|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.|
The government must take workers’ suicides and mental health more seriously, CWU members have said. Delegates at the communication union’s Bournemouth conference demanded that workplace suicide be recognised in legislation and that the government review the 1983 Mental Health Act by 2020. Currently, British employers do not have to report workplace suicides as they are excluded explicitly from the RIDDOR workplace injury and disease reporting regulations. This is not the case in countries such as France (Risks 854). In some other countries, including Japan, occupational suicide is both a government recorded and compensated official industrial disease (Risks 893). CWU national executive committee member Tracey Fussey said: “The mental health of the British workforce is in rapid deterioration. There is one suicide every two hours, yet it remains an issue not reflected in government legislation.” Arguing in favour of improved mental health laws, CWU disabled members advisory committee member Peter Sharrocks said: “Mental health accounts for a quarter of all workers written off from work. £105 billion is lost to the UK economy due to mental health. The current Mental Health Act is not fit for purpose.” A study last year found work factors including poor job insecurity and job control are strongly linked to higher suicide risks and that prevention efforts could have ‘large population impacts’. The paper, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reported a range of work factors lead people to contemplate and attempt suicide and to kill themselves (Risks 843).
Ÿ Morning Star. Resources: Work and suicide: A TUC guide to prevention for trade union activists, January 2018. Work and suicide prevention checklist, Hazards, 2018. More on work-related suicide.
Workers operating the Woolwich Ferry on the Thames, used by an estimated 2.6 million passengers a year, are to strike for 10 days in a dispute over health and safety, a lack of staffing and other concerns. The 31 Unite workers, who are employed by Briggs Marine Contractors Ltd, voted unanimously for strike action. The first strike day is set for 17 May, with others scheduled for dates in May and June. Unite says the key issues in the dispute are the imposition of new duties, a failure to deal with safety concerns, too few staff to operate the service and a refusal to implement a six per cent pay increase. Two years ago, there was an acrimonious and long-running dispute at the ferry with the same employer (Risks 807), which runs the service on behalf of Transport for London (TfL), over a bullying culture and health and safety issues. Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said: “The travelling public, who use the ferry, may well think Groundhog Day has arrived with yet another dispute with the management at Briggs Marine Contractors Ltd.” He added that Unite has “serious safety concerns. Since the new boats arrived in January 2019 the emergency diesel fire pumps have not worked on both vessels. The ferries do have backup electric fire pumps. However, if there was a blackout or the service were to lose electrical power, which can happen, then there would be potential dangers to passengers and staff, as there would be no working fire extinguishers. I think the public have every reason to be concerned at fewer staff operating the ferry as this raises, in our view, serious health and safety issues.” The union officer noted: “There is still time for the management to enter into a constructive dialogue with Unite before the strikes start on 17 May and we would urge the company to do so urgently.”
Members of the construction union Unite demonstrated at the troubled HS2 site in Euston, London, on 26 April, to highlight concerns over the treatment of workers on the giant project. The Unite demonstrators, some of whom were dressed as skeletons, questioned what skeletons Costain/Skanska Joint Venture (CSJV) might have its closet. The union said it has discovered problems including workers not covered for death and accident benefits, underpaid overtime, receiving the wrong holiday entitlement and being forced to work through umbrella companies. The union said efforts to identify other abuses have been frustrated as CSJV has barred Unite from speaking freely to workers in the canteen during breaks. It said CSJV has claimed that the reason Unite has been barred from the site is because workers are too traumatised after removing centuries old human remains from the St James Gardens area and needed to ‘decompress’ rather than speak to a Unite official about workplace issues. Unite national officer Jerry Swain said: “Every time Unite speaks to workers on this troubled site it finds more skeletons bursting out of the closet. Basic employment rights are being routinely flouted and CSJV has been supine in its indifference to the exploitation being faced by workers on its sites.” He added: “If workers are genuinely traumatised by their experiences then it is absolutely imperative that they receive help and assistance from Unite, in order to prevent further problems developing. The morale of the workforce is being seriously affected by the mistreatment on the site, which is likely to be severely affecting productivity.”
Deteriorating classroom conditions are seeing some teachers left without a permanent classroom and many at the mercy of electronic communications around the clock. The union NASUWT said teachers were being left without a classroom as a result of overcrowding, poor timetabling and deployment and insufficient or unsuitable specialist provision. The union said this nomadic existence is taking its toll on teachers mentally and physically. It said preparing the classroom in advance of their lessons is virtually impossible and carrying heavy books and equipment between classrooms is often required. The union also identified that nearly half of teachers say that work-related emails are significantly driving up their workload and invading their home life. An NASUWT survey of over 1,500 teachers found only 5 per cent did not receive work-related emails outside of school hours, with more than four in ten (41 per cent) often and nearly one in six (15 per cent) constantly receiving work-related emails during periods of sickness absence. Commenting on the teaching nomads, NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said: “The additional stress and pressure on teachers without a permanent classroom base is often underestimated and overlooked. Employers have a responsibility to assess the physical and mental risks of teachers who have this additional burden placed on them. To fail to do so leaves the employer vulnerable to personal injury claims.” She said the increasing trend to contact teachers out of school hours does not make them more efficient, but “is instead electronically tethering them to their classrooms adding to their stress, anxiety and workload. For many teachers there is no escape from work. No respect or concern being shown for them even at some of the most difficult and distressing times in their lives such as bereavement or sickness.” She warned: “It’s the tyranny teachers are facing in their inbox, which is all part of an anything goes management culture this government has allowed to flourish across schools, where teachers’ health and well-being is not even given a second thought.”
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is hiding behind ‘commercial interests’ in refusing to provide information about the asbestos scandal involving the maintenance of its Sea King helicopter fleet, Unite has said. The union has been campaigning for the past year for the MoD to contact the estimated 1,000 workers who undertook maintenance on Sea King helicopters since 1969. This follows the discovery that many of the components in the helicopter contained asbestos. Some of those components remained part of the aircraft even after a modification programme in 2006. In what Unite described as ‘a shocking security failure’, the MoD has been forced to admit that it does not have a central record of the workers who had undertaken the maintenance work. Much of the work was undertaken by contractors rather than by MoD staff. The government has failed to response to repeated Unite requests for information on how it intends to contact workers who may have been exposed to the potent human carcinogen, most recently citing commercial interests. Unite national officer Jim Kennedy said: “This is an absolute scandal. Not only has the MoD allowed workers to be exposed to asbestos for nearly 50 years, it is now trying to cover up their failings, citing ‘commercial interests’. The MoD is more interested in covering up its failings then ensuring that workers who may have been exposed to asbestos are notified about their contamination.” He warned: “Workers could have been handed a death sentence by the MoD and it is not even prepared to warn them of what has occurred. It is simply not credible to believe that the MoD does not have records of the workers who operated on military bases. If government ministers had an ounce of decency they would step in and ensure that all the affected workers were properly notified about their contamination.”
Shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw has released ‘shocking’ statistics from its annual survey that show UK shopworkers were verbally abused, threatened or assaulted an average of 21 times last year. The union says whilst not all shopworkers suffer to this extent, some experience much higher levels of abuse, threats and violence. Usdaw’s Freedom from Fear Survey shows that during 2018, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of UK shopworkers experienced verbal abuse, 40 per cent were threatened by a customer and there were 288 assaults every day. Paddy Lillis, the union’s general secretary, said: “Violence, threats and abuse against workers are amongst the great scourges of our society. The statistics are shocking and show that urgent action is required. On average a UK shopworker can end up on the wrong side of a verbal or physical assault nearly once a fortnight. Our message is clear, abuse is not a part of the job.” He added the union’s Freedom from Fear Campaign “works with employers to promote respect and make shops safer for staff and customers alike. So there needs to be action to help protect staff. We want the government and Scottish government to provide stiffer penalties for those who assault workers; a simple stand-alone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, CPS, the judiciary and most importantly criminals.” Office for National Statistics figures released last week revealed a 29 per cent increase in police recorded incidents of shoplifting in England and Wales over the last decade, a problem the union said “is often a trigger for violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers.”
Workers on London's transport system face routine exposure to vomit, urine, blood and faecal matter, according to new figures. Transport for London (TfL) buses were reported as “soiled” a total of 14,632 times in 2018, with some affected more than twice per week. Tube trains were delayed due to “soiled cars” on 801 separate occasions. The figures, obtained by the Press Association, reveal the five lines with Night Tube services were the Underground lines that were soiled most often. TfL classes a carriage as having been soiled when passengers have left vomit, urine, blood or smashed glass behind. Mick Cash, general secretary of the transport union RMT, said: “These shocking statistics show just what a dirty and disgusting job our cleaner members have to do. There is no question that the introduction of the Night Tube has seen an increase in this sort of behaviour, which has appalling consequences for staff and passengers alike.” Cleaners on the London Underground are a “hidden army” with “mops and buckets cleaning up the filth and mess to keep London moving,” he added. A spokesperson for TfL said: “We ask all customers to consider their fellow passengers and to help us to keep the network running safely and smoothly.”
Two people have been hurt in an early hours explosion at Tata's biggest steelworks plant in the UK. Residents living near the Port Talbot plant in south Wales spoke of hearing a "massive" blast shortly after 03:30 BST on 26 April. Tata Steel said the explosion came from a train used to carry molten metal. The firm posted on Twitter: “We can confirm two of our employees were slightly injured when there was a spillage of liquid iron while it was travelling to the steel plant. All fires have now been extinguished. A full investigation has begun.” The explosion was heard as far away as Bridgend, 14 miles (22km) from the blast. Aberavon MP Stephen Kinnock said the incident “raises real concerns about safety at the works.” In a twitter post he wrote: “It could have been a lot worse. Grateful as always to the emergency services for their rapid and effective response. Tata Steel Europe must conduct a full review, to improve safety.” A spokesperson for the steelworkers’ trade union Community said following the incident, union reps held urgent meetings with management. “They have made it clear to the company that it’s important that the time and space is taken to understand how this happened before production is resumed,” the statement said. “We are thankful that there are no serious injuries. It is important that all appropriate procedures are followed now to ensure lessons are learnt and any necessary changes are implemented.” In a November 2001 explosion at the plant, three employees - Andrew Hutin, Stephen Galsworthy and Len Radford - died and a further 12 employees and contractors suffered serious injuries. The plant was operated by previous owner Corus at the time.
Two companies have been fined after a worker received serious electrical burns during demolition work. Chelmsford Magistrates Court heard how on the 12 April 2017, two demolition workers employed by sub-contractor RB Haigh & Sons were removing electrical distribution equipment from a switchgear room at the former Molecular Products site in Thaxted, Essex. Alan Banks had been told by the principal contractor that the electrical equipment had been isolated. To reassure his colleague that it was safe he threw a crowbar at the 400V AC equipment. This came into contact with live exposed wires, causing a flashover and temperatures of several thousand degrees, followed by a fire. As a result, Mr Banks suffered serious burn injuries and was immediately hospitalised. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the task being undertaken had not been properly planned and suitable control measures were not implemented to ensure the isolation of the power supply. The principal contractor, AJ Wadhams & Co Ltd, failed to follow the clear procedures outlined in their risk assessments and method statements, which identified all equipment must be treated as live unless written authorisation proved otherwise. Russell Haigh and Stuart Haigh, partners in RB Haighs & Sons, pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 and were fined £80,000 and ordered to pay costs of £3,882.65. AJ Wadhams & Co Limited, trading as Wadham Homes, pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and were fined £80,000, with costs of £3,816.60. HSE inspector Adam Hills commented: “This incident has had a significant impact on Mr Banks life and the injuries could so very easily have been fatal. Had the companies followed the control measures outlined in their respective risk assessments, then this incident would not have occurred.” He added: “Never assume that an electrical supply is disconnected. Always check with the Distribution Network Operator or a qualified electrician to obtain written proof of isolation before commencing work.”
An Aberdeen electrical company contracted to rewire and install new heating systems in Aberdeenshire Council properties has been fined for failing to put in place adequate barriers and physical warning signs around open floor hatches. The prosecution came after the resident of a property and her brother-in-law fell into one of the uncovered floor hatches and both sustained injuries. Aberdeen Sheriff Court heard that on 19 and 20 February 2018, employees of RB Wilson (Electrical) Limited were working at the home. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) concluded that the firm failed to put measures in place to prevent either the resident of the property or her brother-in-law from falling through the uncovered floor hatch. If adequate barriers and physical warning signs had been in place around the uncovered floor hatch then these incidents would have been preventable. RB Wilson (Electrical) Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and was fined £24,000. HSE inspector Elaine McAllister said: “This incident could so easily have been avoided by simply carrying out correct control measures and safe working practices.”
The union-backed Firefighters Memorial Day falls on 4 May. Firefighters’ union FBU says the day honours the sacrifice of firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty, acknowledging the courage and dedication of generations of firefighters, including those who serve our communities today. The FBU works in partnership with the Firefighters Memorial Trust to ensure that no matter how much time has passed, firefighters who died protecting their communities are remembered. On duty crews will parade in fire kit on station forecourts and stand in a minute's silence at midday on 4 May, as they remember colleagues lost in the line of duty.
Australia’s opposition Labor Party (ALP) has said if successful in this month’s general election it will include a country-wide industrial manslaughter offence in workplace health and safety legislation. The move has been welcomed by unions, which said it marks a ‘systemic shift’ in how the country will view the responsibility of employers for the safety of workers, and how courts will address the loss of life in Australian workplaces. Under the current system, employers in most state and territories who are proved to be responsible for the deaths of any of the 200 Australian workers who die due to workplace incidents every year face at most a fine. Many employers write off the cost of these penalties on their insurance. Industrial manslaughter laws will give courts the full range of options where an employer is found to be responsible for the death of a worker. National union federation ACTU said stiffer penalties, including the prospect of serious time in jail, will act as a more effective deterrent and help to ensure that those responsible for workplace fatalities are treated just as any member of society who is found culpable for a death. ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien: “Anyone who is responsible for the death of another person should face the prospect of serious jail time. Every worker has the right to come home from work, but every year hundreds don’t.” He added: “A fine, which can be covered by insurance, as punishment for causing the death of another person is deeply insulting to all working people and the families of the untold thousands who have died at work. This is a significant reform which will change the way employers think about their responsibility towards their employees. The goal must always be to ensure that no one dies at work. No other objective is acceptable.” He said the right-wing Morrison federal government “has failed to act for six years, despite four workers dying every single week. We welcome the ALP’s commitment to changing the rules and making workplaces safer.” Australia goes to the polls on 18 May.
Almost 1-in-25 workers in France consider suicide each year, with more than a third blaming work for their desperation, research has found. The study published in the Bulletin épidémiologique hebdomadaire (BEH) reported 3.8 per cent of the French population in employment has considered suicide in the course of the past twelve months. The bulletin, which is published by a French public health agency, said that in 2017, 4.5 per cent of the female population and 3.1 per cent of the male population reported suicidal thoughts, or 3.8 per cent overall. In more than a third of cases, working and employment conditions were stated as being the cause. The most important factor was fear of losing the job, followed by verbal threats, humiliation and intimidation at work. The survey covered more than 14,000 workers aged between 18 and 75. The self-employed were more likely (4.32 per cent) to consider suicide than employees (2.85 per cent). Among women, blue collars workers were more likely (5.13 per cent) to have such thoughts than white collar workers (4.84 per cent). The percentage dropped to 3.91 per cent among women managers. In males, the highest occurrence of suicidal thoughts was in skilled craftsmen, traders and entrepreneurs (3.56 per cent), followed by farmers (3.49 per cent) and blue collar workers (3.01 per cent). Managers were again least likely to consider suicide (2.62 per cent). Employees earning less than €1,500 a month were more than twice as likely to consider suicide than those with a higher income. The Solidaires trade union, which launched a work suicides campaign in April, is compiling a geographical map of work-related suicides in France, with case reports collated by union activists.
Ÿ ETUI news report. P. Delèzire, V. Gigonzac and others, Pensées suicidaires dans la population active occupée en France en 2017, Bulletin épisdémiologique hebdomadaire, Number 3-4, 2019 [in French]. Suicides au travail, l'action syndicale from Union Syndicale SOLIDAIRES on Vimeo.
Workers in the pulp, paper, graphical and packaging sectors, represented worldwide by the global unions IndustriALL and UNI, have kicked off a year-long campaign around the three fundamental worker rights needed to make work safe. These ‘3Rs’ are: The Right to Know – workers must know the hazards and risks in their workplace; The Right to Act, or the right to refuse unsafe work without punishment; and The Right to Participate in the safety programmes and structures that manage safety in the workplace. “We invite the global pulp, paper and packaging sectors to work with workers and their representatives to fully facilitate the right to know and by doing so build safer and healthier workplaces,” said Joaquina Rodriguez, the president of UNI Graphical and Packaging. Leeann Foster, IndustriALL Pulp and Paper Working Group co-chair, added: “All health and safety standards exist because of trade union action and we invite the pulp, paper, graphical and packaging industries to share information and build safety programmes together with their workers who know the work and its hazards better than anyone else.” In the UK, Louisa Bull, the Unite national officer for pulp, paper and packaging, said: “Our purpose is to support the global initiative but also to rejuvenate our health and safety network here at Unite.” She added: “You see the stats for employers who have good health and safety records in Europe but in the US and other nations are disregarding those same principles and basically allowing their workforces to come to work and die.”
At least 54 jade miners in Myanmar are feared to have died after they were engulfed by a landslide “mud lake” as they slept. In one of the worst disasters to hit Myanmar’s notoriously treacherous jade mining industry, a mud filter collapsed at a mine in Hpakant in Myanmar’s Kachin State late on the night of 22 April, causing a landslide that hit the miners’ sleeping quarters. It buried the sleeping men and 40 pieces of heavy machinery None of the 54 miners, most of whom were migrant workers, are thought to have survived the incident. Myanmar’s jade industry, which is highly unregulated and controlled by the military and private conglomerates, has long been condemned for prioritising profit over safety. Dozens die every year in deadly landslides, particularly when monsoon season hits. Statistics from 2017 showed almost 80 officially recorded deaths, though the unofficial toll is assumed to be higher. Paul Donowitz, campaign leader for Myanmar at environmental advocacy group Global Witness, said: “This preventable tragedy once again underscores the urgent need to bring accountability to the country’s jade industry and to completely shut down large-scale jade mining operations which continue to kill hundreds every year, fuel violent armed conflict and devastate the local environment.”
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