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The TUC has called on prime minister Theresa May to make clear to Britain’s bosses that any watering down of workers’ rights following Brexit is off the table. The call follows the emergence of a letter sent to MPs by well-connected Brexiteer Simon Boyd, the head of REIDsteel, which details a list of workers’ rights on areas such as working hours, holiday pay and health and safety that he wants abolished once we leave the EU. The letter, which calls for a “serious review” of safety laws, shows that some bosses who campaigned to leave the EU saw the Brexit vote as a means to an end for scrapping workers’ rights, says the TUC. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The Leave campaign promised people more control over their lives. But now bad bosses are trying to hijack Brexit to let them walk all over working people. No-one voted to leave to lose vital protections like safe working hours and fair holiday pay.” She added: “The prime minister promised working people that all rights and protections that come from the EU will be safe when Britain leaves. She must stand firm now, and guarantee that the UK will respect all existing rights at work. And she must go further and promise Britain’s workers that her government will mirror all new protections for workers in the rest of Europe while the UK is negotiating to leave the EU.”
A new ‘health and work’ strategy launched by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) addresses some of the glaring omissions in previous strategy initiatives, the union Prospect has indicated, but raises questions about what can be achieved as the safety regulator struggles with a severe funding squeeze. The new strategy, published in December 2016, highlights work-related stress, musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung disease as HSE’s three occupational health priorities. Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham said: “The government’s 2011 policy document, ‘Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone’, said almost nothing about occupational illness or disease, so the new strategy is a step forward.” Prospect also welcomed HSE’s commitment “to engage and support trades unions and others who are doing so much to make workplaces healthier.” But Graham cautioned: “HSE itself needs the people and resources to ensure that risks to people's health and safety from work activities are properly controlled. Yet governments have cut HSE’s funding by more than 40 per cent since 2010.” The TUC warned last year that HSE’s business strategy could mean that its good intentions amount to little as the watchdog, facing further cuts to its staffing and its budget, steps back from regulation and enforcement. Commenting on the publication of HSE’s five-year business plan in March 2016, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said: “There are no proposals for any new regulations in the areas responsible for 70 per cent of work-related sickness absence (stress and MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders]), or on anything else for that matter” (Risks 745). “The less the HSE can do, the less enforcement, the more employers will be able to get away with breaking the law, and breaking their workers.”
Workers on Crossrail, one of the UK’s biggest construction projects, have faced overcrowded conditions and physical and mental exhaustion, according to internal company documents obtained by the construction union UCATT. Emails obtained by the union in freedom of information requests include admissions from the ATC consortium’s own industrial relations manager that there was a “lack of/no welfare in tunnel” and a two-mile walk to the toilet. Two workers who complained were secretly photographed then “suffered serious victimisation” after the picture was circulated, UCATT said. An email from ATC’s industrial relations manager Nicola Brown reported: “No toilets in tunnel this morning and no communication to workforce, two miles walking to toilet. Current mood on site — workforce are exhausted, physically and mentally.” UCATT regional secretary Jerry Swain said: “These internal emails reveal only too clearly why ATC and Crossrail didn’t want UCATT on site.” ATC produced a “draconian list of unfeasible requirements” to keep UCATT reps away, said the union, with hurdles including a five-day notice period for visits and only allowing meetings after shifts had ended. “UCATT is just trying to represent its members who had lost pay, had nowhere to go to the toilet and were being put under unlawful amounts of pressure, causing exhaustion. We were doing this entirely within the law, so we don’t expect physical and verbal intimidation,” Swain said. “The government, Transport for London and the Mayor’s office need to step in and get a grip on Crossrail and the main contractor ATC, because both parties are dragging this high-profile project through the mud and mistreating their highly dedicated and skilled workforce.”
Almost 60 per cent of offshore workers fear for their health and safety and say that standards have dropped in the past six months, according to a new report from Unite. The union’s survey found 58.5 per cent of offshore employees said there had been a drop in standards in the last six months, 38.2 per cent said they had remained the same and just 3.2 per cent said they had improved. The fear of victimisation for reporting an incident was reported by 38.5 per cent and 82.5 per cent said there had been a reduction of skilled personnel, which had created issues around productivity and the ability to perform various tasks. Unite is now calling for a confidential whistleblowing helpline where offshore workers can raise their concerns – an idea that 86.9 per cent of workers support. Regional officer William Wallace said: “Every one of us in this country relies on the oil and gas produced by our offshore members. They do a difficult and dangerous job and their health and safety should be a paramount concern for all of us. But this survey shows a very worrying picture.” He added: “Unite knows that North Sea operators are facing challenges due to falling oil prices. But companies have to realise that they can’t prop up their profits – or create a sustainable industry – by simply reducing the numbers of skilled workers on the job. And companies should never, ever make cuts that threaten health and safety and put the lives of our members at risk. The lessons of Piper Alpha should never be forgotten. We will be calling on the industry to work with health and safety bodies, with the trade unions, and with government so that we can get a confidential helpline created. No worker should feel victimised for raising these issues. The consequences could be catastrophic.”
Lorry drivers are not being provided with adequate toilet facilities, their union Unite has said. The union is calling on the government to introduce a legally-binding code of practice so that hundreds of thousands of lorry drivers have adequate parking and eating facilities, decent showers and toilets when they are travelling across the UK for up to five-days-at-a-time. Unite was responding to transport minister John Hayes’ written statement to MPs on road freight, which noted: “Better lorry parking and facilities can contribute to improving the recruitment and retention of drivers.” But Unite said there was “too much talk and not enough action”. Unite national officer for road transport Adrian Jones said: “The road haulage industry contributes billions of pounds a year to the British economy, but the drivers who contribute to this wealth often have to park up in isolated lay-bys and unappealing industrial estates for the night.” He said: “Unite is pleased that the government has at long last recognised the important role road transport workers play in the economy,” but he added: “Unite believes that urgent action needs to be taken to oblige developers to include parking facilities for drivers in their plans as well as a national minimum standard for parking facilities - underpinned by a statutory code of practice - that both public and privately-owned facilities should adhere to.” The minister said a contract has been awarded for ‘an extensive national survey of lorry parking’ to be completed by the spring. However, Unite’s Adrian Jones commented: “We have heard a lot of warm words on this issue from government, but it needs to move faster to put statutory flesh on the bones of good intentions – and Unite will be campaigning strongly on this issue in 2017.”
The sharp increase in the number of violent assaults against health service employees in England – up by over a fifth in the last five years – is completely unacceptable and requires urgent government action, public service union UNISON has said. Latest figures published by NHS Protect show that in 2015/16 there were 70,555 violent incidents involving health workers, compared to the 57,830 reported five years ago - a 22 per cent increase. The figures are up 4 per cent on 2014/15, when there were 67,864 reported physical assaults. UNISON head of health Christina McAnea said: “It’s completely unacceptable that the figures for attacks on NHS staff are rising year on year. Increased pressure on the NHS and too few staff means that all too often lengthy waits in A&E lead to people taking out their frustration on those very staff who are trying to help them.” She added: “Staff shouldn’t have to work in fear of their safety when they are only trying to care for patients and save lives. The government’s squeeze on funding and the resulting shortage of nurses and ambulance staff merely makes the problem worse. Hospital trusts must take a zero tolerance approach to every incident, give staff all the support they need and encourage them to report each and every incident to the police. The government should set up an inquiry to look at ways of keeping NHS staff safe – especially those working in high risk areas such as the ambulance service and mental health.”
Government plans to clamp down on perceived fraud in whiplash claims include measures to remove access to free or affordable legal advice for 95 per cent of all personal injury claimants, civil service union PCS has warned. The union says behind the claims that car insurance premiums will be reduced due to restricting bogus whiplash claims, is a “sinister attempt to impose a baseless 500 per cent increase to the small claims limit for all personal injury claims, whether they occur on the road, in the workplace, or anywhere else” (Risks 780). The union said the changes “will serve to line the pockets of already highly profitable insurers and their grossly overpaid chief executives, while costing the taxpayer £135m every year. Direct Line’s chief executive Paul Geddes received £4.82m in 2015 and Aviva’s chief executive Mark Wilson received £5.67m, the union notes. Meanwhile almost one million people a year will lose their right to affordable, independent legal advice. According to PCS: “There is no justification given for workplace accident and disease claims and employer liability cases to come under the scope of these changes.” The union added: “Solicitors point out that injury at work claims in court are the only legal enforcement of health and safety at work legislation in almost all employment injury cases. They warn that these proposals would end that means of enforcement.”
A worker who suffered a deep laceration injury and nerve damage to his right hand has secured £75,000 in damages in a Unite-backed claim. Tool prep technician Marc Jobes was talking to a colleague in the tool room at Kobusch UK Ltd’s food packaging factory near Stanley, County Durham, when he lost his balance and put his hand on a work bench to steady himself. A set of blades had not been put away after use and, as he steadied himself, his right hand landed on a blade, cutting into him and damaging nerves in his hand. The 27-year-old was treated by first aid staff before being taken to hospital where he had surgery. Four years later, he continues to suffer from numbness and cramp in his hand. The Unite member said: “In my line of work I have to use my hands all the time. Frustratingly, I have had pain in my right hand since the accident and I’ve been warned by doctors that my condition might get worse, which does make me very worried about whether I’ll be able to continue working in the future.” Unite regional secretary Karen Reay said: “Kobusch failed to ensure that its staff followed basic health and safety protocols, such as putting away dangerous equipment after use, leaving employees vulnerable. Marc suffered a preventable injury that will have a long term impact on his life. As a member of Unite the union, Marc received expert legal support which meant he got the maximum compensation and kept 100 per cent of that with no deductions.”
Teaching staff are facing stress-inducing pressures as budgets and staffing levels fall, Scottish union EIS has said. The union, which in the last year secured over £600,000 in compensation settlements for members harmed by their jobs, said the way to reduce this compensation bill was to make work safer and healthier. EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “While the EIS will always stand up for its members, and will pursue appropriate compensation for injuries suffered at work, our desire is to eventually report a zero figure for compensation in the future due to the elimination of these types of work related injuries.” He added: “This year’s figure of over £600,000 in compensation for teachers and lecturers injured at work demonstrates that there is still a long way to go towards the aim of eliminating workplace injuries in our schools, colleges and universities.” The union leader said EIS had “observed an alarming rise in the number of cases of work-related stress illness and injury claims over the past few years. Factors such as budget cuts, and the declining number of teaching and support staff have had a significant impact on the workload demands placed on teachers and lecturers. Yet those in the charge of the management of the education system simply demand output more from less resource.”
Unite has joined industry representatives, academics and safety and health professionals signing up to a voluntary 12-month plan of action to tackle the risks from inhaling silica dust at work. Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is encountered in a wide range of jobs from construction, to mining, ceramics, stone masonry, quarrying, brickmaking and fracking. Exposures can cause the lung-scarring disease silicosis, lung cancer and other chronic health problems (Risks 664). Discussions convened by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) last year resulted in the new pact. Representatives from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, the Office of Road and Rail (ORR), Crossrail Ltd, the Mineral Products Association and Unite are among those to have joined IOSH in signing the commitment. Signatories have agreed to work together to reduce exposure to RCS through effective monitoring and management of dust. They also say they will increase awareness and understanding of the potential health risks associated with exposure to RCS in order to change attitudes and behaviours and share good practice on the management of RCS across industry sectors. In the commitment, the organisations state that it is “an agreed plan of action that will pool the knowledge and resources of some of the leading organisations involved in managing the risks of RCS.” According to research by Imperial College London, around 800 people in Britain a year die from lung cancer caused by RCS exposure at work, with 900 new cases being diagnosed annually. In the commitment, Unite national safety officer Bud Hudspith notes: “Silica dust kills thousands of workers every year – Unite is committed to improving controls on silica and challenging employers and regulators at every level to achieve this. Where relevant, we expect to see explicit commitments in tender documents on the control of silica dust.” The voluntary IOSH-backed pact falls short of a key union demand for a tighter silica exposure standard, backed up by rigorous enforcement (Risks 744).
A Kent-based gangmaster couple have agreed to a landmark settlement worth more than £1m in compensation and legal costs for a group of migrants who were trafficked to work on farms producing eggs for high street brands. The deal reached with six Lithuanian chicken catchers is the first settlement of a claim against a British company in relation to modern slavery, and came after the group became frustrated at the lack of a criminal prosecution (Risks 740). Ten other claimants are now expected to bring similar cases against DJ Houghton Chicken Catching Services, of which Darrell Houghton and his wife, Jacqueline Judge, are the sole directors. The couple agreed to the compensation deal after a high court ruling last year found that they had failed to pay the national minimum wage, had made unlawful deductions from wages and had failed to provide adequate facilities to wash, rest, eat and drink (Risks 755). The claimants told the court that they had been threatened and assaulted by Lithuanian supervisors who intimidated them with fighting dogs, and that they were housed in appalling conditions. They said they were forced to work back-to-back eight-hour shifts for days at a time and were denied sleep and toilet breaks, forcing them to urinate in bottles and defecate in carrier bags in minibuses as they travelled between jobs on poultry farms around the UK. The Lithuanians were sent to work in supply chains producing premium free range eggs for McDonald’s, Tesco, Asda, M&S and the Sainsbury’s Woodland brand. The farm sheds they cleared of chickens also produced eggs sold under the Freedom Food brand. The migrant workers were trafficked to the UK from Lithuania by a man the Houghtons admitted paying to find workers for their chicken catching business. The legal action was led by solicitors Leigh Day. Shanta Martin, a Leigh Day partner, said the award should act as a deterrent to others who planned to exploit migrant workers. “The large bill faced by the defendants is also a salutary lesson to other who might seek to profit from modern slavery,” she said.
Welders exposed to airborne manganese at levels below official occupational safety limits exhibit neurological problems similar to Parkinson’s disease, a study has warned. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis found the more they are exposed to manganese-containing welding fumes, the faster the workers’ signs and symptoms worsen. “We found that chronic exposure to manganese-containing welding fumes is associated with progressive neurological symptoms such as slow movement and difficulty speaking,” said Brad A Racette, a professor of neurology and the study’s senior author. “The more exposure you have to welding fumes, the more quickly those symptoms progress over time.” Commenting on the findings, published online in the journal Neurology, he said: “This is the first study that shows clinically relevant health effects that are occurring at estimated exposures that are an order of magnitude lower than the OSHA limit.” The most concerning aspect of the study, Racette said, is that the neurological signs showed up in people with an estimated exposure of only 0.14mg of manganese per cubic metre of air, a fraction the US exposure limit. The current UK exposure limit is 0.5mg per cubic metre, over three times the level where symptoms were observed. Manganese has been the subject of a concerted industry push to create ‘doubt’ about evidence of its health effects on workers. Supposedly ‘independent’ scientific consultants have been paid millions by the industry to challenge compensation claims submitted by workers suffering chronic manganese-related diseases (Risks 383).
Ÿ American Association of Neurology news release. Washington University in St. Louis news release. Racette BA, Nielsen SS, Criswell SR, Sheppard L, Seixas N, Warden MN, Checkoway H. Dose-dependent progression of parkinsonism in manganese-exposed welders, Neurology, published online ahead of print 28 December 2016.
Energy giant ConocoPhillips (UK) Ltd has failed in its bid to reduce the level of fine handed down after multiple gas releases at an offshore facility in the North Sea. ConocoPhillips, a UK subsidiary of US Energy Corporation, explores for oil and natural gas and is the largest company of its kind in the world. Starting at the end of November 2012, there were three gas release incidents during maintenance work on the Lincolnshire Offshore Gas Gathering System (LOGGS) installation operated and part-owned by the company (Risks 738). Some gas entered the turbine hall at a dangerous proximity to the 66 people working on the platform at the time. The company pleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches and was fined £3m in February 2016. At the appeal hearing, held in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Lord Justice Treacy dismissed the appeal made by ConocoPhillips (UK) Ltd. He told that court the company had fallen short of appropriate standards and the case was one of high culpability. Lord Justice Treacy said: “The risk involved was foreseeable and significant. If the gas had ignited the risk to personnel of death or serious injury was extremely high. At least seven personnel had been put at extreme risk with a further five at particularly high risk. However, all 66 occupants of the platform had been put at significant risk.” He added: “The applicant fell markedly short of a reasonably practicable standard for a safe system of work. There had been multiple failures and omissions in the permit to work system and these failures had extended over some months.”
British Airways plc has been fined for failing to protect its workers from exposure to vibration. Paisley Sheriff Court heard how employees working within the composite workshop at the firm’s Glasgow base used hand held power tools to carry out repairs on components. This exposed them to the risk of hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), a condition that can cause potentially permanent symptoms such as tingling, pins and needles, numbness and pain in the hands. The condition can affect sleep and cause difficulties in gripping and handing things, particularly small items such as screws, and activities like doing up buttons, writing and driving. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) identified the company’s failure to make a suitable and sufficient risk assessment to control the effect of exposure of workers to the vibrations from hand held tools. British Airways plc pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations (2005) and was fined £6,500.
The organiser of a daredevil stunt show in which a novice ‘human cannonball’ died has been given a 12-month community order. Scott May and the company, Stunts UK Ltd, admitted failing to ensure the safety of workers at the 2011 event in which Matthew Cranch died. The 24-year-old was killed when a safety net collapsed during a show in Kent. May, 40, had pleaded guilty at Maidstone Magistrates' Court. Mr Cranch, who had joined the show about four weeks before his death, suffered multiple injuries when the safety net, designed to catch him after he was fired into the air, failed. The prosecution, brought by Maidstone Borough Council, said a mechanism which triggered the release of the net had not been set properly and was not necessary for the stunt. Mark Watson, prosecuting, told Maidstone Crown Court this “introduced a wholly unacceptable level of risk in relation to this stunt which was unnecessary.” May's community order includes 150 hours of unpaid work, and the company, of which May was a director, was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay £80,000 costs.
In a major victory for Canada’s trade union movement, the country’s federal government has announced a ban on the import, export, manufacture and use of asbestos. While Canada banned asbestos mining in 2012, imports of asbestos-containing products have been increasing over the past five years, and some asbestos-containing products have also been exported from Canada. Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the global union confederation ITUC, said “we congratulate the Canadian trade union movement for this success, and the government’s move will increase pressure on other countries which still have not implemented a ban. Tens of millions of people are exposed to asbestos, and all governments need to act as Canada now has to stem the appalling toll of death and disease.” Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), said: “Canada’s unions, along with survivors and health advocates, have been working hard for this ban for decades. We know this will strengthen occupational health and safety protections for workers and make workplaces and public spaces safer for everyone”. CLC is continuing to press the government for a national registry of people affected by asbestos-related diseases, the implementation of a comprehensive health response covering early detection and treatment as well as measures to protect workers in situations where asbestos is present such as building renovations. The CLC has also called for the government to support demands at the United Nations that chrysotile asbestos be added to the list of especially hazardous materials regulated under the Rotterdam Convention.
French companies are now required to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from technology. The new law came into force at the start of the year, and obliges organisations with more than 50 workers to start negotiations to define the rights of employees to ignore their smartphones. Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for health effects ranging from burnout to sleeplessness. The measure is intended to tackle the so-called “always-on” work culture that has led to a surge in usually unpaid overtime – while also giving employees flexibility to work outside the office. The measure was introduced by labour minister Myriam El Khomri, who commissioned a report that warned about the health impact of the “info-obesity” which afflicts many workplaces. Trade unions had long demanded action to curb work spilling out of the office. In 2014, a legally binding agreement reached by employers’ federations and unions meant workers in the technology and consultancy sectors no longer had to answer work emails or phone calls outside work hours. This deal obliged staff to disconnect from work calls and emails after working hours (Risks 651).
Tadashi Ishii, the president and chief executive of the advertising agency Dentsu, is to resign in the wake of an employee suicide. The move came several weeks after a labour standards inspection office ruled that 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi killed herself as a result of the pressures she faced working for Dentsu, one of the world’s largest advertising firms (Risks 772). The resulting scandal has damaged Dentsu’s reputation and brought scrutiny from labour standards authorities and prosecutors. “We are taking this seriously,” the Dentsu president, Tadashi Ishii, said at a news conference. “I offer my heartfelt apology.” He said he would tender his resignation to Dentsu’s board in January but would remain in his post until March to give the company time to choose a replacement. Dentsu is known as a particularly demanding employer. A president in the 1950s urged its employees to work single-mindedly to complete tasks and satisfy clients, “even if it kills you.” The company continued to print the exhortation in training materials until after Matsuri Takahashi’s death, when it had it removed, according to multiple Japanese news reports. The ministry of health, labour and welfare has referred the case to prosecutors as a potential violation of employment laws. A separate criminal investigation is not yet complete, and no charges have been filed. Referring to Matsuri Takahashi’s suicide, Dentsu deputy president, Shoichi Nakamoto, acknowledged at the news conference that “there was power harassment by supervisors.” He added: “Work was sometimes assigned inappropriately… with emails early in the morning and the middle of the night.”
Donald Trump’s pick for the new US secretary of labor is a notorious opponent of protective employment and safety rights. Andrew Puzder, whose mandate will cover the federal safety regulator OSHA, is chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants, parent company of fast-food chains Hardee's and Carl's Jr. He is on record saying workers are “overprotected”, with the serial breaker of overtime laws, noting: “Have you ever been to a fast food restaurant and the employees are sitting and you're wondering, 'Why are they sitting?' They are on what is called a mandatory break.” Puzder’s track record has left unions and safety campaigners fearing his choices to head OSHA, replacing the well-regarded David Michaels and Jordan Barab, could undo hard-won safety measures introduced under the Obama administration. A tighter silica standard, more stringent reporting rules and better fall protection were all opposed by business lobbyists, and could be early targets. They are also concerned a pending rule to update the 40-year old beryllium standard (Risks 559), under discussion for years, could be dropped. For some, workplace exposures might no longer be a worry. According to national union federation AFL-CIO, Puzder is an advocate of replacing human workers with machines, because, as the burger magnate puts it, machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”
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