|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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Management training for MPs would help eradicate the widespread stress and bullying reported by their parliamentary staff, the union Unite has said. A survey by Unite, which has about 500 members in its parliamentary staff branch, revealed that almost 60 per cent of those replying felt stressed, with about the same proportion reporting they work more than their contracted hours ‘weekly or all the time’. About 20 per cent had suffered bullying at work. Only three per cent of respondents said they used the staff helpline. Unite said an underlying problem is that many MPs have no experience of managing their own employees before they are elected to the House of Commons. Roisin McDermott, secretary of Unite’s parliamentary staff branch, said: “What we are dealing with is really just the tip of the iceberg which makes the strong case for a professional programme of management training. Ideally, such a programme would include all 650 MPs, however busy they may be with their respective duties.” She added: “While getting to grips with parliament, most MPs do not have previous experience of having their own employees. This should be taken into account and proper training needs to be put in place to show MPs how to be a good employer, manage a team and provide their staff with the right support in an often highly-pressurised working environment.”
A health and safety dispute at London’s Woolwich Ferry has escalated after an engineer collapsed from inhaling engine fumes. Unite said on Saturday 28 January an ambulance was called to the ferry after the union member collapsed in the engine room of one of the boats, requiring hospital treatment. Unite is currently embroiled in an industrial dispute on behalf of its 36 members working for Briggs Marine Contractors Ltd, the company that runs the ferry service on behalf of Transport for London (TfL). The union has embarked on a series of strike days running into the spring. It says the company has failed to abide by agreements or address health and safety concerns, and a culture of bullying and sexual harassment. Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said: “What happened at the weekend just underlines what Unite has been saying for some time – that there are serious health and safety concerns relating to the ferry which carries 3,500 vehicles a day as well as foot passengers.” He said after last weekend’s worker collapse an “email was sent to workers by the employer which I saw on Friday, instructing workers to continue working in the engine room, but on a limited basis. The employer should instead have made clear that nobody should be in the engine room until the problem was fixed.” The union officer added: “We have stated publicly that, as well as the sexual harassment issue of one of our female members, we have ongoing concerns about health and safety. The escaping fumes from the engine room could have also put passengers at risk.” The union has also raised concerns that firefighting equipment is insufficient and that workers have discovered the dangerous E.coli bacteria in one of the boat’s water tanks.
Serious incidents this week on Britain’s railways demonstrate the role that train guards play is essential for the protection of the travelling public, RMT has told industry’s regulator. A letter from the rail union to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) warns that the incidents on the Bridlington to Sheffield and Littleborough to Smithy Bridge routes both required crucial interventions by the guard, whose role rail operator GTR Southern is bent on undermining (Risks 783). In the first incident at Brough East a train overshot a red signal in foggy conditions. The driver was severely distressed so, according to RMT, the guard was “left in charge of the train and was responsible for placing detonator protection for the arrival of the assisting train.” In a second incident, an engine fire resulted in the guard escorting passengers to safety along the track to Smithy Bridge. In the letter to the chief inspector of railways, Ian Prosser, RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “It is unclear to me, and we have been unable to gain access to any documented evidence, of the assessment process that GTR Southern undertook of how they would mitigate the risks of having 50 per cent less safety critical staff on trains for those occasions when operational incidents such as these do occur.” The letter added: “Can you confirm whether ORR have audited all risk assessments of the operational changes that have been made by Southern/GTR. Unless you can demonstrate that there was an adequate assessment of the changes of moving from guards to OBS [onboard supervisors] RMT will continue to assert that GTR/Southern are playing Russian roulette with passengers’ lives.”
RMT has welcomed an offer from rail operator Arriva Northern to work out an agreement with the union on train dispatch methods and staff safety competencies. It said the union “particularly welcomes the fact that the company says it is prepared to offer a guarantee of a second person in addition to the driver on their trains.” RMT said it would now arrange an urgent meeting to agree a “comprehensive proposal.” RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT welcomes the opportunity to engage in positive talks with Arriva Northern over the best method for train dispatch and staff safety competencies and will be seeking a meeting with the company at the earliest opportunity. Ultimately our aim will be to receive a guarantee that there will be a second safety critical member of staff on board their trains.”
Teachers and school staff in Wales have been the victims of more than 1,500 physical and verbal attacks by pupils every year, new figures have shown. Teaching union NUT Cymru had responses from 17 of Wales' 22 local authorities to freedom of I nformation (FOI) requests. The number of assaults average eight per school day in Wales, which the union said was “a great concern.” It said its findings needed to be considered by schools, councils and the Welsh government. NUT Cymru secretary David Evans said: “Clearly any incidents of physical or verbal assault by pupils towards teachers or any members of the school staff are unacceptable. The details of the FOI do not cover the severity of these assaults but of course we can only assume that they were notable enough to warrant school staff to feel the need to report them.” He also questioned how different local authorities recorded the incidents. “What these figures also show is that how different local authorities report these incidents varies widely. Some of the numbers are noticeable different when they shouldn’t be and so it does beg the question why there isn’t a more standard approach to monitoring which would help in terms of putting in place policies and training to reduce the impact it may have,” he said.
Government plans to address discrimination against pregnant women at work don’t go far enough, the TUC has said. The union body was commenting on the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy response to an August 2016 report from the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee on pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace. Business minister Margot James said: “While most businesses abide by the law, some do not. There should be zero tolerance of discrimination against pregnant women, or women who have just given birth, that’s why today we are committing to making sure new and expectant mothers have sufficient protections from redundancy.” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady commented: “We are pleased the government has finally published its plans for tackling pregnancy discrimination. However, ministers are still not confronting the elephant in the room – the impact of employment tribunal fees. Bad bosses will continue to get away with discriminating against new mums as long as it costs up to £1,200 to take a pregnancy discrimination claim.” The original Women and Equalities Committee report made significant recommendations on improving health and safety. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said it was “pretty scandalous” that the government had rejected the committee’s call for an improved role for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) “in ensuring compliance and research into how to encourage greater enforcement. They say that there is already suitable guidance and no need for more research. This is nonsense and ignores the evidence.”
Staff shortages in the NHS have shot up by 6,000 in 18 months, reflecting staff dissatisfaction with their working conditions, a union has said. The Department for Health’s information service NHS Digital reported the number of unfilled posts increased by a quarter from 23,427 in February 2015 to 29,309 in September 2016 — the latest month for which figures are available. General union GMB said the shortage is caused by stress, increasing workloads and low pay. GMB national secretary for public services Rehana Azam said: “Our members are desperately trying to do the job they love — saving lives. But they face an ever increasing workload, targets that are impossible to meet with the resources they are given and trusts that seem more interested their own executives than those in the field. Add to that the fact their public sector wages have not risen in line with inflation — it’s no wonder they are leaving in their thousands.”
At least 140 people have been taken to hospital after incidents at JD Sports’ controversial warehouse in Rochdale in the last four years. A freedom of information request obtained by the Guardian shows that ambulances have been dispatched to the site 166 times in the last four years, with 140 of these incidents leading to someone being transported to hospital. The revelation comes after an undercover investigation by Channel 4 News found workers complaining the warehouse was “worse than a prison”. Lynne Brosnan, a local Labour councillor, said she was “not happy” with the new figures. About 1,500 people, including hundreds of agency staff, work at the site. This means that the equivalent of almost one in 10 workers have been taken from the warehouse to hospital in the last four years. The figures show that there were 18 times in 2013 when an ambulance transported someone from the site to hospital and then 52 in 2014, 34 in 2015 and 36 in 2016. The number of ambulances dispatched was 21 in 2013, 60 in 2014, 44 in 2015, and 41 in 2016. Brosnan said: “This is not what we were promised when Kingsway [the site of the warehouse] started. There is a way of treating employees and it is not like third-class citizens.” The figures reflect a similar picture at Sports Direct’s warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire. Ambulances were called there 76 times between January 2013 and December 2014 according to a freedom of information request. A spokesperson for JD Sports said: “There are up to 1,500 employees on site daily and the number of incidents where an ambulance is called in a year is, therefore, proportionally very low. It must also be emphasised that not all ambulance call-outs will be related to workplace incidents, and that many may relate to an employee falling ill or something unrelated to the work environment, therefore, call-outs related to incidents at work are only a proportion of the numbers quoted.”
Midlands-based firm Enviro-Safe Limited have been fined for failing to meet the standards required when removing asbestos. Birmingham Magistrates Court heard how the company failed to protect its employees from the spread of asbestos fibres during the removal work at separate projects. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that Enviro-Safe Limited failed to adequately assess the risk involved with the removal of asbestos material and as a result exposed its employees and others to asbestos. This risk would have been prevented by the use of enclosures. HSE inspector Amy Kalay said: “Exposure to asbestos fibres is extremely dangerous to people’s health and the company had a total disregard for this when they failed to prevent the risk to their employees.” Birmingham-based Enviro-Safe Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and was fined £16,000 and ordered to pay costs of £7731.13.
A construction firm has been fined for criminal safety breaches after workers were exposed to carbon monoxide and other hazardous substances. Hull Magistrates Court heard how in October 2015 the Westlands Construction Ltd workers were using a petrol powered saw to cut out an existing concrete floor at a fish factory in Hull. In order to protect the food factory surfaces from dust they constructed a sealed enclosure from timber and polythene. The workers working over a weekend inside the enclosure, which was not ventilated. There was a build-up of carbon monoxide, which lead to one worker being hospitalised. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company had not planned the work or thought through the dangers an unventilated tent would cause. The company should have used a system of dust suppression and local exhaust ventilation (LEV) together with appropriate respiratory protective equipment to prevent or reduce exposure to harmful dust. Westlands Construction Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £16,000 with £847.30 costs. HSE inspector Jennifer Elsegood commented: “Petrol driven saws should not be used in a confined space because of the risk of carbon monoxide exposure. Carbon monoxide is extremely dangerous, it has no smell and workers can be overcome by the fumes before they realise they have been affected – making it extremely dangerous. This is why it is known as the silent killer.”
A university has been fined after two students fell seriously ill following a botched laboratory experiment. Students at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle were learning about the effects of caffeine as part of a sports experiment. Newcastle Crown Court heard how part of the course included a practical exercise where volunteer students would take quantities of caffeine to demonstrate the impact. Two of the volunteer students drank a solution with 100 times the amount that should have been taken as part of the experiment. After consuming the equivalent of 300 cups of coffee, they immediately suffered from dizziness, blurred vision, vomiting, shaking and rapid heartbeat. They were rushed to hospital where their condition was considered life threatening. Dialysis was required to rid their bodies of the excessive levels of caffeine. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the protocols set out for the experiment were not followed. The instructions were to use 200mg tablets but as they were not available the students were provided with caffeine in a powered form. This created a situation where the students miscalculated the amount of powder to use and overdosed the two volunteers. The University of Northumbria pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £400,000 and ordered to pay costs of £26,468.22. HSE inspector Cain Mitchell said: “The university completely failed to control the risks during these experiments and two young students were made seriously ill which resulted in intensive care treatment for a number of nights. In other reported cases people have died after taking doses which were less than those administered to these two students.”
Three companies from Essex have been fined after a worker was lucky to survive a fall through a fragile roof he was replacing. Chelmsford Crown Court heard how Rafal Myslim was standing on the fragile roof at Dengie Crops Ltd in Asheldem, when the asbestos sheeting gave way and he fell 7.5 metres onto a concrete floor, hitting a number of pipes on the way down. There was no safety netting or other protective equipment to prevent him from falling. He suffered a hematoma on the brain. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found three companies at fault for the fall. Dengie Crops Ltd contracted agricultural machinery supplier Ernest Doe & Sons Ltd to help the company replace their roof. Ernest Doe & Sons Ltd did not have the appropriate experience and subcontracted the work to Balsham (Buildings) Ltd. Balsham then subcontracted the actual replacement of the roof to Strong Clad Ltd. None of the parties involved put in place safety measures for the 40 per cent of the roof that did not have netting below. They relied too heavily on the verbal briefings to workers reminding them of where the netting was, rather than putting in place effective safety measures for the whole roof. Ernest Doe & sons Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £360,000 and ordered to pay costs of £10,000. Balsham (Buildings) Ltd pleaded guilty and was fined £45,000 with £7,000 costs. Strong Clad Ltd also pleaded guilty and was fined £7,000 with £3,000 costs. HSE inspector Adam Hills said: “Work at height requires adequate planning, organisation and communication between all parties. This incident was entirely preventable and Mr Myslim is lucky to be alive.”
Unions in British Columbia have welcomed the backing of the Canadian province’s top court for a law protecting asbestos removal workers. The BC Insulators Union and the BC Federation of Labour said they were ‘extremely relieved’ the BC Court of Appeal had unanimously overturned a February 2016 BC Supreme Court ruling that laws protecting asbestos removal workers from the deadly substance were too “voluminous and complex” to enforce by safety regulator WorkSafeBC. The long running legal saga involved the owners of two asbestos removal companies, Seattle Environmental and Skylite Building Maintenance, both with a long record of asbestos safety law violations. BC Insulators Union business manager Lee Loftus said: “If the original BC Supreme Court decision that WorkSafeBC laws designed to protect workers and the public from this deadly substance had not been overturned, the number of people put at risk would have been disastrous.” He added: “In 2015, asbestos killed 42 workers in BC and likely more in 2016 – this is the most dangerous product workers can handle – and safety is essential.” BC Federation of Labour president Irene Lanzinger echoed Loftus’ concerns. “Allowed to stand, the earlier ruling would have created an open season on worker health and safety. So we are comforted that the Court of Appeal’s reinforced employers’ responsibility to abide by health and safety laws,” she said.
The Russian mafia is the force behind a powerful international pro-asbestos lobby, a Senate inquiry in Brisbane, Australia, has heard. A federal Senate committee is investigating how potentially lethal building products, some including banned asbestos, are making their way into the country. Asbestos was found in several new buildings last year, including in metal skirting on the construction site of the Queensland government's new executive building. Last July, fragments of asbestos were also found in roof panels at the new Perth Children's Hospital. Brad Parker from the construction union CFMEU told the inquiry the lobby was one of the big challenges for the Oceania region. “It's commonly known within the anti-asbestos movement internationally that the pro-asbestos lobby is the Russian mafia,” he said. “They work in a way where they intimidate, they're engaged in corrupt activity. There's been rumours circulating, certainly, of money crossing hands with international politicians.” Committee member senator Nick Xenophon said: “Do you have any personal experiences with this? This is quite an allegation you're making.” He added: “The fact that there are people in this world who are actually actively campaigning for asbestos to continue to be used in products that continue to be sold beggars belief. To say that organised criminal elements could be involved in the marketing of asbestos around the world and they have actively lobbied against any further controls, is deeply concerning. These are matters that ought to be referred to the Australian Federal Police. They are matters that ought to be referred to the highest levels of government.” CFMEU’s Brad Parker said he saw the Russian mafia in action while attending an anti-asbestos conference in Vienna in 2014. “They did come up and elbow me in the back and try and intimidate me,” he said. “It is very serious that this is how they operate and Australia needs to be made aware that these are the people we're dealing with and we need to confront them and we do do great work on the ground.”
Industry lobbyists from across Europe are waging a well-resourced campaign to block measures to protect workers from substances that can cause cancer and other serious health effects. The campaign has already stalled progress for a decade, with an unambitious and scaled back European Commission proposal for revising the EU Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive only emerging in May 2016. The industry is now lobbying hard to prevent improvements to the directive, proposed in a paper under consideration by the European Parliament’s Employment Committee. Nine of the biggest industry lobby groups in Brussels sent a joint letter in January to members of the committee, urging the lawmakers to drop amendments that would promote stricter exposure limits, better monitoring of employees’ health, or the addition of other dangerous substances to the regulation. The letter notes the industry groups “have strong concerns that proposing lower limit values for a number of substances and considerably extending the scope of the directive, will only lead to drawn-out and difficult discussions with the Council and Commission. This will not be good for worker protection, nor for the credibility of the EU and its decision-making process.” The committee is scheduled to vote on the proposed changes on 28 February 2017.
Ÿ TUC Touchstone blog. Joint industry letter to members of the Parliament’s employment committee, January 2017. European Parliament discussions on the draft directive.
The woman chosen by president Donald Trump and now confirmed as the US ambassador to the United Nations has launched a scathing attack on the international body which could embolden an industry lobby angry at the UN’s role in assessing chemical cancer risks. During her confirmation hearing, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said: “When we look at the United Nations, we see a chequered history… any honest assessment finds an institution that is often at odds with the American national interest and American taxpayers,” she said. Haley was signalling that international agencies will have to answer to an ‘America First’ administration hostile to global policymakers. One already in the crosshairs is the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is under the purview of the UN’s World Health Organisation. After industry criticism of recent cancer assessments by the agency, notably on the pesticide glyphosate (Risks 776), and calls spearheaded by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) for the US to cut funds to IARC, Republican lawmakers rallied to the industry call. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Jason Chaffetz said IARC has a “record of controversy, retractions, and inconsistencies” and asked why the National Institutes of Health has spent $40 million since 1992 to fund it. Chaffetz expressed concern that IARC “influences American policymaking, even though IARC avoids having to meet the strict scientific standards and government scrutiny afforded to science advisory committees in America.” This prolonged attack has however been refuted by many of the world’s top research scientists, including leading US cancer epidemiologists. Their June 2015 paper in Environmental Health Perspectives, a respected peer-reviewed journal supported by the US government’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), noted: “Debate and criticism facilitate self-correction and a check on the validity in science. We are concerned, however, that the criticisms expressed by a vocal minority regarding the evaluations of a few agents may promote the denigration of a process that has served the public and public health well for many decades for reasons that are not supported by data.” The paper concludes “as a group of international scientists, we have looked carefully at the recent charges of flaws and bias in the hazard evaluations by IARC Working Groups, and we have concluded that the recent criticisms are unfair and unconstructive.”
Ÿ American Chemistry Council news release. Work Cancer Hazards blog. The Hill. CNN News.
The Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented workers living in the US could increase the already sky-high fatality rates among Latino workers, safety advocates have warned. They say Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show the number of Latino workplace deaths spiked during the Obama presidency, with more Latino workers dying in 2015 than in any year since 2007. The increase in deaths can be attributed to Latino workers’ fear of deportations and other consequences of speaking up about unsafe working conditions, according to Jessica Martinez, the co-executive director at the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Because Obama deported record numbers of undocumented workers, workplace deaths rose too. Martinez said her organisation expects the problem to get worse under Trump. “When you combine the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump administration with the likelihood of decreased enforcement, it’s a very scary situation,” said Martinez. “Our fear is that fatalities will rise because of fear and also because of a lack of employer compliance.” Sam Robele of the National Guestworker Alliance, an advocacy group for foreign workers who obtain temporary visas to work in the United States says that these workers are also now more at risk. “Whenever there is an increase in the criminalisation of undocumented workers, it puts more pressure on workers to stay in the job that they are in, to not complain, to look the other way when there are hazards,” Robele said. He said making a stand over work safety and as result “potentially being deported and separated from your children, most people aren’t gonna risk that.”
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/
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