|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.
Sports Direct is asking warehouse staff to press a happy or sad face emoji on a touchpad to tell them how they're feeling when they clock in – allowing management to question them if they are disgruntled, the union Unite has said. According to the union, which has branded the practice an ‘emoji con’, workers selecting the sad face are asked if they are sure. Those pressing the sad emoji again are called in by management. Unite said the emojis stunt throws into question Sports Direct’s claims that the majority of warehouse workers feel they are treated with respect. Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: “There are still approximately 3,500 agency workers at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse, the vast majority on contracts that guarantee no more than 336 hours a year.” He said: “Put yourself in their shoes. Would you risk having hours withheld, possibly losing your job and being called in by management because you indicated dissatisfaction with your work environment? It’s nothing short of an emoji con and a bogus exercise to gloss over past failures and some of the problems which still persist in the warehouse.” Turner continued: “With reports from agency workers of crowded aisles, defective warehouse equipment and products stacked dangerously high, we know that health and safety is still a major cause for concern… Sports Direct still has a long way to go to clean its act up and risks the charge of ‘business as usual’ until it makes temporary agency workers direct permanent employees.”
A London council has been warned it needs to act now or face an official safety probe after the union GMB discovered workers had been unwittingly exposed to asbestos. The union, which represents the workers employed as heating engineers by FM360, a subsidiary of Hounslow Council’s in-house trading company Lampton, said it understands the employees unknowingly sawed through asbestos when carrying out the work in a residential property, under the false impression that FM360 had carried out the relevant checks and surveys to identify the risk of exposure to asbestos. The union said that following the incident, operatives requested that an asbestos survey be carried out to identify if asbestos had been present. But they say there were told that the cost to FM360 of meeting this legal requirement would lead to the service being outsourced to a private provider. Keith Williams, GMB senior organiser, said “serious questions” need to be asked about why FM360 did not carry out the checks and surveys legally required by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. He added: “With regard to the threat of outsourcing the service, no worker should be subjected to this type of culture, where the pound is worth more than the welfare and well-being of their employees… GMB have advised the council that unless confirmation is provided that the council’s in house trading company will be carrying out asbestos surveys in accordance with the procedures and regulations, GMB will have no alternative other than to raise this matter with the [official safety regular] HSE.”
Train operator Northern Rail has told its staff – including guards whose roles it wants to axe – that they are a first line of defence against terrorism. The message was sent to the firm's 5,700 strong workforce just 36 hours before a strike by RMT members, part of the ongoing dispute over plans to halve the number of safety critical guards on the firm's trains. The message sent by Northern Rail management said: “Following recent terror attacks, which we have witnessed in the UK and across Europe, it is a timely reminder that the safety and security of our customers and colleagues remains the responsibility of us all. The Northern family numbers in excess of 5,700 colleagues, each and every one of whom are the first line of defence against the preparation and delivery of such an attack.” But RMT says this message was sent to Northern Rail staff the week after another told staff the company will be removing guards from trains as part of their plans to introduce driver only operation on 50 per cent of services. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “This is an unbelievably insensitive and hypocritical message to send to Northern guards. On the one hand our members are told they are the first line of defence against the preparation and delivery of a terrorist attack and then on the other they are told they will no longer be required on half of all services in the future.” He added: “Just as if you cut police you increase the risk from terrorism then if you remove frontline rail staff you also jeopardise safety and security.”
The economic gains from digitisation, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) should be used to benefit working people, the TUC had said. A new report from the union body, ‘Shaping Our Digital Future’, notes that previous waves of technological change have not led to an overall loss of jobs, but the rewards from higher productivity have gone predominantly to business owners, rather than being shared across the workforce through better wages and working conditions. It says that the government, business and trade unions must work together to mitigate disruption to working people’s lives, and to maximise opportunities for working people to benefit. And with two-thirds of the 2030 workforce already in work today, efforts must focus on ensuring that existing workers are equipped to deal with the change, it says. Ideas from the report for how the benefits could be shared with workers include using income gains from higher productivity to stop planned increases in the state pension age, set to affect millions of people in their 40s. The report also says there will be opportunities to create new, ‘fulfilling’ jobs. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “With the UK failing to make productivity gains in the last decade, we need to make the most of the economic opportunities that new technologies are offering. Robots and AI could let us produce more for less, boosting national prosperity. But we need a debate about who benefits from this wealth, and how workers get a fair share.” She added: “The government could use the revenue generated to reverse policies to raise the state pension age. And businesses could use productivity gains to improve the pay and conditions of workers. Robots are not just terminators. Some of today’s jobs will not survive, but new jobs will be created. We must make sure that tomorrow’s jobs are no worse than today’s. They must provide fulfilling work, with good pay and conditions. And there must be funding to train people for new work if their job is made obsolete.”
Unite has expressed dismay after Birmingham city council reneged on a deal that had restored ‘grade 3’ jobs on refuse wagons and had led to the suspension of a seven-week bin strike (Risks 814). The grade 3 workers include those responsible for safety at the rear of the refuse vehicles. Bin workers resumed the strike last week after the deal fell apart when the council said it was issuing redundancy notices to some workers on this grade. Unite described the news contained in a letter from the council’s interim chief executive as ‘deeply provocative’. Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said: “The last thing refuse workers want to do is resume industrial action and see piles of rubbish accumulating on Birmingham’s streets. This is their city too. Our members want to focus on delivering a safe efficient service to people of Birmingham.” He added: “Unite calls on the council to come to its senses and withdraw these redundancy notices to avoid the disruption of industrial action.” Concerns in the US over the vehicle safety risks to refuse workers led to a spate of new laws. Last year, New York State become the latest in the US to introduce a ‘slow down’ law to protect garbage workers. Slow down laws had already been introduced in 11 other states over the last decade in response to distracted driving that has led to sometimes fatal incidents for refuse collection workers.
A Tory peer has argued Brexit is a good thing because it will mean the end of safety laws that protect young people from long working hours. Lord Harris, a retail tycoon estimated to be worth more than £100m, claimed he could only employ staff for 35 hours a week under current EU laws. However, the European Working Time Directive states employees should not be forced to work longer than 48 hours, and they can opt-out. During an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Lord Harris was asked to explain how leaving the EU would help young people. “Because we’ll have more freedom of laws,” he explained, adding: “Well if you take a retailer, we can only keep our staff on for 35 hours a week, I think it is now.” TUC digital content editor Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin commented that working time law is “not a restrictive regulation or an attack on business, it’s a common sense law that protects people from being forced to work unhealthy hours.” She added that despite Theresa May’s promise to ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained, “time and again, senior Tories have undermined that promise, couching their support for Brexit in attacks on workers’ rights.” She concluded: “As Tories continue to publicly denounce workers’ rights legislation, vague promises from government simply aren’t good enough. Working people need a concrete guarantee that their rights are safe from the likes of Lord Harris.” In May, the TUC warned health and safety protections were at risk as result of Brexit (Risks 800).
Nearly a third of fit notes issued by GPs are now for psychiatric problems. An NHS report says this makes them the most common reason for people to take time off work, ahead of musculoskeletal diseases. Overall, mental health and behavioural conditions accounted for 31 per cent of all fit notes issued in England, where the diagnosis was known. There was a 14 per cent rise in notes relating to anxiety and stress between 2015/16 and 2016/17. The Royal College of Psychiatrists said the findings were ‘alarming’ and pointed to a need for more to be done to help get people back to work. The new data analysed more than 12 million fit notes, issued over almost two and a half years from GP practices across England. Around half of the notes had a known diagnosis. It was the first time this information had been collected from GPs and analysed. The NHS Digital report also revealed that fit notes for psychiatric problems were being issued for longer periods of time than other types of illness. Jed Boardman, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said not enough was being done to facilitate a person's return to work. “GPs will write suggestions on the fit note, such as staggered work days or agreeing specific goals for the returning employer - both parties need to be more active in tailoring these suggestions to that person,” he said.
Disputed invoices raised under the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) fee for intervention (FFI) cost recovery scheme will now be considered by a fully independent panel. HSE said all disputes will now be considered by a lawyer – acting as chair – and two others who have practical experience of management of health and safety. HSE made the change, which took effect on 1 September, following a six week public consultation (Risks 798). Previously, disputes were considered by a panel with two HSE members and one independent and had been the subject of a legal challenge, with lawyers arguing HSE was operating as judge and jury. Fee for intervention was introduced in October 2012 “to shift the cost of regulating workplace health and safety from the public purse to businesses which break the law,” said HSE. “It ensures the costs of HSE’s work is picked up by those companies and not taxpayers.” These fees are charged at £124 per hour, and apply only where HSE finds a firm is in ‘material breach’ of safety law. Commenting on the decision to switch to an independent appeals panel, a spokesperson for HSE said: “We have consistently said that we would keep the dispute process under review, and are making sensible changes following the consultation and in light of four years’ experience of running fee for intervention. The revised process also provides greater clarity about the information which HSE will give to businesses to allow them to make appropriate representations to the dispute panel.”
Cleaners are at much higher risk of death from lung and heart disease than workers in other occupations, a study has found. A survey by a Belgian university, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), investigated the causes of mortality in a population of males and females aged between 30 and 60 who worked in the cleaning sector during the period 1991-2011. Using a group of executive and non-executive employees as a point of comparison, the study published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health found that the mortality rate from pulmonary disease was 45 per cent higher for men who had formerly worked in the cleaning sector, and 16 per cent higher for women in the same position. It concludes: “Respiratory and cardiovascular mortality is considerably higher for male and female cleaners than for non-manual workers.” Lung disease also puts damaging strain on the heart. The study analysed 202,339 deaths of males and 58,592 deaths of females. Lead author Laura Van den Borre told journalists the probable cause of the excess risk in former cleaners was exposure to chemicals in cleaning products and the biological risks associated with exposure to mould and dust.
Laura Van den Borre and Patrick Deboosere. Health risks in the cleaning industry: a Belgian census-linked mortality study (1991–2011), International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, first online 14 August 2017. ETUI news report
A company has been fined £450,000 after admitting criminal safety failings following the death of a teenage worker. Manchester Crown Court heard how Ben Pallier-Singleton, 19, had been driving a forklift truck at Chinley-based Vinyl Compounds Ltd on 10 February 2015, without adequate training, across uneven ground and in an area which was not properly lit. The forklift toppled over as he was turning and the safety frame of the vehicle landed on his neck, resulting in fatal injuries. James McKeon, prosecuting for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), told a sentencing hearing: “The fatal accident occurred in an area known to employees as the ‘graveyard’. Ben Pallier-Singleton had not been fully trained, instructed and therefore, even on the basis of the defendant’s own risk assessment, ought not to have been required to drive the forklift truck.” The company, which was said to have a turnover of around £31m, was fined £450,000 and must also pay costs of £71,728.20. In a statement following the hearing, Ben’s mum, Kathryn Pallier said: “I am heartbroken and angry that Ben could go to work and be killed because his employer took so little care of him, failed to train him properly or make sure the workplace was safe. It is utterly shocking this can happen.” She added: “The directors who made the decisions will be now able to get on with their lives, but we are serving a life sentence. Any fine they will pay is nothing, no penalty at all, compared to the penalty we face: life-long torment, endless sadness and grief without Ben.” Hilda Palmer, from Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) who has been supporting Ben’s family, said: “Nobody goes to work to die but do because employers are negligent and fail at basic health and safety law which is what happened to Ben. Now his family have to live without him and with their grief because of the company’s failings.”
A manufacturer of steel building components has been fined after a worker suffered fatal crush injuries from a steel beam. Worcester Crown Court heard how a Thomas Panels & Profiles Limited employee Jeffery Warner, 65, was fatally crushed when a steel beam emerging from a machine pushed another beam and crushed him against a closed door. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the 27 April 2015 tragedy, found the machine had been in operation since 2013 but did not have suitable safeguards to prevent the risk of crushing injuries. HSE also found the company failed to undertake an adequate risk assessment and its system of work was generally unsafe. Thomas Panels & Profiles Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £285,000 and ordered to pay costs of £29,961.48. A statement from Jeffery Warner’s family said: “On 27 April 2015, society lost an amazing person. Jeffery Warner was a loving father, grandfather, son, brother, uncle and a friend. Not a day goes by when he is not in our thoughts and we find it very difficult on a daily basis not to pick up the phone to talk to him or ask him a question. He was so skilful and his knowledge was exceptional. The past two years have been very emotional and we all miss him dearly.”
An engineering company has been fined after a 29-year-old worker was diagnosed with hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) – a potentially disabling condition causing tingling, pins and needles, numbness and pain in the affected person’s hands. Greater Manchester Magistrates’ Court heard how the employee, who was working in the trimming department at Taylor Engineering and Plastics Limited, was exposed to vibration from tools used to sand components. Health surveillance implemented at the company in 2014 showed that the employee had developed HAVS through occupational exposure to vibration. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the company risk assessments relating to vibration were not suitable or sufficient. It also found that health surveillance was not introduced by the company until 2014, despite regulations making this a legal requirement from 2005. Training for employees on the risks from vibration was also found to be inadequate and many were unaware of the consequences of exposure to high levels of vibration. The company did not have the right systems in place to manage the health of its workers and it failed to implement control measures such as using tools that had lower levels of vibration. Taylor Engineering and Plastics Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay costs of £1,171.00. HSE inspector Jennifer French said: “There is a well-known health risk associated with exposure to hand arm vibration and guidance has been in place since the early 1990’s. The company failed to protect workers using vibrating tools which led to an employee suffering significant health effects.”
The owner of block of flats has been fined after a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspection identified serious criminal safety breaches while the block was being demolished. Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard that a member of the public raised concerns about the conditions at the site in Mitcham. HSE found the owner of the property, Selliah Sivaneswaran, had not appointed a site manager and used untrained workers for the development project. The site had been inspected by HSE in October 2016 and the work halted due to the workers being exposed to a range of risks including asbestos, unsafe work at height, and fire. HSE revisited the site on 4 January 2017 and found the work had restarted while the site was still unsafe, despite legally-binding enforcement notices being served and advice being provided. The demolition continued to be carried out by hand with workers climbing onto the unguarded roof and throwing the debris down. The court heard that two days before the sentencing hearing, HSE had to return to the site and take further action. The project involved the demolition of the old flats and the construction of four one-bedroom flats and two two-bedroom flats on the London site bought for £115,000 in 2001. The court heard that despite the foreseeably large financial return from the project, Sivaneswaran put profit before safety and paid cash in hand to untrained workers, did not engage a site manager, and provided none of the legally-required site documentation. Selliah Sivguru Sivaneswaran pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay £1,421.20 in costs. HSE inspector Andrew Verrall-Withers said: “Instead of taking the support and advice provided by HSE, Mr Sivaneswaran continued to let the workers operate in appalling conditions where they were at risk of being killed. He did not even provide them with a WC or washing facilities.”
Results from Canada's first national survey looking at operational stress injuries among first responders such as police, paramedics, firefighters and emergency call operators suggests they are much more likely to develop a mental disorder than the general population. The research, published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, was conducted online between September 2016 and January 2017 by a group of mental health experts from across the country. Of the 5,813 participants, 44.5 per cent “screened positive for clinically significant symptom clusters consistent with one or more mental disorders.” Statistics Canada has reported that the rate for the general population is 10 per cent. “It's higher, and, surprisingly higher,” said University of Regina psychology professor Nick Carleton, who led the team of researchers. The research team also found women were more likely than men to screen as positive for a mental disorder, especially among firefighters. “It may be that women experience these kinds of careers differently than men, it may be that women are more likely to report than men. It may be that there's another variable that we have failed to identify entirely at this point that causes or explains some of the differences between men and women,” Carleton told CBC News. Symptoms of operational stress injuries also appear to increase with more years of service and more exposure to traumatic events.
R Nicholas Carleton and others. Mental disorder symptoms among public safety personnel in Canada, Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, published online, 28 August 2017. CBC News.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are being urged by trade unions to back an agreement between the European Council and European Parliament to give workers more and better protection against occupational cancer. The call from unions came after the new measures won the support of the parliament’s employment committee. “This is an important victory for trade unions which have campaigned for many years to stop the pandemic of occupational cancers,” said Esther Lynch, confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). The agreement on the first revision of the Directive on Carcinogens and Mutagens, approves the introduction of binding occupational exposure limits (OELs) for an additional 11 cancer-causing substances including chromium (VI) compounds and crystalline silica, and goes far beyond what the European Commission originally proposed. For instance, member states will now have to organise lifelong health surveillance for workers exposed to carcinogens. The agreement also requires the commission to explore extending the deal to reproductive toxicants by 2019. “Improved health surveillance will help save many lives” said Lynch “and protection from exposure to reproductive toxicants, if implemented, should prevent miscarriages, congenital malformations and serious health problems among the future children of exposed workers.” The ETUC aims to get binding OELs adopted for 50 priority carcinogens by the end of 2020, and is urging employers to engage in negotiations for further action to tackle work-related cancers. It said occupational cancers are the leading cause of work-related deaths, with more than 100,000 deaths every year in the EU.
Global action is needed to address the massive human and economic cost of occupational injuries and diseases, the head of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has said. “The global economic impact of the failure to adequately invest in occupational safety and health is roughly equal to the total GDP of the poorest 130 countries in the world,” ILO director-general Guy Ryder told nearly 3,500 participants during the opening ceremony at the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Singapore on 3 September. The new global estimates on work-related illnesses and injuries represent 3.94 per cent of global GDP per year, or 2.99 trillion US dollars. According to ILO, in human lives that means 2.78 million workers continue to die each year from work-related injuries and illnesses - 2.4 million of these deaths can be attributed to work-related diseases alone. Ryder expressed ILO’s readiness to engage in the development of a global coalition with key partners in meeting these challenges.
South Korea’s Supreme Court has ruled that a former worker in a Samsung LCD factory who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) should be recognised as having an occupationally caused disease, overturning lower court verdicts. In a milestone decision that could aid other sickened tech workers struggling to prove the origin of their diseases, the Supreme Court ruled there was a significant link between Lee Hee-jin’s disease and workplace hazards and her working conditions. Lower courts had denied her claim, partly because no records of her workplace conditions were publicly available. The Labor Ministry and Samsung refused to disclose them when a lower court requested the information, citing trade secrets. In its ruling, the court said the lack of evidence, resulting from Samsung’s refusal to provide the information and an inadequate investigation by the government, should not be held against the sickened worker. Instead, it said, such special circumstances should be considered in favour of the worker. Lee, 33, began to work at a Samsung LCD factory in Cheonan, south of Seoul, in 2002 when she was a high school senior. She evaluated nearly 100 display panels per hour on a conveyor belt, looking for defective panels and wiping them with isopropyl alcohol. She worked next to assembly lines that used other chemicals. Three years after she joined Samsung Electronics, she first reported the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a rare disease that affects the central nervous system. She left Samsung in 2007. Lee first filed a claim in 2010 with a government agency, which denied her request for compensation. She took her case to the courts and lost twice before the Supreme Court victory. She is the third Samsung worker to report multiple sclerosis and win in court but the first to win in the Supreme Court, according to SHARPS, a group that advocates for technology workers. The Supreme Court said the high level of physical and mental stress in her job, long working hours, everyday use of a chemical, possible exposure to other chemical substances used on nearby assembly lines, and a lack of a family history of the disease were enough to rule in the worker’s favour. The panel of four Supreme Court justices faulted the government agencies for failing to measure workers’ exposure levels during their early investigation and for refusing to disclose the exposures.
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