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The UK is turning a blind eye to a major workplace killer, work-related suicide, the TUC has warned. The union body points to a series of reports this week highlighting how work factors can put large sections of the workforce at a greatly increased suicide risk, but there the problem is off the radar of the safety regulator. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson says a Hazards magazine report points out all deaths “with the exception of suicides” must be reported under the RIDDOR reporting regulations. This exclusion means that information on the occupational nature of suicide has been ignored, with cases seen as a personal tragedy that is the result of mental health problems rather than something which can be connected to work. “This connection with work is highlighted in new research from the government Office of National Statistics which shows that one of the most significant factors in determining suicide risk is the job someone does,” Robertson notes. Writing in the TUC’s Stronger Union blog, he states the figures destroy the ‘myth’ that most suicides being are high powered professionals. “Managers, directors and senior officials – the highest paid occupation group – had the lowest risk of suicide. Among corporate managers and directors the risk of suicide was more than 70 per cent lower for both men and women. Low skilled male labourers, particularly those working in construction roles, had a three times higher risk of suicide than the national average.” The TUC safety specialist adds: “For women, one of the highest risks of suicide was amongst nurses.” He said this reinforces the conclusions of ‘Dying from inequality’, a new report from the Samaritans. This “shows that occupation and class are major factors in suicide risk but also points out that job insecurity, zero hours contracts and workplace downsizing are major factors,” Robertson writes, adding it is important employers address work-related causes of suicide. The Hazards magazine report highlights a broad-range of factors that can be behind work-related suicides, including stress, harrowing or traumatic work experiences, oppressive management practices, job insecurity, overwork, toxic chemical exposures and occupational injuries, disability and diseases.
Ÿ TUC Stronger Unions blog. TUC guidebook on mental health in the workplace (registration required). Sarah Waters. Suicidal work: Work-related suicides go uncounted and unaccounted for in the UK, Hazards magazine, number 137, 2017. Hazards quick guide to work-related factors linked to suicide. Suicide by Occupation 2011-2015, Office for National Statistics, March 2017. Dying from inequality, Samaritans, March 2017. Reducing the risk of suicide: A toolkit for employers, Samaritans/Business in the Community, March 2017. Crisis management in the event of a suicide: A postvention toolkit for employers, Samaritans/Business in the Community, March 2017.
The construction industry must take radical action to reduce the high number of suicides among its workforce, the union Unite has said. Its call came after a new analysis by the Office for National Statistics found that the risk of suicide among low skilled male labourers, particularly those working in construction, was three times higher than the male national average. For males working in skilled trades the highest rate of suicide was among building finishing trades, especially plasters and painters and decorators who had more than double the rate of suicide. The figures, which cover people in England aged between 20 and 64, showed there were 1,419 suicides by those working in skilled construction and building trades from 2011 to 2015. Of these, 1,409 were men and 10 were women. Factors that can put people at risk of suicide include low pay, low job security and wider socio-economic characteristics. Unite says all of these are potentially major factors in construction. Unite acting general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “These figures are truly disturbing and demonstrate that sadly the majority of construction employers are failing in their duty of care to their workforce. This is the latest evidence that the industry’s hire and fire culture is fundamentally unhealthy and is a major factor in these terrible and needless tragedies. Until the industry re-organises its approach to its workforce then it is not going to tackle the underlying causes of suicide in construction.” She added: “Unite is fully prepared to work with any employer large or small who is prepared to do the right thing and tackle mental health issues and the risk of suicide in construction. In the short term we need to be raising awareness of the suicide risk in construction and explaining where workers can receive confidential support. We also need to be ensuring that far higher numbers of workers, including union safety reps, are trained in mental health first aid”.
A new breakdown of suicide rates by occupation reveals those working in caring and teaching jobs are among those at a higher risk than the general public, unions have said. GMB said the figures reveal a suicide risk for shopfloor process plant workers over five times the national average for women and nearly four times this rate for men, with a similar rate in construction. But greatly elevated rates were also observed in care workers and home carers, at nearly twice the expected rate in men and 70 per cent higher in women. Rehana Azam, GMB’s national secretary for public services, said: “We know that care workers endure incredibly stressful conditions for very low rates of pay. It’s time for the UK to care about its care workers.” She added: “The care sector has been underfunded, fragmented and poorly regulated for too long: This must now change for the sake of its staff and everyone who relies on social care.” Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary for policy at the teaching union ATL, said: “It is shocking to see that female primary teachers have a suicide risk that is 42 per cent above the average.” She added: “The government and its agencies need to recognise their responsibility for the increase in workplace stress that arises when policies are introduced that force teachers to jump through hoops, with too little time to understand and implement changes, and too much pressure to get it right first time.”
Employers should concentrate on removing causes of stress at work rather than blaming their staff for getting stress out, the TUC has said. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson was commenting after an HSE stress summit in London last week. “The conference went well and the main thrust of the conference was on the importance of prevention, using the risk prevention and risk management approach that is contained in the HSE stress management standards,” he said. “This is the approach that unions all support and the TUC and HSE have just produced advice for union representatives on how to use them” (Risks 785). But the union safety specialist was less impressed by a string of speakers at the event promoting measures to make staff more ‘resilient’ to work stress (Risks 723). “This is of course nonsense. If people are getting stressed you remove the causes of stress. This is the approach that is used for every other workplace hazard – after all we don’t try to change workers to make them more resilient to dangerous chemicals, so why on earth should we do it with stress?”. It was time for a renewed focus on prevention and enforcement, Robertson said. “The HSE stress summit is a great start but if it is going to really be effective, it needs to be followed up by strong simple regulations that make it clear what employers need to do and a campaign of enforcement against those employers who knowingly subject their workforce to harmful workplace stress.”
Ÿ TUC Stronger Unions blog and stress webpages. HSE stress webpages.
Tube union RMT has reacted with fury after London Underground (LU) upheld the ‘disgraceful’ sacking of a staff member who intervened to stop a violent fare dodger from assaulting colleagues at London Bridge last autumn. RMT is already balloting station staff across the London Bridge group for industrial after the member was fired and two others were disciplined for stepping in to stop the serious assault on colleagues, including one who was pregnant (Risks 790). The union said it will now consider an escalation of the dispute. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “This is one of the most appalling abuses of the LU disciplinary procedure that RMT has ever come across. This was a shocking, violent incident and those that bore the brunt of it should have been supported and commended by the company. Instead they have been sacked or disciplined in what is the most disgraceful miscarriage of justice.” He added: “This is a disgusting and sickening outcome and RMT intends to fight it all the way. As well as our ballot of staff on the London Bridge Group, our Executive will look at escalation of the dispute over a case that will send shock waves throughout London Underground. LU have flouted their own zero tolerance policy, their own duty of care to their staff and have sent out a message to fare dodgers and yobbos that staff can be treated as punch bags with impunity. That is an outrage that will enrage every single Tube employee who risks their neck on the stations and platforms against a backdrop of a growing pattern of abuse and violence.”
Cleaners who fell ill at a Torquay hospital after being exposed to a hazardous disinfectant have been awarded £70,000 in damages. The 22 cleaning staff, all members of the public service union UNISON working for the Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, began using Actichlor seven years ago, but weren’t given any training on its use. Workers experienced runny eyes, nose sores, and wheezing coughs. The masks they had been given were ‘useless’ and the goggles didn’t fit anyone who wore glasses, said UNISON. It said when managers ignored their concerns, the cleaners contacted the union. An investigation found that the Actichlor, used for infection control, was being mixed with hot water in small, enclosed rooms. This led to the cleaners breathing in toxic fumes. A lack of training also meant that staff didn’t know they should have been mixing the disinfectant using cold water and in large, ventilated spaces. The case went to court and the cleaners were awarded compensation because the hospital had provided sub-standard equipment and had failed to comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations. Allison Parker, a UNISON representative at Torquay hospital, said: “Staff love their work but their jobs were making them ill. Some even took ill-health retirement because they were too poorly to carry on.” UNISON South West head of health Helen Eccles said: “This case shows the value of being in a union. Employers shouldn’t expect staff to use dangerous substances without proper training or the correct protective gear to keep them safe. Hopefully this will be a lesson to other employers not to play fast and loose with the safety of their staff.” Nicholas Seymour of Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm brought in by the union to act in the case, said: “The concern now is that Actichlor is being used by NHS trusts across the country – and may be being prepared in similar conditions, causing lasting damage to respiratory systems and all sorts of other illnesses. We would urge anyone working with Actichlor who is unwell to get in touch with their union.” Allison Parker and her colleague Kath Budd, the union reps at Torquay Hospital who helped the cleaners bring their case, have since received a UNISON South West award for health and safety campaigning.
The union Prospect has welcomed a sharp rise in health and safety penalties in the last year. It says the total cost of health and safety fines has tripled in the year since the introduction of new sentencing guidelines for courts in England and Wales on 1 February 2016 (Risks 739). Prospect, the union for Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors and specialists, said this includes 19 fines of £1m or more, compared with three in 2015 and none in 2014. “Prospect welcomes the tougher sentencing,” said Sarah Page, Prospect research officer. “The deregulation of health and safety in recent years, under-resourcing of the Health and Safety Executive and political interference that has stymied HSE’s proactivity have compromised the regulator’s potency. Fines that now have the potential to ‘hurt’ a business provide a new incentive for compliance.” Prospect says the largest 20 fines imposed in 2016 totalled £38.6m and exceeded the total of all 660 successful HSE prosecutions brought in 2015/16. “It seems that penalties are finally starting to have the economic impact required to bring home to directors and shareholders the need to meet their health and safety duties,” said Page. In 2015/16, 46 company directors and senior managers were prosecuted, compared with an annual average of 24 in the previous five years, the union said. A set of separate guidelines for corporate manslaughter offences sets fines ranging from £180,000 to £20m.
Rail union RMT has slammed the ‘outrageous’ decision to prosecute a train guard for endangering passenger safety after an 89-year-old woman fell from the platform. Merseyrail guard Martin Zee has now been unanimously cleared of all charges relating to the incident, which occurred at Hamilton Square Station on 8 July 2015. The case took almost two years to get to trial, with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) widely criticised for bringing the case after two investigations found no action should to be taken against Mr Zee. Despite the findings of both Merseyrail’s internal investigation and the further formal investigation by the rail regulator ORR, British Transport Police and the CPS pressed ahead with the criminal charges. The 33-year-old guard, who denied the offence, was welcomed with a round of applause from friends, family and colleagues as he exited the courtroom at Liverpool Crown Court following the verdict. Speaking outside the court John Tilley, regional secretary for the RMT, said: “RMT welcomes this verdict but condemns the Crown Prosecution Service for bringing this outrageous prosecution which the union believes served no public interest whatsoever.” He added: “The prosecution of Martin Zee has caused untold stress to both him and his family and has had a corrosive impact on the entire rail industry. No one should face prosecution for simply doing their job and we expect that lessons have now been learnt and that there will be no repeat of the appalling treatment of Martin.”
Rail union RMT has criticised Merseyrail for ending crucial talks aimed at resolving a dispute over the safety role of train guards. The union said the talks broke down after it became clear that the company was ‘not serious about any meaningful negotiations’. RMT said prior to pulling the plug on the talks, the company had been forced to admit it did not yet have the necessary safety validation for its proposed method of operation. The union added Merseyrail had “been forced to admit that they will not be contributing a penny-piece from within their own fat profits to maintaining public safety. These two issues go right to the heart of the dispute.” RMT general secretary Mick Cash said the company had shown no interest in discussing the issues at the core of the dispute. He added: “Merseyrail’s intransigence and determination to bring in Driver Only Operated trains at all costs, sees the dispute continue and RMT's executive will now consider a report from our regional officer and the next steps in our industrial, political and public campaign."
A farming partnership has been fined following the death of a farm manager in Staffordshire. Stafford Crown Court heard on 20 May 2014, 67-year-old John Mills fell more than 14 feet from a fragile roof while dismantling farm buildings in Hyde Lea on land owned by the Toft Partnership. Mr Mills, who had worked at the farm for 40 years, used a ladder to climb onto the roof to cut bolts holding roof panels in place, but the roof gave way. He was taken to hospital but died a short time later from head injuries. The Toft Partnership told the court it assumed their manager’s day-to-day running of the farm meant he was ultimately responsible for health and safety matters, when in fact they were the duty holders with responsibility for their employees. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that although the Toft Partnership knew the work was taking place, it gave no advice to its employees about how fragile the roof was, nor was there any planning or safe method of work in place. The company pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £60,000 and ordered to pay full costs of £29,417. HSE inspector Katherine Blunt said: “This death was a tragedy for everyone associated with the farm, including the duty holders themselves. John Mills was a stalwart for the farm whose death was avoidable. This case sends a very important message to farm owners that they are very clear on where their responsibilities lie, and then to act on those obligations.”
Kier Construction Limited has been fined £400,000 after a worker fell from height, suffering serious injuries. Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard how Jair Morales was installing plywood boards covering holes on the third floor of a building at a construction site in Uxbridge, Middlesex when he fell a distance of 3.95m to the floor below. The court heard no steps had been taken to prevent him falling through the opening as he installed the plywood boards. Mr Morales suffered fractures in his pelvis and his arm following the fall and has been unable to work since the incident. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that Kier, which paid into a multi-million pound blacklisting settlement last year with victimised union safety activists (Risks 749), failed to ensure the work was properly planned and carried out in a safe manner. Kier Construction Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005, and was fined £400,000 and ordered to pay costs of £1,534. HSE inspector Owen Rowley said: “This incident could have been a lot worse. The system that Kier Construction Ltd has in place to control the risk from installing the protection for openings was not implemented on site, ultimately resulting in the accident.” He added: “This case highlights the importance of ensuring that all work at height is properly planned and carried out safely.”
An aircraft engineering company has been fined after two workers were knocked off a platform while they were carrying out checks at the tail of an aeroplane. Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court heard that an employee of Inflite Engineering Services and an agency worker suffered broken bones after the fall at Stansted Airport on 10 June 2015. They were working either side of the tail using mobile elevated work platforms when another employee closed the wrong circuit breaker, inadvertently opening the plane’s airbrake, which knocked over both platforms. The men fell between 10 to 15 feet. One employee, a 62-year-old man, suffered three fractures to his pelvis, a broken back, three broken ribs, a fractured elbow and a punctured right lung. The second man, 60, suffered a broken wrist and a chipped a bone on his spine. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that no suitable risk assessment was in place and there was a lack of effective monitoring. Inflite Engineering Limited, based a Stansted Airport, pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined £160,000 and ordered to pay costs of £5,492.90. HSE inspector Tania van Rixtel said: “Both of these men suffered shocking injuries after falling from height, which could easily have been a double fatality. Our investigation found the incident could have been avoided had adequate monitoring been taking place. Aircraft maintenance companies are reminded that not all risks are covered by the Aircraft Maintenance Manual and additional measures need to be introduced.”
The Hazards Campaign’s national conference, with a theme this year of ‘Organising health, safety and welfare in an insecure world,’ is now taking bookings. The event, to be held at Keele University in Stoke-on-Trent from 28-30 July, features contributions from international and national trade union leaders, academics and campaigners. Speakers including Jessica Martinez from Hazards Campaign’s US sister organisation, National COSH, who will talk about “the joint threats we face and how we can work together to fight them.”
A major Australian construction firm has reacted angrily after a top union leader said it was wrong that a construction union was fined 16 times more for protesting about safety breaches than the firm that committed them. Building company Grocon demanded Sally McManus, the new secretary of the national union federation ACTU, correct a statement that the firm was fined $300,000 for killing workers. A company statement said it did not deny tragic deaths had occurred on its sites, but insisting it had not caused them. During a televised interview on ABC, Sally McManus said the construction union CFMEU was fined more for taking industrial action over safety concerns at the firm than Grocon paid for "killing five workers" on its sites. A succession of union leaders backed McManus, including ACTU president Ged Kearney. She said: “Sally McManus has my full support, the support of the entire Australian union movement, and from her colleagues at the Australian Council of Trade Unions.” A statement from Sally McManus in response to the Grocon complaint, said after a recent construction worker death on a Grocon site the company had pleaded guilty to a breach of workplace safety law and was ordered to pay a fine of $250,000. “This compares with the almost $4 million in fines levied on the CFMEU over a similar timeframe for protesting Grocon’s record and taking action to stand up for worker safety on construction sites,” she said. “While it was not accurate to say ‘Grocon was fined $300,000 for killing five workers,’ it is accurate to point out that the huge discrepancy in fines paid by the company and the CFMEU is a glaring example of the inherent unfairness in our industrial relations laws.”
About 2.5 million Indian workers toil for long hours with toxic chemicals for poverty wages in the country's leather industry, making shoes and clothes for Western brands, a study has found. A report from the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), a human rights organisation, called for greater transparency in supply chains. The study mapped the leather industry hubs of Agra in India's north, Kolkata in the east and the Vaniyambadi–Ambur cluster in the southern state of Tamil Nadu that supply hides, leather, garments, accessories and footwear for export. “While more employment was created in the leather industry through the growth of large-scale export centres, no attention was paid to the nature and quality of the employment created,” ICN said in the report. “Accidents regularly occur with machine operators getting trapped, workers cleaning underground waste tanks suffocating from toxic fumes, or workers drowning in toxic sludge at the tannery premises.” Lower caste Dalits and minority Muslims make up the majority of the workforce in an industry considered “dirty and polluting.” India is the world's second largest producer of footwear and leather garments and almost 90 per cent of India's footwear exports go to the European Union, the research states. It adds major brands are sourcing footwear, leather garments, leather goods and accessories from India, including H&M, C&A, Primark, Armani, ECCO, Esprit, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, Mango, Walmart, Gabor, PUMA, Pentland, Prada and Marks & Spencer. “Companies should increase the traceability and transparency of their full supply chain up to the level of tanneries and subcontractors,” the report concludes.
Ÿ ICN news release and full report, Do leather workers matter? Violating labour rights and environmental norms in India’s leather production, March 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation. International Dalit Solidarity Network.
Approximately 25 million people work in over 100,000 brick kilns across India, according to Anti-Slavery International. But these are not normal jobs. An estimated 50,000 of these are thought to be working in slavery-like conditions, saud Sudhir Katiyar, project director of the Prayas Centre for Labour Research and Action. The organisation, which focuses on promoting worker welfare across several key informal worker groups in India, says violence targets at these vulnerable brick kiln workers ranges from verbal abuse to beatings and rape. An economic and construction boom has been built largely back of cheap labour, with Indian brick kilns particularly earning a reputation as sites of extreme exploitation. “Often, brick kilns hire ‘muscle men’ to prevent labourers from leaving. It is almost like a mafia operation,” said Ashok Mathews Philip, director of the South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM). “They take away any jewellery the women have. If the husband has to leave the kiln for a trip back home, they will hold the wife back as surety,” Philip said. “In many brick kilns, the creditor-debtor relationship determines the working atmosphere and makes kiln workers vulnerable to abuse,” commented Naveen Gautam, a human rights lawyer. He says the conditions in the kilns are horrific. “It is like hell,” he said. “Often, there are about 100 people living in small rooms built out of the bricks they made themselves. Open defecation is common, with a large number of workers – both male and female – sharing a single hole in the ground for the purpose, due to which illnesses are also common.”
Ÿ Equal Times.
The US safety regulator OSHA has stopped issuing press releases highlighting enforcement action for serious safety offences. The last enforcement press release issued by the federal watchdog was on 18 January 2017, two days before the inauguration of Donald Trump. Until the new president took office, OSHA’s policy was to issue news releases where a penalty for safety offences was $40,000 or above. The use of news releases was seen as a way to increase the effectiveness of a relatively small agency, by making apparent the financial and reputational consequences of being caught. According to Jordan Barab, who was second in command at OSHA in the Obama administration: “Press releases — publicising OSHA enforcement actions — help leverage OSHA resources. Instead of a citation just affecting the company that was cited, a strong press release will impact other companies in the same geographic area, as well as companies in the same industry.” He said OSHA’s leadership was told repeatedly by industry lawyers “that their clients don’t really care about the low fines that OSHA issues; what terrifies them is being mentioned in a press release. The attorneys’ universal response: ‘Well then, make sure your workplace is safe.’ And if that’s the message that OSHA press releases are sending, then mission accomplished.” A wide-ranging assault on safety rules since Trump took office includes a measure that would dramatically reduce the pressure on companies to keep an accurate record of workplace injuries. Congress is poised to pass legislation that would undo the OSHA recordkeeping requirements that many believe make life safer for workers. Safety advocates believe if President Trump signs a bill in the coming days revoking the ‘Volks rule’, injury recordkeeping will become, in effect, voluntary. They say more workers will be injured and responsible employers who choose to keep accurate records and are committed to worker safety will be hurt.
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/