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“Stone” worktops in kitchens are becoming very fashionable in Britain, yet how many people know that they are killing the workers who make or install them? TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said he was made aware of the problem last month when he met with a lung consultant, who “mentioned that half of all lung transplants in Israel are due to work with engineered stone.” It turned out almost all of the “stone”, “quartz” or “marble” kitchen worktops and tiles that are becoming popular are in fact ‘engineered’, which means they are made from pieces of ground stone and resin. Writing in the TUC’s Stronger Unions blog, Robertson sad when engineered stone is being made and worked on, it “produces a lot of very small silica particles. Workers who inhale these are at risk of silicosis which is an incurable, progressively disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease. They can also get lung cancer.” He said in the UK thousands of kitchen installers saw, drill or grind slabs of this engineered stone as part of finishing and installing worktops. There are bigger still exposures in the manufacture of the slabs, where workers are using bags of dust that can contain over 90 per cent silica. Outbreaks of disabling silicosis have been reported in Israel, Spain and Australia. But China and India are the biggest producers, he noted, “where figures on the number who are being slowly killed by these new fashion statements are just not available. Nor do we know the number of people being exposed in the UK, however a large number are self-employed and so not covered by the Health and Safety at Work Act as they are exposing themselves, not others.” The TUC safety specialist warns that with “the rising popularity of this material, we face a new wave of workers’ lungs being destroyed by silica unless action is taken now to ensure that workers are made aware of the risks and proper precautions taken.”
Small construction sites are health and safety ‘basket cases’ with half not meeting minimum legal standards, UCATT has said. The construction union was speaking out after a report from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) chief executive to the regulator’s 7 December board meeting spelled out the extent of the problem. This recorded that an ‘intensive inspection initiative’ by HSE involved 1,840 visits to small refurbishment sites in June/July and October/November this year. The HSE inspectors found that 49 per cent of sites did not meet safety standards. They issued 741 legally-binding enforcement notices and 1,059 notices of contravention. The report noted: “In common with previous initiatives, inspectors had to deal with a number of immediate risks, especially poorly managed work at height, and also significant health risks where workers were exposed to asbestos and dusts, particularly silica and wood dust.” UCATT’s acting general secretary, Brian Rye, commented: “This shows that safety standards on small construction sites remain a basket case. Safety laws are being ignored and workers placed in daily danger.” He added: “It is frankly more by luck than judgment that more workers are not being killed at work. It also shows that the HSE needs greater resources to conduct these initiatives 12 months of a year as they are only able to visit a tiny amount of sites.”
Hundreds of Uber drivers have joined GMB’s legal case against cab firm, with proceeding already issued in 50 cases, the union has said. Law firm Leigh Day, working with GMB to assess the claims, predicts thousands of drivers could potentially join the group action. The legal moves follow an historic ruling in the London Central Employment Tribunal in October which found that a group of Uber drivers were not self-employed but were workers. It means Uber drivers are entitled to holiday pay, paid rest breaks and at least the National Minimum Wage (Risks 775). Maria Ludkin, GMB legal director, said: “We are delighted so many hundreds of drivers have contacted us and we are working as fast as we can to get them ready to issue proceedings. We will have the next large group ready to go early in the new year.” Nigel MacKay, from Leigh Day, said: “The judgment at the employment tribunal does not prevent Uber drivers from working flexibly, it simply ensures that whilst they are working the drivers receive the rights that every other worker is entitled to.” He added: “Since the judgment was issued, we and GMB have spoken to hundreds of Uber drivers who wish to claim compensation for Uber’s failure to provide these entitlements in the past, as well as to ensure that they are paid at least the national minimum wage and holiday pay in future.” Unions and lawyers say the tribunal victory has implications beyond Uber, and could enhance the legal rights of thousands of workers in the ‘gig economy’.
A ‘huge disparity’ in the employment conditions offered to staff at the London HQ of online retailer Asos and its Yorkshire warehouse staff has been criticised by the GMB. The union was commented after Asos this week announced plans to create 1,500 jobs in its London HQ just days after GMB held a ‘catwalk of shame’ outside the Asos AGM in protest at conditions for warehouse workers in Yorkshire. Announcing the new London jobs, Asos chief executive Nick Beighton said: “Our people are what make Asos special. We are creating a workspace that fosters creativity, where they can enjoy what they do.” GMB said London-based staff seem to enjoy perks - including long weekends during the summer and lavish parties complete with ferris wheels and fairground rides - while the company has come under fire for poor working conditions in its distribution centre. Reports from the South Yorkshire site have pointed to excessive monitoring of workers, multiple security checks each day including when entering and leaving the toilet, the use of flex contracts that leave staff unsure how many hours they will work each week and a reliance on agency work (Risks 774). Neil Derrick, GMB Yorkshire regional secretary, said: “The company's growth is on back of workers in their Yorkshire warehouse, yet there seems to be a huge disparity between how Asos staff in London and workers in Yorkshire are treated. Conditions in Barnsley are frankly shocking and have caused the GMB grave concern over the past two years.” He added: “If Asos want to provide 'fashion with integrity' as they claim, working with us to make their Yorkshire site a decent place to work would be a start.”
The government must change its ‘laissez-faire approach’ to asbestos management in schools or risk more deaths, a union coalition has warned. The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) was commenting after a coroner investigating the death in June of a retired teacher ruled she died following exposure to asbestos at school. Greater Devon coroner Dr Elizabeth Earland concluded that Sue Stephens, who died aged 68 of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma, was the victim of an industrial disease. JUAC says nearly 90 per cent of schools contain asbestos. It is critical of the government’s policy, which says it is best to leave asbestos in place and seek to manage it. JUAC says this policy “does not work, is irresponsible, and is leading to countless children and school staff members, like Sue, being exposed on a regular basis.” It adds that even normal school behaviours, such as scraping chairs and slamming doors, are known to release asbestos fibres. JUAC chair John McClean said: “How many more people have to die following asbestos exposure in schools before the government accepts that its laissez-faire approach to asbestos management in schools just isn’t working? We need a commitment to a policy of phased removal; children and school staff deserve nothing less.” Lucie Stephens, Sue’s daughter, said: “In the last 30 years over 300 teachers have died from mesothelioma and support staff are similarly affected. We hope mum’s legacy will be to put a stop to all of these preventable deaths.”
An airline captain has accepted an apology from an airline after being sanctioned for refusing to fly due to fatigue, as well as assurances that the company remains committed to passenger safety. Captain Mike Simkins, a member of the pilots’ union BALPA, was suspended by Thomas Cook Airlines for six months and threatened with dismissal after refusing to fly his Boeing 767 with over 200 passengers while he was fatigued. With support from the union, the pilot took the case to an employment tribunal which unanimously found in his favour and against the airline. Simkins took the difficult decision not to fly after three extremely early starts in a row, including one 18-hour day, and what would have been a 19-hour day to follow. Thomas Cook’s own fatigue monitoring software showed that because of the run of duties he had done, if he had flown his rostered flight he would have landed at the end of his duty with a predicted performance loss that would have been similar to being four times over the legal alcohol limit for flying. Dr Rob Hunter, BALPA’s head of flight safety, said: “Not only is it reasonable to refuse to fly when fatigued, it is absolutely necessary. In fact, the law states that a pilot must not operate when fatigued, or likely to become fatigued. Captain Simkins should have been praised by Thomas Cook for reporting his fatigued state as required by law, not disciplined.” He added: “Fatigue is a major threat to flight safety and a good, open safety culture is vital in ensuring that pilots and other staff members feel able to report fatigue and not put lives at stake.” BALPA general secretary Brian Strutton said: “Tackling fatigue remains BALPA’s number one flight safety priority and we will continue to work with airlines to do that where we can, and challenge them using any means necessary when we can’t.”
Half of airline pilots report that fatigue is not taken seriously by airlines, according to the first large-scale survey of pilots’ perceptions of safety within the European aviation industry. The London School of Economics (LSE) study found 51 per cent of pilots surveyed reported that fatigue was not taken seriously by their airline, and 28 per cent of pilots felt that they had insufficient numbers of staff to carry out their work safely. Less than 20 per cent of the pilots surveyed felt that their airline company cares about their well-being. A total of 7,239 pilots from across European nations participated in the survey, approximately 14 per cent of Europe’s total commercial pilot population. UK pilots’ union BALPA said it is ‘not surprised’ by the findings and that fatigue remain top of their members’ concerns across all types of airlines. BALPA said it is already working with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to improve fatigue reporting, particularly following the introduction of flight time limitations in February this year, which can legally allow a pilot to be rostered for shifts of up to 20 hours. Dr Rob Hunter, BALPA’s head of flight safety, said: “It’s not surprising to BALPA that the LSE survey shows more than 50 per cent of pilots feel fatigue is not being taken seriously by their company. Fatigue has been a growing issue among pilots and has only intensified since the introduction of EASA flight time limitations earlier this year. BALPA has been working with all airlines and carriers to improve their fatigue management.”
An Oxford University study that concluded the classification of night work as a cause of breast cancer is no longer justified was based on ‘bad science’, top researchers have warned. The large scale ‘meta-analysis’, financed by the Medical Research Council, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Cancer Research UK (CRUK), was published on 6 October 2016 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI). The paper concluded “night shift work, including long-term night shift work, has little or no effect on breast cancer incidence,” adding that the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) ranking of night work as a ‘probable’ cause of breast cancer in women “is no longer justified.” But three of the most respected researchers on night work and breast cancer have now said they “fully disagree” with this conclusion, noting a succession of methodological flaws in the research “invalidate” its conclusions. Harvard Medical School epidemiologist Eva Schernhammer told Hazards magazine that given the Oxford study’s “bad science” it was “not surprising” it found no effect. She said its many shortcomings “preclude it from making the conclusion that there is no association between night work and breast cancer risk.” Johnni Hansen, a researcher with the Danish Cancer Society, added: “They base their conclusion on a poor study, but even worse is that their conclusion may hinder preventive initiatives for night workers.” Richard Stevens, of the University of Connecticut medical school, who has written influential papers on the topic with both Schernhammer and Hansen, was blunt. “Why was the paper written in the first place?” he asked. The main study groups in the Oxford study were “worryingly old”, with many over retirement age, and the follow up was “unusually short”, Hansen said. The risk of women developing breast cancer appears to wane in the years after night working ends, so studying retired workers without recent exposures misses the point and the cancers, said Schernhammer, adding the higher risk is seen in women with long exposures – at least 15 years – early in their careers. Night work was sometimes defined so loosely in the study participants, a single night shift might have seen a worker added to the ‘exposed’ group despite facing minimal exposure and risk.
Ÿ Graveyard shift: Cancer all-clear for night work based on ‘bad science’, warn scientists, Hazards magazine, number 136, December 2016.Ruth C Travis and others. Night shift work and breast cancer incidence: Three prospective studies and meta-analysis of published studies, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, volume 108, number 12, published online 6 October 2016.
New research carried out by the BBC has shown that fire crews around the country are taking longer to arrive at house fires due to government cuts to fire and rescue services. Firefighters’ union FBU, which was involved with Radio 5 Live’s investigation into fire brigade response times, is calling for national standards on the time it should take first and second fire engines to arrive at fires. The investigation found that 55 per cent of fire crews said that first engines were arriving slower to house fires, with some arriving five minutes longer than in the past. Sixty per cent of the fire and rescue services that responded to the BBC’s Freedom of Information request said that second fire engines were slower to respond to house fires this year compared to 2010. In some instances, fire engines took more than twice as long to arrive as they had in the past. FBU said a second fire engine in attendance is critical when firefighters are attending fires. Firefighters aren’t allowed to enter a burning building without this safety back up. Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, said: “There is very long standing evidence that the longer it takes firefighters to get to incidents, the more likely it is that people will be injured or killed.”
An ambulance worker who developed a psychiatric condition after she was poisoned by carbon monoxide from a faulty vehicle exhaust has been awarded £280,000 in damages by the High Court. Solo responder Diane Kennedy had been employed by the London Ambulance Service (LAS) for 10 years. But she developed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and stopped working for the service in April 2015. LAS NHS Trust admitted liability but disputed the amount of the award. Mrs Kennedy, 43, had first complained of feeling unwell and nauseous after a shift in April 2011 and was kept in hospital overnight. The trust admitted liability after it was discovered there was an undetected fault on her vehicle's exhaust system, which caused harmful fumes to leak into the driver’s compartment. But it questioned whether Mrs Kennedy's PTSD was caused by the poisoning. Judge Peter Hughes ruled the mother-of-three developed PTSD as a result of the experience, continued to suffer from the condition and, with appropriate treatment, should be able to return to less stressful work in about two years. “In my judgment, the claimant's condition is properly classified as PTSD consequent on the carbon monoxide poisoning incident,” he said. “What is unfortunate is that her symptoms have become entrenched and are likely to have been prolonged and exacerbated by the uncertainty of litigation.” The compensation included sums for pain and suffering, past and future loss of earnings, care and assistance and loss of pension.
Three Crossrail contractors are to face prosecution following the death of one worker and injuries to two others, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has announced. The charges relate to the death of Rene Tka'cik on 7 March 2014 and injuries to Terrence Hughes and Alex Vizitiu in January 2015. Mr Tka'cik was crushed by wet concrete. BAM Nuttall, Ferrovial Agroman (UK), and Keir Infrastructure and Overseas will appear in court in January 2017. Mr Tka'cik, 44, was killed at the Crossrail site in Holborn when nearly a tonne of concrete was poured on him. Mr Hughes suffered severe leg injuries when he was crushed by a tipper truck between the Bond Street and Paddington section of the tunnel on 16 January 2015. Alex Vizitiu was working in the same stretch of the tunnel on 22 January 2015. He suffered head and hip injuries when he was struck by a high pressure mixture of water and concrete during a routine operation to clean concrete lines. St Pancras Coroner's Court was told the “hugely experienced” Mr Tka'cik was working in the UK to earn money to send home to his family in Slovakia so he could pay for his daughter, Esther, to go to university. BAM Nuttall, Ferrovial Agroman (UK), and Kier Infrastructure have been told by the HSE they will be prosecuted in relation to the three incidents on Crossrail. HSE’s head of operations, Annette Hall, said: “These were all serious incidents and resulted in the death of one of their workers. We have concluded following thorough investigations that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute and it is in the public interest to do so.”
A building firm has been fined £30,000 after a worker was killed by falling soil in a collapsed trench. Borders-based Rodger Builders admitted two criminal safety breaches at Jedburgh Sheriff Court. The prosecution followed the death of worker George Wilson, 64, on a farm near Heriot in August 2014. He was carrying out drainage work and was working alone with a mechanical excavator at Heriot Mill Farm when the tragedy happened. The court heard how a section of the trench he was excavating collapsed while he was in it. He suffered fatal injuries with the cause of death being given as traumatic asphyxia and chest injuries. Mr Wilson's wife reported him missing at 11.30pm and two police officers made their way to the field where he had been working shortly after 1am. The found Mr Wilson trapped by a large slab of wet clay-like soil, approximately 30 feet long. Rodger Builders Ltd pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences. It admitted failing to ensure a safe system of work was in place for carrying out drainage excavation works and failing to ensure that the soils from the excavation were battened back to a safe angle. It also admitted failing to ensure there was a clear communication policy with the employee in place while he was working alone. Sheriff Peter Paterson took into account the company's safety record and working practices and from a starting point of £45,000, reduced the fine to £30,000 to be paid within two months.
A construction company and its managing director have been prosecuted for operating an unsafe construction site during a building conversion. Manchester and Salford Magistrates’ Court heard how the conditions on the site in Bollington, where a former pub was being changed into two houses, were so poor it prompted a member of public to complain to the local authority. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspected the site and had to stop all work on the building as the conditions were so dangerous they were putting workers’ lives at immediate risk. HSE inspectors served three prohibition notices and two improvements notices for safety failings on work at height dangers, missing flooring and a failure to provide adequate welfare facilities with running water. HSE’s inspection also found an extremely unsafe wall on the property that had not been sufficiently supported to prevent it from collapsing. Bluefig Development Ltd pleaded guilty to two criminal safety breaches and was fined £42,900 with £3,781.24 costs. Company director Faris Mousa also pleaded guilty to two criminal offences and was fined £40,000 with £3,658.24 costs. HSE inspector Deborah Walker said: “Bluefig Development Ltd and Mr Faris Mousa completely failed in their duties to protect the workers or members of the public from harm. This was an extremely dangerous site and it is only luck that nobody was injured or even killed.” She added: “If the unstable wall had collapsed we could now be talking about the tragic death of a worker and its impact on their family rather than how lucky they are no-one was injured.”
A specialist roofing company and its two directors have been sentenced after admitting working unsafely at height on a hotel development in central Manchester during major refurbishment and extension works. On 17 March 2015, a member of public witnessed and photographed unsafe work at the construction site and contacted the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Manchester Magistrates Court heard that the photograph showed Jake Clarke, one of two directors of Enviroply Roofing Limited, walking unprotected on a beam several metres off the ground. His fellow director, Aaron Hepworth was also witnessed walking along the beam to pass something to Clarke, then walking back again. There was nothing in place to prevent or mitigate a fall from this beam. An HSE investigation discovered there was a full-time scaffolder on site who was employed to build any scaffolding required by contractors but on this occasion, Enviroply and its directors had chosen to rush the job in order to submit their invoice earlier. HSE said both Clarke and Hepworth put their lives at risk. Enviroply Roofing Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and was fined £13,300 with £1160.50 costs. Jake Joseph Clarke admitted a criminal safety offence and was fined £1,100 with £1,160.50 costs. Aaron Paul Hepworth also pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach was fined £2,100 with £1,160.50 costs. HSE inspector Matt Greenly said: “Mr Clarke and Mr Hepworth in their position as directors recognised that their choices on that day placed themselves at a serious risk of death or life changing injury and admitted as much for themselves and their company. They only realised afterwards that running those risks in order to submit an invoice early was very unnecessary, considering how serious the consequences could have been. It is pure luck that no-one was injured or killed.”
A new guide from the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) evaluates research findings on the health consequences of workers being exposed to chemical substances with potentially harmful effects on the endocrine [hormonal] system. The 72-page guide is intended for union representatives and aims “to raise the awareness of union officials and political decision-makers to this largely unrecognised public and workplace health risk. A further aim is to draw attention to the gaps in European legislation on the prevention of this type of workplace risk.”
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) should intervene to improve safety in Chinese coal mines, following the deaths of 86 coal miners in a matter of weeks, the global union IndustriALL has said. Thirty-two miners were reportedly killed in a gas explosion at a coal mine owned by the Baoma Mining Company in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region on 3 December. Twenty-one miners were killed in a coal mine blast in the city of Qitaihe in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang on 29 November, while a further 33 miners were killed in an explosion at a coal mine in the southwestern city of Chongqing on 31 October. The fatalities come as pressure mounts on coal mines to increase output during winter. In a letter to ILO director general Guy Ryder, IndustriALL’s general secretary, Valter Sanches, said it is “imperative” the Chinese government ratifies ILO’s Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines. The letter also calls on the ILO to offer immediate technical assistance to China to help improve health and safety standards in the coal mines. In addition, IndustriALL said it is offering to provide any necessary political and technical support to the Chinese coal miners by sharing the expertise of its affiliated unions in the mining industry from around the world.
Qatar’s announcement of labour law “reforms” leaves migrant workers under the total control of employers, perpetuating the system of modern slavery that underpins the huge infrastructure programme leading up to the 2022 World Cup, global union confederation ITUC has said. The new law retains the exit permit system which allows employers to keep workers in Qatar against their will for up to five years, and to stop workers from changing jobs during their contract. The union body says the law now allows employers to keep workers’ passports, which was previously illegal although rarely if ever enforced. Workers are still banned from forming unions and from collective bargaining, and in the absence of a minimum wage, they are paid according to their country of origin rather than the actual job they do. Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary, said: “Qatar has re-named the appalling kafala system, but the fact is that migrant workers will remain bonded to their employers. Putting new labels on old laws does not remove the stain of modern slavery, and workers will continue to be forced to work under a feudal employment system. One of the world’s richest countries is responsible for keeping workers in poverty and servitude, with appalling work-related death and injury rates.” She added: “International companies operating in Qatar must ensure that their entire operations in the country comply with international labour standards, in the absence of 21st century labour laws, and Fifa and other sports bodies which are doing business with Qatar need to finally put exert real pressure for genuine reform.”
Separate investigations by the US-based Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) and Fair Labor Association (FLA) have revealed that a major Korean factory operator in Vietnam is running a sweatshop operation. The groups found that Nike and the other major brands that have contracts with the firm have conducted audits over many years, but working conditions in the factories have failed to improve. In 2015 alone there were 26 separate corporate social responsibility (CSR) audits of the 12 Hansae Vietnam factories employing 8,000 workers. On 6 December, WRC and FLA issued their latest reports on the Korean garment giant, confirming continuing and numerous violations of Vietnamese law and corporate codes of conduct, including physical and verbal abuse of workers, forced overtime, restrictions on toilet breaks and denial of sick leave. There were also dozens of health and safety violations, including excessive factory temperatures, unsafe spraying of cleaning solvents, and persistent incidents of workers collapsing at their work stations due to heat and overwork. According to Garrett Brown, a leading expert on safety conditions in outsourced factory work: “The Hansae Vietnam factory has become the latest textbook example of how the clothing brands and their CSR programmes have failed to protect workers in global supply chains.” He said achieving real improvement “involves changing the dominant ‘sweatshop business model’ in global supply chains; ending reliance on ineffective and corrupted CSR monitoring; and creating and sustaining genuine worker participation in developing and implementing factory health and safety programmes and verification that labour laws are obeyed.”
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