|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 email@example.com.|
Firefighters dealt with more incidents, more fires and saw more fire deaths last year than for most of the last decade in England, yet the government continues to starve fire authorities of the central funding necessary to keep the public safe, the firefighters’ union FBU has warned. It says fire deaths in England increased sharply last year, in part because of the Grenfell Tower fire. Firefighters attended over 564,000 incidents overall in England, the most since 2011/12. Firefighters attended over 167,000 fires, also the most since 2011/12. “This suggests that the long period of improvements in public safety has plateaued – with cuts the most likely explanation,” the FBU said. Since 2010, one-in-five firefighter jobs have been cut. In England, this translates to around 10,000 frontline firefighter posts. According to the FBU, that means fewer firefighters at the early stages of incidents, slower response times and greater risk to the public. Dave Green, FBU national officer, said: “These dreadful new figures confirm firefighters’ worst fears. Austerity cuts are now damaging public safety. For years, politicians have slashed our service and excused their actions because long term improvements were still being made. Now their figures show the public is at greater risk. The Grenfell Tower fire should have been a wake-up call. The Westminster government should have reacted by investing in the fire and rescue service, but instead they just keep on cutting.” He added: “They can’t even keep a proper count of the numbers who died as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire. Firefighters have lost complete confidence in this Tory government. They are putting the public at risk, while wrecking a well-respected, professional public service.” The union said 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire, but the official statistics record 71 deaths.
A new union-backed Commission on Workers and Technology chaired by Labour MP Yvette Cooper has been tasked with identifying the immediate actions that government, employers and trade unions need to take to support workers as technology impacts on jobs during the next 10 years. The two-year commission organised by the Changing Work Centre – a joint research initiative from Community and the Fabian Society – will identify the immediate actions that government, employers and trade unions need to take to support workers as technology impacts on jobs during the next 10 years. The Commission will hold public evidence sessions and visit workplaces to meet workers and managers as they navigate technology change. A public call for evidence is invited contributions from trade unions, businesses, academia, think tanks, and other interested parties and stakeholders. The Commission will produce a final report in early 2020. Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “It is vital that action is taken now to ensure changing technology doesn’t widen inequality and to make sure all workers feel the benefits.” Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of Community, said: “Automation cannot simply be opposed, rather it should be made to work in the interests of working people. Our members are already dealing with the consequences of automation being managed badly. Government and business need to step up too, but trade unions have a central role to play.” The launch came in the week Ford announced it was to introduce mechanical ‘exoskeletons’ to be worn by 75 workers in 15 of its factories. The devices, called EksoVests, wrap around the upper body and are intended to assist when lifting or reaching overhead. Ford said it hoped the suits will reduce fatigue and the number of injuries from repetitive motion. The company said: “Imagine lifting a bag of flour or a watermelon over your head up to 4,600 times a day as part of your job – that is similar to what some Ford employees do every day as they work to build vehicles around the world.”
Changes to this year’s GCSEs and A-levels have damaged students’ mental health and increased teacher workload, according to a snap-shot poll by the National Education Union (NEU). The poll, to which over 650 secondary school teachers responded, found nearly nine-in-ten (89 per cent) believe that changes in the way new GCSEs are assessed have made more students extremely anxious and stressed, while two-thirds (66 per cent) said the same about the new A-levels. The changes have also increased teachers’ workload, according to 87 per cent of those teaching GCSEs and 81 per cent teaching A-levels. Nansi Ellis, NEU assistant general secretary for policy, said: “Hasty implementation of the new GCSEs and A-levels, with changes to content, the level of difficulty and grading, have caused huge difficulties for students and staff and put them under excessive pressure.” She added: “Not allowing schools to sufficiently prepare has put staff and students under tremendous pressure and stress. The government needs to learn from this and make sure that teachers and students are given the support they need.”
NEU news release .
Crawley council has become the latest to give its backing to a Unite Construction Charter that seeks to ensure that conditions for workers on construction projects under local authority control meet the highest standards. Crawley council leader Peter Lamb has included the commitment in the Labour authority’s manifesto. The charter commits signatories to working with Unite in order to achieve the highest standards in respect of direct employment status, health and safety, standards of work, apprenticeship training and the implementation of appropriate nationally agreed terms and conditions of employment. Peter Lamb said: “Everyone has the right to a safe working environment and the conditions set out in Unite's Construction Charter should ensure construction workers are treated fairly and safely on council projects. I don't see this as setting an example, it's really the least that any employer should do.” Unite regional secretary for the South East, Ian Woodland, said: “We welcome Crawley council’s significant commitment to construction workers. Unite’s Construction Charter will help local workers to operate in a safe environment on construction sites and to ensure they can raise health and safety issues without fear. The council is involved in a number of important projects and workers on those projects will be able to work under the highest standards.”
Unite is providing support to those affected by the explosion and fire at the Chemring Countermeasures plant near Salisbury last week in which a worker was killed. A 29-year-old man from Southampton died in the 10 August blast. A second 26-year-old worker caught up in the explosion in the flare-manufacturing building is in a serious but stable condition at Salisbury District Hospital. Unite has a significant membership at the company, which produces flares, chaff and decoys for use on military aircraft and ships. It is liaising with management and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to ascertain how the tragedy happened. The union’s regional legal officer Stuart Davies said in a statement: “Our thoughts are with these workers and their families at this difficult time. Unite will be fully supporting our members, their families and the local community, to include any appropriate assistance through Unite legal services.” He added: “As the investigation into the incident develops, Unite will be playing a full part in understanding how this terrible tragedy occurred, working to ensure that nothing similar can ever happen again.” Chemring has started an investigation into the incident, in which equipment was also damaged and which has led to a temporary halt in production of military supplies. Wiltshire Police confirmed the force was investigating the explosion with health and safety officers. Chemring shares tumbled more than 20 per cent as the firm admitted that its full-year underlying operating profit could be up to £20 million lower than expected as a result of the explosion, with a “corresponding impact on the group’s operating cash flow and net debt.”
Royal Berkshire Hospital is being urged to withdraw proposals for ‘dangerous’ new shift patterns for overworked accident and emergency (A&E) staff. “If these staff are forced to do pointlessly long shifts at all hours of the day and night, they may be too tired to cope with the constant stress and demands of their front line role in A&E,” said GMB Southern Region. Under the proposals, workers at the Reading hospital could be required to work 12.5 hour shifts. Staff who run all of the reception desks in A&E are being consulted over the plan for longer shifts and an ‘exhausting’ rota of days, nights and evenings. GMB said it is concerned by the “well-documented damage of doing such long hours and difficult shift patterns.” GMB regional organiser Nikki Dancey said: “If these staff are forced to do pointlessly long shifts at all hours of the day and night, they may be too tired to cope with the constant stress and demands of their front line role in A&E as well.” GMB branch secretary for Reading, David McMullen added: “Most staff we have spoken to don’t want to change their working hours and patterns. Many of these are highly experienced staff who have worked extremely hard over many years in their jobs, and feel that this may even be an effort to force experienced staff out of work so that newer, cheaper staff on worse terms can be employed in their place. We need the specialised skills and experience of the best staff in place across our NHS, so that we can all rest easy that we will get the best care possible if any of us find ourselves injured or ill in our local A&E.” A decision on the shift changes proposal is due in October.
GMB news release .
A nurse who burnt himself to death outside Kensington Palace after losing his job had been “treated unfairly”, an independent report has found. Amin Abdullah, 41, died in February 2016, weeks after being sacked by email from Charing Cross Hospital following a misconduct case. Officers found Abdullah on fire outside the palace at 3am on 9 February, having apparently doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. The Malaysian-born nurse, who became depressed when he was ordered to leave his job, was due to appeal the decision just two days later. An inquiry into the disciplinary process found the investigating officer had repeatedly raised questions about Abdullah’s honesty “on the basis of little or no evidence”. The independent report, commissioned by Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, concluded: “It is clear from the evidence that Nurse Abdullah was treated unfairly.” Professor Tim Orchard, chief executive of the trust, said: “Above all else, it is now clear that we let Amin down and, for that, I am truly sorry.” Abdullah’s partner, Terry Skitmore, welcomed the findings of the investigation which he said had highlighted “flaws and failures” in the disciplinary process. He said: “Nothing can bring Amin back, but I am determined to do all I can to make sure his story is listened to by those who have the power to change things in the future.” Disciplinary proceedings were brought against Abdullah in September 2015 after he signed a document in support of a colleague who had received a patient complaint. The investigation criticised a report produced by a senior HR manager after Abdullah’s death as a “whitewash” which “served to reassure the trust that it had handled the case with due care and attention.” Professor Orchard said: “I very much regret that Amin is not here to be offered an apology for the mistakes that we made and a personal commitment from me that we will act on all of the learning from his case.”
Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and full independent report . The Independent. Personnel Today .
Work and suicide: A TUC guide to prevention for trade union activists , January 2018. More on work-related suicide.
Almost 30 per cent of businesses have seen an increase in the number of staff taking time off for mental health reasons but too many firms are still turning a blind eye, a business group has warned. Research conducted by the British Chambers of Commerce and the insurer Aviva found one in three (33 per cent) business leaders have also noticed an increase in the length of time that staff are taking off due to mental health issues. They say the survey, of over 1,000 business leaders from every region and nation of the UK, suggests that firms are more aware than ever of mental health concerns in the office, and that “the topic is becoming less taboo for both employees and employers alike.” Workplace initiatives to address mental health issues identified by respondents included reviewing individual workloads (36 per cent) and flexible working options (35 per cent), organising counselling for staff (20 per cent) and training for managers to better support staff (18 per cent). Adam Marshall, BCC director general, said: “As the world of work changes, it is absolutely crucial for business leaders to pay ever closer attention to the health and well-being of their employees, especially at a time when firms are facing severe challenges finding and retaining the skilled staff they need.” He added: “While legions of firms are now more aware of mental health concerns and acting accordingly, far too many businesses are still turning a blind eye to this issue, which saps productivity, morale and individual well-being. Our message today is that it is no longer acceptable for firms to ignore mental health in the workplace, and all companies need to step up their game.”
BCC news release .
Well-being at work initiatives are becoming increasingly popular with employers, but what works is based more on guesswork than evidence, new research has found. The study by RAND Europe also warned that well-being initiatives should not substitute for better management of work. The research, commissioned by Public Health England (PHE), found initiatives addressing mental health at work ‘featured strongly’ in submissions, and noted “that domestic violence, sleep and menopause are emerging target areas for workplace interventions.” But it cautioned: “Substantial levels of evidence for health and well-being outcomes were not greatly forthcoming. This does not mean necessarily that these interventions are less effective, but that academically rigorous methods of data collection or evaluation are not being used to underline their effectiveness.” The authors note: “The increasing focus on workplace well-being provision should not come at the expense of ensuring effective and good practice workplace management practices, themselves an integral element of staff well-being.” The Northern TUC’s Better Health at Work Award is one of the case histories featured in the report.
RAND Europe news release and full report, Promising practices for health and wellbeing at work: A review of the evidence landscape , July 2018.
Forthcoming TUC guide: Your Health at Work: an indispensable guide to physical and mental well-being, TUC, release date 3September 2018. Order form .
E-cigarette users could be at risk of chronic lung disease, a new research suggests. A study by Birmingham University researchers found the nicotine infused liquids used in e-cigarettes become much more potent cell killers when vaporised, and can disable the lung’s defence mechanisms. As the majority of research on e-cigarette safety has looked at the chemicals in fluids before they are evaporated by heat, this could potentially have led the risks to be underestimated, the researchers warn. The authors stress e-cigarettes still have a lower risk of lung cancer than conventional tobacco products, but say manufacturers’ safety claims may be overstated when so little is known about their long-term effects. “They are safer in terms of cancer risk,” said lead author Professor David Thickett, “but if you vape for 20 or 30 years and this can cause COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], then that’s something we need to know about.” He added: “I don’t believe e-cigarettes are more harmful than ordinary cigarettes, but we should have a cautious scepticism that they are as safe as we are being led to believe.” The research used laboratory tests with human cells and found some of the harms were equivalent to those seen with tobacco smoking. Using lung cells extracted from healthy volunteers who had never smoked they tested the effects of e-cigarette fluid, before and after it had been vaporised and with or without nicotine. The number of macrophages still able to function was significantly reduced after exposure to evaporated fluids and this effect was seen in liquids with and without nicotine. “Importantly, exposure of macrophages to vaporised fluid induced many of the same cellular and functional changes in alveolar macrophage function seen in cigarette smokers and patients with COPD,” the authors write. In all concentrations the vaporised and the condensed fluid was more toxic than in its un-vaped form and caused cell death and necrosis at lower concentrations. A US study last year warned that e-cigarettes could be as harmful as tobacco cigarettes ( Risks 823 ). Arguing that vaping should not be allowed at work, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said last year that “we want our workplaces to be free from all fumes that can potentially make us ill. That is just as much the case with the fumes from e-cigarettes as with other chemicals, especially as the long-term health risks are still unknown” ( Risks 812 ).
Birmingham University news release . BMJ/Thorax news release and podcast . Aaron Scott and others. Pro-inflammatory effects of e-cigarette vapour condensate on human alveolar macrophages , Thorax, Online first, 13 August 2013. doi 10.1136/thoraxjnl-2018-211663. The Independent . BBC News Online .
A group of subcontract railway workers who narrowly avoided being hit by a high-speed train in Nottinghamshire were under pressure to work in an unsafe way, an official report into the incident has concluded. The near-miss occurred close to Egmanton level crossing, between Newark North Gate and Retford on the East Coast Main Line at around 11.22am on 5 October 2017. The track workers only became aware of the train, which was travelling at its maximum permitted speed of 125mph, about three seconds before it reached them. One of the group shouted a warning to three others who cleared the track with just one second before the train passed them. The report by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) found that the ‘person in charge’ had the contractor workers working under an “unsafe and unofficial system of work.” The RAIB said the person in charge should have reacted to a Train Operated Warning System (TOWS) and moved his team to a safe position while the TOWS was in place. This broke down when both the lookout and the person in charge became distracted and forgot about the TOWS warning them of the oncoming train. Despite concerns, none of the team involved challenged the unsafe system of work in place at the time. They feared they might lose the work as contractors if they challenged the person in charge. Simon French, chief inspector of rail accidents, said: “When the person in charge of a team is both a strong personality and an employee of the client, it can be particularly hard for contract workers to challenge unsafe behaviour. In this investigation, RAIB found that the person in charge had adopted an unsafe method of working, in an attempt to undertake additional unplanned work.” He added: “Both the person in charge and team members became distracted, and the result was that three of them found themselves jumping clear of a train travelling at 125 miles per hour with just one second to spare. This came so close to being a major tragedy. We have seen this sort of unsafe behaviour before, where the wish to get the work done quickly overrides common sense and self-preservation.” He said as a consequence RAIB was “recommending that Network Rail looks again at how it monitors and manages the safety leadership exercised by its staff, and how they interact with contractors.”
Supermarket giant Tesco has been fined more than £150,000 after a cage of goods fell out of a lorry and onto a staff member. The worker from the Chadwell St Mary Tesco branch was seriously injured in the incident, sustaining a fractured pelvis. Thurrock Council’s health and safety and legal teams brought the action because the roll cage, which is used to deliver goods to shops, should only be moved by two people. Tesco pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was ordered to pay a £160,000 fine and £18,118 costs to Thurrock Council. Tesco had a previous health and safety conviction for allowing a lone workers to move a cage at their branch in Waverley, the council said. Rob Gledhill, leader of Thurrock Council, said: “It is vital that workers are properly protected and safe when they are doing their jobs. We will always take action to ensure that proper standards are maintained by the borough’s employers.” He added: “The size of the fine should serve as a deterrent and a signal to employers that we take the health and safety or our residents and others who work in Thurrock very seriously.”
A California jury has found Monsanto guilty of concealing the dangers of glyphosate, the world's most widely-applied herbicide, and awarded a terminally ill schools groundskeeper total damages of US$289 million. The unprecedented 10 August verdict delivered by the San Francisco, California jury in favour of Dewayne Johnson, 46, will weigh heavily on the more than 4,000 similar cases already lodged in the US alleging a glyphosate link to the blood cancer non-Hodgkin's lymphoma ( Risks 859 ). Monsanto has announced it will appeal. Prior to Monsanto's acquisition by Bayer, the company had set aside US$258 million for litigation; Bayer had a fund of US$447 million. Based on the substantial number of internal company documents made public for the first time as part of the trial process, the jury determined that Monsanto knew of the potential health risks associated with glyphosate exposure yet acted with "malice or oppression" in failing to warn the public. The company papers chronicle a protracted campaign by Monsanto to discredit independent research, capture regulatory bodies and defund the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which in 2016 determined glyphosate was probably carcinogenic to humans ( Risks 776 ). Monsanto vice-president Scott Partridge denounced the verdict and attacked IARC as “corrupted” because they do “no testing, they do no analysis, they have no laboratories”. However, global food and farm union IUF said this was the “same procedure followed by the regulatory agencies Monsanto consistently sought for decades to influence.” In his trial testimony, Dewayne Johnson told the court: “I never would've sprayed that product on school grounds or around people if I knew it would cause them harm. It's unethical. It's wrong.” Carey Gillam, research director of US Right to Know, commented: “Monsanto and its chemical industry allies have spent decades actively working to confuse and deceive consumers, farmers, regulators and lawmakers about the risks associated with glyphosate-based herbicides. As they’ve suppressed the risks, they’ve trumpeted the rewards and pushed use of this weed killer to historically high levels.” She added: “The evidence that has come to light from Monsanto’s own internal documents, combined with data and documents from regulatory agencies, could not be more clear: It is time for public officials across the globe to act to protect public health and not corporate profits.”
African migrant labourers went on strike in Italy this week in protest at poor working conditions, after 16 workers died in road crashes. Shouting “we are not slaves”, farm workers downed tools and marched on the city of Foggia in southern Italy. The strike came after 16 migrants died in two separate accidents in 48 hours. In both cases, lorries carrying tomatoes collided with vans carrying the labourers home after their day's work. Four workers died in a crash in the Puglia region on 4 August, and 12 more perished in a head-on collision near Lesina north of Foggia two days later. The labourers say recruiters who may be linked to organised crime drive them from farm to farm in overcrowded vans, and fail to give them work contracts. A "red hat march" was announced by the workers after the second crash - echoing the hats worn by tomato pickers in the fields around Foggia. Thousands of migrant labourers come to Italy in the summer, earning as little as one euro (£0.90; $1.15) for picking 100kg (221lb) of tomatoes. Most of them have official papers, but they are usually paid below the legal minimum wage. Many are forced to live in shanty towns without electricity or water. Unions have previously argued for a public transport system around Foggia during the busy summer period to help migrants, and union members joined the migrants' march on 8 August. Governor Michele Emiliano of Puglia also joined the march, and said in a tweet that the demonstrators are fighting for “the dignity of work.”
People injured at work are becoming victims of opioid addiction because of the failure of the US system to address work injuries, treatment and rehabilitation effectively. Workers suffering from painful injuries often have few options, the grassroots Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) has warned. It notes “inadequate workers compensation systems and the fear of losing their job leads people to return to work before they are healed and to work in pain, depending on painkillers to get through their day, leading to addiction and overdose.” According to Workers Compensation Hub: “This occurs, of course, in a context in which workers are systematically disempowered in the workplace and the economy. Workers often don’t have the power to fix the unsafe working conditions that cause their injuries, nor to make work and life adjustments that would allow them to manage their pain and return to health.” It notes when the workers’ compensation and health care system fail to deal with root causes, “the immediate pain relief offered by a pill can be the quickest, easiest solution for workers, doctors and employers alike.” It adds: “Though opioid addiction extends far beyond injured workers, workers in dangerous industries like construction and fishing face a particularly high danger. National COSH’s opiate working group, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and peer-reviewed studies have all found higher rates of fatal opioid overdoses among workers in these occupations. National COSH also found that many workers who die of overdoses previously suffered work injuries.” The Center for Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace is hoping to pilot a peer-training model on painkillers, addiction and how to advocate for proper medical treatment and work accommodations. The Center also emphasises the need for destigmatising addiction, providing accessible recovery services and re-evaluating punitive workplace drug testing as crucial steps to help workers recover from opioid dependency.
Workers Compensation Hub newsletter , Summer 2018.