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Unions have said the government’s new plan for ‘Good Work’ is nowhere near good enough to tackle the menace of job insecurity and employment abuse. Commenting on the government’s response to the Taylor Review on modern employment practices (Risks 836), Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said the government had only taken a ‘tiny step’, adding: “It is clear that the government still needs to accept that the best protection against worker abuse is strong enforcement coupled with strong trade unions. Ministers need to stop making it harder for us to do our job and accept too that the super-charging of low-wage, insecure work can be directly traced to the destructive deregulatory approach of the last 40 years.” Tim Roache, GMB general secretary, said the government’s response was “like trying to put out a forest fire with a water pistol.” He added: “Big change is needed, change that is backed up by law and proper penalties for breaking those laws.” John Hannett, general secretary of the retail union Usdaw, said: “The government has dithered when they could have acted. Additional enforcement of existing rights is welcome, but many workers need new rights to stop exploitation.” Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union ASLEF, said: ‘It’s a big disappointment,” adding: “The trouble with Theresa May and Greg Clark is they’re all blow, no go.” Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) general secretary Grahame Smith said: “Maintaining the current system will continue to divide workers according to dated definitions. Where legislation fails, workers must come together collectively through trade unions to win the control and conditions of work that government and companies are determined to deny.”
Ÿ Good Work: A response to the Taylor Review of modern working practices, HM Government, 7 February 2018. ASLEF news release. GMB news release. Unite news release. Usdaw news release. STUC news release and briefing.
Employment practices used by Hermes, which is forcing couriers who deliver on public highways to work long hours over 13 consecutive days consecutively, must now be considered a major public safety issue, the union GMB has said. The union has written to Hermes demanding clarification from the company on “serious issues over working conditions affecting their couriers during the festive peak period.” The GMB said several courier companies, including Hermes, appear to have passed all the risk in terms of employment conditions and working time regulations to individual couriers - with no thought to their safety of that of the general public. The union said it believes Hermes pressured some couriers to work 13 days consecutively during the festive peak period. Most couriers worked more than 12 hours each day during December. GMB added that many couriers who wanted a day off have reported they were either threatened that their services would be terminated, or that their delivery rounds would be cut. GMB national officer Mick Rix said: “Forcing couriers who deliver on public highways to work over 13 days consecutively, and in a number of instances more than 12 hours a day, must now be considered a major public safety issue. Employers such as Hermes believe they have passed all the risk for liability to the individual.” He added: “We are calling on the government, especially the Department for Transport, to investigate the link between excessive hours and consecutive days working and the increasing threat to public safety to other road users. Companies such as Hermes cannot evade their responsibility and pass the risk on to their couriers."
Members of the firefighters’ union FBU can apply for compensation after a fire authority imposed a new shift or ‘duty’ system on its employees. An original decision against South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service (SYFRS), which ruled the imposed shift was illegal, was made by Leeds Employment Tribunal in 2015. This latest decision, made on 30 January 2018 by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), means the FBU can pursue compensation claims for ‘injury to feelings’ for members who were forcibly displaced from their fire stations when the new working pattern was introduced. Law firm Thompsons, which acted for the union, believes this is the first time that an award of this kind has been made for breaches of working time regulations. The duty system, known in South Yorkshire as Close Proximity Crewing, is a ‘continuous duty system’ that requires personnel to be on duty at the fire station for 96 hours over four days (Risks 827). The union says “the dangers of firefighters being on duty for so long at particular types of incidents are apparent, such as the harrowing, challenging work” during floods or major fires like the Grenfell Tower disaster. Andy Dark, FBU assistant general secretary, said: “The duty system needs to be removed now to avoid any further legal costs which will be borne by the taxpayers of South Yorkshire.” The FBU said it will again be writing to the fire authority and South Yorkshire MPs to ask that the shift system is dropped immediately.
A rise in the number of fires and fire deaths in England for the second year running has been described as ‘horrifying’ by the firefighters’ union FBU. Fire incidents have increased by 9 per cent for the year ending September 2017, having already increased the previous year. More worrying still, said the FBU, “is that fire fatalities have also increased, even with the dreadful death toll of Grenfell taken out of the statistic – 346 people in England died in fires for the period, including Grenfell, compared with 253 the previous year.” With the Grenfell deaths removed from the total, there were still 22 more people dying in fires than in the preceding year. The unions said these ‘worrying increases’ have occurred against a backdrop of severe cuts to the fire and rescue service, which was cut between 2010/2015 by 30 per cent, with another 15 per cent of cuts being implemented between 2016/17 and 2019/20, according to the just announced Local Government Settlement. Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, said: “All we hear from government when they attempt justification of butchering the fire and rescue service is that ‘fires are down’ – this is now clearly no longer a claim they can make. They wrote off last year’s rise in fires as a ‘blip’ – what will they put it down to this year?” The union leader added: “It isn’t complicated – the fire and rescue service is cut to the bone, and the result is more people dying in fires because crews can no longer respond promptly and in sufficient numbers to tackle fires professionally, quickly and effectively. How many more rises in these worrying figures before they join up the dots? How many more people are going to have to die? On the day of the publication of these figures, we again call for investment, not more cuts. We can’t make it any plainer.”
ScotRail must ensure its new style trains are fit for purpose, train drivers’ union ASLEF has warned, saying that unless modifications are made to their ‘fish bowl’ windscreens, drivers will refuse to work them. Kevin Lindsay, ASLEF’s organiser in Scotland, said: “There’s a problem with the new Class 385 units that Transport Scotland and ScotRail have purchased. The windscreen is curved and, at night, is making drivers see two signals. It’s like looking through a fish bowl all the time.” He explained: “ScotRail is trying to get Hitachi to come up with a solution but, so far, I’m afraid, they have failed. I’ve informed ScotRail that we won’t allow these trains to come into service like this.” The new trains are being built by Hitachi for ScotRail, with 70 on order. They were due to come into service in March. “The effect of the squashed window means that the window is giving the impression that drivers are looking through a fish bowl to view signals,” said the ASLEF organiser. “I have advised the company that if this problem is not resolved to our satisfaction then we will inform our members that the trains are not safe to drive in the dark.” Lindsay added: “The safety of passengers – and train crew – is absolutely paramount in the rail industry. ASLEF welcomes investment in new rolling stock and new infrastructure, but it has to be fit for purpose. That’s why I’m calling on the minister to ensure these trains are safe when they come into service.” The union has called on Humza Yousaf, minister for transport in the Scottish government, to ensure the trains are made safe before they are pressed into operation.
Rail union RMT has called on Northern Rail to withdraw its threat to axe guards after train carriages 'de-coupled' outside Leeds Station. The company's Manchester Victoria to Leeds service separated just outside Leeds rail station at 3.15pm on 7 February, causing severe delays. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT awaits the findings from the investigation into this potentially horrific incident but once again it demonstrates the need to have a guard on Northern Rail trains to deal with these emergency situations. What we do know is that there was a guard on board this service who was at the rear of the train with the full suite of safety competencies for exactly this kind of situation.” The union leader added: “What would have happened on a driver only service with no guard on board? Who would have ensured that the passengers were safely evacuated along the track? The threat to axe guards on Northern Rail should be lifted and lifted now.” The union said the incident also “raises serious issues about the priorities and cost-cutting of train maintenance outfit, Arriva Traincare.” The union said the ‘deadly serious nature’ of the findings of the company’s internal incident report on the decoupling, and the “inherent failures leading up the incident, raise serious concerns over the safety culture within Arriva Traincare and warrant a full and forensic investigation.” Mick Cash said: “RMT has warned in the past that a toxic culture of bullying and penny-pinching at Arriva Traincare has put staff under impossible strain and there should now be a full, transparent and independent investigation into their operations in light of this incident.”
UNISON health and safety reps “go beyond the call of duty,” general secretary Dave Prentis declared at the union’s Safety Rep of the Year awards this week. The awards ceremony in London brought together UNISON health and safety reps from across the country. The public service union’s event also celebrated the positive difference 40 years of safety reps have made to ordinary people’s working lives. “Our safety reps go beyond the call of duty to keep themselves, fellow members and the workplace as a whole safer,” said the union leader. “And they should be commended for that.” Margaret Davis from UNISON’s Eastern region and Adrian House from the South West were named as safety reps of the year in recognition if their “outstanding contribution to promoting health and safety at work”. They were among 12 regional winners in all, who were all praised for excellent health and safety campaigns or contributions to keeping members safe at work. Margaret Davis said: “This has been a total surprise to me. I always consider health and safety to be important and continually strive to improve safety for all employees within our organisation.”
MPs are to examine the use of non-disclosure agreements as part of an inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace. The Women and Equalities Committee said it would consider whether they were being abused by employers and legal experts to “cover up wrongdoing.” How to protect staff and make it easier for them to report abuse are among other issues that will be examined. Maria Miller, the committee’s chair, said changes to workplace culture were clearly needed. The inquiry follows a string of allegations of harassment and bullying against leading figures in the US film and media industries, as well as claims of inappropriate behaviour in parliament and other high-profile British institutions. Announcing the inquiry, Tory MP Maria Miller said women had come forward to speak about the “appalling experiences” they had faced in a number of different sectors. The cross-party committee, she said, would look at the extent of the problem in British workplaces, who the perpetrators were, why it was continuing to happen and how it could best be tackled. The MPs will consider the scope of victims for legal redress, including employment tribunals and other forms of dispute resolution, as well as the use of non-disclosure agreements. Critics including the TUC say these confidentiality agreements have been used to ensure the silence of victims of harassment and assault (Risks 836). “Our recent evidence session with legal experts, employee and employers’ representatives painted a stark picture,” the committee chair said. “We need to change workplace culture, keep women safe and provide effective legal remedies.” Under proposals published last week, MPs found to have bullied or harassed their staff will have to write a letter of apology and undergo training while, in more serious cases, they could be suspended or forced to face a public vote on their future. The committee also called for a new code of behaviour, independent of the political parties, applying to everyone on the parliamentary estate, including visitors.
Unite, which represents hundreds of MPs staff, has welcomed the 8 February publication of a report into tackling the bullying and harassment in parliament. But is said although it is a step in the right direction, far more must be done to resolve longstanding problems. The union made its call after publication of the plan by the parliamentary working group into bullying and harassment. A representative of Unite’s parliamentary and constituency staff branch was a member of the working group. The report’s key recommendations include a new code of behaviour for all staff in parliament and constituencies, a direct confidential contact in parliament and phone line for reporting allegation of abuse and procedures for informal resolutions. It also says there should be independent investigators to consider evidence, with sanctions to be applied by a parliamentary commissioner for standards or, in serious cases, by a reformed standards committee made up of an equal number of MPs and lay members. Available sanctions on MPs and peers will include apologies, behaviour agreements, compulsory training, suspension from the House and a possible recall vote. Staff could face dismissal or loss of their parliamentary pass. Training in employment responsibilities will become mandatory. Unite national officer Siobhan Endean said: “The working group has made real progress into starting to tackle the widespread bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff.” But she added: “While the working’s group remit did not include the recognition of trade unions, it is crucial to ensuring that members can receive assistance at an early stage and issues can be quickly and properly resolved, without workers feeling their working lives are a misery and feel forced to resign.” A London School of Economics report this month concluded union protection was the ‘best antidote’ to sexual harassment (Risks 836).
Ÿ Statement from Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom, Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy, Hansard, 8 February 2018. Unite news release. The Guardian. BBC News Online.
Safety breaches at UK laboratories that handle harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi have spread infections to staff and exposed others to potentially lethal diseases, the Guardian has reported. The paper says the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has investigated a series of mistakes over the past two years that led to scientists falling ill at specialist labs run by hospitals, private companies, and even Public Health England (PHE), the government agency charged with protecting and improving the nation’s health and well-being. One scientist at a PHE laboratory became sick after contracting Shigella, a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes most cases of dysentery in Britain. The incident led the HSE to send the agency an enforcement letter to improve its health and safety practices. The paper reports that the HSE held formal investigations into more than 40 mishaps at specialist laboratories between June 2015 and July 2017, amounting to one every two to three weeks. Beyond the breaches that spread infections were blunders that led to dengue virus – which kills 20,000 people worldwide each year – being posted by mistake; staff handling potentially lethal bacteria and fungi with inadequate protection; and one occasion where students at the University of the West of England unwittingly studied live meningitis-causing germs which they thought had been killed by heat treatment. Tim Trevan, a biosafety consultant and former UN weapons inspector, said safety breaches are often wrongly explained away as human error. “You have to look deeper and ask: ‘What are the environmental or cultural issues that are driving these things?’,” he said. “There is nearly always something obvious that can be done to improve safety. One way to address issues in the lab is you don’t wait for things to go wrong in a major way: you look at the near-misses. You actively scan your work on a daily or weekly basis for things that didn’t turn out as expected. If you do that, you get a better understanding of how things can go wrong.” He added: “Another approach is to ask people who are doing the work what is the most dangerous or difficult thing they do. Or what keeps them up at night. These are always good pointers to where, on a proactive basis, you should be addressing things that could go wrong.”
Ÿ The Guardian.
An incident where a worker was almost hit by a car as he painted road markings without protection has triggered a £5,500 fine from the Scottish Road Works Commissioner. Dashcam footage showed the vehicle overtaking a van before its driver spotted the man in the middle of the road and passed to his right. The penalty was imposed on North Lanarkshire Council, which employed the contractor. The man was working at the start of a 60mph limit stretch of road, however no traffic cones or warning signs had been deployed for the works. Road Works Commissioner Angus Carmichael said: “Road works carried out on behalf of the authority, by contractors, resulted in endangering road workers and the general public. These works were not recorded on the Scottish Road Works Register and appropriate traffic management was not in place.” He added: “As the failures are of a very serious nature, compromising both safety of those working for the roads authority and the public, I have decided to impose a penalty of £5,500 to send a clear message to all organisations undertaking road works that poor performance is unacceptable and that all legislation must be followed.” The commissioner can impose fines of up to £50,000. Neil Greig, policy and research director of the IAM RoadSmart motoring group, told the Scotsman: “As corporate fines go, it’s pretty paltry, but the main thing is it sends a clear message to councils that they need to tighten up their safety procedures for road workers. That can only be done through management commitment at all levels to ensure what drivers see happening on the ground matches the fine words in the head office policy statements.”
A construction firm and its subcontractor have been fined after a scaffolder was crushed to death on a Liverpool construction site. Liverpool Crown Court heard how Henry Jones, 67, was walking across the Redrow site in Knotty Ash when he was struck by a reversing dumper truck. Jones was crushed under the rear wheels of the vehicle in the 8 August 2013 incident and confirmed dead at the scene. The tragedy was witnessed by his son, who was also working at the construction site. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that Redrow Homes had made no provision to maintain separation of vehicles and pedestrians in the plot where Henry Jones died. Traffic management across the entire site was poorly managed and was an underlying cause of the incident. The investigation also found that subcontractor WPI Civil Engineering Limited failed to provide a banksman, or have any employees on site trained as banksmen, and that the vehicle involved was not fit to be used on site. Redrow Homes pleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches and was fined £500,000 and ordered to pay costs of £101,000. WPI Civil Engineering Limited also pleaded guilty and was fined £300,000 and ordered to pay costs of £17,000. HSE inspector Jacqueline Western said: “Mr Jones’ death could easily have been prevented if both the principal contractor and the subcontractor had implemented safe systems of work and ensured that health and safety documentation was communicated and followed. Tragically, on this occasion both Redrow Homes and WPI Civil Engineering failed to do this.”
A Fife firm has been fined following the death of a mechanic, crushed under the wheels of a lorry. Robert Purvis Plant Hire was convicted of breaching health and safety legislation last month, after the death of employee Ian Bratchie, 50. Mr Bratchie, who worked in the mechanics’ workshop of the yard in Lochgelly, was underneath an HGV when a colleague attempted to drive it away, unaware he was there, on 3 September 2015. The company was convicted by a jury at Dunfermline Sheriff Court of failing to make suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk of vehicles under maintenance being driven away at its premises in Cartmore Industrial Estate between 2 April 2012 and 4 September 2015. A charge that the firm had failed to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees was not proven. Sheriff Christopher Shead said no causal link had been made between the company’s failure and Mr Bratchie’s death. “The court has to pay very clear attention to the charge of which the company was convicted,” he said. The firm, which has an annual turnover of around £17 million, was fined £15,000.
Unions in Cambodia have called for more government action to protect workers’ health, after latest figures showed a sharp rise in the number of garment workers fainting at work. The National Social Security Fund (NSSF) of the Ministry of Labour said more than 1,600 workers fainted in 22 factories in 2017, an increase of more than 400 on the previous year. NSSF director Ouk Samvithya called on all factories to regularly inspect and maintain ventilation systems one hour before the workers enter the building and ensure the management of chemical smells inside and outside the building. In addition, goods inside the factory must be stored in a manner not blocking ventilation, thermostats must be installed, infirmaries and emergency facilities must be prepared, and steam systems must be up to code. NSSF said the cause of the faintings included chemical and psychosocial problems and poor ventilation in the workplace. Other contributory factors included irregular consumption of food and too much work. Fa Saly, president of the National Trade Union Confederation, commented: “The government should thoroughly examine the fabric and surrounding environmental issues, especially the heat because it has gotten hot recently making it difficult for workers.” He added: “Another thing is food. They are still eating insufficient food because wages are limited, which puts them at risk of fainting.”
Ÿ Khmer Times.
Jewellery and watch companies need to do more to ensure their supply chains are free of human rights abuse, a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has concluded. A total of 29 civil society groups and trade unions have joined the group in an appeal to the jewellery industry to improve its sourcing practices. The 99-page report scrutinises the sourcing of gold and diamonds by 13 major jewellery and watch brands that collectively generate over US$30 billion in annual revenue – about 10 per cent of global jewellery sales. The report describes how children have been injured and even killed doing hazardous work in small-scale gold or diamond mines. Communities have faced ill-health and environmental harm because mines have polluted waterways with toxic chemicals. And civilians have suffered enormously as abusive armed groups have enriched themselves through mining. “Many jewellers can do more to find out if their gold or diamonds are tainted by child labour or other human rights abuses,” said Juliane Kippenberg, HRW’s associate child rights director. The research found none of the 13 brands could be ranked as “excellent” but ranked one – Tiffany and Co. – as “strong” for taking significant steps toward responsible sourcing. Four – Bulgari, Cartier, Pandora, and Signet – were ranked as “moderate”. Four others – UK-based Boodles and Chopard, Christ, and Harry Winston – were ranked as “weak” for taking few steps toward responsible sourcing, and Indian firm Tanishq was judged to be “very weak,” due to a lack of any evidence of steps towards responsible sourcing. Three other firms failed to respond to HRW, so were not rated. “Too many companies point to their membership in the Responsible Jewellery Council as being all the proof they need of responsible sourcing, but this is not enough to truly ensure clean supply chains,” HRW’s Kippenberg said.
Ÿ HRW news release and report, The hidden cost of jewelry: : Human rights in supply chains and the responsibility of jewelry companies, February 2018.
Two recent suicides have illustrated the potentially deadly impact of growing pressures and insecurity in modern workplaces. The tragedies follow recent reports from the UK, US, France and elsewhere highlighting large numbers of work-related suicides (Risks 804). In Canada, a decision by the Saskatchewan Workers' Compensation Board to attribute the suicide death of a grader operator to his employer is being called a ‘shift’ in attitudes to mental health in the workplace. Robert Duhaime worked for the Rural Municipality of Parkdale until his death on 31 August 2017. In a letter to his widow, Brenda Duhaime, on 19 January, the WCB said there is sufficient information to attribute his mental health issues and subsequent death to his employment. Scott Walsworth, an associate professor of human resources at the University of Saskatchewan, said the decision “opens the doors and it places a lot of responsibility on the employers for creating a healthy space at work in terms of mental health.” The WCB said the claim is not the first of its kind. “The WCB has accepted claims related to suicides at work. Sadly, it is not unprecedented,” the WCB said in statement to CBC News. In the US, Douglas Schifter, a long-time New York City hire car driver, shot himself this month outside City Hall in Manhattan hours after he posted an emotional 1,700-word note on Facebook. “Companies do not care how they abuse us just so the executives get their bonuses,” he wrote. “They count their money, and we are driven down into the streets we drive, becoming homeless and hungry. I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.” Union leader Bhairavi Desai, the executive director for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, commented: “I've been organising taxi drivers since 1996, and I've never seen the level of desperation. I've started to receive so many calls from drivers seeking resources for suicide prevention and talking about homelessness and eviction notices, and so, something has to be done here. This is not accidental, working people have a right to be protected. We have a right to work with dignity and justice. And that can be done through proper regulation.”
US government scientists say they have identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung disease ever reported. In a research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), epidemiologists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) confirm 416 cases of progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) or complicated black lung in three clinics treating coal miners in central Appalachia from 2013 to 2017. “This is the largest cluster of progressive massive fibrosis ever reported in the scientific literature,” says Scott Laney, a NIOSH epidemiologist involved in the study. “We've gone from having nearly eradicated PMF in the mid-1990s to the highest concentration of cases that anyone has ever seen,” he said. Laney acknowledges that the full scope of what he calls an epidemic is still unknown. “Even with this number, which is substantial and unacceptable, it's still an underestimate.” Ron Carson, director of the Stone Mountain clinic, one of the three coal belt clinics involved in the study, said: “Miners are dying at a much younger age.” He said that in the 1990s, the clinic's PMF diagnoses typically involved miners in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Now the disease strikes miners in their 50s, 40s and even 30s who have had fewer years mining coal. A “high proportion” of the miners in the NIOSH study had severely advanced disease and “coal mining tenure of less than 20 years, which are indications of exceptionally severe and rapidly progressive disease,” the study found. The likely cause of the epidemic is longer work shifts for miners and the mining of thinner coal seams. Massive mining machines must cut rock with the coal and the resulting dust contains silica, which is a far more potent cause of lung scarring than coal dust alone.
Ÿ NPR investigation and radio report. David J Blackley, Laura E Reynolds, Connie Short and others. Progressive massive fibrosis in coal miners from 3 clinics in Virginia, JAMA, volume 315, number 5, pages 500-501, 6 February 2018. The Pump Handle.
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/
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