|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 UK government’s confused and troubling messages on workers’ rights post-Brexit have been criticised by the TUC. While Brexit secretary David Davis maintained that the UK wanted to lead a “global race to the top” in rights and standards, foreign secretary Boris Johnson had a week earlier said complying with EU rules post-Brexit would be “intolerable”. David Davis, in a 20 February address to Austrian business leaders, said if both sides recognise each other's standards and regulations, the UK will “continue our track record of meeting high standards” once outside the EU. He dismissed fears that Britain will be “plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction. These fears about a race to the bottom are based on nothing, not our history, not our intentions, not our national interest. But while I profoundly disagree with those who spread these fears - it does remind us all that we must provide reassurance.” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “David Davis lacks a plan to deliver a ‘race to the top’. And many of his Conservative colleagues say that they want ‘Mad Max’ cuts to workers’ rights and consumer standards. To prove his intentions, the Brexit secretary should keep staying in the single market on the negotiating table. Of all the current options, it’s the best platform for a race to the top, and the best protection against a race to the bottom.”
Boris Johnson has called EU legal protections ‘mad’ and called for major regulatory divergence from the EU. In a 14 February speech, the foreign secretary said: “It is only by taking back control of our laws that UK firms and entrepreneurs will have the freedom to innovate, without the risk of having to comply with some directive devised by Brussels, at the urgings of some lobby group, with the specific aim of holding back a UK competitor.” He added: “That would be intolerable, undemocratic, and would make it all but impossible for us to do serious free trade deals.” TUC’s Frances O’Grady responded: “People have learned not to trust Boris Johnson. By calling agreements like the working time directive ‘intolerable’, he has fuelled fears that essential workplace rights will be lost after Brexit. When he says ‘regulatory divergence’ he means scrapping hard-won rights to paid holidays, equal pay and safety at work.” She added: “We need a Brexit that protects jobs and guarantees workers’ rights. All options must be kept on the negotiating table. But the best option we currently see to protect workers’ needs is through the single market and customs union.” Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said the foreign secretary’s speech had revealed the government’s intention to “casually cast aside” rights and protections when Britain leaves the European Union. Polling published by the thinktank IPPR on 20 February indicated strong support for maintaining EU rights, with a large majority of the public (73 per cent) were in favour of fully retaining the Working Time Directive. Tom Kibasi, the director of the IPPR, said: “Our research shows there is no appetite for deregulation post-Brexit. Regulatory divergence is both anti-worker and anti-business, so it should be no surprise that the public don’t want it.”
‘Long and hard’ campaigning by the rail union RMT has secured a pledge that rail firms will stop dumping excrement on the railway by the end of 2019. But the union is warning that progress to end the ‘filthy and disgusting practice’ has been far too slow. RMT says the delays are down “train operating companies, in cahoots with the government, and their drive to maintain profits at all costs.” The union was commenting after Network Rail confirmed in its Strategic Business Plan that by the end of 2019: “No trains will discharge toilets onto the track by this time too which will significantly improve the working environment for our staff and help us to provide a work place of dignity and respect”. RMT said this continuing delay compares badly with Scotland, where a high profile campaign by the union led to the total cessation of the dumping of sewage on the tracks by the end of last year. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “For years now we have been promised that the filthy and disgusting practice of dumping raw sewage on Britain’s railways, a practice which sees track workers routinely sprayed with human excrement and fleet staff left to scrape it off the bottom of trains, would be called to a halt and it’s only through long, hard campaigning by RMT that we now have a pledge for the end of 2019. However, that is too slow and compared with Scotland, where we have already secured a ban, it leaves rail workers in the rest of Britain left facing the daily health hazard of being doused with sewage for another two years and that, quite frankly, isn’t good enough.” He added: “The blame for the slow move to action on this disgraceful practice that shames Britain’s railways lies at the door of the greedy train companies, and their reluctance to retro-fit tanks due to cost, and this government and their appalling attitude to the staff who work in the transport industry. There will be no let-up in RMT’s campaign to bring the dumping of raw sewage on the tracks to an end as soon as possible.”
A rail union has expressed ‘horror’ after ScotRail axed the health and safety department covering its stations. Manuel Cortes, leader of the white collar rail union TSSA, said the news that voluntary severances and reorganisation at Abellio ScotRail would see all the department’s staff depart, was ‘a potential safety nightmare’. He was commenting after the company’s health and safety manager took voluntary severance and the remaining two members of his department were told to find other jobs within the company. “It is incredible that at a time of heightened terrorist threat Abellio has done away with the department that looks after the health and safety of their stations. ScotRail are sleepwalking into a potential safety nightmare,” he said. TSSA has asked the Scottish government transport minister, Humza Yousa, to intervene to stop the voluntary redundancies. However, TSSA said the minister dismissed the union’s concerns, calling the safety workers “only backroom staff.” Cortes warned the minister’s “laissez-faire attitude has put ScotRail passengers and staff at risk. I hope he’ll be man enough to admit he was wrong and intervene with ScotRail to put it right. TSSA will not be just ‘letting things happen’ and we won’t be ruling anything out – up to and including strike action.” Meanwhile the transport minister said the Scottish government is listening to union safety concerns about the new fleet of electric trains. Train drivers’ union said drivers had reported a windscreen design flaw causing them to see more than one signal at night (Risks 837). The transport minister said it was “imperative for the train manufacturer, Hitachi, and ScotRail to find a solution.” And he admitted he was unable to say “absolutely” whether the trains would go into service in March, as planned.
Postal workers’ union CWU has welcomed the prosecution of an irresponsible pet owner after her dog bit off the end of a post delivery worker’s finger. Stockport postwoman Stacey Brennan suffered the horrendous injury while she was delivering post last July, losing the top of her finger when the dog bit her through the letter box. The dog’s owner, Kerry Hackney, was sentenced to 160 hours community service. The town’s magistrates court also ordered her to pay a £750 compensation award to Ms Brennan, £85 court costs and a £300 kennelling payment to the police. The dog was given a suspended destruction order and has now to be muzzled and kept on a short leash when in public. Hackney must also fit a wire letterbox cage to the front door. CWU national health, safety and environment officer Dave Joyce described the sentence as a “satisfactory and welcomed conclusion and full credit goes to Greater Manchester Police for pursuing this case with vigour and determination.” He added: “This case should serve as a warning to those dog owners with a blasé attitude towards these incidents which happen far too often.”
Construction union Unite has won a major legal victory in its battle against bogus self-employment and the use of payroll companies. The union took the employment appeal tribunal case on behalf of pipefitter Russ Blakely, who was working at Broadmoor Hospital. Russ, 57, had been taken on by On-Site Recruitment Solutions Limited, which had told him that his salary must come through payroll company Heritage Solutions City Limited - which charged £18 a week to process pay. Unite argued the two companies had unlawfully deducted wages and employers’ national insurance contributions and had not paid holiday pay. A contract with the payroll company also included what his trade union called a “menacing” indemnity clause aimed at stopping him from pursuing any legal claims and gagging him from raising complaints with HM Revenue and Customs. The union says is the first time that an employment appeal tribunal (EAT) has considered a bogus self-employment appeal involving the use of a payroll company. The case went to an EAT after a Reading employment tribunal rejected the claim, wrongly finding Mr Blakely was not ‘worker’ but was self-employed. The appeal found that while his contract stated that he was self-employed, he had to work at the direction of his bosses and so should have been classified as a worker. “This is a groundbreaking victory secured by Unite’s Strategic Case Unit in the fight against bogus self-employment in construction and other sectors,” said assistant general secretary Howard Beckett, criticising the ‘parasitic’ agencies. “It blows a hole in the way that employment agencies hide behind payroll and umbrella companies and pretend that they are not responsible for the employment of the workers they recruit. The fact the Employment Appeal Tribunal held that a worker could be jointly employed by two organisations is a game changer in the campaign against bogus self-employment.” Unite said EAT rulings are binding on all employment tribunals and must be applied in other cases.
A future Labour government would ensure all new school buildings are fitted with sprinklers and would remove asbestos and flammable cladding from existing schools. Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said Labour’s £14 billion plan would ensure classrooms are safe. She said government figures showed fewer than three in 10 schools in England built under a major programme had sprinklers (Risks 836). The Labour pledge is part of a package of proposed safety measures, including closing the loopholes that allowed developers to get away with not installing safety precautions like sprinklers in the first place. It comes after safety concerns were raised in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster in West London, which left 71 people dead last summer. Rayner said the Conservatives had even tried to weaken rules so that fewer sprinklers would be installed in schools, until the planned policy move was exposed (Risks 773). “It’s hard to believe this isn’t driven by cuts. Lower safety standards make things cheaper but not safer or better. We see the consequences in school buildings across the country,” she said. “We will put money aside to make sure schools are safe. To remove asbestos and flammable cladding and fit top drawer sprinklers. Parents want a lot of things for their kids. But above all they want them to be safe. Nothing is more important than that.”
Hundreds of former steelworkers are believed to have joined a legal case seeking compensation for cancers and lung diseases caused by their jobs. The window to join the multi-million pound legal battle against Tata Steel UK for compensation for respiratory diseases and lung cancers closed this week, after the High Court set a deadline of 23 February to join an group action. Lawyers say over 50 workers from the Scunthorpe steelworkers alone have submitted claims. Claimants affected by fumes from the coke ovens in steelworks are being advised by legal experts from the law firms Hugh James, based in Cardiff, and Irwin Mitchell in London. The case is expected to take years to resolve, given the scale of the litigation and amount of evidence to be considered. At the defendants’ request, and with court approval, claimants with bladder cancer they believe to be caused by coke oven work can also join the group. The separate deadline for those cases is 23 April. Roger Maddocks, an expert industrial disease lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said: “The approval of the group litigation order and the admission by the defendants that until an individual was provided with an appropriate respirator they were in breach of duty, were extremely important milestones and moved the victims and their families a further step closer to securing the justice they deserve concerning the exposure to harmful fumes decades ago at a number of coking plants around the UK.” He added: “The workers we represent, through no fault of their own, developed serious, and in some cases fatal, respiratory illnesses and lung cancers causing them unnecessary pain and suffering when they should be enjoying their later life with their families. Nothing can turn back the clock but this legal action will hopefully provide them with the help, support and treatments needed to make dealing with their illness more comfortable.” Insurers for Tata Steel have already admitted it was in breach of its duty owed to its employees from 1947 until appropriate respiratory protection was provided to the workforce. The application for a group litigation order alleging employers failed to protect employees from occupational exposure to dust and fumes was approved by the president of the High Court in January 2017. All potential claims will be assessed and those whose claims are considered to have merit would then join the group register of claimants to form a single, collective court case.
A builder who collapsed after being overcome by poisonous gases while working on a Lidl warehouse was lucky to survive, his lawyer has said. Luke Daniels, 29, and fellow construction workers said they had raised concerns about ventilation at the building in Belvedere, south-east London, before they fell ill. Hours later they were taken to hospital having inhaled dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Mr Daniels, who still suffers from anxiety and severe headaches, launched a civil action against his former employer, CC Contracting Ltd, and was awarded thousands of pounds when the case was settled. The company was also fined £50,000 by the Health and Safety Executive for criminal health and safety breaches. Luke Daniels was part of a team subcontracted to carry out a “concrete pour” at the Lidl distribution depot in August 2014, using petrol and diesel-powered machines. “The engines all started up around 8am and we’d been breathing in the fumes all morning. I first knew something was wrong around noon when I started to get a headache and feel sick.” He started to ring for an ambulance, but came round in hospital. “My carbon monoxide blood levels were tested about two hours after I collapsed and I was found to have 18 per cent carboxyhaemoglobin in my blood. It would have been much higher earlier.” His lawyer, Madelene Holdsworth, from Slater and Gordon solicitors, said: “What happened to Luke is dreadful and he is lucky to have survived what was a very acute poisoning due to this deadly gas. His life has altered dramatically as a result of what happened to him.”
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been issued with a Crown Censure after a Royal Navy engineering technician was killed during lift maintenance work. Leading engineering technician Neal Edmonds, originally from Kidderminster, was crushed between a moving lift and the lift shaft on 11 June 2014. The 42-year-old was carrying out maintenance work on a lift on board HMS Bulwark, which was alongside in Devonport. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found the MoD failed to ensure there was a safe system of work to control the risks associated with lift maintenance. As a government body, the MoD cannot face prosecution in the same way as private or commercial organisations and a Crown Censure is the maximum sanction a government body can receive. HSE’s deputy director of Field Operations, Jane Lassey, said: “The risks arising from maintenance operations are well known and suitable measures required to reduce these risks are understood. Like any employer, the MoD has a responsibility to reduce dangers to its personnel, as far as they properly can, and in this case they failed Neal Edmonds.” By accepting the Crown Censure, the MoD admitted a criminal breach of safety law.
A manufacturing company and its contractor have been prosecuted for their criminal failure to prevent asbestos exposures during the cleaning of an asbestos cement roof. Carter Brothers (Rochdale) Ltd contracted Frank Allan, trading as Jet Blast and Maintenance, to clean its premises in September 2016. Greater Manchester Magistrates’ Court heard that the work to clean the roof was unnecessary and had not been agreed in advance with the landlord of the property. However, an industrial high pressure jet washer was used to clean the fragile asbestos cement roof. Asbestos was subsequently found in debris around the premises. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that the contractor had failed to identify the risks involved or to take the measures necessary to prevent exposures to asbestos. It also found Carter Brothers had not selected a suitable contractor and did not monitor or supervise the work being carried out by Frank Allan on the roof. If the work had been necessary, the company should have employed a specialist contractor with access to specialist cleaning equipment. Carter Brothers (Rochdale) Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £8,000 with £3,913.94 costs. Frank Allan pleaded guilty to two criminal breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and was fined £330 with £3,910.94 costs. HSE inspector Lisa Bailey commented: “Asbestos can cause serious diseases and still kills around 5,000 workers per year. If the appropriate control measures had been taken then workers and members of the public would not have been put at risk.”
Unpoliced workplaces and high death rates in Georgia are the target of a global cyber campaign. The Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) has teamed up with online labour campaign group Labourstart to call for an end to the carnage. They note: “Since the abolition of the labour inspection in 2006 by the Georgian government, people continue to die at work on a daily basis. The statistics are shocking - 460 workers have died and another 796 were injured, and those numbers are rising.” Despite an ‘Association Agreement’ with the European Union that includes a commitment from the Georgian government to establish a system of labour inspection, this hasn’t happened, GTUC and Labourstart say. “In February 2018 it proposed to parliament an absolutely empty draft labour law, which among other things created a labour inspection with no mandate to freely visit workplaces, to inspect violations of labour rights or to impose fines or penalties. Georgia needs a genuine and effective Labour Inspection and decent work standards.” On 14 February, Tbilisi State University students’ movement held a protest rally and march in solidarity with Georgian workers injured or killed at work. The rally was organised after a 26-year-old construction worker, Jarji Janjalashvili, fell to his death off the fifth floor of a building this month.
Ÿ GTUC news release. Georgian Trade Union Confederation/Labourstart campaign – sent a message to the Georgian government. Georgia Today and follow up article.
A trail of worker suicides and deaths is blighting textile spinning mills in south India, the global union for the sector has said. IndustriALL reports that in the latest incident, on 6 February, child labourer Dharshini Balasubramani’s body was found in a hostel at Dollar Spinning Mills in Tamil Nadu. The 13-year-old had killed herself the day after working a 16-hour double shift. When the hostel warden knocked on her door at 6.15am to wake her for another shift, there was no reply. She was found hanging from the ceiling fan. The young orphan was recruited through an agent and brought to the mill three months earlier, where she was paid US$4 per day. The Tamilnadu Textile and Common Labour Union said there had been a number of recent worker deaths in the sector. The union said one 14-year-old girl, who continued working in Dindigul Cotton Spinning Mills despite suffering from pneumonia, died on 3 October 2017. She had returned to work after a hospital visit to avoid losing her US$41.52 bonus for working through the Diwali festival. The union lists a series of other recent deaths. It says most of the mill workers are from families of poor agricultural workers. Agents pay an advance to the family to recruit girls to the mills. Even if they want to leave, they cannot go home until they have paid back the advance. According to IndustriALL: “They face harsh working conditions, poor health facilities and sexual harassment at work. With scant government oversight, managers flout the law and workers have no way to address grievances. Managers strongly resist unions and take advantage of the poverty of workers’ families to close the issue by paying meagre compensation.” Apoorva Kaiwar, South Asia regional secretary of IndustriALL, said: “It is unacceptable that women workers in spinning mills face dangerous working conditions. It is alarming that many suspicious deaths are reported. The government should step in immediately to address the issue.”
Shipyard unions have called for a thorough probe into a 13 February explosion that killed five workers and injured several others at Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL). The vessel on which the blast occurred is a drilling ship owned by India's biggest oil explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). Preliminary investigations suggested the cause of the explosion inside the Sagar Bhushan, which was under repair in the dry dockyard at the shipyard in the southern India state of Kerala, was an acetylene leak. The investigation team also identified a series of management safety failings including no evidence that the necessary safety permits were in place. The New Indian Express reports: “The probe conducted by a four-member team of officers of the Department of Factories and Boilers has found serious lapses on the part of Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) in ensuring safety measures at workplace, that resulted in an explosion on board ONGC’s drill ship Sagar Bhushan.” KN Gopinath and CK Manishankar, union president and general secretary of the CITU Ernakulam district committee, urged the Indian government to order a safety audit of industrial units in the wake of the CSL tragedy. R Chandrasekharan, state president of the national union federation INTUC, said there must be proper compensation to the families of the victims, adding that the dependants of the deceased should be given jobs.
School unions in the US have called for action to prevent further gun deaths, after 17 people were killed and another 16 injured in a 13 February attack by an excluded former pupil. Nikolas Cruz, 19, opened fire with an AR-15 rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Randi Weingarten, president of the teaching union AFT, said that with 18 school shootings this year in the US, one had to wonder “when is enough enough?” She added: “We will do everything we can to support our educators, children, parents and local in the days, weeks and even years to come. [And we] will continue to fight to prevent gun violence from becoming the new normal in our schools.” Lily Eskelsen García, president of the education union NEA, called on the US government to act against violence in schools. “We all have a responsibility to create safe schools and communities. As a state and a country, we can and must do more to ensure that everyone who walks through our school doors - educator, student, parent or community member - is safe and free from violence,” she said. Fred van Leeuwen, general secretary of the global union Education International, said: “This is one further incident in a horrifying sequence of shootings in US schools which have cut short far too many young lives in tragic circumstances. Education International calls for better control of access to guns in the USA and for improved security on school premises.” The victims from Parkland, Florida join about 650 other people who die each week in the US from gun violence. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he would examine the “intersection of mental health and criminality and identify how we can stop people capable of such heinous crimes.” However, this approach has been questioned by public health specialists, who say President Trump’s top legal adviser is ignoring the positive impact of stricter gun laws. Public health blog The Pump Handle notes “psychiatrists, psychologists, and criminologists have examined mental illness and violence. There’s broad consensus that the vast majority of violent acts are committed by individuals who have no history of mental illness… Misappropriating gun violence to individuals with mental illness is a topic that’s been addressed by numerous researchers. Persons with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.”
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