campaigned for the flooding duty.”
New legislation to make it compulsory for fishermen to wear lifejackets should be prioritised, marine accident investigators have said. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) made the ‘rare’ recommendation following the deaths of four workers in three separate incidents. Two Scots fishermen, Craig Reid, 25, and Gerard Gillies, 42, died in separate incidents in Scottish waters. The other two men – father and son Gareth and Daniel Willington - died when their boat sank off the Pembrokeshire coast. It is known that three of the four men involved in the incident were not wearing lifejackets. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has already made a recommendation calling for the wearing of lifejackets to be made compulsory. However, the MAIB said the agency should make arrangements to prioritise the introduction of legislation requiring the compulsory wearing of constant wear lifejackets, or personal flotation devices, on the exposed decks of all commercial fishing vessels. A statement from the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents said: “The MAIB rarely recommends the introduction of new legislation to solve safety problems, but the rate that commercial fishermen are losing their lives due to drowning shows no sign of reducing.” Mr Reid was lost overboard from the Apollo off Orkney in April this year. Mr Gillies died after falling overboard from the creel boat Annie T off the Western Isles in October last year. Gareth Willington, 59, and Daniel, 32, from Carew in Pembrokeshire, died after their boat The Harvester sank off St David's Head in April this year. The body of Daniel Willington has not been found.
A waste company has been fined £80,000 after a stockpile of refuse up to 30ft high collapsed on a labourer, burying him alive. Neville Watson screamed “Get me out” as colleagues and others tried to rescue him with their bare hands. Paramedics fought to resuscitate him at Blaise Farm Quarry site in West Malling but he died from asphyxiation. It was the first time the 39-year-old father had operated the shredding machine for the company, New Earth Solutions Group, Maidstone Crown Court was told. The machine was usually operated remotely from the safety of the loading truck’s cab, but on the day of the tragedy, 9 August 2014, it was being repaired. A judge was told that Neville Watson started working at the yard in January and had not received any training or supervision for the task, but had just been shown how to use it the previous day by a colleague. New Earth Solutions Group, which admitted a criminal safety offence, went into administration in June with bank debts of £40 million. The company had a turnover of £37 million last year and although bank debts of £35 million had been paid it still owed creditors £9 million and only had funds of £600,000. Judge Philip Statman said because the company was in administration his hands were tied in relation to the fine he could impose. New Earth Solutions Group Limited was fined £80,000 and ordered to pay costs of £38,373.92. The judge indicated that if the company had not been in administration the fine would have been between £600,000 and £1.3 million. The court heard the tragedy had a significant impact on Mr Watson’s family, with his children, aged 15 and 11, having counselling. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Guy Widdowson said: “The request for Mr Watson to carry out the shredding operation was made without any form of structured training being in place. The company failed to ensure that Mr Watson was supervised by an employee trained in the task he was carrying out, particularly in light of the fact that he had never carried out the task before.”
Three construction companies have been fined more than £1m after a worker died and two others were badly injured at a site in London when a temporary platform collapsed. Southwark Crown Court heard how, on 29 October 2012, a carpenter and a steel-fixer had been standing on a temporary wooden platform above a stairwell opening on the 9th floor of the Putney construction site when it suddenly gave way beneath them. They fell around sixteen metres down the opening. Both men landed on the partly-constructed concrete staircase below, where the carpenter, 37-year-old Justas Kopcikas, sustained fatal injuries. The steel-fixer survived the fall but was so seriously injured that it took almost three years for him to recover sufficiently to be able to return to work. An engineer’s assistant who was working in the stairwell on a lower level was hit by falling debris and also sustained serious injuries. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that similar platforms had been constructed on other floors throughout the site by using timber joists supported by unsuitable joist hangers with plywood fixed on top. The platforms, which were part of ‘temporary works’, were neither built to an agreed safe design, nor was the quality of the build checked by those in control of the site, even though they were crucial to the safety of workers on upper floors. Principal contractor St James Group Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £600,000 and ordered to pay costs of £14,935.54. Mitchellson Formwork and Civil Engineering Limited, the contractor responsible for constructing the platforms, also pleaded guilty and was fined £400,000 plus costs of £14,935.54. RGF Construction Limited, a site agent who assisted with managing the work, was found guilty at an earlier hearing and was fined £20,000.
A firm has been fined £30,000 after a door it supplied to a live music venue fell and killed the singer and the tour manager from a popular Cornish folk band as they prepared for a gig. Express Hi-Fold Doors Ltd, which designed and manufactured the door, was found guilty after a month-long trial of a criminal safety breach. Director David Naylor, 57, was found not guilty of two counts of manslaughter by gross negligence. Fisherman's Friends tour manager Paul McMullen died at the scene when the two-tonne stage ‘get-in’ fell at Guildford's G Live in February 2013. Singer Trevor Grills died in hospital three days later. The case was investigated jointly by Surrey Police and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The prosecuting barrister said the total cost of the HSE’s investigation was £157,000. The court heard the door business barely traded in 2015 and was essentially liquidated. Judge Whipple said: “I stress that my sentence cannot, and is not, intended to reflect the incalculable loss of life, it is aimed at something different altogether. I acknowledge that there are questions over whether the company is able to pay the fine I impose, those question would be asked whatever fine I impose.”
According to healthcare workers interviewed this year by a Canadian health care union, the health and well-being of the individuals devoted to caring for health seems to be increasingly at risk from angry, frustrated, or out of control patients. Researchers from the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU)/Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) note that every one of the 150 registered practical nurses (RPNs) from across Ontario attending a conference on violence this year reported that they have been assaulted at work. In response to this and other evidence of an epidemic of workplace violence in the sector, the union has identified measures to deal with the problem of violence directed against staff. It has called on its union reps to include a list of demands in their contract bargaining, including warning notices, legal action against perpetrators, agreeing a definition of violence including verbal harassment and comprehensive reporting systems. The researchers say healthcare workers throughout the world “should take heed of the recommendations made by OCHU/CUPE, which strongly encourages healthcare workers to stand up for their rights.” They add: “Violence in healthcare must not remain a dirty little secret. The health of healthcare workers is a barometer of the health of the healthcare system. By safeguarding healthcare workers – on a province-wide and international level – we can contribute not only to their well-being, but can help to improve our precious healthcare systems for everyone.”
Ÿ The Bullet.
Several offices of Japan's biggest advertising agency have been raided over suspicions its employees are being made to work dangerously excessive hours. The raids came after the suicide of a 24-year-old Dentsu employee the labour ministry ruled to have been ‘karoshi’, or death by overwork or ‘karojisatsu’, overwork-related suicide (Risks 772). Dozens of ministry officials entered Dentsu's Tokyo headquarters early on the morning of 7 November. Raids were also carried out on the ad agency’s offices in Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. The Tokyo offices have already been raided once, in October. The scandal has been raised at the highest levels of government. Prime minister Shinzo Abe said the government would thoroughly check the situation at Dentsu, including its subcontractors. Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga highlighted the Dentsu case in a regular briefing with reporters the day of the raids, saying the advertising agency will be dealt with appropriately and that the government is working on labour law reforms to prevent deaths from overwork. Dentsu - the world's fifth largest ad agency by revenue - has already begun its own investigation. The official probe could lead to criminal charges if suspicions of widespread abuses are confirmed. Under Japan’s criminal procedure law, labour standards inspectors have powers similar to police officers and can investigate, make arrests and refer suspects to prosecutors. In a company statement, Dentsu said: “We take labour standards extremely seriously and want to proactively try to remove karoshi from Dentsu's working culture.” The statement added that “Dentsu continues to cooperate fully with the authorities on their investigation and once a determination is made on the facts about overwork issues, any disciplinary measures deemed appropriate to any Executive Officers or employees will be made rigorously and announced separately.”
Thailand’s Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal by the Natural Fruit Company against dismissed criminal defamation charges against Andy Hall, the British born migrant and workers’ rights defender. But Owen Tudor, head of the British TUC’s international department, warned that Natural Fruit is still “pursuing their campaign of judicial harassment and legal intimidation, and are backing other exploitative employers who Andy’s work has exposed.” Speaking after the court ruling, Hall commented: “Following dismissal of the case, I have no choice but to now launch counter litigation against Natural Fruit, the Prosecutor, Police and the Attorney General for unlawful prosecution and for perjury. I do so with deep regret and not at all in anger or through any desire for personal retribution. It is necessary to launch these counter prosecutions simply because I must defend myself fully against judicial harassment by Natural Fruit that shows no signs of abating.” Finnish non-profit Finnwatch, which funded and published Hall’s research, reports that the case has already done enormous damage by putting other whistleblowers and worker representatives off campaigning to expose exploitation in the massive Thai food export industry. Executive director Sonja Vartiala commented: “As many have feared, this campaign has also had a negative impact far beyond the case of Andy himself. We have heard from a number of migrant workers and activists how they are now deeply afraid to speak out on abuse workers face from Thai employers after Andy Hall’s recent conviction” (Risks 770). According to the TUC’s Owen Tudor, “the battle against Natural Fruit and exploitation in the Thai global food supply chain goes on. And Thailand needs to reform its laws to defend workers’ rights rather than bad bosses.”
One of America’s most renowned medical centres — The Johns Hopkins Hospital — intentionally defrauded hundreds of sick coal miners out of compensation and health benefits while pocketing large sums from coal companies, according to a class action lawsuit filed by the families of two coal miners who died of black lung disease. The lawsuit, which also targets a long-time doctor at the Baltimore hospital, centres around a unit of radiologists who for decades provided coal companies x-ray readings that almost always said the miner didn't have black lung, helping the companies avoid paying benefits under a programme administered by the federal government (Risks 658). The leader of the unit, Dr Paul Wheeler, had read x-rays in more than 1,500 cases since 2000 but never once found a case of severe black lung, despite other doctors looking at the same films finding evidence of the disease hundreds of times. Wheeler’s credentials and long-time affiliation with Johns Hopkins often trumped those of all other doctors involved, and administrative judges credited his reports over those of other doctors and denied more than 800 claims. In more than 100 cases, biopsies or autopsies proved Wheeler wrong. The medic admits ignoring the international diagnosis protocols required in these assessments. The allegations against Johns Hopkins and Wheeler in the complaint include fraud, unjust enrichment, and violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the federal law best known as a tool used against organised crime. Johns Hopkins and Wheeler “have engaged in a pattern and practice with the intent to defraud at least hundreds of toxically injured coal miners of federally earned benefits,” the lawsuit alleges.
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/