|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.|
The TUC has published new fire safety advice for trade union representatives in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. The union body says there are between 15,000 and 20,000 fires in non-residential buildings every year in the UK. Last year 2,000 of these fires were in industrial premises, more than 5,000 were in shops or similar commercial sites, while almost 2,000 were in schools or hospitals. Union health reps have a key role to play in fire safety, says the TUC, and should challenge employers to treat all aspects of fire safety, including prevention, as more than just a ‘tick-box exercise’. The TUC guidance sets out the law around fire safety, explains what is required from a thorough fire safety assessment, and looks at how to implement fire safety policies that will prevent and protect workers. There’s also a checklist for reps on what to look out for in terms of fire safety when they carry out their workplace inspections. The TUC believes workers in high-risk office blocks will have particular concerns about fire safety, following June’s Grenfell Tower fire. If not managed properly, high-rise buildings pose additional risks in terms of their construction and escape routes. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We must never see a repeat of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The government needs to act now and ensure that all high-rise buildings are safe, including those used as workplaces. Millions of people across the UK work in high-rise buildings, many of which could have cladding and insulation similar to that used in Grenfell Tower. Those workers need urgent reassurances about their safety, and if there is any risk to them, there must be immediate action.” She added: “Union reps have a key role to play in pressing employers to make sure that their buildings are safe. This guide will help familiarise reps with the latest law on fire safety, help them carry out better workplace inspections, and work with bosses to devise policies that will genuinely prevent and protect workers from fires.”
The TUC wants to hear from women safety reps, past and present, about their safety successes at work. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said he asked earlier this year for case histories from safety rep to illustrate the union safety effect (Risks 804). “We had a good response, but almost all were from men,” he said. “We know that a third of health and safety representatives are women so let’s hear from you. We really need examples that can show that union health and safety representatives made a difference. Often something quite simple is most effective.” The union safety specialist added: “We want the case studies for a report that the TUC is publishing to celebrate 40 years of the safety reps and safety committee regulations by highlighting some of the successes that we have had over the past 40 years.” He said make sure you include the name of the union, the employer, what was done and what was achieved, together with the who, why, where and when of how it happened.
Too many companies like Sports Direct are ‘addicted’ to the use of zero hours contracts and insecure working practices, Unite has warned. The union comments came as official figures showed there were 1.4 million contracts that did not guarantee a minimum number of hours. While down on the year before, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show zero hours contracts still accounted for five per cent of all employment contracts. They also revealed the number of workers employed on a zero hours contract in their main job remaining largely unchanged in the three months to June, falling by just 20,000 to 883,000 compared to the same period a year ago. Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner commented: “Insecure work is still a feature of day-to-day living for far too many people who are struggling to eke out a living, not knowing from one week to the next whether they can put food on the table.” He added: “The spread of bogus self-employment and low paid short hours contracts means millions are still in the grip of precarious work. Too many companies like Sports Direct are addicted to the use of exploitative zero hours contracts and insecure agency work. These firms base their whole business models on low paid precarious work. It won’t change unless people join a trade union and organise for better working conditions. The government must not let these firms off the hook either and must act to outlaw zero hours contracts and other mutations of precarious work.” The union official said: “We need an economy based on decent secure work, not the exploitative work practices of the Victorian era. The government needs to take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book and ban zero hours contracts now.” Insecure work has been linked to higher rates of ill-health, mental illness, suicide and work-related health problems.
Agency staff working on temporary or zero hours contracts face having shifts taken away as ‘punishment’ according to a new academic study produced in collaboration with a union. Researchers from the University of Salford and Sheffield Hallam spoke to dozens of agency workers, along with staff from the agencies themselves as well as unions and job centres. Their report, ‘Agency workers and zero hours contracts – the story of hidden exploitation’, was co-authored by Daiga Kamerade from University of Salford, Malcolm Ball from North Derbyshire Unite Community Branch, Professor Helen Richardson from Sheffield Hallam University and Colin Hampton from Derbyshire Unemployed Workers Centre. Some of the agency workers interviewed described how they were subjected to a ‘punishment regime’ in which shifts could be arbitrarily withdrawn if they opposed management, with some workers ‘sacked out of spite’. Some described how they had experienced mental health problems, were unable to see their children and were sometimes away from home for three days at a time due to their zero hours contracts. Daiga Kamerade said: “Agency and zero hours contracts are not the norm, but they are a growing feature of working life in the UK, with nearly seven per cent of all the new jobs created between 2010 and 2016 being temporary agency placements.” She said “many of these workers told us that shifts are simply given to people whose face fits and can be withdrawn from those seen as troublemakers. These draconian employment practices create a climate of punishment and fear which has no place in 21st century Britain and it is clear that more must be done to educate workers about their rights and to lobby government for more protection.” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Zero-hours contract workers are often treated like disposable labour. They can be let go in a heartbeat - or punished with fewer shifts.” She told the Morning Star: “That’s why all workers should have the right to a guaranteed-hours contract. Far too many are afraid to challenge bad working conditions.”
Twelve per cent of all paramedics and ambulance health care assistants in England were sick due to stress or anxiety last year. The union GMB revealed a total of 2,468 paramedics and health care assistants – or one in eight workers – had to take time off due to stress. The total number of days lost across England was 81,668 in the financial year 2016/17. The ‘shocking’ figures were compiled from freedom of information requests sent by GMB to all ten ambulance trusts in England. GMB said it is campaigning for the paramedic retirement age to be brought in line with other physically demanding frontline emergency service roles, such as police officers and firefighters, who are able to retire at 60. Kevin Brandstatter, GMB national officer, said: “These disturbing figures once again prove what we already know – that our frontline ambulance workers are in the midst a stress and anxiety epidemic. They are consistently overworked, underpaid and expected to do incredibly difficult jobs – such as dealing with the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster or Manchester bombings – without adequate staff or resources. It’s no wonder almost 12 per cent of the whole workforce is sick with stress.” He added: “Forcing ambulance staff to work up to the age of 68 is another major cause of stress. There’s no justification for treating paramedics differently to comparable physically demanding frontline roles.”
A proposed new scaffolding card scheme, set up as an alternative to an existing more rigorous system, will undermine standards and lead to scaffolders having different skills cards for different projects, construction union Unite has warned. The union said it has been informed by the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) that it is in the process of developing the new scaffolding card scheme. Unite says ECITB’s decision is the result of pressure from several offshore fabric maintenance companies and is being supported by the Scaffolding Association and the Offshore Construction Association. The proposed scheme will directly compete with the established scaffolding registration scheme, the Construction Industry Scaffolders Record Scheme (CISRS). According to Unite, the ECITB breakaway scheme “appears to be a direct result of the CISRS scheme introducing, from 1 July 2017, a compulsory two day continuing professional development course (CPD) which all scaffolders will have to undertake in order to have their card renewed.” The course was created following pressure from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The regulator expressed concern that the scaffold industry was not ensuring the ongoing competency of scaffolders. Unite national officer for construction Bernard McAulay said: “The proposal to introduce a rogue scaffolding scheme is bad news for workers. It will affect standards and create confusion on sites.” He added: “Scaffolding is one of the most safety critical roles in the construction industry and we should be ensuring that standards are being pushed up, rather than watered down.” He said: “In recent years there has been a great deal of effort in reducing the number of construction card schemes, in order to improve standards and to avoid confusion and it now appears that the ECITB is prepared to chuck that good work out of the window to appease a few penny-pinching employers.”
Airline cabin crew union Unite has repeated its call for a public inquiry into toxic cabin air, as an international two-day conference on the issue got underway this week at Imperial College London. The Unite sponsored conference, which is supported by the industry, comes as it emerged that easyJet is to fit cabin air filters to its aircraft. The discount flights firm says the move is to reduce the risk of toxic contaminated air entering airplane cabins and harming cabin crew and passengers. Unite, which represents over 25,000 cabin crew working for airlines operating out of the UK, has described the move as a potential 'game-changer' and an acknowledgement of the health problems caused by contaminated bleed air and fume events on board aircraft. Unite national officer for civil aviation Oliver Richardson said: “The move by easyJet to fit cabin air filters is a step in the right direction but more can and must be done to understand and combat toxic cabin air. The airline industry has been aware for years of the problem of contaminated cabin air and too many lives have been ruined for it to be swept under the carpet.” He added “the airline industry needs to face up to its responsibilities to passengers and cabin crew. We need an independent inquiry so that the dangers of toxic cabin air can be fully assessed and investigated in an open forum to give passengers and cabin crew peace of mind that the air they breathe on aircraft is not going to damage their health.” Unite is currently pursuing around 90 legal cases on behalf of former and serving cabin crew across several UK airlines who it says have suffered from fume events and toxic contaminated cabin air.
Teaching union NASUWT has welcomed a joint initiative in Wales to tackle teacher workload. The new guidance, which involves the distribution to schools of thousands of posters and ‘concertina’ advice cards, is supported by the Welsh government, trade unions and education standards agencies in Wales. NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said: “The NASUWT has been at the forefront of campaigning on teacher workload across the UK for many years and has been in continuous dispute with Welsh government on the issue since 2011.This guidance is a first step along the road to providing teachers with the professional agency to exercise control over their workload. This is something that has been sadly lacking in the past.” The union leader added: “Of course, the effectiveness of the guidance will require school leaders, local authority school improvement officers, consortia challenge advisers, school inspectors, government officials and other relevant personnel within the education system in Wales to demonstrate due regard for the responsibility they have in managing and reducing the workload of teachers in compliance with the statements on the poster and the concertina cards.” Rex Phillips, NASUWT national official Wales, said: “The NASUWT expects the posters to be displayed prominently in every staffroom in every school and welcomes the decision to distribute the concertina card to every teacher. This initiative will provide teachers and, where necessary the NASUWT, with the ability to take to task those who would continue to place unnecessary workload burdens on teachers in terms of daily or weekly lesson plans, marking and feedback to pupils and data collection - three of the biggest drivers of excessive workload.”
The entrenched acceptance of work-related ill-health in British workplaces has become so taken for granted, even company bosses now admit they are making you sick. And they say too little is being done to address the problem. New research from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found more than two-fifths of businesses are reporting a rise in cases of long-term ill-health, with the majority (80 per cent) stating tackling this growing problem is a priority within their organisation. The regulator sought the views of 300 ‘major business leaders’ and 40 per cent of respondents said their industry was not doing enough to raise awareness and tackle the causes of long-term work-related ill-health. The findings were revealed as HSE announced a new national campaign – ‘Go Home Healthy’. HSE says its campaign aims to reduce cases of work-related ill-health “by shining a light on the causes and encouraging employers to do the right thing to protect their workers’ health.” HSE’s chair Martin Temple, said: “Over the years, figures show that as workplace safety has improved, health has stagnated. The ‘Go Home Healthy’ campaign is about driving behavioural change in workplaces so we all can go home healthy.” Conservative MP Penny Mordaunt, the health and safety minister, said: “Work-related ill-health is a costly issue for individuals, businesses, and the whole economy. This campaign will encourage employers to operate healthier workplaces and ensure workers get the support that they need.” However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is reeling from an unprecedented government attack on its funding and its function. By 2019 its funding is set to fall 45 per cent from its 2010 level, and staffing has dropped dramatically.
The number of UK fire and rescue staff taking long-term sick leave due to mental illness has risen by nearly a third over the last six years, figures obtained by the BBC have shown. In London, fire staff taking mental health leave has doubled since 2011/12. This year, 103 London fire staff have taken mental health leave, some after working at Grenfell Tower. Two-thirds of fire services provided data following a Freedom of Information request submitted by BBC’s 5 live Investigates. The responses reveal the number of firefighters and other staff taking long-term mental health leave rose from 600 to 780 over the last six years. At least 126 staff have left the service due to mental health issues since 2011. Sean Starbuck, mental health lead for the firefighters’ union FBU, said: “The stigma attached to mental health needs to be consigned to the bins of history where it belongs. It's not going to get there on its own.” He added: “Fire services need to create an environment where firefighters feel able to disclose if they are suffering as a result of traumatic scenes they witness as part of the job. At the moment it appears many are unable to.” Faye McGuinness, programme manager for mental health charity Mind's Blue Light programme, told the BBC: “Our survey of over 1,600 staff and volunteers across emergency services shows nearly nine in 10 have experienced stress, low mood or poor mental health while working in their current role. A shocking one in four told us that they had contemplated taking their own lives.” She added: “Not everyone involved in a traumatic event will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. It can take a long time - sometimes years - for symptoms to emerge.” A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is the responsibility of fire and rescue services to have well-being services in place that meet their workforce needs.”
A newspaper criticised in court by a defence barrister for referring to a property developer as a ‘killer’ after a carpenter died on the job has been vindicated. Millionaire Mike Holland and his site foreman Grant Oakes were jailed this week for an “inexplicable failure” which caused Dave Clark’s fatal fall. During the case, barrister John Cooper QC criticised Brighton daily The Argus’s coverage of the case, saying that calling Holland a killer was “offensive and unhelpful.” The paper hit back in an editorial published the day after the sentencing, saying: “It is our job to report from court.” Holland, 70, and Oakes, 46, were found guilty of the manslaughter by gross negligence of carpenter Dave Clark, 55, who fell through a roof void at a stable building and died of his injuries a month later. The defendants had been warned by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that the Stanmer Park stables building site was dangerous a year before the tragedy. Holland’s barrister told the court his client had been “traduced” in the press and had been the victim of harassment during the trial. An earlier complaint by Mr Cooper against the use of the word “killer” to describe Holland had been rejected by press watchdog the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The paper said in its editorial: “The judge said it had been an inexplicable failure to address an issue Holland and Oakes had been warned would cause serious injury or death. So we completely refute barrister John Cooper’s claims that our reporting has been irresponsible. It is our job to inform our readers how a failure of this kind can lead to the loss of a life and have a huge effect on others.” Holland and Oakes were each handed nine-month prison sentences. Holland’s company Cherrywood Investments, now known as Threadneedle Estates, was fined £120,000. He has to pay £35,000 in court costs while Oakes must contribute £10,000. After his arrest, Holland claimed the accident was Dave Clark’s “own fault”.
Iceland Foods has been fined £2.5m over the death of a contractor who fell through a ceiling. Tony Hopkins was working at one of the firm's stores in Rotherham when he fell about 10ft (3m) from a platform that was missing a handrail. Iceland, which was sentenced this week, was convicted in July of two criminal breaches of safety law after a trial at Sheffield Crown Court. Iceland said the 58-year-old’s death in 2013 was “a terrible tragedy for which we can only express the utmost regret.” Mr Hopkins was working for a contractor at the firm's Rotherham store on 28 October 2013. He was to replace air conditioning filters located on a platform above a suspended ceiling in the warehouse. He fell through the ceiling and sustained serious injuries from which he later died in hospital. An investigation by Rotherham Council found no barriers in place to prevent falls from the platform, restricted space on the platform near the ladder and several tripping hazards. Iceland Foods Limited had not carried out a risk assessment, said the council. The company was fined £1.25m for each of two criminal safety offences and ordered to pay costs of £65,000 to Rotherham Council.
Vacu-Lug Traction Tyres Limited has been fined after a worker died when the forklift truck he was driving overturned at the company base in Grantham. Lincoln Crown Court heard Stephan Woollas, 49, was transporting tyres on 30 July 2014 when the forklift ran over a loose tyre in a roadway. He was crushed between the forklift truck and the ground and later died from his injuries. He was not wearing a seat belt. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found there was no company policy in place instructing workers to wear seatbelts when operating forklift trucks. The investigation also found if the tyres had been stored securely this would have prevented them rolling onto the roadway and would have reduced the risk of the forklift truck overturning. Vacu-Lug Traction Tyres Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £300,000 and ordered to pay costs of £25,000. HSE principal inspector David Butter commented: “This tragic incident could have easily been prevented if the company had enforced and monitored the wearing of seat belts for forklift truck drivers.”
Listen now to TUC’s occupational cancer webinar
TUC health and safety expert Hugh Robertson last week hosted a live ‘webinar’ – an online seminar - to discuss the causes of occupational cancer, the problems with the law and what unions are doing about it. If you missed it, you can now watch the whole event online.
Watch the TUC occupational cancer webinar on YouTube. Download the presentation by TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson.
Asbestos imports to the US nearly doubled in 2016, reversing a long-term decline, latest figures have shown. Data from the Department of Commerce and the US International Trade Commission estimate that 705 metric tonnes of raw asbestos were imported last year, compared to 343 metric tonnes in 2015. The US Geological Survey reported asbestos imports came from Brazil and Russia. The only remaining user of raw asbestos in the US is the chloralkali industry, which uses it to “manufacture semipermeable asbestos diaphragms.” Much of the surge in imports in 2016 came in the fourth quarter of the year, following the passage of the revamped Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Lobbyists from the American Chemistry Council, acting at on behalf of the chloralkali industry, are now pushing for an exemption from the new chemical safety law that would allow it to continue to import and use asbestos. “Opponents of an asbestos ban have long argued that asbestos use is shrinking in the United States, but now we know just the opposite is true,” said Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). “Each year, asbestos-caused diseases claim the lives of 15,000 Americans. It is shocking that unlike more than 60 nations around the world, the US has not only failed to ban asbestos, but its use is increasing dramatically.” She added: “The EPA needs to ban asbestos with no exceptions. There is no safe or controlled use of asbestos in mining or manufacturing.” Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. said: “The chloralkali industry’s insistence on the continued use of deadly asbestos is reprehensible. Meanwhile, we shut our eyes to the communities in Brazil and other asbestos-producing nations, where miners and their families are exposed to this killer.”
Since January, government agencies under the Donald Trump administration have taken steps to hide information from the public - information that was previously posted and information that the public has a right to know, the US national union federation AFL-CIO has said. According to Rebecca L Reindel, of the union body’s health and safety department, “a recent move is especially personal. Two weeks ago, the agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety and health - the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) - removed the names of fallen workers from its home page and has stopped posting information about their deaths on its data page.” Reindel said the regulator’s stated reasons for the move – citations hadn’t yet been issued and protecting the privacy of bereaved families – were excuses made by an agency “clearly in denial that it has a job to do.” She said that many real offences don’t result in a citation, some because the firm agrees to remedy the problem, but that doesn’t mean the agency cannot “recognise where and when workers are dying on the job, and remember and honour those who sought a paycheque but, instead, did not return home to their families.” Reindel added: “Removing the names of fallen workers on the job is an incredible insult to working families.” She said the leading organisation representing families bereaved in work tragedies “has made it very clear that it opposes OSHA's new ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach.” But the move did have the support of the business lobby, she said. “The Trump administration seems to live by very old - and very bad -advice from powerful, big business groups whose agenda it's pushing: If we don't count the impact of the problem or admit there is a problem, it must not exist.”
For the latest course information please visit www.tuceducation.org.uk