|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.|
A beard ban imposed by outsourced housing maintenance company Mears has been described as ‘penny pinching stupidity’ by the union Unite. Union members employed on social housing maintenance work in the culturally diverse borough of Tower Hamlets, London, were told at a ‘tool box talk’ that beards were now banned. Unite has subsequently obtained a letter that states: “This is now a Mears nationwide policy for the entire company.” The company is claiming that the ban on beards and the requirement on all workers being clean shaven is so that workers can “wear appropriate dust masks effectively”. The firm will consider but not guarantee exemptions on medical or religious grounds. But Unite says while facial hair can affect tight-fitting cheap face masks, other forms of masks that have their own airflow such as helmets, hoods and visors can be safely used with a beard. Unite regional official for London Mark Soave said: “The arrogance of Mears is hair-raising. This is a highly delicate issue, which has huge cultural, religious and personal issues and where sensitivity should be the watchword. Instead members have been handed a decree from on high.” He added: “This is clearly a case of Mears going for the cheapest option and amounts to ‘penny pinching stupidity’. Other forms of masks are available and these should be offered to existing workers.” Unite national health and safety adviser Susan Murray said: “An employer should first assess the risks presented by exposure to hazardous substances, then identify the steps needed to adequately control the risks; put them into operation and ensure they remain effective. The use of Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) may be one of the control measures, but the wearing of face masks should be a last resort and priority should always be given to eliminating the risk.” She added: “Before any policy is introduced there should be full and proper consultation. It is crucial that the policy recognises the diversity of the workforce and the principle that workers should be consulted and given a choice of several correctly specified types of RPE so they can choose the one they like.”
A proposed crackdown on zero-hours contracts in a review carried out for prime minister Theresa May is virtually worthless, the TUC has warned. Commenting on reports that the Taylor Review is set to recommend a right for zero-hours workers to “request” guaranteed hours (Risks 801), TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This could mean close to zero action on zero-hours contracts. A ‘right to request’ guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. To make a real change, we should turn this policy on its head. Everyone should be entitled to guaranteed hours, with a genuine choice for workers to opt-out, free from pressure from their boss. And anyone asked to work outside their contracted hours should be paid extra on top of their usual wage.” She added: “All parties should be upfront about what is on offer to working people trapped in insecure work this election – and stop hiding behind a review that will report after voting is over.” The TUC is concerned that there will be no real barrier to employers denying a request. It also believes many workers will be reluctant to ask for fixed hours for fear of being victimised, for example by not being offered further work. Around 900,000 people are on zero-hours contracts – up from 143,000 in 2008 – which have been criticised for leaving many in insecure work, depressing wages and denying full employee rights. It has been widely reported that the Taylor Review is set to recommend the “right to request” in a government commissioned independent review to be delivered in the summer. Unions warn that there are higher rates of work-related injuries and ill-health in insecure workers, who are less able to raise or challenge health and safety concerns and who may face greater pressure to work when sick.
Rail union RMT has pledged to fight planned cuts to renewals work for Network Rail by contractor Carillion that the union says present a direct threat to both jobs and safety. RMT was speaking out after it was presented with a consultation document from Carillion that ‘indicates possible job cuts and redundancies.’ RMT said ‘this alarming and deplorable proposal’ is a consequence of Network Rail’s cuts in its planned renewals programme. According to the union, the planned cuts will mean the loss of skilled railway engineers’ jobs and will result in trains running on older, less safe, track. RMT’s national executive indicated any job cuts will be ‘fought vigorously’, adding: “Any attempt by Carillion to impose compulsory redundancies will lead to a dispute situation with the company and RMT is also wholly opposed to the jobs of permanent staff going while the company is using agency labour.” Mick Cash, RMT general secretary, said: “The government and Network Rail have a duty to ensure that our railway is maintained and renewed to the modern and safe standard that the public and our economy needs and deserve. The announcement of cutbacks affecting Carillion and other infrastructure companies are a sure sign of cash and job cuts that will put at risk skilled jobs and also the modern, safe rail infrastructure we desperately need.” He added: “RMT will not stand by and watch these jobs vanish and will campaign all the way politically and industrially to protect them.”
Fife Council must undertake an urgent ‘root and branch review’ of its workplace health and safety policies after seven staff members were exposed to deadly asbestos, a union has said. GMB Scotland said workers in the parks, streets and open spaces service were exposed when dealing with a fly tipping incident at Heathery Wood, but a ‘scandalous’ breakdown in communication at management and supervisory levels left staff unaware they were handling contaminated waste. The union wants council chiefs to explain why there was a delay in the standard decontamination process of the exposed staff after the incident was reported, which it says resulted in the affected staff entering the council’s Bankhead offices. The union is also concerned the staff instructed to deal with the waste may not have received asbestos awareness training. Annette Drylie, GMB Scotland branch secretary, said: “This is a scandalous breach of workplace health and safety - a litany of failures by the council before, during and after the incident. Management knew this area was contaminated but workers have been sent unawares to deal with the fly-tipping. The workers reported the incident but returned to their depot to find the proper decontamination procedure was not immediately applied.” She added: “We have notified the heads of service to demand they urgently investigate this matter but confidence among our members over management’s approach to protecting their health and safety at work is in tatters. GMB Scotland expects nothing less than a swift and transparent response from management with the full consultation of the trade union and we have also instructed our solicitors to begin action on behalf of the members affected.” Ken Gourlay, head of service at Fife Council, confirmed a probe into what happened is underway. “Since management have been made aware of this incident a full investigation is underway to establish what went wrong and ensure it does not happen again,” he said.
A campaign group that represents families bereaved by a work-related death has said the suicide of a bullied young apprentice highlights how the system is failing workers driven to kill themselves. Berkshire coroner Peter Bedford last week concluded management at the Audi Reading car dealership were not responsible for the death of George Cheese. The 18-year-old killed himself after sustained bullying, including an incident where colleagues locked him in a cage, doused him in flammable liquid and burned his clothes, the inquest at Reading Town Hall heard. His father, Keith Cheese, told the inquest that the evening before his death, George had been pacing around the house, saying “I have to quit, I can't go back there” over and over again. George killed himself on 9 April 2016, around six months after he started working for Audi. But coroner Peter Bedford said while he understood Cheese’s parents’ desire to blame the Audi dealership, the steps taken by the management following his death had succeeded in improving conditions there. However, bereaved families group FACK said the case highlights the “completely inadequate way in which work-related suicides are handled by the criminal justice system, and especially those relating to bullying of young people.” A statement from the group noted: “We are concerned that there does not seem to have been an investigation under the Joint Protocol on Work-Related Deaths; there may be no-one held to account for the bullying George suffered at his workplace, which as reported at the inquest was known about and allowed to continue by management. We do not feel that steps taken by his employer after George took his own life in any way absolve them of their actions.” The FACK statement added that work-related suicides are increasing, and could account for at least 300 deaths a year – more than double the workplace fatality figure. The group wants work-related suicides to be made reportable under the workplace injury and disease reporting RIDDOR regulations and for regulators investigating incidents – including the police and the Health and Safety Executive – to follow the Joint Protocol on Work-Related Deaths.
The cancer research community is giving too much attention to ‘tumour biology’ at the expense of efforts to prevent the tumours in the first place, an editorial in a top UK medical journal has warned. Commenting on the heavily promoted emphasis on ‘precision oncology’, the Lancet Oncology paper points to the growing support for research on immunology and genetic susceptibility to cancers. “But can this insatiable desire to enhance our fundamental understanding of tumour biology overshadow the health gains that could be secured by improved environmental protection?”, it questions. “Cancer is a product of both nature and nurture, in which environmental risk is an equally crucial — and often neglected — factor because it is a multisectorial issue.” The editorial highlighting the ‘cancer risk paradox’ continues: “A large-scale economic inefficiency clearly exists, with financial resources being divided into both the science of cancer prevention and also into efforts to help those who have developed cancer as a direct result of human mismanagement of the planet. To see a world in which fewer people die of cancer, both areas must be addressed.” Warning against moves to remove environmental protections, promote polluting industries or to relax regulatory oversight, the paper concludes: “To eradicate cancer, governments need to both identify and act not only on increased risk susceptibility, but also ensure that people are not exposed to carcinogenic materials through gross environmental mismanagement.”
A British human rights activist is taking legal action against Thai state prosecutors, police and a fruit multinational after facing a succession of criminal charges in retaliation for exposing safety and labour rights abuses of migrant workers. Lawyers representing Andy Hall, whose fight against ‘judicial harassment’ has been backed by the TUC and international union organisations (Risks 776), started court proceedings this week against Thailand's Office of the Attorney General, nine Thai state prosecution officials and one senior police officer at the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases in Dusit District of Bangkok, Thailand. Hall's lawyers will then proceed to file further criminal litigation at Prakanong Court in Prakanong District of Bangkok against Natural Fruit Company Ltd and senior executives and advisers to the company. Hall said he was taking legal action “with a heavy heart and not out of anger or with any desire for revenge. It is regretful that things have reached this stage. However, it is necessary now to launch these litigations as I must defend myself against an unlawful prosecution and judicial harassment waged against me that continues unabated.” He said he was resorting to court action to “claim space back for victims of rights abuses, exploited workers and human rights defenders to speak out with confidence about unlawful conduct by business and state actors without repercussions.” Hall continues to fight his previous conviction on criminal defamation and computer crimes charges, initiated by Natural Fruit, in which he was found guilty and handed a suspended 3-year prison sentence in September 2016 (Risks 770). This guilty verdict attracted wide-ranging international criticism from civil society, trade unions, business groups and the UN, ILO and EU. Both Natural Fruit and Hall have appealed the conviction, with the company seeking an immediate custodial sentence against Hall and Hall seeking to have the conviction fully overturned.
The number of children feared to be victims of labour exploitation in the UK has risen by more than 60 per cent in the past year, an analysis of government statistics has revealed. There were 1,575 referrals for labour exploitation in 2016, among whom 1,107 were adults and a record 468 were children – marking a significant 63 per cent increase. Overall referrals of potential victims of labour exploitation to the government's National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the official framework for identifying victims of human trafficking – increased by 33 per cent from 2015 to 2016, according to the analysis of National Crime Agency data. The figures, compiled by corporate intelligence consultancy Kroll, come after The Independent revealed on 21 May that hundreds of people identified as victims under the NRM are being “abandoned” by the authorities as soon as they are identified, placing them at risk of falling straight back into the hands of traffickers. Support is provided during the NRM’s assessment process, which includes giving those fleeing exploitation a place in a “safe house”, but victims are required to leave the housing just two weeks after a final decision is made. Charities have warned that this often sees vulnerable people who have been trafficked for sex or labour exploitation fall into destitution, alcoholism and exploitation because of a lack of government-funded care. Kroll’s Kevin Braine said there was a lack of awareness about the scale of labour exploitation taking place in the UK. “There is sometimes a false assumption that modern slavery only occurs in certain countries or certain types of industry but the increase in the number of referrals of labour exploitation victims indicate that modern slavery is very much an issue for UK employers. Any commercial activity involved in the production of low-margin, low-skill, labour-intensive goods or services is potentially at risk of modern slavery offences.” He added: “Even lower risk businesses such as professional services firms are now waking up to the fact that they may be sourcing goods or services from third parties that have few or no modern slavery controls in place, for example wholesalers that source staff uniforms, or contractors handling cleaning and maintenance services for their offices. Risks tend to increase when a business relies on seasonal, casual or migrant workers, uses third party agents to source labour, or sources goods or services through convoluted or opaque supply chains.” Braine concluded: “One way businesses can contribute is by auditing their supply chains and making sure that they are not at risk of endorsing or supporting these terrible labour practices. There are relatively simple steps companies can take to ensure there are no issues in their increasingly complex supply chains.”
Providing workers with access to decent occupational health services is good for workers and good for the bottom line, according to a new report. The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) publication sets out ‘the value proposition for occupational health services’. It cites evidence that providing occupational health support to staff is the most effective method for managing long-term absence from work. It adds that the adoption of a systematic approach to occupational health can contribute to the success of an organisation. SOM says its report demonstrates that occupational health services are ‘highly cost-effective, provided that there are a variety of skills on offer, that occupational health professionals work to their distinctive competencies, and that the work performed adds value.’ SOM patron, Lord Blunkett, commented: “This report provides a comprehensive analysis and evidence review of the value of occupational health. It comes at a critical time for the policy agenda for work and health, and the challenge of the productivity gap. It is essential reading for managers, clinicians and policy makers.”
Fracking could pose “serious risks” to the health of workers, according to a new analysis by campaigners. They warn that over 150 studies have linked fracking chemicals to health problems. The research, from the digital campaign group 38 Degrees, says that fracking workers can be exposed to toxic chemicals including benzene, which is linked to leukaemia and other cancers. If silica dust from the sand used in the fracking process is inhaled it can damage lungs and in the long-term cause silicosis or lung cancer. The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded there was “an inhalation health hazard” for fracking workers. The analysis points to a University of Missouri review of more than 150 studies on the health effects of fracking chemicals, which concluded there was “evidence to suggest there is cause for concern for human health.” Stewart Kirkpatrick, head of 38 Degrees in Scotland, where the current moratorium on fracking is being reviewed, said: “The risks involved in allowing fracking clearly outweigh any possible benefits. It’s simply not worth gambling with people’s health in order to give this risky form of energy a shot.” Kathy Jenkins, from the campaign group Scottish Hazards, said: “We firmly believe that Scottish workers and the Scottish population should not be guinea pigs in a national experiment with fracking as so many UK workers were with asbestos.” Concerns have been raised about regulation of fracking in England and Wales, after the Conservative manifesto said the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency would be stripped of their enforcement role, to be replaced with a new Shale Environment Regulator.
“Staggeringly high” numbers of teachers are ready to quit the profession, a leading education researcher has warned, as growing pressures placed on staff and schools make the job “just too big an ask”. Rebecca Allen, director of the Education Datalab think tank has become the latest expert to highlight what has been referred to as a “crisis” in teacher recruitment and retention. Speaking at a general election briefing on education, she warned teaching is now “incredibly difficult”, as staff are increasingly bogged down with paperwork and accountability tasks that are leaving them exhausted and unmotivated. More needs to be done, in particular to help new teachers, to stop them walking out, she said. Teaching in England is now “an incredibly difficult job” with school workers “putting in hours in excess of anything that people could imagine”, she said. “It’s something that is essentially a performance job and I think as a profession they’re exhausted. I think they’re exhausted not just by the day to day of delivering lessons, but more importantly everything else that they’re expected to do.” A surge in the number of teachers leaving their jobs has led teacher shortages to reach “crisis” point in England and Wales, a cross-party group of MPs said in February. Ministers need to take urgent action to address the shortage, the Education Committee said, as it is set to worsen with the number of secondary school-age pupils expected to spike by more than 500,000 to 3.3 million by 2025.
A zoo keeper who died after a tiger entered an enclosure at a wildlife park in Cambridgeshire has been named as 34-year-old Rosa King. The death happened at Hamerton Zoo Park, near Huntingdon, on the morning of 29 May. The death came almost four years to the day after another zoo worker died in a tiger attack at a different UK zoo. A Cambridgeshire Police spokesperson said: “A tiger had entered an enclosure with a keeper. Sadly the female zoo keeper died at the scene.” Visitors were led away from the zoo. At no time did the animal escape from the enclosure, said police. Officers investigating the death said it was “not believed to be suspicious”, and that the tiger involved was “believed to be fine.” Hamerton Zoo Park said in a statement: “This appears to have been a freak accident. At no point during the incident did any animals escape their enclosures and at no point was public safety affected in any way. All our thoughts and sympathies are with our colleagues, friends and families at this dreadful time.” The wildlife park said an investigation was under way. The zoo’s barriers and escape procedures were heavily criticised in an inspection by officials in 2013. Its licence was only renewed after improvements were made. The zoo opened a new enclosure for its Malaysian tigers in July 2016. Last year South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria received a six figure fine for criminal health and safety offences after employee Sarah McClay, 24, was killed by a Sumatran tiger (Risks 755). The 24-year-old suffered fatal injuries when she was pounced on by the tiger on 24 May 2013.
A company director responsible for the criminal health and safety failings that led to four Suffolk men being crushed to death has been spared prison. David Groucott was sentenced to seven and a half months imprisonment, suspended for two years, after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence. The 44-year-old must also undertake 200 hours of unpaid work and was ordered to pay £7,500 towards prosecution costs. The Old Bailey heard that on 21 January 2011 the men were constructing a large steel structure as part of the foundation for a large Pressure Test Facility (PTF) at Claxton Engineering Services in Great Yarmouth. The structure, which weighed several tonnes, collapsed on top of the group. A large-scale emergency response took place to try and rescue the trapped workers. Adam Taylor, 28, 41-year-old Peter Johnson and brothers Thomas Hazelton, 26 and Daniel Hazelton, 30, were all pronounced dead at the scene (Risks 491). The group were working for subcontractor Hazegood Construction Ltd. Daniel Hazelton was an employee, while the other three were self-employed contractors. Encompass Project Management Ltd was the principal contractor. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found serious flaws in the planning, management and monitoring of this complex project on the part of Claxton, Encompass and Encompass company director David Groucott. Claxton Engineering Services Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £500,000 and ordered to pay costs of £100,000. Encompass Project Management Ltd, which also pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence, was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay costs of £50,000. The company ceased trading in 2012. Charges against Hazegood Construction Ltd were ordered to lie on file. HSE construction division head of operations Annette Hall said: “The tragedy here is that, in the months leading up to the accident, any one of these parties could and should have asked basic questions about building the structure safely. Such an intervention could have avoided the tragic outcome of this entirely preventable accident.” Last year unions expressed dismay at the length of time it was taking for the case to come to court (Risks 735).
Employees working in agriculture, forestry and fishing industries are making a living in the most dangerous workplaces in Australia, but other ‘safer’ sectors have far more serious injuries, official statistics have revealed. Analysis of data from the regulator Safe Work Australia has revealed 52 agriculture, forestry or fishing workers died on the job in 2015. Those working in transport, postal and warehousing weren't far behind, with 40 workplace deaths, followed by construction workers with 33 fatalities at work. However, while health care and social assistance had the fewest recorded deaths out of the 10 most dangerous industries, it did record the highest number of serious workplace injuries, with more than 17,000 recorded during 2015. It was followed by manufacturing with just under 14,000 injuries, and about 12,500 injuries for construction workers. Despite being the industry with the most workplace fatalities, agriculture, fishing and forestry had the third fewest serious injuries recorded, at 3,410 cases.
Authorities in a province in eastern Canada has said they will implement 11 recommendations of a study that uncovered widespread dust problems affecting mine workers. The report studied the medical information for 636 people, most of them retired, who worked at Labrador’s Wabush Mines or the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC) mine. Dust from the mines contained silica, and long-term exposure can lead to a condition called silicosis, which leaves the lung scarred. It can lead to other lung conditions, including bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer. The report was critical of the mining companies and also said doctors did not have the necessary knowledge to recognise the dust diseases. It recommends that radiologists get better training to identify silica exposure on chest x-rays. It also highlighted the need for family doctors to be aware about silicosis to ensure that retired workers continue to be monitored for the disease. Perry Trimper, minister for service with the Newfoundland and Labrador government, said two permanent occupational health and safety workers have now been hired to serve the area. “There's obviously something wrong with the process,” the minister said. “I feel the way forward here is for us to do a complete review, of everything from how workers respond, in terms of their cooperation, their interest in seeing a physician, through to... do we have trained and qualified physicians here.” Out of those studied, 81 per cent showed no evidence of silicosis, 14 per cent had dust exposure that required follow up, and six per cent had suspected silicosis. The authors of the report noted frustration with studying workers from the now defunct Wabush Mines. The company that owns the mine, Cliffs Natural Resources, wouldn't provide health records for workers. “We received very poor cooperation from the owners, operators of Wabush Mines, and it's been typical of the relationship this government has had with that company,” said Trimper. Ron Thomas, president of the Steelworkers local 5795 union, welcomed the report. “The recommendations will go a long way to help deal with the dust issue, as long as the recommendations are followed through and enforced,” he said. “I’m particularly pleased that two occupational health and safety inspectors have been hired. Now it's up to the union to keep a close eye on the situation to make sure rules are followed and any problems are reported and acted upon right away.”
A leaked internal Air Corps report into staff exposure to a cancer-causing cleaning agent over a 27-year period has cast doubt on whether the force did all in its power to protect workers’ health. The 2014 document states it is possible staff working for the Air Corp, part of Ireland’s defence forces, may have suffered exposures because there was no record that protective measures were in place to mitigate the impact of the toxic solvent trichloroethylene. Six workers are pursuing compensation claims and have seen a toxico-pathologist who concluded their illnesses — including cancer, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and memory loss — were caused by their exposure to harmful chemicals. The time under review in the report — 1980 to 2007, when use of the solvent was discontinued — coincides with the period during which a number of Air Corps staff who are suing the government would have worked at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel. It is understood the document was prepared for the State Claims Agency, which is defending the case in the High Court. The leaked 2014 report investigates the working environment in a since-demolished engine workshop building and was published over two-and-a-half years before the Health and Safety Authority raised a number of concerns about conditions in Baldonnel. In its summary on precautions taken with the Triklone N solvent, the report issued by the Air Corps’ Formation Safety Office asks “can the Defence Forces be found not to have done everything reasonably practicable?”. The report said there was no record of personal protective equipment being made available, extraction operating or that workers had received the necessary training. Triklone N contains trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen and neurotoxin, and is a vapour degreaser that was used to clean engine parts. The Department of Defence commented: “As you will be aware, the State Claims Agency is currently managing six claims, taken by former and current members of the Air Corps. The matters you have raised are currently the subject of ongoing litigation and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.” There have been allegations of a ‘cover-up’ after military authorities admitted a number of safety inspection reports on conditions at the aerodrome through the 1990s have gone missing.
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/