|Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others. Sign up to receive this bulletin every week. Past issues are available. Disclaimer and Privacy Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at email@example.com.
Workplace health and safety protections are at risk from the government’s Brexit plans, the TUC has said. The warning comes in a new TUC briefing, ‘Protecting health and safety after Brexit’. It says that although the government has set out its intention in a white paper to transfer all existing health and safety protections from EU law to UK law, there are no guarantees for what happens afterwards. The TUC says that the next government must make sure that a commitment is written into the Brexit deal to, as a minimum, match present and future EU standards for workplace health and safety. The union body says if this doesn’t occur existing protections will be vulnerable to erosion and repeal. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Working people must not have their health and safety put at greater risk after Brexit. The next government needs a watertight plan to transfer protections from EU to UK law.” She added: “The best way to guarantee all health and safety protections is to put workplace rights at the heart of the Brexit deal. It should be written into the deal that the UK and EU will meet the same standards, for both existing rights and future improvements.”
An international standard for health and safety may sound like a good idea, but the TUC warns the one under development now could be very bad news for workers. The International Standards Organisation (ISO) is developing the standard, ISO45001, which would set a certifiable baseline for employers’ health and safety management systems. However, the TUC warns that this standard is being developed without formal input from either employers’ organisations or unions, is a commercial venture and is riddled with flaws and dangerous omissions. According to TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson: “This process that has been used to develop the new draft means that the structure, language and content was not developed with the primary aim of improving the health and safety of workers, but to ensure that there is a compliant health and safety management system for the employer which can be externally audited (by a consultant) and that fits in with other ISO standards.” He said problems with the standard include poor requirements for worker participation, the absence of a stipulation that personal protective equipment must be provided without charge and that safety training should be free and in work time. Robertson says evidence of compliance with a lax standard of this type could create little more than the illusion of safety. He concludes: “The real indicators of a strong safety system are effective risk management, good outcomes, and full consultation and involvement with unions, underpinned by strong regulation and enforcement activity. That is why trade unions want strong regulations and strong enforcement, not voluntary standards that are developed for commercial reasons by people who want to be able to make money from auditing or certifying the standard.”
Construction union Unite has hit out at the ‘paltry’ fine handed out to a company after a worker was buried alive. Julian Kilbane still suffers health issues and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder over five years on from the horrific incident on 29 September 2011. Kilbane, now 49, was buried under tonnes of soil when a nine-foot-deep trench collapsed as he was connecting drains on an extension to a house in Falkland, Scotland. His injuries including punctured lungs and numerous broken ribs and were, according to a report in local paper the Courier, the worst injuries a medic had ever seen someone survive. Unite criticised the £14,000 fine imposed on Wallace Roofing and Building Ltd after it pleaded guilty to the criminal safety breaches that led to the injuries that left Mr Kilbane in intensive care for six days. None of the firm’s workers had received safety training. Unite regional co-ordinating officer Steven Dillon told the Courier: “Each sheriff has to judge the merits of each case, but £14,000 seems a paltry sum given the nature of what this worker has had to suffer.” He added: “We need to end the culture of complacency and profit-before-people. Every worker deserves to return home at the end of their shift, free from injury and harm. We rely on the courts to protect workers, and to protect us all. Unite does not believe that a fine of £14,000 sends a strong enough message about the paramount importance of health and safety at work.” In another Scottish workplace injury trial this month that also took over five years to come to court, a boss escaped a probable jail term because of what the sheriff said was ‘a wholly unacceptable delay’ (Risks 799).
Weak employment rights in the UK are behind a significant growth in bogus self-employment, agency work and zero-hour contracts compared to other EU countries, a TUC study has revealed. ‘International trends in insecure work’ was commissioned by the TUC from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and found the UK had the largest increase in the number of self-employed workers for EU countries from 2008 to 2015. It also had the third largest increase in the number of temporary workers for EU countries over this period. The report found that the absence of effective legislation in the UK to regulate insecure work has allowed the growth of atypical employment, like zero-hours contracts (Risks 798). By contrast, atypical workers elsewhere in the EU tend to have stronger legal protections and greater job security. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We don’t need to accept insecure jobs as a necessary evil to get more people into work. In Germany, employment growth has been the strongest in the EU, but at the same time insecure employment has declined.” She added: “It’s time Britain stopped being a soft touch for bad bosses. Otherwise the dodgy practices we’ve seen from employers like Hermes and Sports Direct will spread to more and more working people.” Insecure work has been linked to higher rates of work injuries and ill-health, and a greater fear of taking sick leave.
The TUC has called for a crackdown on zero-hours contracts after official statistics showed a sharp rise in the number of workers affected. The new Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures revealed almost a million workers have no guaranteed hours in their main job. The number of people relying on zero-hours contracts for their main job in the UK surged by 13 per cent last year, to 905,000. Women and young people are most likely to be affected. The total number of zero-hours contracts remained unchanged at the end of 2016 at 1.7 million, up from 1.4 million in 2014. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Let’s not pretend that life at the sharp end of the labour market is getting easier. There is growing evidence of firms employing staff on short-hours contracts to avoid the bad PR associated with zero-hours jobs. These contracts guarantee as little as one hour a week, and like zero-hours contracts place workers at the beck and call of their bosses.” She added: “Every party manifesto must have real commitments to crack down on zero-hours contracts and other forms of insecure work.” Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: “From exploitative zero and short hours contracts to bogus self-employment, the world of work has become increasingly insecure as bad bosses seek out ever more creative ways of exploiting workers to boost profits and dodge their responsibilities. With a shocking 3.8 million people experiencing in-work poverty, it’s high time that work in this country paid and the misery of insecure work was eradicated.”
Seven in ten (69 per cent) UK private sector employees – equivalent to 18 million workers nationally – have gone to work unwell when they should have taken the day off, an insurance industry study had found. Aviva’s Working Lives report found that by contrast, less than a quarter (23 per cent) say they have taken a day off work sick when they were not actually unwell. Aviva says its report also carries ‘a wake-up call to businesses’, as more than two in five (43 per cent) employees feel their employer puts the results of the company ahead of their health and well-being. The survey of 500 private sector employers and 2,000 employees found workers are fearful of heavy workloads if they take time off, as more than one in five (41 per cent) say their work will pile up if they are off sick. More than two in five employees (42 per cent) report feeling stressed or anxious at work, rising to 46 per cent among younger workers (18-34 year olds). Employers could be underestimating the impact stress has on their employees, Aviva said, as only 23 per cent recognise this as an issue. Dr Doug Wright, medical director with Aviva UK Health, said: “While every business wants the right level of resource in place, having employees who are unwell at work is a false economy. Businesses need to ensure they create a working culture whereby people do not feel pressurised into coming to work when they are unwell, safe in the knowledge their absence can be effectively managed.” He added: “Presenteeism, driven in part by an increased ‘always-on’ culture, poses a genuine threat to overall business performance through the adverse impact on productivity and morale in the workplace.”
Companies scrambling to meet or beat profit projections have work-related injury and illness rates that are 12 per cent higher than other employers, a study has found. US researchers found that the higher rates can be explained by “benchmark-beating” employers cranking up workloads and work pressure, while cutting back spending on necessary safety maintenance and training. Professors Judson Caskey of the UCLA Anderson School of Management and Naim Bugra Ozel from the UT Dallas Jindal School of Management used official workplace data to compare injury rates for two general categories of firms. Companies that barely met or slightly exceeded analysts’ financial benchmarks had higher work-related injury and illness rates than those firms that comfortably beat or completely missed financial analysts’ profit forecasts. The paper, published in the Journal of Accounting and Economics, is the flip side of the often-cited “business case for safety”, said retired US safety inspector Garrett Brown. Writing in the Pump Handle blog, he said evidence from the UK, EU and the US showed employer spending on health and safety programmes generates two to three times the return on the investment. “Effective safety programmes reduce the number of injuries, illnesses and fatalities; they reduce all the associated costs, including medical expenses, workers’ compensation and regulatory fines; they increase productivity, and thereby increase profits and stock price; they result in higher employee morale, higher retention rates, lower absenteeism and reduced turn-over and training costs; and they help safer companies attract new talent and improve their corporate reputation,” he notes. The study also found that unionised workplaces were safer, noting: “Overall, the results suggest that unions limit managers’ ability to shirk on workplace safety in their attempts to meet or beat expectations.”
Researchers have issued a workplace health warning after a study showed gold nanoparticles can cross from the lungs into the blood, where they accumulate in fatty plaques inside arteries. The study of the effects of these tiny particles on human subjects by UK and Dutch researchers provides further evidence of a link between nanoparticles and cardiovascular disease, the authors warn, and has ‘major implications’ for risk management of engineered nanoparticles in the workplace and wider environment. For the study, 14 healthy volunteers inhaled gold nanoparticles. Fifteen minutes to 24 hours after exposure, the nanoparticles showed up in blood and urine samples and could still be detected three months later. Inhaling smaller particles – 5 nanometres (nm) in diameter compared with 30nm - resulted in higher numbers reaching the blood. Separately, the team recruited 12 patients due to undergo surgery on their carotid arteries. Three inhaled gold nanoparticles before surgery and these showed up in arterial plaques. The authors said their inhalation study findings have “immediate relevance” for the nanotechnology industry, noting a better understanding how these substances behave in the body is “vital” for a safe-by-design approach for new nanomaterials. The work results from a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), VU University and Utrecht University.
A construction company and its groundwork contractor have each been fined £20,000 after a worker was killed by a reversing vehicle. Exeter Crown Court heard how an employee of Steve Hoskin Construction Limited (SHCL) was working for the groundwork contractor at a construction site in Dawlish, Devon when he was crushed by a reversing telescopic material handler. John Small, 47, was crushed by the vehicle after it reversed while he was walking alongside it. He was pronounced dead after suffering multiple injuries. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the incident on 28 June 2013 found that Cavanna Homes, the principal contractor for this site, failed to ensure this area of the construction site was organised to enable pedestrians and vehicles to move safely. It also found SHCL had not fully considered the risks to their employees at this part of the site. Cavanna Homes (SW) Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 was fined £20,000. Steve Hoskin Construction Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence was fined £20,000. The firms were also ordered to pay court costs of £20,000 each. HSE inspector Caroline Penwill said: “There were no control measures in place to segregate vehicles and pedestrians in the area where the incident happened. Separating pedestrians and vehicles by introducing measures such as walkways with barriers, could have prevented John Small’s death.”
Cardiff-based steel manufacturing company Rom Ltd has been fined £200,000 after a worker suffered crush injuries to his hand. Magistrates hearing the case at North Staffordshire Justice Centre heard how on 23 October 2015 a 51-year-old worker was removing leftover steel from a Koch Straightener, used for straightening steel wire, when he trapped his hand between the rotating rollers inside the machine. The worker suffered serious crush injuries to his hand and lost the top of his right index finger as a result of this incident at Rom Ltd’s site in Lichfield, Staffordshire. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company failed to identify the risks associated with workers manually operating this machine and did not ensure the machine was correctly guarded. It was found the company also failed to provide the required level of supervision, resulting in the worker suffering serious injuries. Rom Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 and was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay costs of £17,200.63. HSE inspector David Keane commented: “This man suffered a life-changing injury. The company failed to protect the worker from harm by not properly considering the risks associated with manually operating dangerous machinery such as this.”
A salad growing company has been fined after a worker was seriously injured by a chainsaw while felling trees. Basildon Magistrates’ Court heard the Growing Green Limited employee suffered deep cuts to his arm while working with another colleague at the Brentwood Nursery on 6 April 2016. The two employees were working together, with one holding and supporting branches and the other cutting through them using the chainsaw. During this operation one man’s arm landed on top of the moving chainsaw. The worker sustained deep lacerations damaging the nerves in his arm. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that neither man had been trained to operate the chainsaw, nor were the pair wearing the necessary personal protective clothing, gloves, helmets, safety boots and eye protection. There was no supervision and no proper planning of the work. Growing Green Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £120,000 and ordered to pay costs of £1,864.35. HSE inspector Tania van Rixtel said: “This incident could have easily been avoided if the company had adopted a safe method of working that did not put an employee in the direct line of the moving chainsaw. It was only luck that the gentleman did not lose his arm. Companies are reminded that even occasional and ‘one-off’ jobs need to be properly planned to ensure the correct control measures are in place.”
A company and its general manager have been fined after failing to abide by a succession of legal safety notices. Cambridge Magistrates’ Court heard how Cambridge Timbertec Ltd failed to maintain satisfactory standards of work after several inspections by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The company had received six previous improvement notices and written advice. It had initially complied with these notices but then failed to maintain standards. An HSE inspection on 12 March 2015 resulted in three prohibition notices and four improvement notices. HSE said the company should have adopted standards identified in previous inspections and not allowed them to lapse. Cambridge Timbertec Ltd pleaded guilty to criminal breaches of the management, noise, hazardous substances and work equipment regulations. It was fined £40,000 and ordered to pay costs of £4,000. General manager Craig Butler pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach related to the company’s offences and was fined £3,000 and ordered to pay costs of £700. HSE inspector Sandra Dias said: “Duty holders have the responsibility to ensure they have suitable competent advice to be able to fully understand the risks employees face, and implement adequate control measures so they can work safely. They also need to ensure they are able to identify early signs of deteriorating health which may be an indication of inadequate control measures. In this case Cambridge Timbertec Ltd and its general manager failed to do so.”
The Hazards Campaign’s national conference, with a theme this year of ‘Organising health, safety and welfare in an insecure world,’ is 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 the 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 ‘dirty deal’ that allowed three Anglo American coal mine bosses to walk free after the death of an Australian worker has been condemned by the union CFMEU. Electrician Ian Downes suffered fatal injuries when a mine wall failed and fell on him at the Grasstree Mine in central Queensland. Charges were brought against three mine managers and Anglo Coal, but charges against the managers were dropped after a guilty plea from the firm. CFMEU’s Queensland district president Steve Smyth said that the state’s government should never have accepted a deal that allows the mine managers to walk free. “If you kill a worker, you should go to jail – it’s that simple,” he said. “These guys will now be free to continue managing mines, without having to face justice and be held accountable for their poor management that led to the death of Mr Downes. The Queensland government and its departments need to stop protecting big business and hold these companies and their bosses to account.” The union said Anglo had three fatalities at their mining operations in the period from May 2014 to February 2015 “and not one person has been held accountable to date, despite the fact Anglo had pleaded guilty to one charge which led to the death of Mr Downes.” CFMEU’s Steve Smyth said while family and workmates mourned Ian Downes’ death, the Queensland government has rubbed salt into the wound by accepting this “dirty deal” and allowing these bosses to escape justice. “Yet again justice for a life has been denied. The Queensland government and its departments should be standing up to industrial homicide, not excusing it,” he said. “By accepting dirty deals the Queensland government and its departments are just as guilty as the bosses of the mine.”
The Indonesian authorities have for the first time recognised officially the existence of asbestos disease cases in the country. Until this year, Indonesia had never formally recognised a case of asbestosis, with sufferers routinely misdiagnosed with tuberculosis. The knock-on effect was that there had not been a single successful claim for workers’ compensation for work-related asbestos disease. Indonesia is a major consumer and manufacturer of asbestos products, and is a key target for asbestos industry lobbyists, whose well-resourced campaign has targeted officials with the message than chrysotile asbestos can be used safely. Wira Ginting, who heads up the Local Initiative for Occupational Health and Safety Network (LION) that supports asbestos workers and victims in the country, said: “There is huge, massive consumption of asbestos. But on the ground, there is no case of asbestos-related disease. For some people, it provides proof in support of the asbestos lobby’s position.” In 2015, LION organised the independent medical examination of 20 workers in asbestos factories. The next step was to submit workers’ compensation claims on behalf of affected workers to the state social security agency, BPJS Employment. In what campaigners describe as a huge breakthrough, the agency has now for the first time recognised these cases as work-related asbestos disease, ruling they are eligible for compensation.
Japan has taken the unprecedented step of naming more than 300 firms that the authorities say are violating workplace safety and other labour laws. A labour ministry list posted online last week includes 334 companies that have received warnings for excessive overtime and other violations between last October and March this year. More than 200 companies on the list were accused of failing to ensure workers’ safety. Japan Post Co is among those listed, for failing to report a work-related manual handling injury to a delivery worker. Dozens of firms have been identified because of unpaid wages, and many others were also named for excessive overtime work. The name-and-shame tactic follows growing public outrage over a long-hours culture in the country, which gained notoriety following the official recognition of the suicide of a young worker at the Dentsu ad agency in 2015 as work-related (Risks 782). Companies listed include Dentsu and Panasonic, though the authorities said that not all firms found to have broken rules had been publicly identified. The name-and-shame tactic is part of efforts by the government of Shinzo Abe to shake-up labour laws in a bid to give employees greater protection. The names will remain on the site, which gets updated monthly, for about a year. They will be removed earlier if corrective measures are taken, the ministry said.
Hundreds of workers were forced to ‘take cover’ last week after a tunnel in a nuclear finishing plant collapsed in Washington state, USA. Following the 9 May incident, a manager sent a message to workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation telling them to “secure ventilation in your building” and to “refrain from eating or drinking.” The US Department of Energy activated its Emergency Operations Center following the collapse. Some workers were reportedly told to evacuate while others were told to shelter-in-place as officials investigated the severity of the situation. Governor Jay Inslee said in a statement: “This is a serious situation, and ensuring the safety of the workers and the community is the top priority. Our understanding is that the site went into immediate lock down, in which workers were told to seek shelter, and all access to the area has been closed.” The nuclear site, located in the city of Hanford, is a former plutonium production site that was used to help develop the American nuclear arsenal 70 years ago. More recently, however, a private contractor hired by the Department of Energy is working on a $110 billion project to clean up 56 million gallons of chemical and nuclear waste stored in as many as 177 underground tanks. The tanks had earlier been reported to be leaking toxic and radioactive vapours and chemicals that have been linked to cancer, brain damage, and lung damage. There were at least 61 workers exposed to those deadly vapours last year (Risks 692). Experts have called the location “the most toxic place in America” and “an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen.” Hanford is a small agricultural community in south-central Washington about 200 miles from Seattle.
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