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Unions have welcomed a new law that will make it a criminal offence to assault emergency workers including police, paramedics, firefighters, prison officers, search and rescue personnel and custody officers. The current six-month maximum sentence for common assault will be doubled to a year for the new crime created by the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act, which will also enable judges to increase terms given to people committed for a range of other crimes where the involvement of emergency services was an “aggravating factor”. Chris Bryant MP, the Labour MP who introduced the BIll, said: “The growing tide of attacks on emergency workers – including ambulance workers, NHS staff, fire officers, prison officers and police – is a national scandal. All too often attackers get away with little more than a slap on the wrist”. Kevin Brandstatter, GMB National Officer, added "It is difficult to put into words what this will mean for the hundreds of thousands of emergency service workers who have been assaulted in the line of duty. Action is long overdue. At least eight ambulance workers are attacked every day, and the threat of violence is forcing many experienced professionals out of the NHS.” Ambulance technician and GMB member Sarah Kelly, who played a critical role in securing a change to the law after she was assaulted while on duty, said: “The work must start now with the Government recognising the situation and actively working with ambulance employers and trade unions to better understand what resources are required to prevent these attacks. The law change is long overdue but I hope we rarely need to use it.” UNISON lead officer for ambulance staff Alan Lofthouse said: "Ambulance staff are dedicated to serving the public and saving lives. Physical and sexual attacks are on the increase leaving ambulance staff traumatised. This makes already stressful jobs almost unbearable, leading many to leave a job they love.” Home Office figures show there were more than 26,000 assaults against police officers in England and Wales during 2017-18 and more than 17,000 on NHS staff, although there is a lot of underreporting. There has also been an 18 per cent increase in assaults against firefighters in the past two years.
The prison officer’s union, the POA, took protest action over the huge rise in violence in Britain’s prisons. It was triggered by a letter from Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke to the Secretary of State issuing an Urgent Notification Notice at HMP Bedford following a catalogue of failure. It came as the union announced that in the last week 15 members of staff were the victim of unprovoked assaults and 6 members of staff had to attend A&E for treatment. This follows a 70 per cent increase in assaults on prison officers in the three years to 2017. The protests were only called off after the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart gave a commitment to instruct the Employer to meet the POA and agree a plan of action to address the concerns of the Union. The union has been asking that the Government provide safer prisons, including improved Personal Protective Equipment and reduced levels of violence and overcrowding. Before the action, POA General Secretary Steve Gillan said, “The POA has engaged with the Employer and Ministers in an attempt to resolve issues, but they are paying lip service to the Health & Safety of my members their Human Rights, that of other workers in prisons and of course the prisoners in our care. Earlier this year the POA commenced legal proceedings due to the Government’s failure to provide safe prisons. Bedford with other prisons was placed into Special Measures and commitments made to this union from Government and HMPPS. These commitments were not met and we have issued a further Pre-Action Protocol Letter as part of the Judicial Review process because of their failings to provide safe prisons.” After the action was called off he added “The POA will not allow our members to suffer in silence the Employer must be prepared to meet our demands and provide safe prisons.”
Shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw, has welcomed an amendment to the Offensive Weapons Bill that will make it a specific offence to obstruct a shopworker in their duty to enforce the law on the sale of offensive weapons. Shopworkers face growing violence and intimidation when they refuse to sell prohibited items such as acid and knives to those considered underage. Usdaw General Secretary Paddy Lillis commented “Shopworkers will play a vital role on the frontline of policing this new law, as they already do on the sale of alcohol and other age-restricted products. Yet they are offered no additional protection under the law and shopworkers can be treated like criminals if a mistake is made at the point of sale. This is a much needed Bill that deserves support and we very much welcome it. We have all been appalled by the increase in assaults and deaths when acid and knives were used as offensive weapons. It is absolutely right that we do everything possible to stem the scourge of knife crime and acid attacks”. The move was also backed by employers organisation the British Retail Consortium (BRC) who said “we do share the Usdaw view that carrying out an attack on a shop worker in the course of their employment should be a specific offence: either a generalised offence, or one that relates to age checking, but certainly some sort of specific offence.”
The TUC has added its voice to calls for the Government to withdraw its proposals to increase the small claims limit for workplace injury claims. The small claims limit is the level at which you can reclaim legal costs if a claim is successful. The current small claims limit of £1,000 helps redress the balance between claimants and defendants but the Government is proposing raising that to £2,000. Any increase in the limit will mean that more people will be unable to receive legal advice in pursuing a claim. The increase to £2,000 would affect an estimated 20% of the 70,000 claims that are taken every year. However, many workers also drive as part of their work and if they are injured the limit to reclaim their costs will be increased even more - to £5,000. Because unions also often support members and friends take claims in relation to non-work claims, in particular road traffic accidents, the change could affect at least 40% of all claims. According to TUC Head of health and safety, Hugh Robertson, this is an attack on workers right to receive justice. In a blog he writes “The Government seems to think that any claim under £2,000 is insignificant, which shows the kind of world they live in. £2,000 is certainly not insignificant to someone on minimum wage who had to lose wages because they broke a limb, hurt their back or suffered lung damage. This change will impact most on low paid part time workers in sectors like cleaning, retail, hospitality and other low paid jobs, as well as those who drive for their work such as bus drivers or paramedics.” He also pointed out the impact that the changes could have on workplace safety “If an employer has several claims from workers who are injured or made ill, their insurance company is likely to demand changes. If these claims are not made the insurer will never know there is a problem and a major injury or fatality is going to be far more likely. That is why the proposal will also make our workplaces more dangerous.”
Unite the union has issued a timely reminder of the importance of employers doing across the board checks on all workplaces which have cladding following the Grenfell fire tragedy. After the fire, the government ordered safety checks of cladding on residential buildings, NHS properties and schools, however even this is not always being done. Unite revealed that the unfinished Royal Liverpool Hospital has been encased in flammable material which do not meet the current fire safety standards. This is not the first time that a new hospital has been found to be fitted with flammable cladding. In July it was revealed that the Papworth Hospital in Cambridge being built by Skanska had to be delayed, as the cladding did not pass safety standards. Because of this, Unite is contacting all of its safety representatives and giving advice on how to ensure they are provided with clear evidence, if they have not already received it, that any cladding at their workplace is safe. If this is not the case then additional safety measures should be instigated to ensure the safety of workers and the general public, until the suspect cladding is removed. Unite national health and safety adviser Rob Miguel said: “It is now clear that company assurances from employers and construction companies about the safety of cladding could be in question. Workers who were concerned last year will now be highly alarmed about safety at their workplace. Rather than assurances they need clear evidence that cladding is safe. Until then employers need to introduce additional safety measures.”
The GMB union is calling for urgent action to protect workers from the effects of the weedkiller glyphosate which, in 2015, was classified as "probably carcinogenic" by the World Health Organisation. Glyphosate, which is sometimes sold as Roundup, is the biggest selling weedkiller in the world and is used both in agriculture as well as gardening and forestry. It is still used by hundreds of local councils and contractors to control weeds. In August, a jury in the United States awarded a former groundskeeper $289 million after it decided that glyphosate exposure at work had substantively contributed to him developing the cancer non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In addition to being believed to cause cancer, Glyphosate can cause stomach problems and discomfort if it is breathed in, while exposure to the eyes can result in conjunctivitis. If swallowed it may cause corrosion of the throat and can lead to kidney or liver failure. The TUC published advice in 2015 on the use of glyphosate, calling on employers to stop all exposure to glyphosate by looking at substitutes and ensuring proper protective equipment but the GMB is now calling on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to ban Glyphosate before more lives are put at risk. Dan Shears, GMB National Officer, said “GMB is clear the guidance from the World Health Organisation should be heeded and glyphosate must be treated as a severe health risk to the general public. In situations like this, surely it is better to be safe not sorry? Employers should stop using glyphosates immediately and replace it with safer alternatives - many of which have been trialled by councils in the UK. If this is not immediately possible, anyone exposed to products containing glyphosates must be given protective equipment. GMB will not sit idly by while members are exposed to this chemical - and employers shouldn’t either."
Unite has raised a “collective grievance” with one of the operators in the North Sea over the impact of three week off, three week on (3/3) rotas and seeking reviews with many more, including all those working for BP. This follows a report from the Robert Gordon University (RGU) in April, which said workers on three-week, equal-time rotas were nearly twice as likely to experience ill health as those on two on, two off rotas. Within days of the union announcing the move, one of the major companies in the sector, Shell, said that it will ditch three week offshore rotas on its central North Sea platforms next year. The company said the move would increase productivity and reduce costs on the installations and said that it made the decision following a review of its operating model intended to tackle issues with “offshore personnel” and boost efficiency. Unite regional officer John Boland welcomed the announcement by Shell but said: “Unite have raised a collective grievance with Petrofac on the BP platforms, and we expect to do the same with the other contractors on these platforms. The RGU survey has shown the detrimental impact of the 3/3 rota on our members and their families. Shell and Repsol are both reviewing their working practices and rotas, and we would expect BP to do the same. This campaign is about our members’ wellbeing and safety, we need to do everything possible to stop the use of this hated rota in the North Sea.”
The author of a report into fire safety and building regulations following the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire has warned that another “catastrophic event” cannot be ruled out unless there are changes to the regulatory system. Speaking at the IOSH conference, Dame Judith Hackitt said she was “truly shocked” about standards in the built environment when she started her review. Her review, which was commissioned by the Government following Grenfell, was published earlier this year and included 53 recommendations aimed at providing a stronger but simpler framework of building regulations. Dame Judith told the conference that, when she looked from the outside into standards in the built environment, what she encountered was truly shocking. The system for fire safety in high-rise and complex buildings was weak and ineffective. “People actually said things like ‘we always knew something like this would happen’. They knew the system wasn’t working but didn’t know how to fix it. There was a race to the bottom. Companies were looking to do things as cheap as possible, getting around the rules. It was about cost, not quality. Unless we fix the system, we have no way of guaranteeing that there won’t be another catastrophic event. We need to get to a point where those who construct a building are as responsible for those who use it over the next ten or twenty years as they are employee safety. What we are calling for is collaboration and joined-up thinking across the built environment sector, not self-interested groups protecting their own turf, something I have seen a lot of.” In her speech, the former chair of the HSE also made it clear that there needs to be stronger powers of enforcement, to provide more deterrent to cost-cutting, saying “Right now, the level of penalties when people are caught out is not strong enough. There is no deterrent “
A Dudley logistics firm has been fined £1.5 million following the death of an HGV driver who was trapped between his vehicle and a trailer. Leighton Jardine, who worked for Tuffnells Parcels Express Limited, was fatally injured in 2016, whilst attempting to attach a trailer to his vehicle. The trailer had been parked on a slight slope at The Wallows Industrial Estate, which was enough to allow it to roll forward and crush Mr Jardine. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the incident found safety management arrangements for coupling trailers to vehicles were inadequate as they failed to take account of the slope. The company pleaded guilty. In addition to the fine, they were ordered to pay costs of £32,823.35 and a victim surcharge of £170. Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Karl Raw said: “Had Tuffnells taken the slope into account, simple measures could have been taken that would have prevented this incident. Workplace transport remains a high risk environment, and this case serves as a reminder to industry that assessments of sites should be specific and identify the hazards unique to each yard. It is also a reminder that the slope a vehicle is parked on does not need to be steep for incidents to occur.”
The Government has said that it will crack down on NHS directors who fail to act on what ministers say are “alarming” levels of bullying of hospital staff. Stephen Barclay, a health minister, has told The Independent he wants the current “fit and proper” person test for NHS directors to be widened to require action on harassment and discrimination. The new requirement would be imposed on nearly 2,800 directors, with each hospital trust in England having an average of 12. Trusts “must not appoint or have in place” a director who fails to meet the standards set down to be considered a fit person for the role. Mr Barclay said: “That one in four NHS staff have experienced bullying, harassment or abuse – and that more than twice as many BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] staff have suffered discrimination from their manager or colleagues than white staff – is deeply alarming and should be a call to arms for urgent action across the NHS. I am determined to put an end to this, which is why the NHS is already working to close the equality gaps and tackle bullying.” Sara Gorton, head of health at the trade union Unison, described giving the directors the responsibility as “a good first start”, but she added: “Shifting the workplace culture across the NHS so there is no hiding place for bullies, and ensuring there are always enough staff on shift so patients can't easily attack or abuse health workers, requires the whole system to change.” The move follows new research revealing abuse and harassment is taking place “every day” – with ethnic minority staff in the firing line far more than their white colleagues.
A structural steelwork contractor has been fined £150,000 after a worker was injured while demolishing a farm building. Northern Structures Ltd of Amble, Northumberland, pleaded guilty tobreaking the Health and Safety at Work Act when they appeared at South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court. The Court was told that, last year, an employee of Northern Structures Ltd was removing roof sheets from a timber frame farm building when he fell approximately four metres through one of the asbestos cement roof sheets onto the ground below, suffering a fractured spine. An investigation by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) found that, while a risk assessment and method statement were in place to remove the roof sheets from below, this method was then changed to remove them from above. It was during this process that the employee fell through a roof sheet. Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Loren Wilmot said “Suitable and sufficient measures should have been in place through the use of alternative access equipment. This would have negated the need for the employee to be on the roof of the building, therefore eliminating the risk of a fall from height through the roof sheets.”
A research report from Harvard University in the USA gives very clear confirmation of the union effect when it comes to preventing fatalities, as well as sounding a warning about the implications of anti-union regulation. It shows that for every 1% decline in union density, there is a 5% rise in workplace fatalities. It the USA there have been a number of states who have enacted anti-union laws, ironically called “right to work” laws. According to the researchers, these laws have sparked a 14.2% increase in deaths on the job by reducing the ability of workers to be represented by a union. The conclusion by the authors of the report is clear “These findings illustrate and quantify the protective effect of unions on workers' safety. Policymakers should consider the potentially deleterious effects of anti-union legislation on occupational health.” These findings are consistent with research in the UK, Canada, Australia and several other countries that show clearly, that unionised workplaces are safer workplaces. According to the US trade union confederation, the AFL/CIO, 150 workers die from workplace injuries and illnesses every day. They said of the report “It’s a devastating revelation—and it confirms what we’ve always known. A union is the strongest and greatest tool that working people have ever had to fight for our economic rights.”
The UN Human Rights Council has been told that exposure of workers to toxic substances can and should be considered a form of exploitation and is a global health crisis. A UN expert on hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, told the Council that governments and companies must strengthen protection for workers, their families and their communities from any exposure to toxic chemicals. One worker dies approximately every 30 seconds from exposure to toxic chemicals, pesticides, radiation and other hazardous substances and in his report, Mr Tuncak examines the situation of workers exposed to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances worldwide. He proposes 15 principles intended to help governments, businesses and others respect and protect workers from toxic exposures in and around the workplace and to provide remedies for violations of their rights. In a strongly worded conclusion, he says that “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. Inaction is not an option. Governments have a duty and businesses a responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of workers”. The UN expert added that factors making the problem worse included poverty, gender and migration, saying “Those most at risk of exposure are those who are most vulnerable to exploitation: people living in poverty, children, women, migrant workers, people with disabilities, and older people. The economic insecurity of workers who are typically exposed to toxic substances is often exploited. Irregular or undocumented migrant workers are at extreme risk of exploitation by employers who seek to reap the benefits of unfair competition.”
According to research from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB – Free University of Brussels), at least two million tonnes of cancer-causing asbestos were imported into the country between 1948 and 1998. This is much higher than previous estimates. Like many other European countries, Belgium has been very slow in recognising the historical legacy of asbestos with mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure, frequently not diagnosed as a cause of death in the past. This is now changing and the Asbestos Fund, which pays compensation to mesothelioma victims, registered 228 recognized applications for compensation last year. Although researchers are predicting that the rate of mesothelioma cases in Belgium are likely to peak by 2014, this is by no means certain and as the researchers state, “mesothelioma figures alone cannot account for the total cost of asbestos use. There are still hidden costs, mainly because a certain number of lung cancers are also caused by asbestos but are difficult to identify,” There is growing concern amongst Belgian trade unions of the need to remove asbestos from workplaces. This was highlighted by growing publicity over a number of European Commission-occupied buildings that have been identified as containing asbestos over 20 years after the Commission had to close down its headquarters in Brussels following reports that about 70 people had developed asbestos-related illnesses after working in the building.
The USA is finally waking up to the link between work and suicide. While the subject has received a lot of attention in France, Japan, Australia and the UK, less attention has been paid to the connection in the US. Now however, the government’s The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has highlighted the importance of suicide prevention and the organisational structures that can contribute to poor mental health. This follows research conducted by the University of California which suggested that around 11% of workers reported suicidal thoughts,3% of these were moderate or severe. There was a strong link between low job control and high job demands and long work hours. The odds for moderate to severe suicidal thoughts were about four times greater in those with job strain or those who reported long work hours. According to the CDC paper “This means that job strain and long work hours may be categorized as occupational risk factors for suicidal thoughts in working populations. These results indicate that job design interventions to improve working conditions may be an important strategy to prevent suicide in working populations.” The CDC also said that “Suicide prevention programs at the workplace are often focused on training and education for detecting those at high risk of suicide and connecting them with mental health services. This helps to address those already considering suicide but does not address the source of suicide ideation. This study suggests that creating and maintaining a healthy work organization should be an important strategy for the prevention of suicide in working populations.”
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