|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.
Fees for those bringing employment tribunal claims have been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, following a long running legal challenge by the public service UNISON. The government will now have to repay up to £32m to claimants. It introduced the fees in 2013, saying the measure was intended to reduce the number of malicious and weak cases, but that led to a 79 per cent reduction over three years. Victimisation for raising safety concerns fell into the highest cost band, with a £1,200 fee to take a case. UNISON argued that the fees denied workers access to justice. In a ruling delivered on 26 July, the Supreme Court also found fees were indirectly discriminatory to women. It said the government was acting unlawfully and unconstitutionally when it introduced the fees. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Today’s Supreme Court ruling is the most significant judicial intervention in the history of British employment law. This result is a massive win for our union and a massive win for all workers, whether they’re UNISON members or not. Working people who need protection the most – low-paid workers, the vulnerable and those treated poorly by their employers – were denied access to justice by employment tribunal fees.” He added the ruling by the country’s top court “should bring to an end the cruel employment tribunal fees regime, and ensure that no-one else is ever forced to pay crippling fees just to access basic justice. But it is also a reminder of the importance of trade unions in fighting for all of our rights, and the importance of a legal system that allows us to stand with our members, and win for our members.” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Too many low-paid workers couldn’t afford to uphold their rights at work, even when they’ve faced harassment or have been sacked unfairly. Tribunal fees have been a bonanza for bad bosses, giving them free rein to mistreat staff. Any fees paid so far should be refunded as soon as possible.”
The Conservative government’s announcement that the state pension age will rise to 68 seven years early has been condemned by unions, who warn some won’t survive their jobs that long. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Hiking the state pension age risks creating second-class citizens. In large parts of the country, the state pension age will be higher than healthy life expectancy. And low paid workers at risk of insecurity in their working lives will now face greater insecurity in old age too.” She added: “Rather than hiking the pension age, the government must do more for older workers who want to keep working and paying taxes. Workplaces and working patterns need to adapt to their needs. And the government must follow the independent review’s recommendation to give more help to those unable to stay in work until retirement age.” Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary for Unite, said: “The one size fits all state pension age is clearly not fit for purpose. There is a huge difference in the physical health of a worker who leaves school and undertakes manual work and a worker who enters the workplace much later and has less physically strenuous job demands.” She added: “In industries such as construction, the majority of the workforce are already forced out of their roles prior to 65 because of ill-health and injury. This increase will result in even more workers being forced into poverty, too old to work but too young to claim a pension.” Chris Keates, general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, said: “This government is clearly determined to make teachers ‘work until they drop’, in a profession already recognised as one of the most stressful in the country.”
Merseyrail train drivers and guards have taken further strike action in their fight to keep the service safe for passengers. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said the strike on 23 July was to defend the safety critical role of train guards. The union pointed out that just days before the 24-hour stoppage a guard sprang into action to extinguish a fire started by a passenger on a Merseyrail train. The RMT leader said: “Any hacking away at the role of the guard in the interests of private profit would have catastrophic consequences and Merseyrail and their supporters need to face up to that fact as a matter of urgency.” The union said it recognised “the severe impact” the strike would have but it had “no option but... to force the company back to the negotiating table.” Mick Cash said: “Merseyrail have repeatedly kicked all conciliatory approaches by RMT negotiators back in our faces and made it crystal clear that all that they are interested in is the union signing a surrender document, which gives them a free hand to rip apart the safety culture on the railway.”
A Barrow benefits office threatened with closure has been saved following a hard-fought local campaign spearheaded by the union PCS. The union had argued the area would have lost the highly skilled team who process claims for industrial illness benefits under Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) plans to shut and relocate several health assessment offices and job centres across Britain. Barrow in Cumbria is a hot spot for industrial diseases including the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. News that the office will remain open until 2023 came from employment minister Damian Hinds. In a letter to Barrow and Furness MP John Woodcock, he said: “We had proposed to close Barrow Phoenix House in 2018, but we will now be retaining the office until 2023.” The Centre for Health and Disability Assessment (CHDA) staff and services currently based at Barrow Phoenix House will relocate to Barrow Jobcentre, the minister added. The news was welcomed by Mr Woodcock, who worked with local staff, unions and campaigners to fight for the future of Phoenix House. In March, protesters took to the streets of Barrow to make their voices heard. The Labour MP said: “This is brilliant news for the staff and the town, and is a testament to the committed campaign run by the Barrow workforce and their PCS trade union reps. The government was won over by our case, that vulnerable people like asbestosis industrial injury claimants would suffer if the expertise of local workers was lost. I am delighted for all the staff at Phoenix House who will now be able to put this period of dreadful uncertainty behind them and stay in Barrow using their skills on behalf of some of those most in need around the country.”
A union campaign to prevent work-related skin cancer has received a national award. Dave Joyce, national safety officer with the communication workers’ union CWU, received the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) certificate. CWU was one of only four organisations recognised for their ‘outstanding’ contribution to IOSH’s ‘No Time To Lose’ occupational cancer prevention initiative, launched 18 months ago. CWU members including postal workers and telephone engineers can spend large parts of their working day outdoors, so are an at-risk group for skin cancers if not properly protected. Kate Field, IOSH head of Information had said: “The ‘No Time to Lose’ campaign will work with employers and unions to raise awareness of solar radiation exposure at work and encourage employers and unions to launch their own campaigns including factsheets, posters, pocket cards to engage the workforce.” CWU’s Dave Joyce said: “I’m delighted that IOSH have recognised the great health and safety work of our union and the great value of the combined efforts jointly with Royal Mail.” He added: “Outdoor workers aren’t the easiest of groups to communicate with and we will continue to press the employers to reinforce the commitment and we still want more from them by way of free sunscreen for postal workers, because as the campaign states there’s ‘The No Time to Lose’.”
Britain’s jails are breaching criminal health and safety law, prison officers’ union POA has said, as the government secured a permanent injunction against strike action by guards. With chronic overcrowding, a drop in staff numbers and rising violence and drug use, Steve Gillan told the Morning Star it was “only a matter of time” before a prison guard was killed at work. Last November, the POA called on its members to walk out of prisons and hold meetings at the gates over safety concerns (Risks 777). However, the government secured an injunction forcing guards back to work. This was followed by a second injunction in February after the union instructed members to withdraw from riot patrols. Government lawyers said earlier this month they were seeking a permanent injunction “to ensure that POA does not seek to breach the law again.” John Hendy QC, acting for the POA, said the duties the union had asked workers to withdraw from were voluntary. But in a High Court ruling issued this week, Mr Justice Jay ruled in favour of the government. POA general secretary Mr Gillan commented: “Without a doubt, the government is in breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act. It’s only a matter of time before a prison officer is killed at work.” He added: “The health and safety of our members and those we look after are vitally important and the prison service and government cannot hide behind the courts forever.” The union leader said: “The POA will continue to support our members with health and safety legislation and will expose the hierarchy of the prison service and government on their continued failures. Perhaps it is now time for some directors in the prison service to step aside or indeed be removed from their positions. Their failings are blatantly obvious for all to see.”
Authorities in London must ‘as a matter of urgency’ implement the recommendations of a London Assembly transport committee to drive up safety and reduce the stress and fatigue hitting London’s 26,000 bus drivers, Unite has said. The call on London mayor Sadiq Khan and Transport for London (TfL) came after the committee’s report, ‘Driven to distraction’, identified long shifts, inadequate breaks and irregular shift patterns as causing high levels of stress among the capital’s bus drivers. Warning ‘against speed increasingly being put before safety’, Unite backed the report’s call to revise the incentive scheme for bus operators and place the emphasis on bus safety rather than solely on punctuality. Unite regional officer John Murphy commented: “London bus drivers do one of the most stressful jobs in the capital. It will alarm passengers that they have to work in regime which places speed ahead of safety, driving under constant pressure to run on time on some of the busiest streets in the country.” He added: “Unite has long been calling for action to be taken to alleviate stress and fatigue on London’s buses and welcomes the London Assembly transport committee’s report. It cannot be allowed to gather dust and its recommendations overlooked or ignored. We need a shift in working culture on London’s buses with driver and bus safety the priority, rather than squeezing costs and meeting incentive targets.” Murphy concluded: “The mayor of London and TfL need to place safety ahead of punctuality when contracts are awarded and implement the key findings of this report as a matter of urgency.” Caroline Pidgeon, deputy chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee said bus drivers “exist in a pressure cooker situation”, adding: “The Mayor of London incentivises bus operators to meet punctuality targets, but not to reduce collisions and injuries. It’s an outrage and something the son of a bus driver should recognise and rectify immediately.”
Tube union RMT is calling for an independent inquiry into London Underground’s (LU) ‘disastrous’ Fit for the Future job cuts programme after the company was hit with enforcement action for a criminal safety breach. The legally binding improvement notice issued by government regulator ORR came after the company had ignored repeated warnings from RMT safety reps. It followed an investigation into the death of customer Bernard Ovu at Canning Town on the 29 January this year. The union said the enforcement action was necessary after a ‘cheapskate’ attempt to run West Ham and Canning Town stations with one member of staff. RMT said both locations, like many others on the network, are ‘huge superstations’ with multiple lines. These stations were previously equipped with hi-tech, fully working control rooms, the union said, but these were shut because of the LU job cuts programme. The ORR improvement notice states London Underground “failed to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of risks to your employees, arising from lone working at these locations and you have failed to put in a safe system of work to avoid or control those risks.” The company must now undertake measures including a proper assessment of risks and its operational response, and training and assistance. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “For over two years before the implementation of ‘Fit for the Future’ RMT senior safety reps were warning the company that their plans for staffing at stations like Canning Town were completely inadequate and would lead to major safety incidents. Despite repeated warnings and detailed complaints, London Underground management and London Underground’s own safety department rubbished the RMT concerns.” He added: “The Mayor now needs to set up an independent inquiry into how London Underground were allowed to cut so many staff, despite their own safety and legal expectations, and why they routinely and totally ignored legitimate and factually correct concerns and warnings from senior trade union safety reps who themselves are highly experienced operational railway workers. RMT makes no apologies for continuing to force the issue of a properly staffed, safe underground for all.”
Three ships abandoned in UK waters have revealed a culture close to modern day slavery in some parts of the shipping industry, seafarers’ union Nautilus has said. Working with the global transport union ITF, Nautilus has been assisting the crews of the vessels. The three cases all involve one owner, Voda Shipping of Istanbul, Turkey. The abandoned ships are the Reggae in Port of Leith, Scotland; Tahsin in Sharpness, England; and Seccadi in Ellesmere Port, England. ITF inspector Darren Proctor, who secured unpaid wages and repatriation for the crew of the Panama-flagged Tahsin, said: “The vessel entered Sharpness, Gloucestershire on 31 May and was detained by the MCA [Marine and Coastguard Agency] after a complaint was received regarding outstanding wages and drinking water.” ITF inspector Liam Wilson, who assisted crew on the Reggae, said: “I can now confirm all wages are paid until the end of June and all crew are to be replaced from the vessel with full entitlements. Three months of the conditions they have been living and working under is enough for anyone. The risk they face is too high for them to simply sail out of port again and for the cycle of abuse and mistreatment to start again – they might not experience the same positive outcome next time.” ITF inspector Tommy Molloy, who said the union was providing ongoing assistance to the Indian crew of the Seccadi, criticised the company’s insurers. He noted: “I have never dealt with a company so incapable of understanding what was required of them to get out of the mess they had created.” He added: “As with other recent cases in the UK, this treatment — non-payment of wages, non-repatriation at the end of contracts and no food provisions — amounts to abandonment and once again raises the spectre of modern-day slavery on ships calling to our ports.”
The government has admitting it no longer has “the expertise” to monitor the number of work-related injury and occupational disease claims. Insurance law firm Weightmans, who produce an annual report on the level of personal injury claims in the UK, disclosed that its annual Freedom of Information request to the Compensation Recovery Unit (CRU) for the number of personal injury claims this year “was declined on the basis that ‘due to unforeseen circumstances’ they ‘no longer have the expertise in the Compensation Recovery Unit to produce robust data’.” A TUC-backed report in 2013 used figures provided by CRU, part of the Department of Work and Pensions, to prove the government was being “dishonest about the UK's 'compensation culture' in order to justify cutting basic health and safety protections at work.” These figures showed there had in fact been a dramatic drop in work-related injury and disease claims (Risks 616). Weightmans said the government’s inability to furnish the information for its 2017 report is “a concern”, particularly as ministers are seeking to change the law to further limit access to justice to those harmed by their work each year. The inability to keep track of claims has also alarmed personal injury lawyers. Tom Jones, head of policy at Thompsons Solicitors, said: “Coming from an insurance law firm this admission is a damning indictment of the government and fundamentally undermines the credibility of their claims of a ‘crisis’.” He added: “At a time when the government is trying to push through major changes to the funding of claims by people injured through no fault of their own - which will impoverish the public purse and boost the already bloated profits of insurers - it confirms what we have said all along: the government has no real grasp of the figures or data.” He added: “It almost makes you feel sorry for a government that through its own cutbacks cannot produce a shred of independent evidence to justify its policies. But then you remember that being totally reliant on insurance company data suits the government’s insurer mates - as it means they swallow the industry’s propaganda hook, line and sinker.”
Drones will have to be registered and users will have to sit safety awareness tests under new rules to better regulate their growing use, the government has announced. The move comes after a campaign for tighter controls by pilots’ union BALPA, which was concerned about a series of incidents that could have put passenger flights in danger. The new rules will mean owners of drones weighing 250 grams and over will in future have to register details of their drones “to improve accountability and encourage owners to act responsibly”, the government said. A new drone safety awareness test means owners will have to prove that they understand UK safety, security and privacy regulations. Aviation minister Lord Callanan said: “By registering drones, introducing safety awareness tests to educate users we can reduce the inadvertent breaching of airspace restrictions to protect the public. These measures come after a consultation looking at ways to make drone use safer while maximising their potential.” Findings of a study by the Department for Transport (DfT), BALPA and the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) released ahead of the announcement, showed drones weighing 400 grams had the potential to cause damage to helicopters and to airliner windscreens. A statement from BALPA noted: “BALPA believes the results of the tests are a robust verification of the Association’s warnings over several years that drone impacts on aircraft windscreens and helicopter rotors can be catastrophic, even at relatively modest speeds with small drones.”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has urged everyone involved in agriculture to talk about how they can prevent ill-health, injury and death on farms. The safety regulator says agriculture, forestry and fishing “remains the riskiest industry sector in the UK with 27 workers being killed on farms last year and three members of the public, making a total of 30 people according to HSE’s recently released fatality figures for the sector.” HSE was speaking out at the start of National Farm Safety Week, which ran from 24 to 28 July. Organised by the Farm Safety Foundation, the event offers support and guidance for those working in the industry. HSE chair Martin Temple said: “I personally have some experience of the challenges and risks farmers face on a day to day basis having grown up on a farm. Farming has changed and with new and different working practices and a transient workforce, all farmers need to constantly revisit and re-consider the risks faced by the people working on their farm.”
Reported sexual offences on trains have more than doubled in the past five years, according to statistics obtained by BBC Radio 5 live. The British Transport Police figures, which prompted train drivers’ union ASLEF to highlight the safety case for keeping guards on trains, show 1,448 offences were reported in 2016-17, up from 650 in 2012-2013. The majority of the incidents recorded were sexual assaults on females aged 13 and above. The reports cover England, Scotland and Wales and include the London Underground. The figures came to light following a freedom of information request from BBC Radio 5 live Breakfast to British Transport Police (BTP). Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, praised the effort BTP and train companies have put into campaigns to encourage victims to report abuse. She said the rise in reported offences does not suggest women are more at risk than a few years ago. “When the scale of sexual violence is better understood, police forces take it more seriously and measures can be taken to reduce the risks to women and tackle perpetrators, who for too long had been acting with impunity,” she said. “These figures showed that it is sober men, travelling to and from work who thought they were entitled to assault women passengers, and that they would get away with it.” ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said: “I commend the campaign by the British Transport Police to encourage victims of sexual assaults on the railways to come forward and report them.” He added: “I also believe this demonstrates the need for a second member of staff on board trains to provide safety and security for vulnerable passengers.”
Firefighters and police are turning to a charity for support for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) amid reports of managers mishandling the cases of mental health issues among their frontline workers. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire and recent terror attacks, around 30 police officers and firefighters have contacted PTSD999 — which offers advice and treatment from people who have worked in the emergency services. Sean Starbuck, lead officer for mental health with the firefighters’ union FBU, said the number of counsellors serving the entire London Fire Brigade was cut from 14 to two under former mayor Boris Johnson (Risks 805). He said some staff members have turned up to work when not fit to do so, adding there have been some “pretty horrific stories about how it’s been mismanaged.” Simon Durance, co-founder of PTSD999, said: “Evidence from blue light services staff and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers suggests the needs for staff suffering from PTSD are not being met. Many charities just signpost and actually don't deliver any treatment or diagnosis, and too much money is wasted talking about doing stuff and none spent on doing anything like treatment.”
Over half the council workers at the historic Geelong Saleyards tested for the disease Q fever have given positive results, prompting the Australian Services Union (ASU) to demand action. The City of Greater Geelong in the Australian state of Victoria has revealed 25 Geelong Saleyards workers have shown positive results for the presence of Q fever antibodies, out of 42 tested for the condition. Despite the positive tests, the council was not aware of any workers receiving an official diagnosis to date. The zoonotic disease is transmitted from animals to humans and can cause fever, chills, headaches and muscle pain. In a minority of cases workers can also suffer long-term liver or the heart condition Q fever endocarditis. “We had no idea it was this bad,” ASU Victoria branch secretary Richard Duffy said. The situation was worse than admitted by the council, he added. “Over 80 per cent of people who have been tested have tested positive, and they’ve tested over 60 people now. There are a variety of symptoms, some people are off work, but they’re continuing to test people. The more we look into it the worse it gets.” He said the union was concerned by reports from workers that they had not been immunised against Q fever, despite the use of vaccines being considered best practice for those working with animals. “It turns out that nobody has been immunised against it or vaccinated against it. We are seeking an urgent meeting with council to find out why,” Duffy said.
A human rights activist has exposed horrific death rates in workers cleaning India’s sewers. “Nobody takes responsibility for the deaths in sewers,” said Bezwada Wilson on hearing of the deaths of four men while cleaning a tank in Vasant Kunj last week. Calling the deaths ‘political murder’, Wilson said he had petitioned repeatedly the lieutenant governor and chief minister of Delhi and the National Human Rights Commission, even the prime minister, on the problem, to no avail. Wilson, one of the founders and the national convenor of Safai Karmachari Andolan, a campaign to end ‘manual scavenging’ in sewers, pointed out that in the past 100 days, 39 people had died across India while cleaning sewers. “This is not the first incident of the kind, just a part of regular occurrences,” he told the Times of India. Wilson said that despite providing documents on 56 men who had died cleaning sewers, the authorities had not identified them, so there was no prospect of their families getting any compensation. “Who will take action under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, which prohibits anyone from allowing a human to go into a sewer?”, Wilson asked. “The administration will simply claim that since 2013, nobody is entering sewers and cleaning has been mechanised. But the truth is not a single sewer in the country is cleared using mechanisation.” Wilson said that there is much talk about smart cities and bullet trains, but there is a need for smart sanitation too. “If 39 deaths in 100 days don't matter to the country, then this is one of the biggest challenges for our democracy,” he said.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has said it is “furious” following reports that the Tau Lekoa gold mine in Orkney ignored instructions from rock engineers who inspected the mine a few days before a lethal seismic incident. On 22 July, four workers who were working overtime died after they were trapped underground at the mine. “The NUM is highly disturbed by this tragic death of workers. This accident, like any other mining accidents, could have been prevented. We are told that recommendations were presented by rock engineers to the mine on how to mine safely,” Erick Gcilitshana, health and safety secretary with the mining union, said in a statement. “We want to call upon the department of mineral resources (DMR) to fully investigate this unfortunate accident. As the NUM we will make sure that no stone is left unturned.” Gcilitshana sent the union's condolences to the mine workers' families, saying that the NUM continued to insist that mining companies must be held fully accountable for such accidents. “They should shoulder responsibility and liability after every workplace injury or death,” Gcilitshana said. “As a union, we thought we were starting to observe a decline in fatal accidents; 52 fatalities were reported last year this time, already 41 fatalities have been reported so far since January this year.”
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