|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.
A shortage of staff and lack of funding is the real threat to the NHS, not too few staff getting the flu jab, health service union UNISON has said. Commenting this week after the government’s top medical advisers indicated the flu jab should be compulsory for NHS staff, UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “It’s important not to lose sight of the real threat to the NHS. It isn’t flu, but the shortage of staff and the lack of funding.” She added: “The NHS flu fighter campaign, which encourages NHS and social care staff to have the flu jab, is a very positive initiative. Unions are promoting it, so staff are fully informed about its benefits and it’s made available to all those who want it. But some people are allergic to the vaccine and shouldn’t be forced to have it. Making it mandatory could also be counter-productive, potentially tying employers up in legal wrangles and further damaging already fragile staff morale.” The government says across the NHS, 59 per cent of staff have had the vaccine but in some Trusts less than 3 in 10 staff are protected. Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer said: “Flu can kill and it is important we all take it seriously. The best way to protect yourself and those around you is to get the flu jab. If you are suffering from flu-like symptoms you should catch your coughs or sneezes in tissues, bin the tissue immediately, and wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water.” Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS England medical director said: “The recent flu figures are a reminder that NHS staff should protect themselves, patients and their loved ones by getting vaccinated. We should have a measured debate about making this the norm for doctors, nurses and other frontline NHS staff before next winter.” However, figures released this week confirmed UNISON’s concerns about the staffing crisis facing the NHS, revealing the health service is ‘haemorrhaging’ nurses, with 33,000 leaving each year.
The prime minister should reconsider the appointment of Esther McVey as work and pensions secretary, the GMB has said. The cabinet position gives McVey ultimate responsibility for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and work and health. But GMB says when McVey was the employment minister in charge of HSE in 2013, she was ‘unceremoniously stripped’ of this responsibility after it emerged she had been the director of a now-defunct demolition firm run by her father, JG McVey and Co, which was served with two prohibition notices for criminal health and safety breaches (Risks 627). The GMB said the “totally inappropriate” appointment of McVey called the prime minister's judgment into question. GMB national safety officer Dan Shears said: “It has already been shown beyond question that Esther McVey is a deeply unsuitable person to be responsible for the health and safety of UK workers. She was the director of a business that put workers at serious risk to the point that the work had to be immediately prohibited. At best she’ll be oblivious to the human toll caused by health and safety failings - at worst her cavalier attitude risks endangering workers.” He added: “It beggars belief that the prime minister deemed it fit to hand Esther McVey a brief she had previously been unceremoniously stripped of in such murky and troubling circumstances. This totally inappropriate appointment raises new and serious questions about Theresa May's judgment in vetting appointments.” Jon Trickett, the shadow cabinet office minister, has this week written to the prime minister expressing concerns about McVey’s promotion because of her link to workplace safety crimes.
Offshore energy union RMT has raised concerns over the North Sea decommissioning industry, following the cash sale of three semi-submersible drilling platforms to a company that transports offshore oil and gas infrastructure to be scrapped in India and Bangladesh. RMT says the platforms, which worked predominantly in the UK North Sea, are currently ‘cold stacked’ in the Cromarty Firth. It says there is existing capacity in Scotland to carry out this decommissioning, recycling and scrapping work. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said sending the rigs to Asia was “a continuation of the disgraceful practice of dumping ships and oil and gas infrastructure on South Asian beaches, where workers are regularly killed and injured in highly dangerous and poorly protected conditions.” He said despite a haemorrhage of thousands of North Sea jobs in the last three years, the government “has failed to establish the growing decommissioning industry on terms that increase jobs and deepen the UK skills base. This government seems incapable of getting a fair deal from the oil and gas industry and it must immediately commit to regulating the decommissioning sector in the interests of UK workers and the economy.” RMT national secretary Steve Todd said: “These rigs are in the Cromarty Firth and could quite easily be dismantled and recycled at local facilities in Scotland. Conservative ministers have questions to answer and RMT will continue to work to hold this chaotic government to account for its continued failure to protect offshore workers from unsustainable and unethical profiteering.”
The unremitting demands placed on Church of England priests is leading increasing numbers to turn to unions for support. Faced with demanding congregations, rarely being off duty, piles of paperwork and disciplinary procedures they often feel are unfair, almost 1,500 priests plus a few rabbis and imams joined the clergy union last year — an increase of 16 per cent in 12 months. According Unite, there has been a rapid increase in the past year in the number of Anglican parish priests, or vicars, joining this specialist faith worker branch. The Anglican vicars are joining despite not having the usual British employment rights, because they are termed “officeholders” and cannot take their complaints to an employment tribunal. According to the Reverend Peter Hobson, who is head of the Unite priests’ branch, Church of England Clergy Advocates, vicars are turning to the union because they are under pressure from the people in the pews and from their bishops. “Although it is a vocation, it is also a very difficult role,” Hobson told Religion News Service. “The workload is enormous. In a consumeristic world, people expect you to deal with their needs instantly, and the bishop, while he is a pastoral figure, is also managerial. And the managerial approach is coming more and more to the fore.” Hobson said this more managerial approach makes relationships between clergy and bishops more difficult, and clergy consequently need more advice and someone “on their side” when there are tensions over the way priests are fulfilling their role.
Rail union RMT says the government has been caught red-handed ‘bunging’ Southern Rail £22 million of taxpayers’ money to keep a rail safety dispute running. The total, revealed in a 8 January parliamentary answer, equates to operator GTR’s lost revenue related to the dispute. This sum is underwritten by the public purse. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The government has at last been forced to admit that they have bunged the basket-case Southern Rail over £20 million of taxpayers’ money to keep the dispute over safety running for nearly two years. This extreme case of corporate welfare has taken place because the ludicrous and rigged GTR contract, condemned by the National Audit Office (NAO) this week, means the taxpayer and not the company carry the revenue risk.” He added: “It is no surprise that Southern Rail have made no effort to negotiate a solution to the guards’ safety dispute when Chris Grayling is paying them out of the public purse to keep it running. It's an absolute disgrace. The company get paid whether they run trains or not. This is a grotesque exercise that combines huge sums in corporate welfare with a government policy objective of throwing the guards off our trains. It stinks and shows just why Chris Grayling has no interest in meeting with the union to broker a solution.” Publishing its report on 10 January, NAO head Amyas Morse said: “Over the last three years long-suffering passengers on the Thameslink franchise have experienced the worst performance on the rail network. Some of the problems could have been avoided if the Department had taken more care to consider passengers in its design of the franchise.”
Firefighters’ union FBU has said its members in London are ‘deeply upset and angry’ after hearing that the number of people killed in fires has risen sharply in the capital. The London Fire Brigade (LFB) figures reveal that in 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, there were 46 deaths in London caused by fire, up from 33 the previous year – a 40 per cent increase. The figures, published in the LFBs Fire Facts briefing, do not include the victims of the June 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster. Paul Embery, FBU executive council member for London, said: “We are deeply concerned at the correlation between the rise in deaths following the deepest cuts to the brigade in its history, which were pushed through by the former mayor. This disturbing increase has happened at a time when over a thousand frontline firefighter posts have been ditched, 10 fire stations closed, and specialist rescue equipment and fire engines have been removed from service.” He added: “In recent years firefighters have had to work with one hand tied behind their backs. Station closures and fewer fire engines mean it is taking longer for fire crews to make it to the incident scene. This means they arrive after the fire has become more intense, when the possibility of rescuing victims becomes fainter and the work far more dangerous. Critically, overworked firefighters are now struggling to provide the preventative fire safety work which has historically driven down the number of fatal fires.” He said the union welcomed a commitment from Labour mayor Sadiq Khan to end cuts. But he added “we need to look at adopting a strategy that gives the brigade the funding it desperately needs in order to drive down fatal fires.”
Shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw is urging the government to drop plans to restrict access to justice for victims of workplace injuries and diseases. The union’s evidence this week to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee argued vulnerable workers would lose out under the proposed government reforms to personal injury cases. The Ministry of Justice is proposing to raise the limit for personal injury claims dealt with in a small claims court from £1,000 to £2,000, with the whiplash claims limit rising to £5,000. Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: “Our campaign opposes pushing employer and public liability claims under £2,000 into a small claims court, which means that victims will not be able to claim back the cost of legal representation. £2,000 is too high and will adversely impact too many injured workers, it should remain at £1,000, which is a fairer definition of a small claim. The complexity of workplace injury cases make them entirely unsuitable for a small claims court, where the costs of taking a case cannot be recovered.” The union leader added: “Beyond the effects on individuals, there could be an effect on health and safety at work. Our efforts to make workplaces safer would be undermined if employers were not financially liable for accidents and diseases because workers cannot access justice. Less scrupulous employers will undoubtedly let safety standards slip. The government needs to think very carefully about how they proceed, to ensure that there aren’t unintended consequences for workers’ health and safety.”
Ten years after British pilots averted a major catastrophe when their aircraft lost all engine power on its approach to Heathrow, pilots are highlighting the importance of thorough crash investigation. Their union, the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA), says that had the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) not been given the time and support to carry out a painstaking investigation, we would never have known the cause of the crash or learnt the lessons that have made flights safer in its wake. On 17 January 2008 the British Airways flight 38, known as Speedbird 38, lost power from both engines in the final stages of the approach to London Heathrow Airport. In what was described as a feat of spectacular flying, the crew eased the ailing aircraft over the Heathrow boundary and crash landed just short of the runway. The aircraft was damaged beyond repair, but there were no fatalities and only one person with serious injuries. Steve Landells, flight safety specialist at BALPA, said: “The pilots of Speedbird 38 did a great job in preventing major loss of life. But it was vital that investigators got to the bottom of what caused the crash so that measures could be put in place to prevent something similar happening again, possibly with a much more tragic outcome.” He added: “At the time there was huge pressure to speculate on the cause of the crash and apportion blame. But none of the speculation picked up the real cause. It took two years of painstaking investigation, in which the AAIB rigorously tested theory after theory, to find the real cause: ice crystals in the fuel system. If investigators had been rushed, we wouldn’t have discovered the truth and would not have been able to put in place measures that are still safeguarding flights to this day.” The union safety specialist concluded: “BALPA’s focus is on protecting the trusted international agreements between specialist accident investigators and pilots that ensure the important work of the AAIB in preventing future accidents is not short circuited.”
The TUC has called on the government to stop bosses exploiting migrant labour. Responding to a 15 January report on migration from the Home Affairs Committee, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Today’s report needs to start a grown-up conversation about migration. Migrant workers make a vital contribution to the economy and public services. But far too often they are scapegoated thanks to bad bosses driving down conditions at work.” She added: “The government must work with unions to crack down on employers who use migrants to undercut local labour. Giving unions access to more workplaces will help end exploitation. Collective bargaining can win fair wages for all.” West Midlands Police announced in December 2017 it had ended its investigation into the July 2016 deaths of five African migrant workers at a Birmingham recycling yard (Risks 831). The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said its investigation into possible criminal safety offences was continuing.
A female police officer who completed successfully a gruelling three-and-a-half-hour assault course but who failed the dog handler test because she could not then carry her animal 100 metres has been awarded nearly £15,000 compensation for sexual discrimination. Kim-Louise Carter, 31, was booted off the course despite keeping up with male colleagues throughout the assault course because at the end she was too tired to pick up and carry her 35kg dog, Hulk. An employment tribunal heard that police described it as an 'elite' test and referred to it as a fitness trial, with Carter's representative saying it was like a 'special forces selection'. Other police forces in the country did not carry out the same rigorous assessment, and those working as dog handlers were not forced to take it, the hearing heard. But although the police denied calling it elite and said it was to test aptitude, not fitness, the panel ruled that it was a fitness test inherently weighted against women. The assessment was carried out by Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Avon and Somerset Constabulary. The panel of judges at an employment tribunal in Worle, near Weston-super-Mare, found candidates were unfairly punished and automatically failed the test if they could not complete the “dog carry”, even though a pass mark of 70 per cent should have been applied across the test. The judges also recommended that instructors undergo proper equality training. The requirements of the test were “over and above the standard set by the National College of policing”, the tribunal heard. Ian White of the Police Federation, who represented Ms Carter, said some described the physical assessment as “akin to a special forces selection procedure”. Employment judge Martha Street said: “There is no objectivity to this test. In practice, it was a physically demanding test and that the ability to carry a dog at the end of the morning was decisive. It is not a test of the ability to carry a dog.” She added: “There is an added hurt in her awareness that the exercise was in excess of the standard required of existing dog handlers.” The total amount awarded was £14,930.30 as compensation for the indirect sex discrimination, with £7,000 of this for injury to feelings with the rest compensation and interest.
British oil multinational BP has said it will book another US$1.7 billion (£1.2 billion) charge from the deadly Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010 as part of its financial settlement. But the group said despite the fourth-quarter payout, which takes the total cost of the disaster to US$65 billion (£47 billion), the lengthy settlement process for the mammoth claims related to the spill is now winding down. BP said cash payments related to the blast – which killed 11 rig workers and led to millions of gallons of oil being spewed into the Gulf of Mexico – are now expected to be around US$3 billion (£2.2 billion) in 2018, rather than its previous estimate of just over US$2 billion (£1.5 billion). The fourth-quarter charge was made to cover remaining payments to businesses to compensate for economic losses from the oil spill and other claims linked to the court-supervised settlement programme as a result of BP’s class action settlement. Brian Gilvary, BP’s chief financial officer, said: “With the claims facility’s work very nearly done, we now have better visibility into the remaining liability. The charge we are taking as a result is fully manageable within our existing financial framework, especially now that we have the company back into balance at 50 US dollars per barrel.” The new headline cost of more than US$65 billion (£47 billion) for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster is significantly higher than the US$61.6 billion (£45 billion) the company estimated in 2016.
Lack of sleep resulting from long hours and excessive workloads is jeopardising patient safety and doctors’ health, the doctors’ organisation BMA has warned. A report produced by the association has highlighted how long and demanding hours coupled with frequent changes in rotas and insufficient recovery periods mean thousands of doctors are at heightened risk for sleep deprivation and fatigue. It said that inadequately rested doctors were at greater risk of making errors in patient care as well as occupational hazards such as needlestick injuries and road-traffic accidents. The report states that the dangers posed by sleep deprivation require the government and employers in the NHS to commit to a comprehensive framework for addressing workplace fatigue. The BMA has also produced guidance for doctors on managing the risks of fatigue, covering areas such as sleep, maximising rest and recovery, managing the night shift and how can employers help. BMA council chair Chaand Nagpaul said: “Given the enormous pressure that doctors and clinical staff working in the NHS face, more must be done to address the growing prevalence of fatigue and sleep deprivation owing to the increasing demands being placed on them. As well as having a long-term impact on physical and mental health of staff, fatigue and sleep deprivation is linked to higher instances of occupational accidents which places patients at risk.” He added: “This paper highlights the need for reform of working patterns to safeguard doctors and clinical staff against the impact of excessive workloads and the increasing complexity and number of consultations resulting from wider pressures on the NHS such as staff shortages, funding constraints and growing patient demand.” The report advises that the minimisation of fatigue should ultimately become central to future workforce planning and be a specific consideration during the design of job plans and work schedules.
Budget chain Poundstretcher has faced action by three local authorities for 24 criminal health and safety breaches across three of its stores. The retailer – owned by brothers Aziz and Rashid Tayub – was fined £1m for its dangerous and ‘chaotic’ working conditions and ordered to pay court costs. The breaches involved overstocked storage areas, so that aisles and fire exits were not kept clear. Investigations also found staff had not been given proper training. Poundstretcher pleaded guilty to 16 counts brought by Swindon Borough Council, three counts by Newbury District Council, and five counts by Lewes Council. Almost half of the penalty that Poundstretcher was ordered to pay, £466,666, involved the Swindon offences. The Lewes fine came to £200,000 and related to the chain’s Newhaven high street store. Poundstretcher was fined £333,334 for its health and safety breaches at the Newbury Retail Park store. The 400-strong chain was also ordered to pay court costs of £65,767.74. Judge Heatherington said the blame did not lie with local management, but with the “complacent attitude” revealed by how “senior management, often at director/company secretary level, dealt with requests for interview by enforcing authorities. Whilst, as a matter of strict law, the company may have been entitled not to co-operate, their consistent failure properly to engage with and answer questions spoke volumes as to the company’s attitude towards the role of the enforcing authorities.”
The TUC is going to start listing events for the 28 April 2018 Workers’ Memorial Day. The theme is “Unionised workplaces are safer workplaces.” The national union body is urging organisation to send details of all local, regional or national events to be included on the online listing. According to the TUC: “As Workers’ Memorial Day is on a Saturday this year it may be that some workplaces will aim to have the two-minutes’ silence or other event on Friday 27 April. However other events should still be scheduled for 28 April.”
A factory worker at a firm that produces Apple’s iPhones in China has died after jumping from a building, a labour rights organisation has said. China Labor Watch (CLW) said that Li Ming, 31, jumped to his death from a building in the city of Zhengzhou, in the east-central Chinese Henan province, where he had been working for Foxconn. The death has reignited concerns following a wave of work-related suicides in 2010 and 2011 at Foxconn factories in China. CLW posted video footage that it said showed Mr Li, who the organisation claimed was working for Foxconn through an agency, lying lifelessly on the ground. Taiwanese firm Foxconn is China’s biggest private sector employer with a workforce believed to be in excess of 1.2 million. In 2010 the company was faced with allegations of ‘sweat shop’ conditions that led to the spate of suicides during that year. According to CLW, the facility at Zhengzhou, where Mr Li is reported to have died, is where Foxconn manufactures the Apple X smartphone, released last November. Chinese state media reported that Zhengzhou is where around half of Apple’s iPhones are manufactured. About 350,000 workers reportedly work on production lines in the city to make iPhones at a rate of 350 per minute.
A motorway bridge under construction in Colombia has collapsed, killing at least nine workers and injuring several others. The bridge in Chirajara was to be part of a highway connecting the capital, Bogotá, with the city of Villavicencio. Colombian transport minister Germán Cardona spoke of a ‘tragedy’ and said the cause of the collapse would be investigated. Construction officials said that not many workers were on the bridge at the time of the collapse as staff were receiving a safety briefing. The bridge is part of an ambitious programme to improve the route leading from Bogotá to the eastern plains by turning parts of it into a dual carriageway. The company tasked with the works is Coviandes, a firm which is majority-owned by a Colombian investment corporation. It issued a statement after the incident saying it would do everything it could to help the families of the workers who died or were injured in the collapse.
Hundreds of mineworkers have demonstrated against worsening health and safety standards at the Skorpion Zinc Mine, about 600km from Windhoek, the Namibian capital. The Mineworkers Union of Namibia (MUN) members are demanding improved communication on safety issues at the mine, which is owned by Vedanta Zinc International. They want the mine to improve safety by reporting to workers problems identified at the open cast mine, including slope failures and pit wall structures. They also want the company to train workers on emergency evacuation procedures, and to discipline managers who report for work drunk. According to the union, safety standards are falling as “it has become a norm that procedures and policies are ignored to increase production, and safety standards dropped leading to unsafe working conditions”. Paule-France Ndessomin, regional secretary for Sub Saharan Africa with the global mining union IndustriALL, commented: “Safety at mines is non-negotiable, and mining companies must always ensure that standards are adhered to. Therefore, it is not acceptable for mining companies to sacrifice workers’ safety to increase production targets and profits.”
US federal agencies should collaborate to improve injury and illness reporting, to account for a shift in the traditional workforce toward a ‘gig economy’ and to collect information on race and ethnicity to identify vulnerable worker populations, according to a new official report. The consensus report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine was developed by a committee of academic experts, regulators, a union representative and Scott Mugno, an employer representative who is now Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – the US federal safety agency. “In the area of improving data collection, these recommendations really go to trying to address some of the gaps that we’ve identified in safety and health surveillance,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at the national union federation AFL-CIO. For example, race and ethnicity information is collected on some injury and illness forms on a voluntary basis, she said. “We think there needs to be uniformity in that area,” she said. Meanwhile, OSHA should create a public database to release information collected under its electronic record-keeping rule requirements, recommended the report. “OSHA should develop a publicly available and easily searchable injury and illness database based on the electronic reports,” the report said. OSHA should also work with other federal and state agencies and other stakeholders to “develop plans to maximise the effectiveness and utility of OSHA’s new electronic reporting initiative for surveillance,” added the report. However, in December 2017, the Trump administration proposed removing the requirement to electronically submit OSHA work-related injuries and illness logs.
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