|Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others sponsored by Thompsons Solicitors. 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.
Most union representatives can vouch that when a member is subjected to disciplinary action it can be a very traumatic event. The TUC says sometimes the disciplinary process can take months before a decision is made, leaving the worker ‘in limbo’ and under prolonged stress. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, in a posting on the TUC’s safety facebook page, notes: “This is worse when the person is suspended and may have no contact with work during most of the process. The effect of this on a person’s mental health can be huge and there have been cases where a person has tried to take their own life after being suspended or dismissed.” He says that although suspension from work may be unavoidable in some cases “it should not be seen as a ‘neutral act’. Employers still have a duty of care to the person. The employee should be told clearly what the process entails, and every effort should be made to make sure that the disciplinary process is completed as quickly as possible, while ensuring that the employee has sufficient time to prepare their case.” He adds: “If someone is to be suspended, the employer should assess the person’s mental health and make sure that they have the support that they need while suspended. There can be no excuse for letting someone just sit at home in limbo, whatever the allegations are.” He says the duty of care doesn’t disappear if a worker is dismissed, urging employers to “consider making access to support such as an Employee Assistance Programme. There is a case for reviewing your workplace disciplinary procedures to make this responsibility on the employer explicit.” Union representatives can also play a part by keeping in regular touch with any member who is suspended and checking that there is someone at home they can turn to for help, Robertson says. The TUC’s 2018 guide on suicide prevention has been updated to try to ensure that the risk of suicide in cases such as suspension or dismissal is considered.
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A union has welcomed moves by health chiefs to introduce measures to protect porters at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness who are dealing with clinical waste – including extra staff. GMB Scotland had threatened strike action after reporting four of 14 workers had recently suffered needlestick injuries working with the specialist waste. The union also said porters had been threatened with disciplinary action if they refused to take on extra work. But after talks with management, the union’s regional officer Liz Gordon said the outcome had been positive. “I’m delighted that NHS Highland have finally put measures in place to protect Raigmore porters,” she told the Press and Journal. “This was never an issue of who did what according to the contract, it was a matter of health and safety and clearly this was not treated with the greatest priority as demonstrated by the number of injured porters. We will be closely monitoring the situation but with additional staff, suitable protective clothing and measures to ensure infection control, I believe this matter has been dealt with.”
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A Unite campaign for ‘period dignity’ launched in the summer of 2018 has had another success. The Glasgow University Campus development which is being built by Multiplex has become the latest – and the first construction firm - to sign up to the union’s four-point plan. Manufacturing firm Rolls-Royce Washington in Sunderland was the first signatory, when in September 2018 it signed up to the campaign’s charter and agreed to offer free sanitary products at no costs in its toilets. As well as free sanitary products, the plan calls for regularly cleaned and emptied sanitary bins and proper handwashing and toilet facilities for women workers. Commenting on Multiplex’s sign up, Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “Unite is asking construction employers to sign up to four basic demands which will ensure that women workers can experience period dignity. With ever growing skills shortages in our industry, it is absolutely essential that construction becomes more attractive to women workers. A small step in achieving this is to ensure that women construction workers can have period dignity at work.” She added: “Unite welcomes Multiplex’s role as a trailblazer in signing up to the campaign and will continue to highlight other sites and companies which also sign up in the future.” Commenting in September when Rolls Royce Washington signed up the period dignity charter, Unite convenor Gary Andrews said: “In today’s world no woman should feel uncomfortable about menstruation. It has been a taboo subject for too many years”.
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Cleaning and maintenance workers at Scotland’s biggest railway station are set to strike later this month over “scandalous” working conditions. Their union RMT said contractor ISS had reneged on promises to improve staff accommodation facilities and install air conditioning at Edinburgh’s Waverley station. The strike is scheduled for 27 January. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The fact that low-paid ISS contractors are being forced to strike over broken promises to improve workplace conditions is a scandal and the company should be hanging their heads in shame.” He added: “The working facilities inflicted on this core group of rail support staff are a disgrace to the railway in Scotland and an appalling indictment of the way that private contractors think they can get away with treating their workforce. It is clear that the only way we can get ISS to keep their word on making substantial improvements to their staff accommodation and facilities is by taking strike action.”
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Shopworkers’ union Usdaw has welcomed cross-party support for the protection of shopworkers during the second reading of the Offensive Weapons Bill in the House of Lords. The bill tightens the law on the sale of corrosive substances and knives in response to a significant increase in acid attacks and stabbings. Usdaw is calling on the government to provide greater protection for the shopworkers who will enforce the new law at the point of sale, a call backed by peers on 7 January. Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis commented: “We welcome the cross-party support for our proposals for the protection of shopworkers from Peers and we look forward to seeing what the government will bring forward as the Bill passes through the House of Lords.” He added: “Shopworkers will play a vital role in policing the sale of knives and corrosive substances, 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. It is absolutely right that we do everything possible to stem the scourge of knife crime and acid attacks. Shopworkers are on the frontline of achieving that and helping to keep our communities safe. Their role should be valued, they deserve our respect, but most of all they deserve the protection of the law.”
An incident where a man was filmed walking down a railway track blindfold has been condemned by the rail union ASLEF, which has warned dangerous stunts of this kind could put both workers and the public at risk. Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, was speaking out after footage was posted online of the young man walking along a railway line while wearing a blindfold in a ‘challenge’ inspired by the Netflix film Bird Box. A video of Elliot Giles, uploaded to his YouTube channel on 13 January, has been viewed more than 200,000 times. “I would urge anyone who is thinking, for whatever reason, to try the Bird Box challenge not to be so bloody stupid. It is reckless – and it is a crime – to trespass on the railway track. It is not only irresponsible, and highly dangerous, but you run the risk of prosecution, and a criminal conviction, even if you are not seriously injured or killed.” The union leader added: “There is also the danger to everyone else who uses the railway – staff as well as passengers – and this job is difficult enough as it is without people walking along the railway track without being able to see where they are going. I’m not a killjoy; but this is no one’s idea of fun. Our members – the men and women who drive Britain’s trains – don’t want to come across a bird brain doing the Bird Box challenge. And the emergency services do not want to have to pick up the pieces.” The movie Bird Box features Sandra Bullock as a mother who blindfolds herself in a bid to avoid mysterious forces which compel people to kill themselves. Videos have emerged of some people attempting to recreate scenes from the film, including one man who crashed his car when driving while blindfolded. In response to the ‘Bird Box challenge’, which has seen a number of people injured, YouTube this week banned creators from depicting ‘dangerous challenges and pranks’.
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A Kent prison officer who suffered burns and psychological trauma after a prisoner threw boiling sugar water at his face has secured £7,000 compensation. James Grant, a member of the prison officers’ union POA, was injured as he sought to remove wet toilet paper that a disruptive prisoner at HMP Cookham Wood in Borstal had used to plug his cell door window. As he began to remove the paper to see inside and check the man was safe, the prisoner threw the sugar water at him, causing serious burns to his face, neck and eye. The mixture of boiling water and sugar, often referred to by prisoners as ‘napalm’, sticks to the skin and intensifies the burn. “The pain was like nothing I’ve ever felt,” said James. “Colleagues rushed me to the orderly’s office and paramedics were treating me soon after. By this point, the vision in my left eye had completely clouded over – I was blind.” He was taken to hospital and referred to a burns clinic the following day, where he received specialist treatment for his injuries. It took six weeks for James to see again out of his left eye and while his burns have largely healed, scarring remains. He referred himself for counselling after the assault. A year after the incident, he relapsed and needed a further three months off work as a result of the psychological trauma. Dave Todd, national vice chair at the POA, said: “Through James’ union membership we were able to ensure he received a full compensation package, with no financial deductions, as well as vital support as he came to terms with what had happened to him.” Rachel Lowe, the lawyer from union law firm Thompsons Solicitors who acted for James, said: “Prison officers simply carrying out their job should not have to face violence. I have seen first-hand how painful this ordeal has been for James and his family, and how long it has taken for him to recover.” She added: “Health and safety must be a priority for all employers and hard-working people such as James should not be left significantly injured and out of work due to his employer’s failing to provide proper systems to avoid dangerous situations such as this. I’m glad we were able to support him and ensure he didn’t feel alone as he navigated the claim and his return to work.”
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A trade union law firm wants employers to take hazardous substances seriously at work - and is giving employees a toolkit to help make sure that happens. Thompsons Solicitors says most organisations today use or create substances, but thousands of workers die each year as a result of exposures to these substances at work. It says an estimated 13,000 people die each year from exposure to chemicals or dusts and around 14,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems are reported annually. Thompsons says these exposures could be prevented, if employers observed their legal duty of care and complied with the COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) Regulations 2002. It has now launched an ‘Under the COSHH’ campaign the law firm says “aims to help employees understand if their employer has a robust health and safety structure in place to protect them and their colleagues.” Tom Jones of Thompsons Solicitors said: “We want to protect employees from injuries in the workplace and equip them with the tools needed to understand if their employer has a robust health and safety policy in place. Our ‘Under the COSHH’ campaign and toolkit does just that.”
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The national Hazards Campaign says three factors could make the country’s workplaces safer and healthier at a stroke - strong laws, strict enforcement and a workplace safety push by strong, active trade unions. According to the union-backed grassroots campaign, the British health and safety system is ‘broken.’ Launching a new ‘manifesto’ for health and safety, the campaign’s Janet Newsham said: “Work contributes to a huge amount of public ill-health, to health inequality, lower life expectancy, fewer years of healthy life, kills over 50,000 people in the UK each year, makes millions ill, injures over half a million and the quality of jobs contributes to poverty and ill-health. But all of this is preventable. The right framework of strong laws, strict enforcement and support for active worker and union participation will have massive payback for workers, employers and whole economy.” She added: “We are launching our ‘Manifesto for a health and safety system fit for workers: Decent jobs and decent lives’ with three clear demands on the current and future governments.” These include a call for the restoration of the notion of regulation and enforcement “as a social good.” The campaign also wants to see the creation of “a health and safety system based on prevention, precaution and participation of strong active unions.” All of this should be backed up by “real, enforceable employment and safety rights to ensure good health and safety in low paid and precarious work by enforcement agencies working together,” it says.
Ÿ . and full document, , January 2019. .
Workers at a Scottish call centre are refusing to sign a new contract that limits toilet breaks to as little as two minutes a day. CWU members at the Virgin Media site in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, have been told their “personal time” should take up no more than one per cent of their shift. For a four-hour part-time day that’s just over two minutes. A disgruntled worker told the Daily Record: “They handed out this contract to us all to limit the time we spend in the toilet to a maximum of one per cent of our working day. For some of the staff that works out at two minutes. We can’t even get to the toilet and back in that time, never mind do anything.” In May last year, the workers’ contracts moved from Virgin Media to Miami-based company Sitel, although staff still take calls from Virgin Media customers. The contract sent to staff states: “Personal time should be kept to a minimum and should range between 0%-1% per day maximum. Unless your TM (team manager) has been made aware of any issues that would affect this overall time, then this should not be exceeded.” The contract reiterates personal time “should be used for toilet breaks ONLY.” Hugh Gaffney, the Labour MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, said: “This is an outrage. These practices must be urgently investigated and stopped.”
Low-level letterboxes should be banned to prevent postal workers straining their backs or being bitten by dogs, a Conservative MP has said. Proposing new legislation, Vicky Ford said it was a “key issue”. She called for all new letterboxes to be installed at a height of between 70cm and 170cm. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) is campaigning for new buildings to meet EU letter box height standards. The union said it did not expect private households or businesses to change their doors immediately, but for the measurements to become a new building regulation in the UK, and to cover replacement doors as well. The BBC reports the union first started its campaign to raise the level of letterboxes in 1958 and, while it was agreed by British Standards, it was never enshrined into building standards law. A similar campaign by CWU’s sister union in Ireland saw low-level letterboxes banned in 2001. CWU believes “the time has come” to replicate this in the UK. Moving the bill in the House of Commons, Ms Ford revealed there were 16,800 back-related spells of absence in the Royal Mail last year. “There are over 95,000 postmen and women working for Royal Mail,” she said. “They deliver to 30 million address, they serve each of our communities six days a week, every week of the year, and when I asked postal workers what I could do for them, they asked me to look at low-level letterboxes. This bill simply wants to stop developers from building swathes of homes each with a letterbox placed near to the ground and I hope that this will be a moment of unity in British politics.” The bill will come back to the House of Commons for a second reading in March, although the BBC reports it has little chance of becoming law.
Studies of pesticide use in horticultural workers have found they can be exposed to the chemicals by both skin contact and ingestion despite wearing protective gear, with colleagues and the public also at risk. A study published online in January in the journal Annals of Work Exposures and Health and conducted by NUI Galway in Ireland, the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM) and the Health and Safety Executive, looked at exposures to glyphosate, a herbicide used to control the growth of weeds and invasive plant species such as Japanese knotweed. The researchers looked at skin contamination and levels of the chemical in urine, concluding: “The results show dermal to be a prominent route of exposure but support inadvertent ingestion potential contribution to the total body burden among this worker group. This study also identified a potential for the spread of contamination among non-pesticide users in the workforce and para-occupational exposures.” Findings by the same authors published last year also reported horticultural workers were exposed to low levels of glyphosate despite wearing protective equipment. They said the study of the chemical in the workers’ urine highlighted the importance of using personal protective equipment when applying pesticides and disposing of, or thoroughly cleaning, equipment after use. They said workers must also be wary of how they put on and remove protective equipment to avoid contamination to their clothing, mobile phones or vehicle steering wheels. Glyphosate was given a ‘probable human carcinogen’ designation by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015 (). Moves to end its registration in the European Union were controversially rejected in 2017, after what some observers said reflected regulators responding to industry pressure and industry-influenced studies ( ).
Ÿ Alison Connolly and others. , Annals of Work Exposures and Health, wxy104, published online 4 January 2019. Also see: Alison Connolly and others. , published ahead of print, October 2018. .
European regulators based a decision to relicense the controversial weedkiller glyphosate (Risks 828) on an assessment large sections of which were lifted directly from industry documents, according to a report for the European parliament. A crossparty group of MEPs commissioned an investigation into claims that Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) copy-and-pasted tracts from studies by the pesticide manufacturer Monsanto. The investigation found “clear evidence of BfR’s deliberate pretence of an independent assessment, whereas in reality the authority was only echoing the industry applicants’ assessment.” Molly Scott Cato, a Green MEP, said the findings were “extremely alarming”, adding: “This helps explain why the World Health Organisation assessment on glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen [Risks 776] was so at odds with EU assessors, who awarded this toxic pesticide a clean bill of health, brushing off warnings of its dangers.” The investigation found plagiarism in 50.1 per cent of the chapters assessing published studies on health risks – including whole paragraphs and entire pages of text. In a statement, the BfR rejected any notion of ‘deliberate deception’, saying that its authors had evaluated the relevant industry reports before selecting passages of text to “integrate”. BfR professor Dr Andreas Hensel said: “We often see that the complexity of the conventional procedure for the re-approval of the pesticidal active substances is not understood properly,” adding: “The term ‘plagiarism’ is not relevant in this context.” A study published this year in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe found almost threequarters of the peer-reviewed papers looked at by WHO’s International Agency for Research on cancer (IARC) found evidence of genotoxicity in glyphosate, compared with just 1 per cent of the industry analyses.
Ÿ Stefan Weber and Helmut Burtscher-Schaden. Detailed Expert Report on Plagiarism and superordinated Copy Paste in the Renewal Assessment Report (RAR) on Glyphosate, 2019. Socialists and Democrats of the European Parliament news release and related video report. BfR statement.Charles M Benbrook. How did the US EPA and IARC reach diametrically opposed conclusions on the genotoxicity of glyphosate-based herbicides?, Environmental Sciences Europe, volume 31, number 2, 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-018-0184-7 The Guardian.
Close to 1,000 Canadians die each year because of their jobs, according to official numbers from Canada's workers' compensation agencies. But a new study says that figure ‘dramatically underestimates’ the true extent of work-related deaths across the country. The study, published in the journal Labour, argues the widely quoted statistics from the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada should not solely be used as a benchmark for work-related fatalities, as these figures only take into account approved compensation claims. As a result, thousands of deaths - such as workers exempt from coverage, stress-induced suicides, commuting fatalities and occupational diseases - are missing from occupational health and safety statistics. Last year, workers' compensation boards across Canada approved a total of 904 claims involving fatalities. About one-third of those cases involved acute accidents, with the rest due to longer-term illnesses from occupational exposure. But the research team lead by Steve Bittle, an associate criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, estimates a more accurate figure hovers between 10,000 to 13,000 deaths annually. Bittle believes between 10 and 17 per cent of annual suicides in Canada could be classified as work-related, representing a range of 400 to 800 fatalities each year. But the study notes that the single biggest category for underestimation relates to cancer and disease. Currently, between 500 and 600 approved Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) claims nationwide are the result of occupational disease. But Bittle estimates a figure that is upward of 8,000 deaths. He says his report didn't seek to address how to better gather data, as the objective was to clearly lay out the issue of under-reported workplace deaths. “What we do say is that, at the very least, there is a leadership role that the federal government could and should take in order to initiate discussions on this very topic,” he adds.
At least 21 miners have been killed after a roof collapsed at a coal mine in northern China. Sixty-six other workers were rescued after the incident on 12 January at the Lijiagou mine near the city of Shenmu in Shaanxi province. The cause of the collapse at the site, run by the Baiji Mining Company, is under investigation, according to the official Xinhua news agency. Deadly mining accidents are common in China, however the number of fatalities reported in cave-ins, explosions and other disasters in Chinese coal mines has fallen sharply over the past decade. According to China’s National Coal Mine Safety Administration, there were 375 deaths in coal mines in 2017, a fall of 28.7 per cent from the previous year. But despite improvements, the organisation said “the situation of coal mine safety production is still grim”, following a coal mine safety conference last January. In October 2018, at least 21 people were killed at the Lognyun mine in Shandong province after a rock burst blocked a tunnel and trapped workers inside. Only one miner was recovered alive. In December, seven miners were killed and three others injured in an accident at a mine in Chongqing municipality.
When campaigners showed up outside a Texas poultry plant in October 2018 their attire, at least for most adults, was unusual. The group protesting outside the Sanderson Farms poultry processing plant in Bryan were all wearing adult diapers [nappies] over their trousers. It made a great visual, and the television news crew covering the protest made sure diapers appeared in nearly every frame. “In my opinion, the protest worked, because there were changes,” said one worker who gave up his job at the plant after being refused a bathroom break. He said his wife, who still works at the plant, told him and the leaders of the protest organised by the Centro de Derechos Laborales (CDL) that “before they were in hell; now they are in paradise.” Workers had complained that they weren’t given permission to go to the bathroom, a particular hardship for people with health conditions or for pregnant women. If workers left to go to the bathroom, chickens would fall on the floor or the production line would have to stop. The company wasn’t employing enough workers to step in so their co-workers could use the restroom. There were other issues as well: Better protection from the chemicals used to clean the chickens and an end to sexual harassment. The protest mirrors those at other poultry plants around the nation, part of a national campaign to improve conditions for workers in poultry plants. The leaders of CDL, which organised the protest, said the new bathroom permissions and the company’s willingness to pay for more protective equipment - the workers used to have to buy their own if initial company-issued aprons and gloves tore - will be monitored by worker committees.
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