|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]|
Government plans to change the rules for compensation claims would make it much more difficult for workers to get the money to which they are entitled when an employer’s negligence injures them or makes them ill, the TUC has said. The union body says compensation cases classed as ‘small claims’ don’t qualify for legal costs, so even successful claimants may run up a costs bill if a solicitor is needed. Under current rules, claims where workers are injured or made ill go through the small claims procedure where the claim is for less than £1,000, so for most successful claims legal costs will be recouped. Any settlement, including these costs, comes from the firm’s employers’ liability insurer. The TUC is concerned that the government is now looking at changing the small claims limit for all types of claim to “at least” £5,000 (Risks 778). The TUC says the move will bar many workers from making work-related injury or disease claims. It points to a TUC report that found only one in seven workers made ill or injured through work gets any compensation under the current, more affordable, system. According to TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson: “Claims under £5,000 are not ‘minor’ and can include partial amputation of a finger or an injury that could have led to the worker being off work for several months. It will impact greatest on the lowest paid workers who are least able to afford losing several thousand pounds and for whom £5,000 could be almost six months’ pay.” Potentially disabling conditions like occupational deafness are typically settled for sums considerably below this £5,000 threshold, so could also involve a major cash gamble for an affected worker. “This is an appalling attack on workers and will mean, not only will tens of thousands of injured workers be denied justice, there will be far less incentive on employers to make sure that these injuries and illnesses do not happen,” said Robertson.
Government plans to strip Network Rail of complete control of England's railway tracks could bring a return of the rail tragedies seen under its privately-owned predecessor Railtrack, unions have warned. Unite said that the plans outlined by Chris Grayling this week were “a recipe for further fragmentation of the UK’s rail system with adverse implications for passenger safety.” The transport secretary wants the publicly-owned Network Rail to share its responsibility for running the tracks with the private train operating companies. Unite regional officer Hugh Roberts said: “Since Network Rail took over the infrastructure and maintenance of the rail system, safety has greatly improved – so there is a big question mark as to why Chris Grayling is taking this retrograde step by wishing to involve private train operating companies.” RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “This is the Tory government dragging the railways back to the failed and lethal Railtrack model of the private sector running infrastructure.” He added: “The idea that what Britain’s railways need is more privatisation is ludicrous. The introduction of the profit motive into infrastructure raises again the spectre of Hatfield and Potters Bar and the other grotesque failures that led to the creation of Network Rail. What the country really needs is a publicly owned railway run in the public interest free from greed and exploitation. RMT will fight any moves to privatise Network Rail with every tool at our disposal.” Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union ASLEF, said: “The failures and tragedies of the Railtrack era remind us that infrastructure should never be run for profit. I’m concerned that in 2016 the Secretary of State for Transport is seriously considering a return to one of the darkest times in the history of Britain’s railways.”
Ÿ DfT news release and the transport secretary’s 6 December written statement on rail reform. Unite news release. RMT news release. ASLEF news release. TSSA news release. BBC News Online. Morning Star. Construction Enquirer.
New evidence that local authorities are failing to deal adequately with the risks posed by asbestos in schools has prompted renewed calls for action from trade unions and campaigners. They were commenting after freedom of information requests to all local authorities in England and Wales revealed what the unions described as “a disturbing picture of complacency, evasion of responsibility and lack of knowledge.” The requests had been submitted by Lucie Stephens, whose mother Sue died of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma in June this year. The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) said the research revealed a “great variation” in the management of asbestos in schools, “with some local authorities claiming not to know how many of their schools contain asbestos, some withholding the information and others stating that full responsibility lies with schools themselves.” JUAC says Lucie Stephens’ research revealed there were 99 reported incidents of asbestos exposure in school premises between 2011 and 2016, but adds this is likely to be a “massive understatement”. In this five-year period, 220 school employees or former employees and former pupils have pursued a claim for compensation, with over £10 million being paid out. JUAC chair John McClean said: “What this information reveals is that the government’s policy of managing asbestos in schools is simply not working and is putting children and staff at risk.” JUAC is calling on the government to “undertake a national audit of asbestos in schools, and to set out a long-term strategy for the removal of asbestos from schools.” It adds that the government should “ensure that the Health and Safety Executive has the funding it needs to inspect schools.”
Construction union UCATT, which represents hundreds of motorway maintenance staff, has condemned government plans to allow motorists to speed up to 60mph within motorway roadworks. The union says several motorway maintenance staff die each year while working. The proposed move follows lobbying from drivers’ groups. UCATT acting general secretary, Brian Rye, said: “What the government is proposing is a deadly version of Wacky Races. The average motorist is not capable of driving safely through coned areas at high speed. Anyone with a passing knowledge of this dangerous work environment knows that the British motorist routinely smashes through coned areas due to driving incompetence and when they do this our members’ lives are at risk. If they do this at an even faster speed workers will die. These proposals will make a dangerous working area twice as dangerous.” He said the claim from drivers’ groups that relaxing the speed limit would reduce congestion and the number of speeding tickets issued “didn’t hold water”. The union leader added: “Reduced speeds aid traffic flow, as there’s less accelerating and unnecessary braking, and if you pick up a speeding ticket late at night, while going through roadworks at a speed in excess of 50mph – then you bloody well deserve it - because you are a potential killer of road maintenance workers.”
The families of firefighters Geoff Wicker and Brian Wembridge, killed in the Marlie Farm blaze on 3 December 2006 (Risks 286), and seven other emergency services personnel injured in the incident have finally received compensation payments. A settlement totalling £510,000 was delayed by East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s refusal to accept liability for the deaths of its workers, on the instructions of its insurer Zurich (Risks 685). Firefighters’ union FBU, which had condemned the refusal to settle, has repeated its call for the service to make a public apology. As well as claiming the lives of the two firefighters, 12 other emergency services personnel were injured and £824,000 worth of fire service vehicles were destroyed. In December 2009, Lewes Crown Court found two Festival Fireworks directors guilty of manslaughter, with Martin Winter receiving a seven-year jail term and his son Nathan sent to prison for five years (Risks 437). They had stored an unlicensed metal container packed with fireworks at the site. The High Court ruled more than three years ago that the deaths were preventable and the families were entitled to compensation, but fire service legal appeals delayed the process for a further two years. Danni Armstrong, South East executive council member for the FBU, said: “It’s a shame it took ten years to sort out compensation payments due to East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service not accepting any blame for the events on that day. The right thing for East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service would be to apologise to our members, members of the public, and the families of those who were lost to allow us all to move forward.”
Ÿ The Argus.
Britain could slash environmental and safety regulations on imported products after it leaves the European Union (EU), a Conservative MP has suggested. Jacob Rees-Mogg, floating the idea at a hearing of the Treasury Select Committee – Rees-Mogg is a member of the influential committee - said regulations that were “good enough for India” could be good enough for the UK – arguing that the UK could go “a very long way” to rolling back high EU standards. The MP's comments came in the context of a discussion about trade deals with other countries following Brexit. The government has said all EU regulations will be enshrined into British law by a Great Repeal Bill. Changes can then be made on a case-by-case basis after Brexit. Jonathan Portes, a research fellow of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, said the approach flagged by Rees-Mogg could cause “complications”. He added: “If we simply said we would not impose any regulatory constraints on any goods coming to this country I think the risk of negative spill-over that would reduce productivity as well as many other things that we care about would be very high.” Safety and trade bodies have warned repeatedly about imports of dangerous equipment, notably substandard or counterfeit workplace protective equipment (Risks 691), building materials and plant and equipment (Risks 315).
Britain’s information commissioner has reopened the file on construction industry blacklisting amid fears that the life-destroying practice is still taking place. Elizabeth Denham, who has headed the privacy watchdog ICO since July, told the Guardian she has already “reviewed” her office’s papers on blacklisting. She is so concerned by the scandal, which was the subject of a multi-million pound compensation settlement this year, that she has told staff to begin “a watching brief” on the construction industry to make sure the practice has ended. Denham said: “I read about that case, I’ve looked into that case, and it was deeply concerning.” She added: I think the practice is something we have to be alert to checking, to make sure that it has ceased. It means keeping tabs, it means a watching file, a watching brief… It’s fair to say that I’ve reviewed that file.” The blacklisting scandal was exposed in 2009, when ICO raided the Consulting Association, a covert blacklisting operation bankrolled by major construction firms. Workers were targeted for their union and safety activities, frequently facing years of hardship as a result. Some of the biggest names in the construction sector, including Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Laing O’Rourke and Sir Robert McAlpine, settled with unions this year. GMB national secretary Justin Bowden said: “The GMB would welcome further investigation into the nefarious activities of systematic blacklisting of 3,500 trade unionists and environmental activists by the household names of the construction industry.” After the initial raid, ICO was criticised for confiscating only construction-related files but leaving the bulk of the illegally obtained information untouched.
A fairground company has been convicted of a criminal safety offence after an employee was run over and killed while setting up a ride. Michael O’Brien, 45, was killed on 27 April 2011, while helping set up the fun fair run by Stevens Amusements Ltd. Northampton Crown Court heard that the Twister ride, which was being carried on an HGV driven by company director John Guest, was being manoeuvred into position when Mr O’Brien was run over. He suffered crush injuries to the head and upper body and was pronounced dead at the scene. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that although there was a banksman guiding the HGV, he was on the passenger side of the vehicle. Mr O’Brien was found on the driver’s side. Inadequate arrangements were in place to segregate people from moving vehicles, HSE found. Stevens Amusements Ltd was found guilty of a criminal safety offence and fined £47,475 and ordered to pay costs of £82,946.11. HSE inspector Sally Harris said: “This incident was entirely avoidable.” She added: “If proper precautions had been taken to control access to the area where the ride was being moved then Mr O’Brien would not have lost his life. Travelling fairs visit a large number of sites during the year. A specific assessment of the risks must be made at each site before beginning hazardous activities such as this.”
The national truck, bus and plant division of Volvo has been fined £900,000 after one of its workers fell and suffered life-threatening head injuries. Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard how a worker was servicing a large delivery truck and repairing the driver’s access rope for the cab when he fell, striking his head and losing consciousness. He was placed in a medically induced coma for two weeks. Over a year later, he is still unable to return to work. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the step ladder the worker was using was damaged and its anti-slip feet were worn. It was not Volvo property and had not been maintained or checked to ensure it was suitable for use. At the time of the incident on 17 September 2015, Volvo UK had not trained staff to select, inspect and use access equipment for work at height. Volvo Group UK Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £900,000 and ordered to pay costs of £5,820.28. HSE inspector Nick Wright said: “This worker suffered life changing injuries that could have been prevented by simple health and safety precautions. For two weeks his family was told to prepare for the worst as he was placed in an induced coma to help manage the swelling on his brain.” He added: “This case is not about banning ladders, on many occasions they are the right equipment to use when working at height, it is about companies ensuring they properly maintain their work at height equipment and train their workers on how to inspect them and select the correct tools for the job. As this case shows, even a fall from a relatively small height can have devastating consequences.”
London Underground has been fined £500,000 after a maintenance worker was injured in a disused station at South Kentish Town. The worker suffered several injuries, spending ten days in hospital after a 9.5m fall from a tower scaffold while cleaning a former lift shaft in September 2014. The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) investigation found London Underground failed to properly plan, manage and supervise the work. Procedures were available that may have prevented the incident, but were not implemented and followed. ORR inspectors also found the tower scaffold was incorrectly assembled and its stability had not been assessed. London Underground pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach at Blackfriars Magistrates’ Court. Keith Atkinson, a principal inspector of railways said: “In 2014, London Underground’s failure to properly plan, manage or supervise maintenance work at the disused station in South Kentish Town, led to a worker spending ten days in hospital, and could have been fatal.” London Underground was also ordered to pay costs of £50,000.
Birkenhead’s Cammell Laird shipyard has been fined £400,000 after an employee’s fingers “burst open” inside a machine. The right hand of Paul Williams, 59, was dragged into machinery as he tried to clean moving parts on a lathe. He suffered fractures and crush injuries to the hand and was left unable to bend his fingers properly. He was on sick leave for five months after the 20 July 2015 incident. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Cammell Laird Shiprepairers and Shipbuilders for serious criminal safety failings. Liverpool Magistrates’ Court heard Paul Williams had been repairing a lathe when he noticed the shafts and couplings were dirty. In order to clean them, he wrapped an emery cloth around the lead screw and turned the lathe on. As the machine began to run, his right hand was pulled in to the moving parts. He said: “The fingers were squashed in the machine and both fingers burst open. They required pins and I was in hospital for two days. I now struggle to pick things up, smaller things especially. I can’t completely bend my fingers and they hurt in the cold, and my doctor has said this will get worse with age.” HSE found Cammell Laird’s risk assessment failed to identify the risks involved in the “common practice” of using emery cloths on moving parts. Nor was the company aware of the way in which its employees were working. HSE also found a ‘lock off’ system had not been properly communicated to employees or implemented. Cammell Laird Shiprepairers and Shipbuilders Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £400,000 and ordered to pay costs of £7,683.
A Newcastle under Lyme based industrial equipment supplier has been fined after a work experience teenager was seriously injured on their first day of work. Stafford Crown Court heard how during the unloading of a heavy electrical panel from the back of a lorry at Radwell International Limited, the teenager was asked to steady the panel which had been placed on a wooden pallet on the floor. The panel fell, trapping him on the ground across the forks of the forklift truck. He suffered five compression fractures of his pelvis, and a head injury. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the 15 December 2014 incident found the company failed to carry out suitable and sufficient risk assessment, training, supervision and communication. Radwell International Limited pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined £86,666 and ordered to pay costs of £12,143. HSE inspector Steve Shaw said: “This case highlights the need for companies to have in place safe systems of work for all deliveries at their premises. Had such a system been in place, this teenager starting his working career need not have suffered the painful injuries he endured and this company would not have faced the judgment of the courts.”
The European Commission has been accused of ‘manufacturing a lie’ to avoid tighter regulation of a group of chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive and other health effects. The controversy over the classification of endocrine disrupting chemicals is set to heighten as EU member states consider a proposal drafted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to treat them like “most other substances of concern for human health and the environment.” The commission-embraced proposal, which France, Denmark and Sweden have already indicated they will oppose, is causing concern because of the ability of these substances to affect the hormonal system, often at low doses. It is also opposed by the Endocrine Society, the academic body representing researchers and clinicians in the field. An investigation by the French newspaper Le Monde found “without ambiguity, that the key phrase on which the regulatory edifice proposed by the Commission is built had been drafted even before any scientific expertise had really begun.” It added the position is at odds with the “scientific consensus.” The 29 November Le Monde article said even EFSA had recognised its position “may be hard to defend”, with internal EFSA correspondence acknowledging “current conclusions where we explain that [endocrine disruptors] should be considered like most other chemicals… puts us in isolation compared to the rest of the world.” The call however has survived and could become European policy, a prospect that has horrified environmental, safety and medical groups. “This should be a science-based procedure – so evidence-based policy-making,” said Axel Singhofen, an adviser to the Greens-European Free Alliance in the European Parliament. “But what we see here is policy-based evidence-making.”
Logistic companies are risking lives by getting seafarers to lash and unlash ships’ cargoes at the dock side, a job normally reserved for specially trained dock workers. Hundreds of dockworkers demonstrated this week in front of the offices of European logistics company Unifeeder in Aarhus, Denmark. They say the company is permitting the ‘highly dangerous’ practice, which is the process of securing cargoes, in direct contravention of the dockers’ clause, a collective agreement with the global transport unions’ federation ITF that ring-fences lashing and unlashing work for dockers. ITF says these highly dangerous operations should only be done by trained and experienced workers. However, ITF inspectors have identified that Unifeeder-chartered vessels are failing routinely to hire lashing gangs in European ports and instead requiring seafarers to undertake this work. Torben Seebold, from the global union’s dockers’ section, said: “Unifeeder’s practices present an enormous risk for seafarers and maritime safety while at the same time the company jeopardises dockers’ jobs. Our earlier attempts to have a constructive dialogue with them about cargo lashing were disregarded. With this protest action we urge them to embark on a meaningful dialogue and live up to the collective bargaining agreements that stipulates this type of work is reserved for dockworkers only.” The action is a part of the global union’s campaign launched in May 2015 to ensure lashing work is only undertaken by suitably skilled dockworkers.
The European Union must adopt a roadmap to improve labour rights and working conditions in Sri Lanka before the country can benefit from preferential access to European markets, unions and labour rights campaigns have demanded. The call from the global union for the sector, IndustriALL, together with the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), is in response to Sri Lanka new application for inclusion on the list countries benefiting from the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP+), which provides enhanced market access on the basis that the applicant is not in serious violation of a number of human rights instruments, including core Internatonal Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions. However, IndustriALL’s union affiliates in the country report violations including obstruction of the right to freedom of association, gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment and unsafe workplaces (Risks 764). Examples cited by the groups include union busting at ATG Ceylon (Pvt) and ATG Occupation Ltd, where managers tried to silence workers addressing toxic chemicals and other hazards at work, and fired a woman who complained of sexual harassment. In a joint statement, IndustriALL, CCC and ITUC said they “urge the European Union to adopt a roadmap with time-bound measures to comply with the ILO core conventions before benefiting from GSP+. There is simply no credible argument that Sri Lanka is not currently in serious breach of those conventions.”
A 10 December global day of action by workers at the building materials multinational LafargeHolcim will, unions hope, provide a renewed focus on the company’s safety and labour rights abuses. Global unions BWI and IndustriALL say the world’s largest cement maker is increasing its use of precarious employment around the world, even though its fatality rate among these workers is higher than with direct employees. They note that LafargeHolcim had 50 workplace fatalities in 2015, adding the death toll had “dramatically increased in 2016.” Other concerns raised by the unions include union busting, the use of child labour and illegal land grabs. They add: “After reducing employee levels and increasing workloads in Indonesia, the company is responding to workplace accidents by disciplining and threatening to dismiss workers.” Unions are demanding that LafargeHolcim use less precarious work, cooperate better with trade unions on health and safety and restructuring, and enter into “meaningful negotiations” on labour relations and social dialogue. IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches said: “Since Lafarge and Holcim merged last year, there have been numerous workplace fatalities, precarious work has increased, the company has recklessly restructured and management has broken promises to reach a global agreement for a positive relationship with unions. We cannot wait any longer while our brothers and sisters die at work. LafargeHolcim workers around the world are standing up and demanding change.” BWI general secretary Ambet Yuson added: “The right to decent work, safe working conditions and dignity are basic human rights that workers at LafargeHolcim should have. However, instead of respecting these fundamental rights, the company has repeatedly put corporate interests ahead of the rights of its workers.”
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/