|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 email@example.com.
Unite has secured a ‘major victory’ for construction workers at the Shell-owned St Fergus gas plant. Meetings between Unite and Wood Group representatives led to a proposal that was put to the workforce that has now ended the dispute while also allaying the union’s concerns over health and safety, the union said. Unite had threatened to hold an industrial action ballot in response to the Wood Group withdrawing a long standing payment for 'permit holder' workers carrying out safety duties at the site near Peterhead (Risks 904). The new proposal ensures the permit holders will retain their payments, and other workers will not be forced to take on additional safety duties without their agreement. Unite regional industrial officer Vic Fraser said: “Unite members have achieved a major victory at the St Fergus gas plant, and also for the local community. We have ensured that health and safety will not be compromised in any way and achieved a number of commitments to guarantee this outcome from the Wood Group.” He added: “Unite’s strength and resolve at the gas plant has delivered a satisfactory resolution for all parties. This is a great example of what can be achieved when union members act and are listened to by management.”
Amazon Prime Day, which features a 15 July global marketing assault by the world’s biggest retailer, also saw unions push back at global giant’s exploitative and dangerous working practices. UK union GMB said that behind the company hype, Amazon workers are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious and taken away in ambulances, and pregnant women workers are treated “appallingly.” It said in contrast to the company’s glossy corporate marketing, the reality for its workforce is “dehumanising” working conditions at Amazon Fulfilment Centres. GMB marked Prime Day with demonstrations outside fulfilment centres including those at Rugeley, Swansea, Peterborough, Warrington, Coventry, Doncaster and Milton Keynes. GMB national officer Mick Rix said: “The conditions our members work under at Amazon sites across the UK are appalling.” He added: “The Rugeley site in particular is probably one of the most unsafe places to work in Britain - workers are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious and being taken away in ambulances. We have various reports of pregnant women workers being targeted for dismissal.” He said: “It’s prime time for Amazon to get round the table with GMB and discuss ways to make their workplaces safer, and to give their workers an independent voice. My phone is on and we at GMB are ready to hold those discussions with Amazon.” Commenting on international protests by unions to mark the day, Steve Cotton, general secretary of the global union ITF, said: “My advice to the CEO of Amazon is rather than put off the inevitable and risk business disruption - I would seek to negotiate a solution that is good for shareholders, management and, most importantly, the workers that have made Amazon so successful. The starting point for that solution must be the right to organise; this is clearly a growing movement.”
Ambulance workers and paramedics protested outside the Department of Health on 16 July over plans to force them to continue working until they are 68. Their union GMB said if the policy is enforced, ambulance workers will be in poorer health than the patients they are treating - and lives will be under threat. The union argues the retirement age for ambulance staff should be in line with police and firefighters, a maximum of 60. It adds its recent survey of ambulance members found almost 99 per cent said the job will be too demanding for them to carry out properly when they hit the current retirement age of 68. GMB national officer Rachel Harrison commented: “Our members work desperately hard saving lives – but they just can’t keep it going until they are 68. They know it’s impossible and could risk the lives of their patients. Meanwhile they worry their health will deteriorate and they will be forced to leave and find alternative employment.” She added: “It’s not fair on our life saving ambulance staff and the government must review the situation.” She said unless the retirement age is lowered, many ambulance staff may be forced to retire early on a reduced pension when they become unable to cope with the physical and mental strains of the job.
RMT steps up pressure for inquiry into helicopter safety
Offshore union RMT is intending to turn up the pressure on the government and safety regulators for a public inquiry into helicopter safety. The union’s decision came as fresh concerns were raised over helicopter safety standards in the North Sea following an Air Accident Investigation Board report which found that fatigue amongst ground engineers contributed to a near miss at Aberdeen airport involving an Airbus 175 helicopter operated by CHC Scotia. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “Following on from the images of a damaged tail rotor on a 175 [Risks 903], the findings of fatigue and a lack of care for engineers working on the offshore helicopter fleet is deeply disturbing for offshore workers and their families. The government’s abject failure to take this problem seriously over the last decade is another slap in the face for offshore workers who keep our economy ticking over but are simply expected to get on with travelling in helicopters that are subject to dangerous levels of commercial pressure.” The union leader added: “This ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach to the safety of offshore workers must be faced down and an independent public inquiry launched into the safety of offshore helicopters, including the commercial pressures that this latest safety investigation has again flagged up.”
The union RMT is demanding an “absolute ban” on contracting out and an independent system of safety scrutiny in the rail industry after a “shocking” report into the death of a fatigued casual worker on the tracks. The 37-year-old, whose name has not been released, was hit from behind by a train at Stoats Nest Junction near Purley sometime after midnight on 6 November 2018. A Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) report into the tragedy concluded the worker, who was on a zero-hours contract, was tired and probably worrying about having to cover for his brother. He had moved away from the section of track that had been protected for workers. The RAIB report criticised “Victorian” methods of protection and the fatigue amongst zero hours’ contract staff. RMT general secretary Mick Cash commented: “Once again the Rail Accident Investigation Branch has criticised safety standards for the protection of track workers. This latest shocking report should force real change across the industry and it should force it right now.” He added: “Warning after warning from this trade union on fatigue, zero hours and casualisation has not being properly addressed by Network Rail or the safety regulator the ORR [Office of Rail and Road]. As a result, lives are at a risk and that is a scandal. For all the talk of a modern, digital railway those in charge can't even guarantee basic levels of safety.” The union leader concluded: "If those responsible for protecting the safety of rail workers are not doing their job then we need a genuinely independent safety inspectorate with real teeth not linked to budget controls and the cosy world of the industry players which is the reality of the failed ORR model.”
Unite, which represents thousands of workers employed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and its subcontractors, has written to members cautioning them that their employer is failing to warn them about the dangers of being exposed to asbestos on military bases. The union action came after it discovered that just 1.56 per cent of staff had recently undertaken asbestos awareness training. Its freedom of information requests revealed that in the last 18 months out of the MoD’s 57,000 non-military personnel, only 385 individuals had completed classroom-based training and 500 had undertaken online training. Unite said it has had a large response from workers expressing concerns about their own workplaces and raising concerns about the lack of information provided by the MoD. Unite national officer for the MoD Jim Kennedy said: “The MoD is failing to warn its workers and subcontractors on its bases about the dangers of asbestos. The lack of asbestos training is profoundly disturbing. It demonstrates that the Sea King asbestos scandal [Risks 901] is not a one off but that the MoD is systemically failing to educate and protect its workers against the dangers of asbestos.” The Unite official added: “Workers operating on MoD bases are rightly concerned that their employer is failing to protect their health. The MoD’s attitude on these developing scandals is reflected in the failure of the secretary of state to even reply to Unite’s concerns, over two months since she was first written to about these matters.”
About 50 housing repair workers at Newham council are set to strike for five days over unresolved safety, pay and bullying concerns. Unite said its members had voted unanimously for strike action over “a myriad of issues,” including asbestos exposures at work. A new pay structure would lead to a 20 per cent pay cut, the union said. The carpenters, electricians and plumbers, based at the council’s Bridge Road depot, will hold 24-hour stoppages on five days in August and September unless the dispute is resolved. Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said: “It is starkly apparent that Newham council is beleaguered by a very poor employment relations’ culture. The results are now coming home to roost after our members voted overwhelmingly to strike for five days later this summer – they are disgusted by the way they have been treated by this local authority.” He said as well as concerns over pay cuts, deductions from wages and a bullying culture, the workers’ health was being put at risk. “Our members have also been exposed to deadly asbestos during the course of their work,” Unite’s Onay Kasab said. “However, the council engaged a contractor who clearly had no idea how to deal with asbestos – its workmen were seen sweeping up dust.” Criticising the council’s “blinkered and intransigent management,” he added “there is some time before the first strike on 2 August and Unite’s door remains open for a constructive dialogue with the council.”
A safety evacuation at the University of Birmingham’s Dubai campus has heightened union concerns about conditions at the controversial site. The UCU branch at the university said it was disturbed that union safety and health representatives were not informed about the incident. It added that only a week later and after “direct questioning” from Birmingham UCU, did the university’s management issue an explanatory statement. This noted: “There was a minor incident with some IT equipment which necessitated an evacuation of the office for safety reasons. The relevant health and safety body attended and confirmed that the building was safe for staff to return.” Birmingham UCU said since learning of the incident, its health and safety representatives have “actively sought” more information and clarification about how it occurred. It said that while the university’s health and safety policy statement notes it “applies to all premises and activities within the control of the university” this appears “problematic” as the policy notes an “important element” is collaboration with trade unions, which are illegal in Dubai. A spokesperson for Birmingham UCU said: “Last week’s campus evacuation and the failure to notify designated health and safety representatives once again raises serious concerns over the university’s dealings in Dubai.” The UCU branch spokesperson added: “We call on the university to follow its own health and safety policy, which ‘applies to all premises and activities within the control of the university’ and provide clear answers to staff and students about what happened last Thursday and how health and safety is being managed. We also once again call on the university to listen to staff and students’ serious concerns and agree to meaningful negotiations with us about the Dubai campus.”
Seafarers with concerns over safety in the Strait of Hormuz have been urged to contact their union, Nautilus. The union call came after the UK Department for Transport issued a security warning in the area. UK ships in the Strait of Hormuz have been put on 'heightened security' after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard tried to intercept a BP operated oil tanker, British Heritage, earlier this month. The UK government said on 11 July the security situation was “critical”. The Isle of Man-flagged British Heritage was in the Strait of Hormuz when it was approached by three Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boats. Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose, which was believed to be shadowing British Heritage, fended off the Iranian vessels by getting between the vessels and pointing its guns at the ships, which left the area. Nautilus had earlier raised concern about the safety of Merchant Navy crew in the Gulf of Oman, after two tankers were attacked with Exocet missiles in June. “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.
Proposals to offer a sick pay rebate for organisations that effectively help staff get back to work have been announced by the government, as part of a package of measures to improve support for employees with long-term conditions or disabilities to remain in employment. More workers would also be eligible to claim statutory sick pay (SSP), and will be able to claim sickness benefit for mental as well as physical health conditions, under plans detailed in a consultation by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). More than 100,000 people a year leave their job following a period of sickness absence lasting at least four weeks, the government said, while 44 per cent of people who are off sick for a year fall out of work completely. Work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd said: “Good work is good for our mental and physical health, and by working closely with employers we can help prevent the loss of talent when people unnecessarily leave the workplace.” Other recommendations include the introduction of a right to request workplace adjustments on health grounds – with the consultation asking how employers should be required to respond to such requests. TUC safety lead Laurie Heselden welcomed the consultation, but said the starting point must be prevention of work-related or exacerbated ill-health. “That principle that must then buttressed by supporting the role of trade union health and safety reps in the workplace, and by access to well-resourced and world class occupational health services,” he said, adding the solution wasn’t “managing absence” but must be motivated by “good health being good for businesses and organisations, and good for all the employees and workers too.” The TUC officer said the UK’s statutory sick pay arrangements should be upgraded to match best practice in Europe.
Ÿ DWP/DHSC news release and Consultation announcement. Health is everyone’s business: proposals to reduce ill health-related job loss, DWP/DHSC, 15 July 2019. The consultation closes on 7 October 2019.
Unions have said a House of Commons-commissioned report into bullying and harassment in parliament shows a clear need to end the ‘toxic culture’ in parliament. Gemma White QC’s report details the “significant problem” posed by the abuse and harassment of parliamentary staff and makes recommendations to strengthen the complaints process and human resources (HR) functions in Westminster. The report found only 34 out of 650 MPs have attended or booked onto the new training introduced after the oppressive working culture in parliament was exposed last year (Risks 873). Commenting on the report, the union Unite said it believes it is now essential that parliament seeks the urgent assistance of conciliation service Acas to facilitate an agreement between the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and trade unions to “radically transform” employment practices. Unite national officer Siobhan Endean said: “The recommendations outlined in this report are a start, but it is vital that real solutions are provided that go far enough to deal with the causes of the systemic issues that have been starkly revealed in this report.” She added: “Until the toxic culture of deference and hierarchy is tackled then dignity in parliament will never be achieved.” Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham said: “This report is a serious contribution to the attempts to make parliament a safe and welcoming place to work, and ensure that it lives up to the high standards we would all expect from such a prominent national institution.” He said it was “essential that the recommendations on allowing IPSA to withhold funds from MPs who do not complete training, and on establishing a proper HR function for staff are adopted immediately,” adding: “It is up to MPs and House authorities now to have the courage to act and to change. Unions and staff stand ready to play their part in transforming parliament into a model workplace, MPs must step up and end the disgraceful closed-ranks culture that has allowed this abuse to fester for so long.”
The deaths of two track workers this month has prompted the introduction of a £70m taskforce to improve the safety of railway workers. Michael Lewis, 58, and Gareth Delbridge, 64, were struck and killed by a train while working on the tracks near Port Talbot on 3 July (Risks 905). Network Rail said the new scheme would develop systems to support the wellbeing of workers. This would include warnings of approaching trains, better briefings and improving the health the workforce. Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines said: "I don't want to see another track worker death, which is why we are creating a new team backed by a hefty budget to make working on the railway safer. The taskforce would be a partnership of industry organisations including rail regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), trade unions and contractors. Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the rail union TSSA, welcomed the new safety taskforce and called for an urgent meeting with the Network Rail’s chief executive. “I cannot ignore the clear and present risk to TSSA members working lineside, nor the fact that many of our members have management responsibility for the safety of passengers and rail workers,” he said. “I am therefore seeking an urgent meeting with Mr Haines to further discuss how they plan to engage with us to improve the safety for lineside workers.” Ahead of the Network Rail announcement, RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “I can make it clear that we will be stepping up our vigorous campaign for the elimination of track worker fatalities and serious injuries, based on a simple and coherent track safety regime that has worker protection as its core principle.” RMT members on Network Rail will also be convening a national meeting, he said, where demands from track workers for a ban on working in dangerous “red zone” areas until safety issues are “taken seriously” will be raised. He added the industry-financed ORR should be replaced with an independent rail safety watchdog.
The available evidence suggests working night shifts “probably” causes cancer in humans, a group of top experts has concluded. In June 2019, the working group of 27 scientists from 16 countries met at the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, to finalise the evaluation of the carcinogenicity of night shift work. The working group included scientists whose work had previously reached divergent conclusions, some sceptical of a link between night shifts and breast cancer and some strongly supportive of an association (Risks 781). The group assessment will now become the official IARC cancer rating for night shift work, and will be published in volume 124 of the IARC Monographs. Writing in the Lancet Oncology, the authors note: “Overall, the Working Group concluded that a positive association has been observed regarding night shift work and breast cancer; however, given the variability in findings between studies, bias could not be excluded as an explanation with reasonable confidence.” They also noted studies “provide some evidence that night shiftwork is positively associated with risk of prostate and colorectal cancer; however, because the studies were few in number and the results lacked consistency, chance and bias could not be ruled out.” The authors conclude: “In sum, the Working Group classified night shift work in Group 2A, ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, based on limited evidence of cancer in humans, sufficient evidence of cancer in experimental animals, and strong mechanistic evidence in experimental animals.” A TUC analysis of official figures last year indicated the number of people working night shifts in the UK has increased by more than 150,000 over the past five years (Risks 873). The union body said the number working nights now stands at more than 3 million workers – or one in nine of the total UK workforce.
A teaching union has said it is “deeply” concerned at the extent of the asbestos problem affecting the nation’s schools. The union NASUWT was commenting after the Department for Education this week published its long-overdue asbestos management assurance process report, based on an extensive survey of schools launched well over a year ago. Almost a fifth of schools are not managing asbestos in line with government guidance, the report revealed. The survey confirmed the overwhelming majority of participating schools – 80.9 per cent – have asbestos somewhere on their site. However, officials admit this could rise to 83.5 per cent if all schools that haven’t responded to the survey turn out to have the material. Of the 19,522 schools that participated in the survey, responses from 3,485, or 17.8 per cent, suggest their practice is “not in line” with the government’s 2017 guidance on managing asbestos in schools. Commenting on the survey findings, NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said: “The NASUWT is deeply concerned to see that in a significant number of schools, asbestos is still not being managed safely. All steps must be taken to keep staff and children safe.” She added: “We regret that the government is simply not doing enough to protect staff and pupils. It is inexcusable that the government has not made it compulsory for all schools to report on the presence and condition of asbestos.” She said the government and employers “should be proactive in ensuring that all pupils and staff are safe in schools.” The Joint Union Asbestos Committee this week said the identification and removal of unsafe asbestos “needs an agreed resourced and detailed plan.” JUAC chair John McClean said: “The risks to children and staff of poorly managed asbestos are very real. A phased programme of removal is the only way to begin to tackle this scourge.”
A parliamentary inquiry is to investigate the impact of the deadly dust disease silicosis on construction workers and their families. The All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Respiratory Health has joined forces with not-for-profit organisation construction benefits organisation B&CE to better understand why construction workers continue to suffer and die from silicosis caused by inhaling respirable crystalline silica. Silica-laden dust is common on construction sites, and exposures can be particularly high when using power tools on stone surfaces. Workers can also be exposed when working with bricks, tiles, paving stones, road surfaces, concrete or when cutting engineered stone kitchen worktops. Silicosis, a disabling scarring of the lungs, is frequently fatal. Gregg McClymont, director of policy at B&CE, said despite silicosis being a “serious issue” in construction, it “largely goes undetected.” He added: “We’re calling on experts to submit evidence over the summer which we’ll use as the basis for recommendations to the government.” DUP MP Jim Shannon, the APPG’s chair, said: “We will be presenting our findings to the government later in the year along with recommendations, which we hope will help to prevent it in the first place and assist patients with the best treatment and management of the disease.” The call for evidence closes on 31 August. Unions and workplace health campaigners have criticised the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for defending a workplace exposure standard twice that currently in force in the US (Risks 853), and four times higher than those enforced in some other countries (Risks 733). They say a stricter, vigorously enforced occupational exposure standard would dramatically reduce silica-related ill-health. Thousands of workers in the UK develop silica related diseases each year.
Ÿ BC&E news release. Personnel Today.
A playground installation and landscaping contractor has been fined after failing to provide employees with adequate control measures to prevent exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS). Greater Manchester Magistrates’ Court heard how on 23 March 2018, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) carried out unannounced inspection of a site at Newbank Garden Centre in Radcliffe. An HSE inspector served a prohibition notice to stop two employees of Playscape Design Ltd, who were working without any respiratory protective equipment, from using a power tool to cut flags. The watchdog said the work put the health of the employees at risk from exposure to RCS, which becomes airborne when silica-containing materials are cut with power tools. HSE then served an improvement notice requiring the company to control RCS exposures. However, the company did not provide evidence of compliance by the stipulated deadline. Instead, a second similar job was completed at the same site with no adequate control measures in place. Playscape Design Limited pleaded guilty to two criminal breaches of safety law and was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay costs of £3,000. HSE inspector Rebecca Hamer commented: “Exposure to respirable crystalline silica can cause life-threatening diseases including silicosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), which can lead to impaired lung function, lung cancer and death. This incident could so easily have been avoided by simply carrying out correct control measures and safe working practices.”
Contract and casual mineworkers in the Australian state of Queensland are fearful of “retribution” if they complain about questionable safety practices, their union has warned. A recent spate of injuries, including six deaths, has taken the state’s mine injuries toll to a 22-year high, prompting the state government to commission two independent reviews into mine safety (Risks 905). In the meantime, safety experts and the mineworkers’ union CFMEU have raised concerns about the “reporting culture” at mine sites, where most workers are now employed on a casual basis by labour-hire companies, rather than working directly for the multinational mine operators. “Morale is absolutely the lowest I’ve ever seen it,” the CFMEU Queensland mining and energy division president, Stephen Smyth, told Guardian Australia. “People don’t think they can speak up. People think: how am I going to put food on the table if I can’t get regular work?” The workplace practices mean that workers, for fear of reprisals, won’t stand up and speak out.” He added: “Something drastic has to happen. We’re calling for a reset. The industry has got to take stock, because how do you keep doing what we’re doing and nothing changes?” David Cliff, a safety expert with the University of Queensland’s Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre, said modern safety standards meant all mine workplace accidents should be preventable. “To get one or two may be an aberration,” Cliff said. “To get six is not an aberration.”
Bookmaker Paddy Power has been told to pay compensation to staff employed in its Irish betting shops after denying them rest breaks, their union has said. Mandate said workers at the company – now owned by Flutter Entertainment – were expected to deal with customers while eating their sandwiches during breaks. The union took 92 cases to the Workplace Relations Commission, resulting in the company agreeing to compensation of between €700 (£630) and €1,000 (£900) per case. At the hearing, Paddy Power defended a lack of scheduling of breaks and argued the business involves a large element of variability and requires flexibility. However, the adjudication officer found the complaint to be well founded and made the compensation awards. He concluded the employer “does not keep appropriate records to show that employees are getting the breaks to which they are entitled” under legislation. Under European Union rules, working hours are subject to workplace health and safety regulations. “Our members are delighted to see this process end with compensation of between €700-€1,000 per member for the denial of their rest breaks,” said Mandate divisional organiser Robert McNamara. “Hopefully Paddy Power and all companies ensure their workers get their basic entitlements in the future.” He said the company has confirmed it will not be appealing the ruling.
The number of black lung cases in the USA is growing at the same time funding has falling sharply for a federal programme to care for those with the disease. The debt-laden Black Lung Disability Trust Fund provides medical and financial assistance to certain miners who are totally disabled by the disease. About 25,600 people, including dependants, received black lung benefits in the 2018 financial year. A Government Accountability Office report last month concluded the trust fund’s penury is exacerbated by this year’s 55 per cent decrease in the coal tax rate, declining coal production and coal company bankruptcies. Recent research indicates “an unprecedented increase” in the most severe form of black lung disease, according to a July 2018 update from the US government’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Studies have shown longer hours, greater automation and work on less productive seams with more silica exposure are leading to the rapid development of silicosis (Risks 859), with younger miners increasingly affected by the irreversible and incurable condition. “There is extensive evidence that there is a resurgence of black lung in the United States, especially in its most severe forms,” said Robert Cohen, a physician whose posts include director of the Mining Education and Research Center at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “Outbreaks of hundreds of cases of the most severe form of the disease, with miners exhibiting large debilitating scars, known as progressive massive fibrosis, have been reported from clinics in Kentucky and southwestern Virginia,” he said. “There is also significant evidence that… the most severe disabling forms of this preventable disease are occurring in younger miners.”
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