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Many of those killed or made homeless by the devastating Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June (Risks 804) were union members, and unions are now actively supporting the affected families. The TUC has said while this is the first priority, “it is clear that we cannot see Grenfell Tower as a ‘one-off’ disaster but as something that is much more symptomatic of the society we live in and the value that it places on human life, especially the lives of the poor, the dispossessed and the vulnerable.” In an online commentary, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson noted: “From a health and safety point of view I also feel incredible anger that so many warnings were ignored. Tower block fires have already been the subject of several inquiries after the 1999 fire in Irvine and the 2009 Camberwell fire. There have also been horrendous fires in tower blocks abroad – the best known being Melbourne and Dubai. It is not that we did not know the dangers, simply that the government did not act, and when tenants’ groups did speak up their voice was ignored.” He said the tragedy was in part testimony to “the government’s ideological obsession with deregulation.” A long succession of warnings to ministers from inquests, parliamentary groups and experts went unheeded. “There is also no doubt that the reason for government inaction was anti-regulatory zeal,” noted Robertson. “No-one in the trade union movement is going to try to make political capital out of the deaths of those victims of the fire in Grenfell Tower, however we have a duty to ensure that the safety of all our members is guaranteed as a human right. We also need to ensure that the lessons are learned from the disaster so that our fire regulations and enforcement regime are as robust and effective as possible.”
Firefighters’ union FBU has called for the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster to be central to the public inquiry announced by Theresa May last week. The union says the inquiry must also be broad enough to address the immediate causes of and response to the London tower block disaster, which left an estimated 79 dead and several hundred homeless, ‘as well as the wider context to these dreadful events’. FBU general secretary Matt Wrack has this week written to Theresa May setting out the union’s position. The letter to the prime minister calls for the victims’ families and survivors to be full participants in the inquiry and for other key parties, including the FBU, to be fully consulted on the terms of reference of the inquiry. Funds should be provided to meet legal costs, the FBU leader demanded. “This inquiry needs to look not just at the immediate causes of the fire and the response to it, but also at who was responsible for the building and for any alterations made to it.” He added: “But it also needs to look much wider at the regulations and the regime that now operates in building control, planning and fire safety. All of these have seen significant changes in the recent past as part of an agenda of deregulation and cutting so-called ‘red tape’. Those who took those decisions are going to have to start facing the consequences.” Wrack said: “The FBU regrettably has considerable experience in dealing with inquests after the deaths of firefighters and members of the public. Too many times recommendations are ignored and there is no central monitoring of progress or otherwise. That cannot be allowed to happen here”. The union Unite said it will donate £100,000 to the Red Cross London Fire Relief appeal set up to assist the people affected by the tragedy. It said it had dozens of members living in the tower, some of whom have lost their lives. The union also announced “it would be providing legal assistance to the residents to ensure that they are able to pursue the inquiry that is urgently needed to shine the light on the full causes of the horrific blaze.”
Counselling services available to the firefighters who responded to the Grenfell Tower fire have virtually disappeared after cuts imposed by Boris Johnson during his tenure as Mayor of London. Firefighters’ union FBU says the number of counsellors trained to help firefighters process the traumatic scenes they witness on the job in the London Fire Brigade was cut from 14 to just two under Johnson, now foreign secretary in Theresa May’s minority government. Johnson’s administration also axed 13 fire engines. Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “The absolutely devastating scenes that firefighters witnessed at Grenfell will stay with them for the rest of their lives. They are heroic men and women who just get on with the job and don’t complain but at the end of the day, they’re human and will be affected by what they see. The priority today is to make sure that everything possible is done to take care of their mental wellbeing after such a horrific disaster. We need more counsellors to look after them, not less.” A London firefighter who attended the scene, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “It was absolutely horrific at Grenfell, and it’s still very, very raw. I have seen some really horrible things that I’ve never experienced seeing before and hope I will never see again. It will stay with me all my life. We were offered a session with a counsellor which I took up, and it did help, but nothing will get those images out of my mind.”
Firefighters’ union FBU and teaching unions NUT and ATL are seeing urgent reassurances from education secretary Justine Greening about fire safety in schools. Both the NUT and FBU have been pressing the government since last year to reverse its proposed downgrading of fire safety requirements for school buildings which, they argue, “show a total disregard for the health and safety of children and staff.” They point to a government announcement last summer that the expectation that sprinklers should be fitted in new schools in England would be removed from its Building Bulletin guidance. The same document proposes scaling back the ‘compartmentalisation’ requirements intended to reduce the ability of fires to spread through large buildings. It would also remove sections advising against the use of flammable cladding. The unions say the changes are part of the government’s cuts and deregulation agenda. Kevin Courtney, NUT general secretary, said: “The government has behaved shamefully over this issue. It is high time the health and safety of children and staff is prioritised. We call upon the government to make an immediate announcement that it will no longer proceed with downgrading fire safety in schools.” FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “It is staggering we still have to have this debate with the government in the current circumstances. It highlights the endless problems we have faced when raising fire safety issues over several years.” Mary Bousted, ATL general secretary, said: “It is shocking that the government continues to ignore the recommendations on fire safety in schools. The government - now more than ever - needs to make assurances that they will prioritise the health and safety of pupils and staff in school buildings and implement the changes required to keep them safe.”
The plan of work for the next term of Theresa May’s minority government shows the Conservative leader is still failing to learn the lessons of her failure to win an outright majority, the TUC has said. Commenting on the 21 June Queen’s Speech, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The election showed that working people are fed up with an economy that doesn’t work for them – but the government still isn’t listening. The Queen's Speech makes vague promises but says nothing about the changes working people need right now – like banning zero hours contracts or making gig economy employers treat their workers fairly. Nor is there anything in this Queen's Speech to end the year-on-year real-terms pay cuts that are hitting brave and dedicated public servants, and pushing nurses into using foodbanks.” The TUC leader added: “Workers’ rights will be put at risk by the Great Repeal Bill. It will allow ministers to bypass parliament and erode rights that come from the EU – like paid holiday and protections for part-time and agency workers. The bill must contain a specific provision to stop ministers going back and undermining the rights of working people.” A TUC briefing issued ahead of the election warned that health and safety protections are at risk from the government’s Brexit plans (Risks 800). Although the government plans to transfer across EU-originated laws, including health and safety regulations, as part of the Great Repeal Bill, there’s a fear they could subsequently be targeted as part of the government’s deregulation drive. Other bills in the Queen’s Speech are also of concern to unions, including the Civil Liability Bill, a sop to the insurance industry that will make it harder for many workers suffering occupational injuries or diseases in England and Wales to claim compensation.
With temperatures soaring over 30 degrees Celsius, the TUC has repeated its call on employers to temporarily relax their workplace dress codes during excessive hot weather. It says where people are working outdoors, employers should consider reviewing working times so that, where possible, work is done in the morning and afternoon, rather than around midday when temperatures are highest. It adds that bosses can also help their workers keep cool by letting them come to work in more casual clothing. While staff are not expected to work when the temperature drops below 16 degrees Celsius - or 13 degrees if they do physically demanding work - there are no restrictions for when the workplace becomes too hot. The TUC would like to see a change in the law to introduce a new maximum indoor temperature, set at 30 degrees Celsius – or 27 degrees for those doing strenuous jobs – with employers obliged to adopt cooling measures when the workplace temperature hits 24 degrees. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “While many of us will welcome the sunshine and warm temperatures this week, working in sweltering conditions can be unbearable and dangerous.” She added: “Employers can give their staff a break by relaxing dress code rules temporarily and ensuring staff doing outside work are protected. Obviously shorts and flip flops won’t be the right attire for all workers, but no one should be made to suffer unnecessarily in the heat for the sake of appearances.”
Rail union RMT has released an email it says provides ‘proof of collusion and complicity’ by the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) and the Department for Transport (DfT) in pushing through driver only operation (DOO) of trains. The move has been opposed by RMT because it removes the ‘safety critical’ role of train guards. The union says the email from Michael Woods, head of operations and management research at the RSSB, was sent in 2014 to Daniel Parker Klein, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT). It notes: “I am responsible for a major piece of research… into how to significantly extend the coverage of Driver Only Operation for Passenger Services DOO… to much more of the network, on behalf of RDG rail safety and ultimately DfT.” RMT, which is currently in dispute over DOO with three separate operators - Southern, Northern and Merseyrail – says the document provides “further evidence that the drive to axe guards is wholly politically motivated and is being pursued by the minority Tory government without any mandate to rip up the rail safety rule book.” RMT general secretary Mick Cash said RSSB can no longer “be seen as either credible or independent. It is clearly operating as a toxic combination of an arm of government and a secretive bosses club.” He added: “When such a senior rail safety figure blatantly admits bias and collusion with the government over the extension of driver only operation it is clear that the disputes on Southern, Northern and Merseyrail are wholly of the politicians’ making and without this ideological interference we could have negotiated settlements. This admission that the RSSB has been doing the DfT’s dirty work for them for a long time knocks into a cocked hat the government’s ability to claim it cares one jot about the rights of vulnerable, older and disabled passengers”. The RSSB email was sent after CILT raised concerns about the potential impact of DOO on the growing numbers of older and disabled rail passengers.
A strategic response is required to address the growing problem of bullying and harassment at work, UNISON’s national conference has concluded. National executive committee (NEC) member Andrew Anderson described “the health of our members” as the price of the government’s austerity agenda. “Bullying and harassment is a rising concern among health and safety reps,” he said. “While UNISON has led the way in showing that this is an organisational and a health and safety issue … we cannot be complacent and must look for new ways to take this issue forward.” Kim Johnson from the national Black members’ committee said that bullying is often a symptom of the “culture of the organisation”. And she added: “Every worker deserves the right to be treated with respect and dignity at work.” Katrina Gilman from the national LGBT committee told delegates: “Back when I was first a member of UNISON, I was bullied in the workplace. I was redeployed – and it was less than welcoming.” Being the only one not invited to a social event – being ostracised – were among the behaviours she experienced. But then a bulletin was sent out by her UNISON branch to ask for anonymous views on how work made you feel. This started a process that eventually saw the matter resolved – and helped inspire Ms Gilman to become active in the union. Delegates agreed to call on the NEC to commission further research into the scale and impact of the problem and to develop a strategic response, including support, training and appropriate information.
The UK government has been urged to end its ideologically driven deregulation of health and safety in the wake of the Grenfell Tower blaze. In an open letter to prime minister Theresa May, over 70 organisations and figures from the UK’s safety and health profession have jointly called for ‘a political sea change in attitude’ towards health and safety regulation and fire risk management following the tragedy. The letter also says the government should complete its review of the Building Regulations 2010 – the regulations which cover fire safety within and around buildings in England – as a matter of urgency, and to include a focus on improved safety in the forthcoming parliament. The letter is signed by safety bodies including the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and the British Safety Council. The TUC, Unite and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) are among the other signatories. “We believe it is totally unacceptable for residents, members of the public and our emergency services to be exposed to this level of preventable risk in modern-day Britain,” the letter states. “At this crucial time of national reflection and sorrow, we urge all politicians to re-emphasise the need for effective health and safety regulation and competent fire risk management. These are fundamental to saving lives and sustaining our communities. We believe it is vital that this disaster marks a turning point for improved fire safety awareness and wider appreciation that good health and safety is an investment, not a cost.” It concludes: “We, leaders in health and safety in the UK, call on you to scrap the government’s approach to health and safety deregulation and think again.”
The loss of 79 lives in the Grenfell Tower inferno has focused attention on the Conservative government’s ongoing assault on protective legislation. Journalist Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, notes that while the government’s war on red tape is a seen as a central policy platform by top Tories, it undermines the rules for a safe and decent society. She noted post-Grenfell “whatever national appetite for deregulation and risk there might have been has gone.” But critical and deadly damage has already been done, she indicates. A third of environmental health officers have gone since 2010, and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) “is taking a 46 per cent cut and has been banned, on principle, from ‘proactive’ inspections in most workplaces: staff have to wait for a complaint – when it may be too late. Inspectors are down by 25 per cent, the number of workplace inspections cut back by 70 per cent.” She noted right up to Grenfell Tower burning down, the right-leaning press maintained their shrill support for the ‘bonfire of regulation’. “When the Daily Telegraph launched its Cut EU Red Tape campaign on the day Theresa May triggered article 50, [foreign secretary Boris] Johnson promised that Brexit would ‘get rid of some of the burdensome regulation that has accreted over the last 44 years’. Iain Duncan Smith pledged to ‘whittle away’ the regulation ‘burden’ with its ‘intrusions into daily life of citizens’. Lord Lawson called for a ‘massive’ regulatory cull: ‘We must lose no time’.” But Toynbee points out that red tape “is the very stuff of civilisation… it stops some abusing others, stops employers maltreating employees or polluting the environment, prevents rogue business undercutting good business, keeps us safe, guarantees the food we eat, the medicines we take and the professional standards of lawyers, doctors or engineers that we rely on for life itself. An inadequate safety net of red tape killed the Grenfell victims.”
Ÿ Polly Toynbee’s article in The Guardian, and George Monbiot’s commentary on ‘ripping up red tape’. Government ‘Cutting Red Tape’ webpages.
Government-backed inspectors should be able to investigate companies and entire industries to prevent unscrupulous companies falsely labelling workers as self-employed, according to the Law Society. In its submission to the independent review of employment practices led by Matthew Taylor, the professional body for solicitors also recommends the immediate scrapping of employment tribunal fees, which have led to a 70 per cent fall in claims in the last three years. It also says every worker should receive written clarification of their employment status. The submission proposes giving the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, which already has some investigatory powers over food and farming operators, responsibility to carry out investigations into employment status in all businesses. “Our rights at work are not optional – they are the minimum standard to which we are entitled,” said the Law Society president, Robert Bourns. “Our law relies on individuals taking their employer to court to get their rights recognised – a task that is simply beyond most people.” It said bad employers are then free to abuse workers’ rights. “An independent government inspector who can go into a business to ensure staff are being given their proper workplace rights will help put a stop to this exploitation, and put everyone on a fair and even playing field,” he said. The rise of platforms including Uber, Deliveroo and online retailers, most of which say their drivers and riders are independent contractors, has led to growing concern that millions are stuck in insecure and stressful work in the gig economy. The most secure are employees, who have full rights including entitlements to flexible working, maternity pay and sick pay.
Contaminated air on planes is a health risk to pilots and crew and could ‘degrade’ flight safety, a new study has found. The research led by the University of Stirling showed a clear link between being exposed to air contaminated by engine oil and other aircraft fluids, and a variety of health problems. The study examined more than 200 air crew and found many had been exposed to a number of substances through aircrafts’ contaminated air. They uncovered a clear pattern of acute and chronic symptoms, ranging from headaches and dizziness to breathing and vision problems. One test looked at pilots’ health and showed 88 per cent of the 219 people examined were aware of exposure to contaminated air. Almost two-thirds reported specific health effects while 13 per cent had died or experienced chronic ill health. Ninety-three per cent of the incidents involved symptoms ranging from in-flight impairment to incapacitation. Almost threequarters included adverse symptoms in more than one crew member, with anywhere between 10 and 23 different symptoms reported in relation to almost half of the events. Dr Susan Michaelis, of the University of Stirling’s occupational and environmental health research group, said: “This research provides very significant findings relevant to all aircraft workers and passengers globally. There is a clear cause-and-effect relationship linking health effects to a design feature that allows the aircraft air supply to become contaminated by engine oils and other fluids in normal flight. This is a clear occupational and public health issue with direct flight-safety consequences.”
Ÿ Stirling University news release. Susan Michaelis, Jonathan Burdon and C Vyvyan Howard Aerotoxic syndrome: A new occupational disease?, Public Health Panorama, volume 3, issue 2, pages 198-211, June 2017. The Guardian. BBC News Online. Evening Standard.
Contractor Pyeroy Ltd has been fined after its poor work at height rescue planning delayed the recovery of a trapped worker. Plymouth Magistrates Court heard that on 21 October 2013 Keith Stevens, 57, was helping to dismantle temporary roofing at Devonport Naval Base using a mobile elevated work platform (MEWP). His colleagues found him trapped between a roof beam and the controls of the MEWP. There was a delay in Mr Stevens being lowered to ground. Mr Stevens died of a pre-existing heart condition. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that Pyeroy had not properly planned the work on a MEWP in restricted overhead areas. Other Pyeroy employees had not received suitable training in the emergency lowering procedure of the elevated platforms and no practice drills had been carried out. The company pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and was fined £130,000 and ordered to pay costs of £14,388.36. HSE inspector Helena Allum said: “If Pyeroy had trained other employees to use the mobile elevated work platform in emergency situations, Mr Stevens would have been lowered to the ground more swiftly.” She added: “This case highlights the need for duty holders to properly plan all work at height beforehand, including emergency planning and rescue situations.”
The National Counter-Terrorism Security Office (NACTSO) has published new ‘Crowded places guidance’. The TUC says the guide will be of interest to any union organising sectors where there may be an element of security for crowded places, including most public sector, hospitality, transport, entertainment and retail unions.
Perks like free fruit or yoga lessons at work might be nice, but they’ll do little to sort out stress at work. Australian National Mental Health Commissioner Lucinda Brogden said employers have a legal responsibility to provide a workplace that is both physically and psychologically safe. But, she said, too many employers offer ‘positive extras’ and shirk the hard stuff. “We try to jump to the positive – introducing the yoga, the fruit bowl, the staff party – but you have to work on reducing the negative before you can introduce the positive,” Brogden told a June banking and finance ethics conference in Sydney. Brogden said the more important – but harder – challenge is changing the workplace to reduce the causes of stress. Brogden's speech centred on the ‘moral distress’ that comes from knowing what should be done but lacking the resources or power to do it. It can also come from work duties that require you to act in a way that does not align with your values. At its worst, this sort of moral distress can lead to suicide. According to Brogden, the main elements of employee satisfaction are actually pretty basic. “What most people want is a reasonable job that lets them spend time with their families and have the opportunity to take a holiday,” she said. Brogden added that creating psychologically safe workplaces was not only the right thing to do, but also offers long-term financial benefits for companies that succeed. “The work we have done with the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] suggests that if we can improve our mental health system by 25 per cent, we can deliver a 1 per cent improvement on gross domestic product (GDP). This means there is a strong argument to invest to save,” she said. “And, of course, GDP is really the combined output of all the employers in the country. Every dollar invested in making our workplaces mentally healthy and free from psychological risk yields, on average, a $2.30 return.”
A devastating fire in a Bangladesh textile mill at the beginning of June highlights the need to extend and expand a groundbreaking safety accord that is set to end in May 2018, labour rights campaigners have said. The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which was established four years ago to improve structural, electrical and fire safety in Bangladesh's garment factories, is in the process of being renegotiated. While the Accord covers 2.5 million workers in the ready-made-garment industry, workers in Bangladesh's textile mills are not covered. On 1 June 2017 a fire broke out at Pakiza Textile Ltd in Savar, Bangladesh, injuring at least 21 workers. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), this fire “demonstrates the ongoing dangers to textile workers in Bangladesh, many of whom are producing goods as part of global apparel supply chains.” CCC’s Ineke Zeldenrust said: “Workers in textile factories often work for the same garment brands as those in Accord-inspected factories, but still have to risk their lives in unsafe workplaces. Brands should be aware that proper due diligence does not stop at those workers that stitch their clothes, but also covers the workers who are spinning, weaving and dyeing their textiles.” CCC and its partner organisations said that ensuring that the textile industry is covered by a transparent and inclusive programme of safety inspections is ‘an essential step’ towards preventing future injury and death.
Twenty-five years ago, faced with studies highlighting miscarriage and other risks in US computer chip plants and highly critical media coverage, US tech companies pledged to stop using chemicals that caused miscarriages and birth defects. But they didn’t solve the problem, they outsourced it. Bloomberg Businessweek says confidential data it has reviewed shows that thousands of women continued to face potential exposure to the same toxins until at least 2015. It added some are probably still being exposed today. Separate evidence shows the same reproductive health effects have also persisted across the decades. In 2010, South Korean physician Kim Myoung-hee began compiling and analysing occupational health studies about semiconductor workers worldwide, a topic that had drawn little attention in the country despite the industry’s importance there. She found 40 different studies published by 2010, and virtually every one mentioned exposure to toxic chemicals. “I had no idea that this is a chemical industry, not the electronics industry,” she said. She identified the same chemicals that caused such concern in the US over two decades before. In 2013, Kim examined health data from electronics giants Samsung, SK Hynix, and LG. She found significantly elevated miscarriage rates and a rate for those in their 30s almost as high as in the US factories. And the findings were conservative, because many women don’t go to the doctor for miscarriages, and because production workers couldn’t be separated in the study from those who worked in offices. “This was not the result I had expected,” Kim says. Despite US industry claims that use of the glycol ethers linked to reproductive harm had ceased, testing data obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek showed that changes weren’t made quickly or, in some cases, completely. The industry was in effect trading exposure in US workers for exposure in women overseas.
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