|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.
Rail union RMT has demanded urgent talks with South Western Rail (SWR) after the safety regulator confirmed there had been a series of serious and potentially lethal safety breaches during earlier strike days. The letter from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) identified safety problems arising from what the RMT described as the company “winging it by deploying scab ‘contingency guards’ in a desperate effort to break the workforce.” ORR found 18 incidents during strike days where signals could have been passed at danger or passengers dumped out on the tracks and onto the live rail as doors were opened on the wrong side or short of the platform. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “It is outrageous that South Western Railway would rather compromise public safety on their trains through deploying this highly-paid scab army of ‘contingency guards’ than sit down with the union and negotiate a deal which guarantees a real guard on their services. This confirmation from the rail safety regulator exposes the level of risk that the company are prepared to run to break this action by our members - action in defence of safe, secure and accessible rail services.” The union leader said he was calling “for the company to drop this dangerous, high-risk approach and start taking with us as a matter of urgency around the principle of the guard guarantee that the union has secured elsewhere in England and across the whole of Scotland and Wales.”
Further revelations of the extent of the safety crisis in prisons should spur the government to act, the prison officers’ union POA has said. In a 3 September statement, POA said in the preceding seven days there had been 37 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in prisons in England and Wales, eight involving homemade weapons and five of a sexual nature. The union said in the same period 33 members of staff were the victim of unprovoked and sometimes serious assaults. Seven involved “potting”, where prisoners throw urine and excrement over staff. One member of staff was rushed to hospital and 14 others had to attend A&E for treatment. The union said the week also saw “12 reported deaths, five from self-harm and seven believed to be from natural causes with a significant number of prisoner self-harm incidents reported.” The union said these incidents “are stretching the prison system to breaking point.”
Overworked UK Mail drivers who are victims of ‘bogus self-employment’ have been told they must accept additional Saturday working, lower pay rates and fewer breaks or give up their jobs. The union GMB said this “is yet another attack to members’ terms and conditions for drivers employed at the company’s site in Gildersome, near Leeds. Not only are these overworked drivers losing a day off they are also being told that their parcel drop rates are being reduced from £5 to £1.50 per drop, leaving many drivers regularly working 12-hour days without a break.” GMB said its organising drive at the Gildersome depot has seen more drivers opting to join the union because of “the outrageous demands that are being put on them.” UK Mail is part of DHL, which is one of the UK’s leading postal services. GMB organiser Andrew Aldwinkle said: “These workers are victims of bogus self-employment. They are at the mercy of DHL and do not work for anyone else. To force these workers into working Saturdays after working at least a 60-hour week is a scandal. DHL prides itself on being a fair employer but our members’ experience is the opposite.” He added: “GMB is calling on DHL to do the right thing and treat these drivers with respect and dignity, which includes no less than the minimum wage, paid holidays, proper rest breaks and reasonable working hours and an end to bogus self-employment.”
The long hours culture in film and TV production is not just bad for workers, but for their entire families, their union BECTU has warned. The latest phase of the union’s ‘Eyes Half Shut’ campaign against excessive working hours is emphasising how hard families are being hit by long hours. Emily Collin, a BECTU organising official, said: “This issue is often forgotten. We are all conscious of the dangers relating to driving after long days, or the health risks caused by these excessive working patterns, but there is also a huge injustice that hits the families of people who work in the industry as well as the crews themselves.” She said BECTU surveys had shown “injury to family life was rated the second most damaging consequence of long hours working across all branches and departments, second only to the danger of driving after long hours.” She added: “We need to get employers around the table now, focused on practical solutions to this problem to benefit both productions and members – and the more people who care about this issue and who sign our ‘Eyes Half Shut’ petition, the better.”
A privatised train company is asking for unpaid ‘ambassadors’ to do a job essential for the provision of decent services and safety to passengers, train drivers’ union ASLEF has said. Mick Whelan, the union’s general secretary, said: “It’s outrageous that Grand Central expects unpaid volunteers to turn up to work and look after passengers at stations which are unmanned because the company wants to boost its profits by not employing – and properly paying – people to do a job.” His comments came after Sean English, chief operating officer of Grand Central Rail, tweeted: “GC station ambassadors are a team of dedicated volunteers supporting customers/visitors on stations across our routes at weekends. We are looking to introduce a team at Wakefield Kirkgate station. If you know of anyone that it is interested in volunteering please DM me. Thanks!” The ASLEF general secretary responded: “There are important safety and security issues here. It is important, for the safety of passengers and staff, such as train drivers, that stations are manned. And we know that infrastructure can be a target for terrorists.” He added: “It is utterly wrong that Grand Central, in pursuit of bigger profits, and bigger dividends for its German shareholders, won’t pay for staff at stations like Wakefield Kirkgate. And it is utterly wrong that Mr English is touting for ‘ambassadors’ to do a job which should be done by properly trained, and properly paid, staff.” Grand Central is owned by Arriva UK Trains, which in turn is owned by Deutsche Bahn.
The TUC has reiterated its warning that increasingly popular mental health first aid (MHFA) initiatives at work should not substitute for effective preventive action. The TUC’s comments came after a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) research report confirmed there is ‘no evidence’ that MHFA training leads to improvements (Risks 864). TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said despite the “pretty incredible” findings, employers are spending millions of pounds training people in MHFA, with over 200,000 people having been trained in MHFA since 2007. But he added the TUC was not opposed to MHFA, noting “just because there is a lack of evidence, that does not mean MHFA makes no difference. It just means that there is no proof either way.” Writing in a TUC blog, he said: “The problem however is that many employers are using MHFA as their only way of dealing with mental health issues and, increasingly, as a way of dealing with stress related problems. This is hardly surprising given that by introducing MHFA training they can say that they are doing something about mental health issues even if they are doing nothing about preventing stress-related illnesses such as depression and anxiety, which are responsible for around a third of all sickness absence. Also, because of the lack of any enforcement action, employers get away with this.” The TUC safety specialist concluded: “Any employer who thinks they can deal with mental health concerns just by introducing MHFA, offered to a few handpicked ‘Mental Health Champions’, is very much mistaken. MHFA training must be seen as one of a range of initiatives that employers can introduce. The bottom line is that employers have a major role to play in both prevention and providing support to employees over and above just providing MHFAiders and unions need to work with them to try to achieve that.”
Ÿ TUC blog. TUC workbook on mental health in the workplace. TUC mental health awareness training. Is Mental Health First Aid the answer? Depends on the question. Hugh Robertson, Hazards magazine, 2018.
Fire chiefs on Merseyside have been accused of “an act of revenge” by breaking up crews from two fire stations who successfully campaigned against life-threatening cuts. Firefighters’ union FBU said bosses told the crews at Liverpool city centre and Wallasey fire stations they would be dispersed to other sites across Merseyside. The union said their jobs will instead go to firefighters who aren’t in the union. The Morning Star reported Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority’s has denied victimising the workers, and maintained it has opposed the cuts. Merseyside FBU said firefighter numbers are being reduced from 927 to 580 between 2010 and 2020, with the number of fire appliances cut from 42 to 22. Fire deaths on Merseyside have increased from five in 2010/11 to 16 in 2015/16. Liverpool city centre and Wallasey fire stations are currently staffed 24 hours a day but Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority’s proposals will cut immediate cover to 12 hours a day. Instead, firefighters would be expected to be “on call” at home at night, increasing the response time to emergencies by 30 minutes, according to the FBU. FBU north-west regional secretary Mark Rowe told the Morning Star: “They are posting the crews for the two stations all over the place. It is a full attack on us. This is just an act of revenge. It has caused widespread anger. It is appalling. In my 31 years as a firefighter I have seen nothing like it. This is about an attack on firefighters, saying that if you stand up to defend your community this is what will happen.”
Ÿ Morning Star.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has launched an investigation after being “made aware that two UK laboratory supply companies have supplied schools and potentially other users with gauze mats which contain asbestos.” The metal gauze mats are designed for use over Bunsen burners. An HSE spokesperson said: “While we assess the overall risk of exposure to be low, we have taken swift action. We have ensured that both of the supply companies concerned immediately ceased supply of the gauze mats and are overseeing arrangements to contact affected customers and provide precautionary advice on how the mats should be disposed of safely.” The statement added: “We are working closely with Department for Education, education departments in Scotland and Wales as well as CLEAPSS (Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services). This will help us ensure that schools, colleges, local regulators, and others who may have supplied or purchased similar products are directed to our advice. We are also investigating how these particular gauze mats came into circulation. Breaches of the restrictions on the supply of asbestos are taken very seriously by HSE.” Commenting on the ‘shocking’ discovery, Chris Keates, general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, said: “Staff, pupils and parents will be deeply anxious as a result of this announcement. If schools had the names of the suppliers the anxiety and distress could be alleviated as they could confirm that they had not used these suppliers.” She added: “There are serious questions to be asked and answered about this appalling situation, including why it has taken so long to identify that suppliers are using such hazardous materials and what action the government intends to take to support schools in the light of this revelation, including the costs that may incurred as a result of the disposal of this material. I have written to Damien Hinds, secretary of state for education, to ask those questions.”
An oil company has been criticised for using trainees and apprentices to cover shifts on a North Sea platform. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said the firm Apache was “significantly failing” to meet its safety obligations on the Beryl Bravo platform. An inspection found trainees and apprentices “not deemed fully competent” were used for cover. Apache has been served with an official HSE improvement notice. The HSE said the use of trainees and apprentices to cover the shifts was not an isolated situation and that it had been happening since early this year. The improvement notice said: “Whilst there was some cover using trainees / apprentices / assistants, they are not deemed to be fully competent as per Apache's own competency management system and cannot be considered to provide adequate cover. This reduced production technicians manning is not an isolated incident and has been ongoing since early 2018. Adequate effect has therefore not been given to health and safety arrangements as reduced production technicians manning has the potential to increase fatigue and a decreased capacity to carry out critical work scopes which affect health and safety.” Apache has been given until 14 September to comply with the improvement notice.
Commuters are so regularly using travel time for work emails that their journeys should be counted as part of the working day, researchers have said. Wider access to wi-fi on trains and the spread of mobile phones has extended the working day, the study from the University of the West of England found. The study involved interviews with 5,000 rail passengers on commuter routes into London as wi-fi became more available. The study, presented this week at the Royal Geographical Society, found that 54 per cent of commuters using train wi-fi were sending work emails. Those on the way to work were catching up with emails sent ahead of the coming day - while those on the return journey were finishing off work not completed during regular working hours. The study examined the impact of an upgrade to free wi-fi on the London to Birmingham and London to Aylesbury routes. It showed that as internet access improved it had the consequence of extending working hours, using laptops and mobile phones. Researcher Dr Juliet Jain said smartphones and mobile internet access had caused a "blurring of boundaries" between work and home life - and this now applied to the journey to work. Instead of technology giving people more flexibility over working, the study showed that people were working extra hours on top of their time in the office. “There's a real challenge in deciding what constitutes work,” said Dr Jain, from the university's Centre for Transport and Society.
Environmental health experts have echoed union concerns and urged ‘caution’ over calls to ease restrictions on e-cigarette use in public places and to promote their use in smoking cessation programmes. A House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report last month said e-cigarettes were being overlooked by the NHS as a stop smoking tool and that they are safer than conventional cigarettes. But the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) has urged caution citing a lack of knowledge about long term effects. CIEH pointed to a new paper from the University of Birmingham that warned e-cigarette risks have been under-estimated and suggesting the vaporised fumes can disable the body’s immune response (Risks 862). CIEH head of policy Tony Lewis said: “It is clear that there is a huge knowledge gap on the health impacts of vaping over time, and the existence of contradictory reports only highlights the wide-spread confusion.” He added: “Whilst we whole-heartedly support measures to encourage smokers to give up, we believe that the evidence gap on the long-term health implications of vaping needs addressing as a priority and more research carried out. Quite simply, until more is known it would be irresponsible to wholeheartedly embrace vaping as the answer.” The TUC has said workers should be protected from chemical exposures in the workplace, and said that should include fumes from e-cigarettes (Risks 812).
A major steel company has been fined £450,000 after a worker was badly injured when he fell back into an uncovered pit. The prosecution came in the same year the firm was fined over £1 million over the death of a worker, and two years after it was fined nearly £2 million for criminal safety offences at another plant. Sheffield Crown Court heard criminal breaches of safety law by Tata led to Steven Ayres suffering a lacerated right kidney and broken ribs. The scaler fell backwards into an empty pit. The firm had carried out a risk assessment in 2012 that identified the need for safety barriers, but they were never put in place. The ‘experienced employee’ stepped back into the empty pit in February 2014. He was in hospital for a week and recovered at home for more than a month and is now employed elsewhere. Judge Slater said Tata - which was called Corus until 2007 - could have been fined up to £800,000, but this was reviewed in light of the UK steel industry's “financial realities.” He said Tata's accounts showed the company is “materially smaller” than four years ago and has recently been restructured to allow it to continue operations. The judge said any fine would impact on British Steel pension fund-holders. The company was fined £450,000 with £33,000 costs, to be paid in two instalments. Tata was fined £1.4 million in February 2018 for criminal safety offences that led to the death of 26-year-old maintenance electrician, Thomas Standerline at its Scunthorpe plant (Risks 836). A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found Tata Steel had failed to enforce its own safety procedures, despite having two previous incidents with ‘shared features’ before Standerline’s death. The firm was also fined almost £2 million in 2016 after two workers suffered serious injuries in separate incidents at its Corby plant (Risks 762).
A Birmingham machining company has been fined after workers were exposed to asbestos fibres when demolishing an internal wall. Birmingham Magistrates’ Court heard how the workers were asked to remove the internal wall by their manager. However, there was no asbestos survey or an up to date asbestos management plan for the premises. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that asbestos insulation sheets were removed unsafely without proper precautions and by unlicensed individuals from the company, without any safeguards in place to prevent the spread of the asbestos fibres. Birmingham Specialities Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2,454.40. HSE inspector Tariq Khan said: “Asbestos in buildings needs to be managed or removed by competent contractors. Those in control of work have a responsibility to devise safe methods of working and to provide the necessary information, instruction and training to their workers in the safe system of working.” He added: “The company needed to follow the proper procedures by carrying out an asbestos survey and formulating an asbestos management plan as well as training those responsible for managing asbestos”.
Kent County Council (KCC) has been fined £200,000 after asbestos was disturbed at Lansdowne Primary School. Canterbury Crown Court heard how, on 6 November 2014, an environmental health officer was carrying out a routine food inspection when they noticed what looked like asbestos rope hanging from the ceiling. A prohibition notice was served on the now independent educational trust. An investigation found that the asbestos flue and rope had been disturbed when it was under the control of Kent County Council 18 months beforehand. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the flue and gasket rope were attached to a steriliser unit that was removed by the caretaker. Neither the caretaker nor the head teacher had any asbestos management or awareness training. The council failed to prevent exposure and failed to provide suitable training to those liable to be exposed to asbestos. Kent County Council pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay costs of £21,500. HSE inspector Kevin Golding commented: “The council had implemented a system, but they had failed to take the simple step of checking to ensure it was being rigorously adhered to, resulting in employees not receiving the appropriate training. Organisations should be aware that HSE will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action against those that fall below the required standards.”
The TUC has produced a short online guide for union health and safety reps, signposting where they can get Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advice and guidance on musculoskeletal disorders. The guide is badged jointly with the HSE. It provides links to HSE toolkits, regulations and guides on musculoskeletal disorders.
Ÿ Musculoskeletal disorders - HSE material for health and safety reps, TUC/HSE, September 2018.
Australian construction union CFMEU is continuing its push to make industrial manslaughter a specific criminal offence under workplace health and safety legislation. The union addressed a public hearing in Fremantle last week, part of a senate inquiry into industrial deaths in Australia. It argued the offence should encompass all circumstances where any person is killed in a work-related incident. This would ensure justice for members of the public killed by work activities and workers in industries such as construction where multiple contractors and sub-contractors work on a site. The inquiry is also hearing from grieving families including Mark and Janice Murrie, whose 22-year-old son Luke was killed at his Perth workplace in 2007 when strapping on packs of tower crane parts he was lifting broke and he was struck to the temple. “As you can image, our world spiralled unbelievably and was broken and to this day is still broken,” the Murries said in their submission. Luke’s employer was fined, but his parents believe the penalties were “grossly inadequate”. They said: “If this is not addressed, many more family members will never make it safely home because there is no true deterrent, and nothing will change, and our son would have died for nothing.” Ashlea Cunico told the inquiry about the loss of her father Robert, who died in April working for Civmec Construction and Engineering at a waste water treatment plant in Perth. “There should be zero tolerance for negligent behaviours on our worksites for individuals and corporations alike,” she said. “This cannot be achieved through self-regulation and must be made law.”
The UN’s expert on toxics and human rights has urge firms to take action to protect workers from chemical risks throughout their supply chains. Baskut Tuncak, the UN’s ‘special rapporteur’ on the implications for human rights of hazardous substances and wastes, makes the call in a paper to be considered by the UN’s Human Rights Council at its meeting starting next week. “Workers’ rights are human rights. No one should be denied their basic human rights, including the rights to life and health because of the work they perform,” stressed Mr Tuncak. “Businesses have responsibilities throughout the lifecycle of their products, from the extraction of raw materials, through to manufacture, use and final disposal, as well as up and down their supply chains. They have a responsibility to ensure that they and their suppliers, both at home and abroad, adopt good practices to prevent exposure to toxic substances through their products’ lifecycles, their operations and their services.”
The death of a young New Zealand dock worker last month has left the global union for the sector ‘in shock’. The dock section of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), commenting on the 27 August incident when a worker died when a crane overturned, said: “The ITF family passes on its sincerest condolences to the family and friends of the worker, and joins with the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) in mourning his tragic death.” Paddy Crumlin, the chair of ITF’s dockers’ section and the national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, said: “This is a tragedy. Every worker deserves to return home safely at the end of their shift. Our thoughts are with the family of this young man, his workmates, friends and our comrades at MUNZ.” He added: “Another dock worker, has been killed at work. This is fast becoming a global epidemic. We know that ports are among the most dangerous workplaces in the world but every workplace death is preventable. The death of this young worker again reinforces our determination to hold governments, employers and regulators to account and to continue calling on them to work with unions to eliminate health and safety risks.”
A gas leak has left one worker dead and two critically ill at Samsung Electronics’ flagship chip plant in Korea - an event reminiscent of a fatal gas leak that hit another Samsung plant five years ago. On 4 September, three workers passed out in a basement unit of Samsung’s Giheung plant in Gyonggi province, poisoned by carbon dioxide as they carried anti-fire cylinders containing the gas. Hours later, the youngest, aged 24, was pronounced dead. The others, aged 26 and 54 years, are in a critical condition. A Samsung paramedic who treated the workers has also been hospitalised. SHARPS, the campaign group advocating for former Samsung workers suffering occupational diseases, said the carbon dioxide leak “is a rerun of another fatal leak from January 2013. At Samsung’s Hwaseong plant, also in Gyonggi, two expired gaskets of a 500-litre tank leaked twice, spewing a total of ten litres of diluted hydrofluoric acid gas, an impurity remover that can instantly and permanently damage pulmonary organs and corneas. The leaks killed one worker and injured four others.” In a blog posting, the campaign group said: “The victims of the carbon dioxide leak were employees of Samsung’s contractor, a fact which revealed that Samsung still outsources such major first-response jobs as fire prevention and safety.” It added that Samsung only reported the incident to the police and emergency services after the death of the worker, “or about two hours after the accident, sidelining the province’s emergency management system.” The governor of Gyonggi province said he will launch a special investigation to determine whether Samsung violated the law when it did not immediately report the leak.
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