|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 change the law so victims of sexual harassment at work are no longer silenced by ‘gagging clauses’ and negligent employers face effective sanctions, the TUC has said. Commenting on the Women and Equalities Committee report on non-disclosure agreements, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “More than half of women in the UK have been sexually harassed at work. Sexual harassment has a huge impact on women’s careers and lives so the Committee is right to call for radical change.” She added: “Small tweaks to non-disclosure agreements won’t cut it. The government must change the law to put the responsibility for preventing harassment on employers, not victims. This would shift the burden of tackling sexual harassment away from the victims. And it would help end toxic workplace cultures that silence those who’ve been harassed.” The TUC is calling for a series of changes including: amending the law to make employers legally responsible for taking meaningful steps to rid their workplaces of harassment and victimisation; enforcement “with real teeth” so that employers who refuse to comply suffer a financial hit large enough to compel them to take action; stronger legal protection from harassment from customers and other third parties at work; and an extension to time limits for lodging tribunal claims to help people access justice. Launching the Women and Equalities committee report, Maria Miller, the Conservative former culture secretary who chairs the committee, said: “It is particularly worrying that secrecy about allegations of unlawful discrimination is being traded for things that employers should be providing as a matter of course, such as references and remedial action to tackle discrimination.”
Ÿ TUC news release and blog posting. The use of non-disclosure agreements in discrimination cases, Women and Equalities Committee, House of Commons, June 2019. NUJ news release. The Guardian.
Over a quarter (26 per cent) of staff working in prisons have been the victim of physical violence within the last year, according to new figures from a coalition of nine trade unions and professional organisations. The survey, published by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance (JUPA), found that one in seven (14 per cent) of staff who were a victim of recent physical violence said they have been assaulted more than ten times in the past year. Of those who reported a physical assault to their employer, 57 per cent were dissatisfied with the action taken. In a further 20 per cent of cases, respondents said no action was taken at all. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of survey respondents reported feeling unsafe at work in the last twelve months. Over half of staff (53 per cent) said they had been exposed to the psychoactive substance spice at work, and over a third (39 per cent) reported becoming ill as a result. Symptoms included light-headedness, dizziness, confusion and tiredness (97 per cent), nausea and vomiting (49.4 per cent), increased heart rate and blood pressure (34.5 per cent) and anxiety and paranoia (28 per cent). Paul Cottrell, acting general secretary of the union UCU, which represents prison educators, said: “It is appalling that two-thirds of staff in prisons report feeling unsafe in their workplace, and that so many say their concerns aren't being dealt with properly. We urgently need much tougher action from the government and prison employers to improve the safety and working conditions of staff in our prisons.” JUPA is calling for ‘urgent action’ from the government, prison service and other employers in the sector to ensure: Tougher responses to violent incidents, including use of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018; better health and safety reporting, including a single reporting system; action to prevent exposure to psychoactive substances; joint work between employers and unions to examine the causes and effects of violence against staff; and more prison officers and other personnel to ensure safe and effective staffing levels.
There should be a new naming and shaming regime and stronger penalties where people are killed or seriously injured at work, the union GMB has said. GMB’s annual conference heard that the official Health and Safety Executive (HSE) fatalities figure, which last year was 144 deaths, is “the tip of the iceberg” because it ignores whole categories of work-related deaths, including workplace suicides, road traffic accidents and deaths at sea, in the air and on railways. These HSE discounted deaths push the work fatalities total to 1,500 each year, the union said. GMB national safety officer Lynsey Mann said the true toll of work was considerably higher still, with another 50,000 deaths each year caused by work related illnesses such as cancers, lung and heart diseases. “These aren’t freak accidents or rare illnesses, they are almost all preventable and only happen because employers did not comply with the law. We must ensure that lessons are learned from these deaths and that the penalty fits the crime, negligent employers have been getting away with minimal fines and short sentences for too long.” She added: “The extent of employer’s negligence is beyond belief. We must ensure that lessons are learned from these deaths and that the penalty fits the crime, negligent employers have been getting away with minimal fines and short sentences for too long. We need to come together and fight for justice for our dead and protection at work for us all. Everyone should be able to go to work and return home safe and healthy.”
School employers must make a clear commitment to protecting teachers from verbal and physical abuse from pupils, parents and other visitors to school sites, the union NASUWT has said. As part of the teaching union’s ongoing campaign to support teachers and headteachers in tackling pupil indiscipline, NASUWT has produced posters for schools it says are designed to make a public statement on the expectation of how staff should be treated. The union said its posters follow the approach of similar campaigns in hospitals and railway stations, which make a clear declaration that abuse of staff will not be tolerated. Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “Go into any NHS hospital, GP surgery, railway station and many other workplaces and you will find posters being displayed which state clearly the expectations of how staff should be treated and that abuse of staff will not be tolerated. The NASUWT believes that those who employ teachers and headteachers should also be prepared to make such a clear commitment to the safety and dignity of their staff.” She added: “All teachers and headteachers are entitled to a safe working environment free from violence and abuse. Employers have a legal duty of care to provide this… Our aim is to have these posters displayed prominently in every school across the country where they will be seen by pupils, parents and visitors to the site. Whether or not there is a problem of abuse of teachers and other staff in the school, the posters will reinforce the standards of behaviour which are expected towards staff. Good employers will have no problem with displaying the posters.”
Seafarers’ union Nautilus has voiced concern about the safety of Merchant Navy crew who transit the Gulf of Oman, after two further tanker attacks. “We remain concerned about these incidents and the risk to the safety of ships and their crew transiting in this area. Clearly our priority is to the seafarers and any members who may be onboard these vessels. Any risk to seafarers’ safety is of grave concern,” Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson said. He urged members to notify the union should they experience problems related to safety of maritime traffic in the Gulf, to enable it to offer any assistance necessary. Nautilus said it is seeking an urgent meeting with the UK's Warlike Operations Area Committee (WOAC), which considers at-risk areas and potential responses. WOAC is a joint initiative of the UK Chamber of Shipping, Nautilus and RMT unions. Two oil tankers, the Marshall Islands-flagged Front Altair and the Panamanian-flagged Kokuka Courageous, were left abandoned and adrift after what appears to be attacks on the vessels while transiting the Gulf of Oman. The global transport unions’ federation ITF reported that 44 seafarers were rescued and no lives were lost.
The firefighters’ union FBU has called for urgent action on a range of fire and building safety issues to prevent ‘another Grenfell’. Commenting on the 14 June second anniversary of the tragedy, the union said action to prevent a similar fire has been wholly insufficient, “with little to nothing being done to tackle the structural issues that led to the tragedy.” The FBU’s ‘Grenfell: Never Again’ campaign and related petition aims to pressure the government to take decisive action to tackle the underlying risks which caused the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower, the union said. FBU general secretary Matt Wrack, launching the joint campaign with the Mirror newspaper, said: “The second anniversary of Grenfell must be a moment of both heartfelt reflection and determined action. We have seen 72 lives tragically lost, in a wholly preventable blaze, all while desperately under-resourced firefighters risked their own lives to save others. Firefighters and control room staff never want to see a fire like that again, and are calling on the government to take immediate action.” He added: “As things stand, we risk sleepwalking into another catastrophic loss of life. We demand urgent action from government to ensure that the events of Grenfell Tower can never happen again.”
A campaign by the transport union RMT to cut dangerously long driver hours on Britain’s buses has received support from MPs. Last year the union surveyed RMT bus worker members as part of its response to a Transport Committee inquiry. RMT said its survey uncovered “multiple examples” of poor working conditions, too few drivers and long hours. In its response to the inquiry, RMT highlighted the ‘urgent need’ to tackle low pay and long hours in the industry, which it said are not subject to the same regulations as those protecting long distance drivers. RMT set out its support for a Private Member’s Bill, tabled by Labour MP Matt Western, which seeks to limit local bus driver hours and increase breaks to the same levels as those for long distance drivers, with no detriment to pay. The Transport Committee’s report backed the RMT's call for bus driver hours to be limited, adding “we are concerned that recruitment and retention in the bus industry is hampered by long hours and poor pay”. It called for a national forum and discussions involving the unions and employers to address low pay, recruitment and safety. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “For too long the bus industry in Britain has been left to decline in the face of rank profiteering by the private operators and a wall of silence from the politicians. No longer.” He added: “RMT will be working with our allies to put the decimation of Britain’s vital bus services, and the case for public ownership, centre stage as we move towards an expected general election.”
The Scottish government is to investigate a potentially work-related bladder cancer cluster after four teachers were diagnosed with the condition while working at a school built on a former landfill site. Public health experts will examine the fears of parents and teachers at Buchanan and St Ambrose High School in Coatbridge that harmful waste chemicals were to blame. Announcing the investigation, Scottish education secretary John Swinney said: “There have been a number of significant concerns raised by families, teachers and elected representatives about the safety of the Buchanan and St Ambrose High School.” The initial conversion of the site from landfill to its current use is to be probed, the government said, “to assess whether all activity was carried out in accordance with appropriate regulations and best practice to mitigate against any risk to public health.” The review will conclude before the beginning of the new school year, the government said. Teaching union NASUWT welcomed the review ‘in principle’. But general secretary Chris Keates, said “this does not remove the immediate pressures, anxieties and concerns of the teachers at the school and the NASUWT still believes that action needs to be taken, pending the outcome of this review, to address these concerns and alleviate the anxiety staff are facing, anxiety which we know will be shared by parents and the community.” She added: “The review does not alter our position regarding the strike action we have proposed to take to safeguard the health and welfare of our members.” The union EIS criticised the authorities for only releasing related safety information after a freedom of information request, with EIS arguing it should have been made available to its union safety reps as a matter of course. EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said “employers should be open and timeous in sharing of information and reports with health and safety representatives from trade unions. Unfortunately, this has not been our experience in this instance. North Lanarkshire Council has not responded quickly enough nor adequately enough.”
Ÿ Scottish government news release. NASUWT news release. EIS news release. The Independent.
Overwork and stress are undermining attempts to improve job quality in the UK, new research from personnel professionals’ organisation CIPD has found. A total of 5,136 people were surveyed for the UK Working Lives Survey, CIPD’s annual assessment of job quality. Three in five (60 per cent) said they work longer hours than they want and one in four (24 per cent) said they overwork by ten or more hours a week. The report also identified high levels of work intensity. Nearly a quarter of respondents said they often or always feel exhausted in their jobs (22 per cent) or under excessive pressure (22 per cent). The CIPD said its research identified serious concerns about the demands of work and the impact it can have on people’s health. Two in three workers (66 per cent) say they have experienced a work-related health condition in the last 12 months, with anxiety and sleep problems two of the most common issues reported. The CIPD is now urging employers to fulfil their statutory duty and carry out a comprehensive health and safety risk assessment.
More than 5 million workers across Britain are struggling in low-paid and insecure work, campaigners have warned. The research published by the Living Wage Foundation, based on an analysis of official figures, also found millions of workers were facing cancelled shifts, with a disproportionate amount of people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds affected. The Foundation, launching a new Living Hours programme to tackle widespread insecurity over hours, said its scheme will require organisations to pay the real Living Wage and commit to providing workers with at least four weeks’ notice of shifts, a contract that accurately reflects hours worked, and a contract with a guaranteed minimum of 16 hours a week. Organisations that agree to these measures will be accredited as Living Hours employers alongside their Living Wage accreditation. Instead of relying on voluntary measures, some countries have legislated to protect workers from exploitation from insecure work and zero-hours contracts. There are calls in Britain for ministers to take similar steps. Official figures show zero-hours contract usage has begun falling, although it remains high at 884,000. Labour has said it would ban zero-hours contracts. Commenting on the new report, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, said: “It’s time to end this limbo and give people fair notice of their hours and compensation if their shifts are cancelled. We welcome the launch of this new standard for living hours.” Low pay and insecure work are both associated with high rates of work-related injuries and ill-health.
Ÿ Living Wage Foundation news release, Living Hours programme and Living hours report. TUC news release. Usdaw news release. The Guardian.
A stone masonry company has been fined after a criminal failure to control silica dust resulted in an employee developing the disabling lung-scarring disease silicosis. Burnley Magistrates’ Court heard how prior to 2017, employees of GO Stonemasonry Limited in Accrington carried out work that resulted in exposure to respirable silica dust. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the firm had been cutting and working with stone for several years without any suitable dust extraction. The company had also failed to ensure that respiratory protective equipment (RPE) was adequately controlling exposure to respiratory silica dust. The company did not have appropriate work processes, systems or control measures in place and had no health surveillance to identify early effects on workers’ health. GO Stonemasonry Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of safety regulations and was fined £8,000 and ordered to pay costs of £10,000. HSE inspector Sharon Butler commented: “Exposure to this dust can cause silicosis, leading to impaired lung function, breathing problems and is life-threatening. Simple steps to stop workers breathing in the dust must be taken and companies should know HSE will not hesitate to take action against those failing to protect their workers’ health.”
Ÿ HSE news release.
A scaffolding firm owner has received a suspended sentence after his son suffered fatal injuries in a fall through a fragile roof. Wolverhampton Crown Court heard how on 19 September 2015, at the Norton Aluminium foundry site in Norton Canes, Staffordshire, Stephen Brennan was fatally injured after falling approximately 11.5 metres through the roof. The 26-year-old was working with his brother Kieran and their father, company owner Stephen John Brennan, on the corrugated asbestos cement roof. They were in the process of moving and fitting temporary scaffold guardrails as part of a larger roof refurbishment project at the site. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found Stephen John Brennan, trading as SB Scaffolding, failed to ensure the health and safety of his employees. The investigation also found that Sandwell Roofing Limited, the contractor in overall control of the roof refurbishment project, failed to ensure that people not in its employment were not exposed to risks arising from work on the fragile roof. Stephen John Brennan, 57, was sentenced to six months imprisonment suspended for two years, 180 hours of unpaid community service and ordered to pay costs of £14,000. Sandwell Roofing Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £41,125 and ordered to pay £33,000 costs. Neil Fitzgibbon, defending Stephen John Brennan, said: “His family life has been ripped apart by grief.”
A power utility company has been fined for criminal safety offences after a worker was killed. Aylesbury Crown Court heard how, on 18 November 2016, Paul Marsden, a substation crafts person for National Grid Electricity Transmission was tasked with moving a delivery crate containing a compressor with the help of a colleague. The workers were using a remote-controlled lorry loader crane but as they attempted to attach the slings to the hook, the crane struck Mr Marsden causing fatal injuries. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found National Grid Electricity Transmission plc failed to ensure the lifting operation was properly planned, effectively supervised and carried out safely. The company also failed to ensure Mr Marsden had received adequate training in use of the new lorry loader crane, in particular the additional risks due to the remote-control unit. National Grid Electricity Transmission plc pleaded guilty to criminal breaches of safety law. The company was fined £334,000 and ordered to pay costs of £17 673.34. HSE inspector Stephen Faulkner said: “This tragic incident could have been avoided if the company had properly planned the movement of the crate involved. Employers must recognise operating remote-controlled plants carry their own risks and should be managed appropriately, including through providing adequate training for employees.”
There must be urgent action to address the potential spread of a deadly Ebola outbreak in central Africa and to protect the “safety and security” of health workers in the region, the global public service union PSI has said. The PSI call came after it was revealed the Ebola outbreak which was declared on 1 August 2018 by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has spread this month to neighbouring Uganda. The union body welcomed a decision by World Health Organisation (WHO) director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to reconvene the International Health Regulations (IHR) Emergency Committee in response to the development. A PSI statement noted: “We urge the IHR Emergency Committee to declare the current Ebola outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHIEC). We also seize this opportunity to reiterate the need for building strong public health systems as bulwark for crisis preparedness and for attaining universal health care.” PSI said the current outbreak “is the tenth, and largest Ebola outbreak in the DRC, since 1976. And apart from the 2014-2015 epidemic in West Africa, which spread to 10 countries across the world, it is also the worst outbreak.” There have been over 2,000 cases and more than 1,200 confirmed deaths in the current outbreak. Calling for measures to protect “the safety and security” of the health workers, PSI said: “Health workers are at the centre of public emergency responses. Their lives and working conditions matter and should be given the due consideration required as all hands are put on deck to tackle this outbreak.”
A court has ordered building products multinational Saint-Gobain to pay asbestos-related compensation to 130 employees at its specialised glass manufacturing and processing factory in Thourotte, France. According to the 3 June verdict of the labour court in Compiegne, the company must pay compensation of 20,000 euros (£17,800) to each worker for “psychological harm” resulting from their exposure to asbestos. The council of labour judges ruled that the current and former employees were “substantially exposed to the inhalation of asbestos fibres” under conditions “subsequent to a breach of the contractual obligation of safety provoked by their employer” and that they suffered “harm” that “should be repaired.” Lawyer Elisabeth Leroux, who represented the claimants, commented: “This is a very good decision, the employees have been exposed to asbestos, they are now undergoing increased medical monitoring which provokes anxiety, they see their co-workers dying... It's a big satisfaction to obtain compensation for this harm.” Saint-Gobain has until the start of July to appeal the decision of the court. Brian Kohler, director of health and safety with the global union IndustriALL, commented: “We expect that Saint-Gobain takes this court decision seriously and supports all of their workers who were exposed to asbestos, and will organise proper compensation for them, respecting the court’s decision.”
United Nations human rights experts have urged the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to immediately recognise and adopt safe and healthy working conditions as one of its fundamental principles and rights at work. “Millions of workers around the world suffer from diseases and disabilities due to unsafe and unhealthy conditions of work. It is estimated that approximately two million workers die prematurely each year because of an unsafe or unhealthy workplace,” the UN special rapporteurs on human rights said on 13 June, as the ILO held its centenary conference in Geneva. “Safe and healthy working conditions have been explicitly recognised under the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights since 1966 as a fundamental aspect of the right to just and favourable conditions of work. However, despite ILO Convention 155 [the ILO occupational health and safety convention], the right to safe and healthy working conditions is not among the ‘Fundamental principles and rights at work’ recognised by the ILO.” The UN experts added: “It is long overdue that the ILO recognises the right to safe and healthy working conditions as one of its fundamental principles and rights at work. The ILO’s recognition is essential to help end the exploitation of workers who are forced to choose between a pay cheque and their health. It would be a fitting tribute to the millions who have lost their lives as a result of this abhorrent choice.”
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