|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 protected]|
Silly season has well and truly started, front pages leads this week from two Tory supporting papers suggest. A 15 August Daily Mail splash reads ‘Death knell of Common sense’, with a subhead saying – ‘Yes, it’s all down to health and safety!’ The Telegraph not only leads with the story on its front page, it has an editorial that claims ‘Where the Nazis failed, health and safety has triumphed, as the nation’s timepiece is muted to spare the hearing of engineers carrying out restoration work. They could wear ear protectors, of course, but this is deemed ‘not desirable for those working at height’.” The Sun also chimes in, claiming the project is “all bong wrong”. The TUC however points out “this is all total nonsense. The bells are regularly silenced for servicing, most recently ten years ago. They were also stopped between 1983-85 when there was a big refurbishment programme.” Keeping the bells ringing would also be an impossibility, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson adds. “During the process the bells will be disconnected and the weights lowered to the bottom of the shaft, so the idea of keeping the bells ringing, or even ringing them once a day is a non-starter, although the bells will be put back in place for events such as New Year, at considerable effort and cost.” The TUC specialist also points out that at 118 decibels, the noise level close to the bells is so loud workers would be at serious risk of occupational deafness. Excessive noise is also bad for the heart and can pay havoc with concentration – not good when working hundreds of feet in the air. Robertson warns there is an insidious purpose behind the headlines. “Once again we are having the message pushed at us that health and safety is out of control. This time with the added touch that it is destroying a good old fashioned and much loved British institution. As the Telegraph fumed ‘the most famous emblem of the nation is being silenced at a crucial time as the UK negotiates the terms of its new identity.’ In fact I am surprised that none of the papers have so far linked it to Britain being able to get rid of these ridiculous rules such as hearing protection once we leave the EU (but there is still time).”
Far fewer firms are facing the courts for their workplace health and safety crimes, latest figures show. The TUC says while the fines total had risen sharply since new sentence guidelines were introduced, the number of prosecutions taken by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has plummeted. The union body says according to the latest HSE annual report, in 2015/16 the HSE instituted 696 cases, 95 per cent of which resulted in a conviction for at least one offence. In 2016/17, however, provisional figures show that this fell to 547, a decline of 21 per cent. The use of improvement notices for criminal safety offences, by contrast, increased to 6,700 in 2016/17, up from 5,700 the year before and 6,270 in 2014/15. Between February 2016 and February 2017, the total value of fines imposed on businesses for health and safety offences was £73.2 million. That was up from £35.4 million for the previous 12 months. This reflects new beefed-up sentencing guidelines that came into effect in February last year. The figures also confirm HSE staffing continues to fall in all categories, including frontline inspectors. Total HSE staffing was down to just 2,524 staff as of 31 March 2017. Only 1,061 of these were frontline inspectors, down from almost 1,500 in 2004, when HSE was responsible for far fewer workplaces (Risks 382). TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson says the figures reinforce the importance of trade union safety reps. “Not only do we keep the workplace safer but we can make sure that, whenever an injury or illness leading to more than seven days off work does occur, it is reported, and that less severe injuries are recorded in the accident book,” he said. “The one area that prosecutions are more likely to take place is after a fatality. Again, the priority must be in prevention, but a prosecution of the employer sends an important message and can help give a sense of justice to the family of the victim.” But the TUC safety specialist raised a concern that “workplace killings are treated differently than other killings,” with corporate manslaughter prosecutions taken against the firm. Where individuals are targeted, manslaughter by gross negligence charges are typically filed. “But the penalties on conviction for this type of offence are, on average, less than half that of the other types of manslaughter, with an average of four years in prison against 8-10 for the others” [voluntary, unlawful or involuntary manslaughter]. For health and safety offences the sentence is often suspended. Robertson said the TUC hopes a Sentencing Council recommendation “bringing penalties for health and safety manslaughter in line with all the others” will be accepted.
An airline industry code of conduct on disruptive passengers is failing to stem the tide of drunken and anti-social behaviour at UK airports and on flights from the UK, according to the union Unite. Its survey of over 4,000 cabin crew working for British-based airlines found that 87 per cent of respondents had witnessed drunken passenger behaviour at UK airports or on flights from UK airports. More than threequarters (78 per cent) of those who witnessed disruptive passenger incidents at UK airports or on flights from the UK said it had happened since July 2016, when the code of conduct was introduced. Unite said with the holiday season in full swing, the findings of the survey will strengthen the case “for the code to be given teeth and tougher penalties for disruptive anti-social passenger behaviour.” Just 14 per cent of cabin crew said they had seen a reduction in drunken disruptive behaviour on board flights from the UK, while 16 per cent said there had been a reduction at UK airports since the code was introduced. More than half of those taking part in the survey said they had suffered verbal abuse, while one in five (20 per cent) experienced physical abuse and one in ten (10 per cent) said they had suffered sexual abuse on flights from UK airports. Unite national officer for civil air transport Oliver Richardson said the abuse “endangers the safety of passengers and crew and should not be tolerated. The industry and the government need to recognise that the code of conduct must be given teeth, look at factors such as levels of alcohol consumption prior to flight departures, as well as tougher penalties for the perpetrators of such behaviour.” He added: “We would urge the industry and ministers to join Unite in developing an action plan to rid the skies of disruptive and dangerous behaviour.” A 14 August broadcast of the BBC documentary programme Panorama revealed arrests of passengers suspected of being drunk at UK airports and on flights have risen by 50 per cent in a year. It said a total of 387 people were arrested between February 2016 and February 2017 - up from 255 the previous year.
The Scottish government must act now to improve security and staffing levels on some rail routes to help combat rising anti-social behaviour and criminality, the train drivers’ union aSLEF has said. The union has told Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf its members are ready to refuse to work on high risk services unless something is done. Kevin Lindsay, ASLEF’s organiser in Scotland, said: “There has been a continuous rise in violence and anti-social behaviour against rail staff on trains and at stations on services from Glasgow Queen Street to Helensburgh and Balloch. As a union, we believe it is imperative that the transport minister takes urgent action to ensure that passengers and rail staff are safe.” The union wants the minister to require that every train has at least two members of staff on board. It also says there must be an increase the presence of British Transport Police on trains and at Helensburgh and Balloch stations. Other measures sought by the union include government backing for restraining orders for repeat offenders and support for staff who refuse to work trains west of Dumbarton. “Our members are at the end of their tether and getting ready to refuse to work on these services,” said the ASLEF organiser. “There are real concerns that a member of the public, or a rail worker, is going to get seriously injured or worse.” He added: “As a union we will be seeking legal advice on our ability to use current laws to take action against the individuals, their parents or guardians, including the local council, Scottish government and ScotRail over past and any future physical or verbal assaults on our members. So an urgent response is needed from the minister before a community loses its rail services and, more importantly, a rail worker is seriously hurt or worse.”
Tube union RMT has said a ‘reckless’ disregard for safe staffing on the Tube is putting lives at risk. The union warning came in the wake of a series of serious incidents on the London Underground, including one where an injured member of the public was left unattended on an unstaffed Tube platform. This was despite clear warnings by the rail safety regulator, the ORR, after a death at Canning Town station (Risks 810). In the latest incident, on 3 August at the unstaffed Ickenham station on the Metropolitan line, an unconscious man was spotted by a train driver who raised the alarm, but it was nearly 30 minutes before staff from other stations arrived to attend the man, who had fallen down stairs and was ‘bleeding profusely’. RMT said it was clear that London Underground’s de-staffing policy had contributed to the delay in getting assistance to the man. The union said it was “pure luck” that a train operator coming through the station saw the individual lying on the floor and raised the alarm. An incident at Preston Road on 5 June involved a person under a train with no station staff on duty. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “It simply defies belief that London Underground is still recklessly running services on the world’s busiest railway through stations that have no staff available. That is despite a legal warning from the safety regulator, the ORR, and a growing catalogue of serious incidents including a fatality.” He added: “RMT will be continuing to push the demand with LU directors that where the cuts mean that there are no staff available, then the station should be closed. How many more serious incidents will it take before London Underground get to grips with the staffing crisis on their stations?”
PCS members at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), including driving examiners and vehicle testing staff, are to be balloted for industrial action in a protracted dispute over health and safety, travel time arrangements and other changes to terms and conditions. The union says the dispute involves all DVSA operational staff, including driving examiners and vehicle testing staff, and centres on the DVSA’s plans to impose a ‘flexible working’ regime giving managers the ability to deploy staff anywhere they choose without notice. Staff would be expected to travel on these deployments in their own time. PCS says the proposals effectively mean workers could be required to work the equivalent of an extra day per week for free. DVSA insists these journeys are not working time and will be undertaken at the worker’s own risk. Workers who suffer an accident or crash will not be covered by the Civil Service Injury Benefits Scheme. PCS says DVSA also intends to rip up an interim agreement covering testing schedules, deployment, health and safety and working time and conditions. The union says: “PCS members cannot accept imposed arrangements that provide maximum flexibility for the employer and require workers to work additional hours for free.” It adds the ballot follows a protracted failure by DVSA to engage with the union. “PCS has put forward six possible solutions that could have resolved this dispute. We have sought compromise at every turn but our proposals have been dismissed out of hand by an employer determined to attempt to undermine terms and conditions and force workers to do more for less.” DVSA this month launched a ‘zero tolerance’ campaign it says is intended to combat physical and verbal assaults against its staff.
The “vast majority” of UK clothing factories have worse ethical standards than China, Bangladesh and Burma, the chief executive of high street fashion chain New Look has said. Anders Kristiansen accused British factories of underpaying staff and failing to meet health and safety standards. He also accused New Look’s rivals of deliberately ignoring the issue. The retail chief was commenting after a TV programme exposed exploitation in his company’s UK supply chain. Kristiansen told the Times the problem is so widespread New Look has stopped using over 100 UK factories over the last three years after “so many” audits found they didn’t meet standards. “People just don’t care - they care about standards in Asia but not on their own doorstep,” Kristiansen said. “I don’t want to be a part of it. Our competitors don’t see it the same way. They know about the problem but don’t want to fix it. The vast majority of all UK factories have issues with health and safety and salaries. They have people on benefits and pay them a couple of pounds an hour. We’ve audited so many factories and they just don’t pass.” The retail chief’s comments follow a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation that discovered workers in a factory in Leicester, found to be producing clothes for New Look, were paid £3.50 per hour. Kristiansen said that although using UK locations would make New Look’s supply chain more efficient, he would not use more until factories ethics had been cleaned up. “We want to be 100 per cent ethical in what we do,” he said.
Buying powerful laser pens could require a licence in future, the government has said, amid concerns over the number of attacks on aircraft. Ministers say the move, which has been welcomed by pilots’ union BALPA, could also see new measures to license retailers and restrict advertising after warnings about the risks to pilots and planes. Last year, 1,258 incidents of lasers being shone at aircraft were recorded by the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has launched an eight-week consultation on the issue. Business minister Margot James said: “Used irresponsibly or maliciously, these products can and do wreak havoc and harm others, with potentially catastrophic consequences. That's why we want to hear from business groups, retailers and consumers about the best way to protect the public from this kind of dangerous behaviour and improve safety.” Licensing schemes already exist in countries including Australia, Canada and the US. In the UK, shining lasers at aircraft can incur a fine of up to £2,500. Brian Strutton, general secretary of the pilots’ union BALPA, said: “Startling, dazzling and distracting a pilot at a critical stage of flight has the potential to cause a crash and loss of life. This is especially a problem for helicopters, which operate close to the ground and are sometimes single pilot operations.” He added: “There is also a growing concern that, as the power of available lasers increases, the possibility of permanent damage being caused to pilots’ and passengers’ eyes increases. We would like to see the laser threat taken very seriously before there is a fatal accident and BALPA therefore supports the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in their call for evidence.”
Modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK is “far more prevalent than previously thought,” the National Crime Agency has said. The government agency said there were more than 300 live policing operations currently, with cases affecting “every large town and city in the country.” The NCA said previous estimates there were 10,000-13,000 victims in the UK were the “tip of the iceberg,” with visible injuries one of the tell-tale signs to look out for when identifying slave labour. NCA vulnerabilities director Will Kerr said he had been shocked with what he had seen during this year's intensive efforts to break up gangs, with almost every major operation triggering even more investigations. “The more that we look for modern slavery the more we find the evidence of the widespread abuse of vulnerable [people],” he said. “The growing body of evidence we are collecting points to the scale being far larger than anyone had previously thought. The intelligence we are gaining is showing that there are likely to be far more victims out there, and the numbers of victims in the UK has been underestimated.” He said that trafficking into modern slavery was now so widespread that ordinary people would be unwittingly coming into contact with victims every day. NCA warned that the key sectors for slavery now included food processing, fishing, agriculture, construction, domestic and care workers and car washes. It added that signs of abuse included anything that suggested someone was being controlled or coerced into work - such as the manner of their dress, visible signs of injuries, signs of stress and the manner in which they had come to work in a particular area.
A South Yorkshire firm has been hit with a six figure fine after a worker was scorched by a ‘burning cloud’. The female employee sustained flash burns to her face, neck, chest and arms in the incident at Rotherham-based manufacturer Pyronix. The firm, which makes intruder alarms, appeared at Sheffield Magistrates' Court where it admitted a criminal breach of safety regulations. It was fined £140,000 and ordered to pay £3,133.25 in costs. The court heard how the worker had been dipping printed circuit boards (PCBs) into a highly flammable Fluorocoat Thin Film Coating to protect them against humidity when she was injured in 2015. As she removed a basket of the PCBs, she saw a ‘burning cloud’ spread through the tank as the Fluorocoat ignited, and she was unable to avoid being burned. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found improvements were needed to protect workers. The modifications, which have since been introduced, include only installing batteries in PCBs after dipping and introducing better exhaust ventilation and measures to control static. Employees have also received additional training. HSE inspector Laura Hunter said: “This incident could so easily have been avoided by simply carrying out correct control measures and safe working practices. Companies should be aware that HSE will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action against those that fall below the required standards.”
Tata Steel has been fined after it exposed five people to toxic substances at its Scunthorpe Steel Works. The firm admitted releasing a large quantity of benzole, exposing five workers to risk of death from flammable vapours on 17 June 2011. A major and volatile component of benzole is the potent carcinogen benzene. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation showed Tata had failed to take appropriate safety measures. Tata Steel UK Ltd was fined £930,000 and ordered to pay costs of £70,000, at a hearing at Hull Crown Court. At a previous hearing, the company pleaded guilty to two criminal breaches of safety law. The HSE said two of the workers involved in the incident were exposed to the chemical and suffered coughing and breathing difficulties. They were sent to hospital and discharged the next day. It said the release of benzole could have caused serious injury or death had it ignited. HSE inspector Stephen Hargreaves said: "It was extremely fortunate no one was seriously affected by this incident. Had the flammable vapour cloud ignited this could have resulted in multiple fatalities.” He added: “This incident highlights the need for all duty holders to implement and address all concerns and potential risks which have been identified. Tata's failure to do so in this case put a number of workers at risk of serious harm.” The Scunthorpe works is a top tier Control of Major Accidents Hazards (COMAH) site due to the large amounts of highly flammable and toxic chemicals stored.
The campaign group Scottish Hazards is to run a free half-day conference on 8 September on how to combat the health and safety risks of ‘precarious work’. The group says insecure work is on the increase, and can lead to an “increased incidence of workplace injury, work intensification and stress levels, or decreased collective organisation and trade union membership.”
Ÿ Precarious work: Health and safety concerns and ideas for action, Friday 8 September 2017, 12:30–4:00pm UNISON offices, 84 Bell Street, Glasgow.
A highly potent opiate which has become a major public health concern in North America, is now placing Canadian prison staff in danger. A union says in recent weeks, at least nine federal correctional officers have been exposed to the prescription pain killer fentanyl, which is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Fentanyl has become a major concern both when used as a prescription and as an illicit drug. There have been no reported fatalities involving Canadian correctional officers, but there have been several inmate deaths owing to fentanyl exposure. “The problem with fentanyl is that it’s so small that it can be easily hidden or mixed in with substances,” said Ryan DeBack, the Prairies region vice-president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO). In mid-July, several Correctional Service staff members were exposed while inspecting inmate mail. “Someone was sending fentanyl through institutional mail,” Mr DeBack said. “There were drugs in this one letter that was opened on a desk. Minutes later six staff are exposed.” The opioid antidote naloxone was administered to two of the workers. In another case, fentanyl powder blew into a correctional officer’s face while inspecting an inmate’s book. The union argues that official safe handling requirements only kick in once staff have detected three grams of highly toxic substances, whereas other emergency responders don protective gear when just one gram is detected. “We’re saying that’s not right,” UCCO national president Jason Godin said. “The problem with fentanyl is that just something the size of a grain of salt can harm you.” Prison officers in Ontario have asked for more training about how to perform certain vital tasks in the possible presence of fentanyl. “When we do CPR, for example, we still have a requirement for a mouth-to-mouth component,” said Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of the corrections division of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. “If you’re trying to save someone’s life, you’re not necessarily paying attention to residue on their body or outfit. How we deal with all this is a huge concern for our staff.”
The Indian government is to constitute a vigilance committee to investigate a spate deaths of sanitation workers after inhaling toxic gases while cleaning sewage lines manually. Nine contract workers have lost their lives in less than two months in Delhi. Delhi water minister Rajendra Gautam said in a tweet he was “shocked” to see that contractors are ignoring the Prohibition of Manual Scavengers Act 2013. The law was supposed to end the need for workers to enter sewers, with the process automated instead (Risks 669). The latest government action followed the death of two brothers, Jahangir, 24, and 22-year-old Izaz, while cleaning a sewage tank in at a shopping mall in east Delhi's Anand Vihar. They were working with their father Yusuf, 50, who is battling for his life in a hospital along with a firefighter involved in the rescue operation, who also inhaled the toxic fumes. None of them were equipped with any safety gear at the time of the incident. “I am making a vigilance committee to monitor such illegal activities and stop such acts,” the minister said. “There should not be any such incidents in future.” The minister also held a meeting with officials of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) and other government departments regarding the issue. Days earlier, three sanitation workers who were manually cleaning a sewer line, maintained by the DJB in Lajpat Nagar, died after inhaling poisonous gases. The incident came three weeks after the death of four men while cleaning a septic tank in south Delhi. Sanjay Gehlot, president of the MCD sanitation workers’ union, said: “How can they risk the lives of workers like this? The government should take immediate action against these contractors.” Those undertaking manual scavenging work are drawn from the Dalit community, which has faced entrenched discrimination and disadvantage in India.
The American workplace is physically and emotionally taxing, with workers frequently facing unstable work schedules and unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions, according to a new study. The findings, from research conducted by investigators at the RAND Corporation, Harvard Medical School and UCLA, are based on the American Working Conditions Survey - one of the most in-depth surveys ever done to examine conditions in US workplaces. More than one-in-four American workers say they have too little time to do their job, with the complaint being most common among white-collar workers. In addition, workers say the intensity of work frequently spills over into their personal lives, with about one-half of people reporting that they perform some work in their free time in order to meet workplace demands. “I was surprised how taxing the workplace appears to be, both for less-educated and for more-educated workers,” said lead author Nicole Maestas, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and an adjunct economist at RAND. “Work is taxing at the office and it's taxing when it spills out of the workplace into people's family lives.” Nearly threequarters of American workers report either intense or repetitive physical exertion on the job at least a quarter of the time. While workers without a college education report greater physical demands, many college-educated and older workers are affected as well. More than half of American workers report exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions. Nearly one in five workers – described by the report authors as a “disturbingly high” fraction - say they face a hostile or threatening social environment at work.
A flurry of recent activity by the Trump administration aimed at rolling back workplace safety protections is compromising worker safety, top experts Kathleen Rest and David Michaels have warned. They say if you work, or know someone who does, you need to pay attention — people’s lives are literally at stake. Rest, who heads the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Michaels, a university professor who was the head of the US safety regulator OSHA under Obama, note: “Since January, we’ve seen delays and rollbacks in workplace protections. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed weakening protections for workers exposed to cancer-causing beryllium and delayed enforcement of its silica rule, increasing the likely incidence of lung disease. It has delayed the electronic submission of injury and illness data and stopped releasing public information about enforcement actions, inhibiting public and researchers’ access to data that can inform prevention. And Congress has permanently terminated OSHA’s ability to fine employers with a long-standing pattern of injury and illness record-keeping violations, a previously important signal to others in the industry.” Rest and Michaels add: “Equally worrisome are proposed budget cuts for research, education and training designed to improve the health and safety of our nation’s workplaces — research that enhances knowledge on existing and future hazards; that underpins government policies and workplace practices; and that spurs innovations in workplace safety.” They conclude: “For the sake of our own loved ones - and the collective welfare of the nation’s current and future workforce, it is a time for vigilance and voice on behalf worker health and safety research and enforcement. We need to raise our voices, speak out, and hold our elected leaders accountable for ensuring that our science-based worker protections remain strong.”
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/