Risks 119 - 16 August 2003

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issue no 119 - 16 August 2003

The Southern Region of the GMB, which has almost 90,000 members in workplaces throughout London, the south east and south west, has a vacancy for a Regional Education and Health and Safety Officer. Further information.

Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to Owen Tudor

Risks is the TUC’s weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 7,500 subscribers and 1,500 on the TUC website. To receive this bulletin every week, click here. Past issues are available. This edition contains Useful links TUC courses for safety reps Disclaimer and Privacy statement. The TUC website lists future health and safety events in What’s On - new events are covered below.

IIAC asbestos-related diseases review

The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC), the independent body (with TUC representatives) advising the government on the industrial injuries scheme, is to review the asbestos related 'prescribed' diseases that qualify for industrial injuries benefit payouts. IIAC says the review aims to ensure the current terms of prescription are up-to-date and to evaluate whether current scientific and medical evidence indicates a need for amendments or extensions to the current list. Any organisation or individual with new scientific and epidemiological evidence about these diseases is invited to submit it to IIAC no later than 31 December 2003. The TUC and the All-Party Group on Occupational Safety and Health pressed for the review after hearing evidence from Nancy Tait from OEDA and other asbestos victims’ groups. TUC’s Owen Tudor, who sits on the Council with Prospect’s Jenny Thurston, Amicus MSF’s Gordon Ifill and UNISON’s Hugh Robertson, said: 'we have the chance tomake further improvements to compensation for asbestos victims.' The TUC is particularly keen to see changes on lung cancer, but also points out that the main obstacle to compensating pleural plaques is that doctors often claim there is no resulting disability - Tudor adds: 'sufferers with chest pains and breathing difficulties could have a real impact by telling IIAC what pleural plaques feel like!'

  • IIAC news release. Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, Sixth floor, The Adelphi, 1 -11 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6HT. Telephone: 0207 962 8066
  • Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association
  • IIAC says it is particularly interested in receiving evidence about: (i) asbestos-related lung cancer in the absence of asbestosis and/or bilateral diffuse pleural thickening; (ii) the diagnosis of asbestosis and pleural thickening; (iii) mesothelioma and occupational asbestos exposure; (iv) the uneven uptake of mesothelioma benefits, both regionally and according to gender; (v) prescription of pleural plaques; and (vi) any occupations or diseases associated with asbestos

Row looms over working hours

Unions have given a cool response to a suggestion the government aims to keep its opt-out from the European Union wide working week ceiling of 48 hours. Tony Blair negotiated a temporary deal with the European Union in 1997, ensuring that British employers can ignore the hours limit if staff agree. However, the opt-out is up for review and the government is under pressure from unions and the EU to enshrine in law the right to a 48-hour week. As an attempted sweetener, No.10 has floated the idea of giving workers longer holidays in recompense for flexible working. Unions, however, want an end to the situation where British employees work the longest hours, have the shortest lunch breaks and fewest holidays in Europe. A survey this week by Mercer Human Resource Consulting confirmed workers in the UK have less paid holiday than employees in any other country in the EU, and have the fewest public holidays within the EU, with only eight a year. TUC revealed last week that overwork was leading to early deaths from heart disease and strokes, and was edging UK workers into the 'karoshi zone' (Risks 118). TUC general secretary Brendan Barber called for an end to 'overwork and the long hours culture.'

Some workers can't choose to refuse

Finance union UNIFI has said anyone who thinks workers are freely opting for long work hours is sadly mistaken. The union was responding to a 7 August leader in The Times that suggested prime minister Tony Blair should argue that government, the unions or Europe have 'no business stopping people working as many hours as they want to.' The article claimed there is little evidence that 'vulnerable' workers are exploited to work more than 48 hours. However, UNIFI director of communications Dai Davies said UNIFI members have little choice but to work additional hours to meet unrealistic targets. 'To do this many members work significant numbers of additional hours that are not logged by any work measurement standards, not recorded and are not paid for,' he said. 'These are not workers who ‘want’ to work all these hours, these are not workers who get paid for the additional hours, these are not workers whose hours count against any measure of total hours worked. Where do they figure in your call for a ‘freedom to choose?’' Similar pressures on finance workers in New Zealand led to an officially recognised work-related suicide (Risks 53) and widespread stress.

Aston Martin workers not swallowing 'martini shifts'

Luxury car firm Aston Martin has angered unions by trying to impose 'Martini' shifts requiring them to work 'any time, any place, anywhere'. Speaking ahead of a planned three-hour walkout on 8 August, John Street, regional official for the Transport and General Workers' Union, warned there could be longer strikes if the company refuses to negotiate. Management wants a flexible system of working that could require employees to work extra hours with a day's notice and come in occasionally on Saturdays. 'My members are telling me that they have never worked on Saturdays and see it as a day they spend with their families. They are not prepared to give it up,' said Mr Street. He said Aston Martin workers make cars that sell for between £100,000 and £165,000, but work longer hours for less money than other colleagues in the Ford luxury cars group, of which Aston Martin is now a member. They work 39 hours a week compared with an industry norm of 37, Mr Street said.

TGWU negotiators take tough line on bus hours

Bus industry pay negotiators from the Transport and General Workers Union will be taking a tough line in future talks with employers when the subject of working hours comes up. The union has issued guidance for shop stewards, convenors and local officers on the new extended regulations, which came into force on 1 August (Risks 114). Graham Stevenson, the TGWU national organiser for transport said loopholes inserted in the regulations by the government were causing problems. 'This has particular impacts in the bus industry,' he said, at the launch of the new union guidance. 'The advice, based on creating minimum standards, follows on directly from the Busworkers' Charter which we launched just a month ago' (Risks 114). The TGWU advice to negotiators makes it clear that the union is expecting them to seek collective bargaining solutions on holidays, rest breaks and maximum shift lengths.

Casino worker receives asthma payout

A GMB member who claimed he developed asthma because of passive smoking at work has won his battle for compensation. Michael Dunn was reportedly paid up to £50,000 in an out-of-court settlement by Napoleon's Casino in Leicester Square, central London, where he worked as an inspector for 14 years. Mr Dunn, who does not smoke and was a marathon runner until he developed asthma, said that constantly breathing in cigarette and cigar smoke on the gaming floor led to him getting the condition. The payout comes after a three-and-a-half year legal battle, backed by his union GMB, with the conditions that he is not allowed to speak about the case and his employers have not accepted liability. Amanda Sandford, from the anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said: 'I think it will certainly push forward the strength of the campaign for ultimately smoke-free legislation. But in the short-term I think that we'll see far more of these cases where people have been harmed by the effects of passive smoking will be seeking compensation.' A second case is already under way against Napoleon's Casino. GMB highlighted health risks to casino workers in a December 2001 report (Risks 34).

Wilting workers walk-out at over-heated hospital

Staff at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary staged a walk-out on 12 August after claiming it was too hot inside for them to work. Around 40 workers took part in the demonstration outside the £180 million hospital, which was built using the controversial private finance initiative. One protester said: 'We cannot work in this. We’re suffering from heat exhaustion and everything. We’re completely exhausted by it. We want something done now - we can’t wait any longer.' A spokesperson for health union UNISON said the walk-out, which lasted around 15 minutes, had not been organised by them. But Tom Waterson, the UNISON branch secretary, said the problem had gone unresolved for 18 months, adding: 'The whole place does not come up to standard yet the building will cost over a billion pounds by the end of the contract. Staff took an impromptu break this morning after they just got fed up with inaction on the part of the hospital management.' The over-heated situation, which has led to the HSE being called in, was further inflamed when it became known that general manager Michael Pearson had been given a new room while contractors alter his office. UNISON condemned the bosses’ first move, which it says was sparked by Mr Pearson complaining that he was too hot because he could not open his office window.

Expectant and new mums feeling the heat

UK retail union Usdaw says we are all sweltering in the record temperatures - but adds if you are working and pregnant it is 10 times worse. The union says pregnant women tolerate heat less and may more readily faint or be more liable to heat stress. It adds the risk is likely to be reduced after birth but it is not certain how quickly an improvement comes about and notes that breastfeeding can be impaired by heat dehydration. The union says 'employers have a duty to assess risks to all employees but they have to take particular account of risks to new and expectant mothers. Risks include those to the unborn child/expectant mother or a mother who is breastfeeding.' Usdaw advises: 'If this risk assessment identifies hazards that could pose a risk to you or your baby, then your employer must do all that they can to eliminate the risk or reduce it to a safe level.' If this is not possible, then the employer must take other measures to protect a pregnant worker. If no safe jobs can be found, then the worker is entitled to be suspended on full pay. 'Your employer should also regularly monitor and review any assessment made to take into account possible risks that may occur at different stages of your pregnancy,' says Usdaw.

Acas helpline hots up in the heatwave

Soaring temperatures have caused a flurry of workers and employers to call the Acas helpline for advice on 'heated' workplace issues. Director of Acas London, Jerry Gibson said: 'There have been a number of issues arising from the summer heat. Callers have been asking about maximum temperatures in the workplace and how to deal with sudden absences and lateness arising from travel disruption.' The Acas helplines are giving the following advice: 'To help the situation employers should try to improve the environment by providing, for example, fans, mobile air conditioning and cool drinks dispensers. They can also let staff take more breaks for drinks or go somewhere cooler.' A study this week suggests employers are warming to a TUC call for heatwave legislation (Risks 118). A Startups.co.uk poll of 650 employers found more than 90 per cent agreed that the government should introduce a maximum temperature above which their employees do not have to work. Fewer than one in 10 argued that offices should be occupied no matter how high the temperature.

HSE switches from investigations to prevention

A new HSE policy will mean inspectors will undertake more preventive inspections, but will investigate fewer major injuries and are under orders to finish investigations quicker, with an explicit instruction to 'conclude investigations as early as possible.' The plans are contained in new instructions HSE has sent to its inspectors. The instruction to reduce time spent on investigations is already in force throughout Britain. The whole package of changes is being piloted in the north west of England, but HSE bosses want to see it adopted nationwide. The move will mean HSE inspectors will be able to undertake more proactive, preventive inspections - something TUC, unions and safety campaigners have called for. However, the groups have also called for more resources for HSE, which has instead had to face a five per cent budget cut this year. David Bergman, director of the Centre for Corporate Accountability, said: 'This proposal raises questions about whether the HSE is adequately resourced. It is clear that the principal way for the HSE to increase the level of inspections and other preventive work is to decrease the level of investigations. Whilst increasing the level of inspections cannot be criticised, there must be worries that the HSE can only do this by decreasing the level of investigations.'

Forensic tests to protect transport staff

A train operator is to use forensic technology to deter attacks on its staff. Central Trains is the first such company in England to issue DNA testing kits to help identify abusers. Staff will be able to take DNA swabs of saliva if they are spat upon. Spitting makes up a third of the assaults on Central Trains staff and the firm hopes the move will lead to more convictions. The system has already proved successful in Scotland where two people are due in court. Central Trains spokesperson Les Bird said a new poster 'will say that if you assault our staff in any way we will prosecute you. This sort of conduct is completely unacceptable and we want to eliminate it completely.' Bus drivers’ union TGWU says the idea could be used to protect its members. It says senior officers will study the plans by Central Trains with a view to having talks with bus companies and local authorities to extend it to the bus industry. 'There can be little that is worse than being spat at,' said Graham Stevenson, the TGWU’s national organiser for transport. 'Not only does it show a lack of respect to the bus driver as a human being, it carries significant health risks. If having DNA kits can provide evidence that leads to convictions and, ultimately, reductions in attacks on bus drivers, then the industry should embrace them.'

Trolley injury payout for injured nurse

An occupational health department nurse who was badly injured when a hospital trolley collapsed has been awarded £23,000 out-of-court settlement. Hilary Horsley was working in the occupational health department at Sharoe Green Hospital in Preston at the time of the accident in November 2000. She was moving a trolley carrying an ECG machine worth several thousand pounds when a wheel fell off, and as the machine was about to plunge to the floor Ms Horsley grabbed it but injured herself in the process, tearing muscles in her neck and back and, unusually, developing severe tinnitus in her right ear. Paul Hatfield of law firm Irwin Mitchell, who represented Ms Horsley in the RCN backed case against Preston Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, said: 'The £23,000 award will cover lost income as well as meeting her medical and therapeutic costs, plus it will compensate her for her pain and suffering.' Earlier this year, health union UNISON secured a £140,000 payout for ambulance worker Norman Thurrell, who lost his job because of injuries sustained when two wheels fell of a stretcher (Risks 81).

Family calls for help to prove asbestos death link

The family of a Derby rail worker who died aged 58 from an asbestos-related disease is calling for his former work colleagues to come forward to help with a compensation claim. A Derby Coroner's Court verdict of death by industrial disease was recorded on former railway worker George Atkinson. To pursue a compensation claim against the British Railways Board the family now need to find former colleagues to confirm he worked in areas where asbestos was being used. A post mortem revealed that he died from malignant mesothelioma - an incurable asbestos-related lung disease. The diagnosis came only four days before his death. His work as a shunter for British Railways in Derby from 1965 to 1974 involved moving carriages earmarked for refurbishment by fitters in and out of sheds where asbestos was being used. Mr Atkinson’s widow, Margaret, who said her husband was known to work mates as 'Akko,' said: 'This isn't just about the compensation - it's also about making the people who worked with him aware of the fact that they could get the same disease. It took hold of him so fast. It seemed one day he was perfectly healthy and the next he was dying.'

You’re not healthy any more

A study has revealed that one in three football managers has heart trouble. The illnesses suffered in recent seasons by such high-profile managers as Gérard Houllier, Graeme Souness and Glenn Roeder were a dramatic indication of the stress of modern day football. Now a survey of more than half of the managers of the 92 professional clubs has confirmed just how bad for your health it is. The League Managers Association (LMA) study found that heart problems affected 15 of the 47 men who volunteered for testing at the Adidas Wellness Centre in Cheshire. John Barnwell, the chief executive of the LMA and a former manager, said: 'This scheme allows us to monitor their whole year and can become more of a preventive measure.' Dr Dorian Dugmore, the heart specialist who has run the 'Fit to manage' programme since it was launched a year ago, believes football managers suffer stress levels higher than their counterparts in industry because they are constantly in the public eye and in even more danger of the sack.

Canada: Strains up and work is to blame

One in every 10 Canadian adults had a repetitive strain injury (RSI) serious enough to limit their normal activities in 2000/01, according to an official study - with work hazards the most common cause. A Statistic Canada study published in Health reports shows RSIs are affecting a growing number of adults. The study found there has been a marked an increase in the prevalence of RSIs during the late 1990s. In 1996/97, 8 per cent of adults in Canada reported the problem, according to the National Population Health Survey. The proportion hit 10 per cent in 2000/01, with work-related activities most often the cause. In 2000/01, men and women were almost equally likely to report an RSI, although since 1996/97, the percentage of women sustaining such injuries rose faster than the percentage of men. For women, the increase was from 7.9 to 10.3 per cent, compared with an increase from 8.2 to 9.9 per cent for men. Just over half of RSIs sustained by men and women happened while working. For men, sports or physical exercise was the next most frequently cited activity, whereas for women, activities relating to chores, unpaid work or school ranked second. Service, manual, manufacturing and transport jobs were high risk, particularly for women in traditionally male-dominated occupations. Stressful work increased the risks, the study found.

China: At least 37 dead in mining disaster

A coal mine explosion in northern China has killed at least 37, according to state press reports. Since the blast occurred early Monday 11 August, rescuers have hauled a stream of corpses from the Datong city coal mine in northern Shanxi province, the Xinhua news agency said. As rescue efforts continued, an investigation got under way with two safety supervisors who were on duty at the time being detained for questioning. All coal mines in Datong city were ordered to suspend operations and to step up the supervision of safety rules and regulations. The disaster follows a string of accidents that have killed scores of workers at other mines throughout China in recent days. China's mines have an appalling safety record, with 3,761 deaths reported in the first six months of this year, according to the latest official figures. Most of the mining deaths - 2,798 - occurred in coal mines. Independent labour organisations say the official government figures are grossly understated, with scores of mining deaths not reported as mine owners fear paying government penalties or having their mines shut down.

France: Bus drivers strike over shorts and sunglasses

French bus drivers have announced they are going on strike over the right to wear shorts and sunglasses during the heatwave. Bus drivers in Besancon, eastern France, say they will hold a one-day strike in order to win better conditions for drivers in the heat. Trade unionist Guy Severin said: 'Driving conditions have become unbearable, the temperatures inside the buses can reach 48 degrees celcius.' As well as the right to wear cooler clothing, the trade union also wants the bus company, CTB, to fit air conditioning in the vehicles. CTB personnel chief Daniel Fourre said that during the heatwave drivers are permitted to drive with the doors open and are given a flask containing a cool drink that they could fill up at bus stations. Last week a male Swedish bus driver donned a dress to get round a shorts ban (Risks 118).

India: Oil workers strike over helicopter crash

Rescuers have found the wreckage of a helicopter that crashed off India's west coast, killing up to 27 people, as angry colleagues at the country's biggest oil company vowed a nationwide strike over safety. The helicopter chartered by state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) plunged into the sea minutes after leaving a rig in the Neelam field near Mumbai (Bombay). Only two of the 29 passengers have been recovered alive. Workers at ONGC, India's largest oil exploration company, declared an indefinite strike over the crash, accusing the company of ignoring long-standing safety concerns. ONGC produces almost 80 per cent of India's crude.

India: Global union launches shipbreaking organising project

A global union has launched an organising drive to improve standards in India’s notoriously hazardous shipbreaking industry. First tackling yards in Mumbai, the IMF (International Metalworkers’ Federation) project, 'Organising metalworkers in the shipbreaking industry in India,' will be extended to the much larger shipbreaking sites in Alang and Sosiya at a later stage. The project will use a health specialist to provide first-aid and ambulance services to workers, will assess problems and will involve local organisers. Shipbreaking in Mumbai employs around 6,000 people, mainly illiterate migrant workers from neighbouring states. IMF says there is no organisation to represent the shipbreaking workers, who fear loss of jobs or physical assault if there is any discussion about trade unions or workers' organisations.

South Africa: Union investigates crap jobs

A union health and safety inspection team has been locked out of the Beaconfield sewage plant in Kimberley, South Africa. The team of South Africa’s Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu) experts went to the plant accompanied by journalists as part of their nationwide inspection of working conditions. Samwu’s Thebe Morake said: 'The press has been blocked from visiting this plant, a very old and unmaintained plant which has no medical programme for the workers and virtually none of the legally required protective equipment. This confirms that the attitude of management of sewage plants across the country is to hide hazardous working conditions.' An earlier visit to the Rustenburg sewage plant found workers were forced to work 'knee-deep in sewage without gas masks or protective clothing,' with workers required to 'collect buckets full of human excrement without gloves, masks, or plastic or leather coverings for their cloth overalls,' Morake said.

USA: Work stress is a costly problem

Most US workers are suffering from work-related stress, and companies are paying a price too. 'Stress is increasing dramatically,' said Dr Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress (AIS), which estimates 1 million workers in the US are absent daily due to stress. 'We estimate it costs American industry $300 billion (£186.6bn) a year in terms of diminished productivity, employee turnover and insurance,' Rosch said. His institute cites a 2000 Gallup poll, Attitudes in the American workplace, that found that 80 per cent of workers feel stress on the job and nearly half say they need help coping with it. An International Labour Organisation study showed that Americans worked the equivalent of an extra 40-hour week in 2000 compared to 10 years before. Americans work almost a month longer than the Japanese and three months more than Germans, it said. Latest official figures show US employers are squeezing even more work out of their over-stretched workforce, which is frequently stressed to the eyeballs by the workplace commute before anyone even enters the workplace. A report last week from Hazards magazine concluded workers in the US and elsewhere are now 'entering the karoshi zone,' with work hours pressures now so high workers are dropping dead as a result.

USA: Unions cut costs, grief and injuries says motor giant

A union drive for safer car production at General Motors (GM) has led to a greatly improved safety record and better industrial relations - and massive cash savings for the company. The United Auto Workers union (UAW) says the Detroit-based automaker has among the lowest number of workdays lost to injury among major automakers in the US. Safety gains in the past decade have helped GM reduce annual costs by at least $153 million (£95m) said Sean McAlinden, an economist at the Center for Automotive Research. And all of this is leading to more harmony at the firm. Richard Block, a Michigan State University labor relations professor, commented: 'In labour relations, safety is always a good place to start. You can build from that.'' The improvements came after the automaker approached companies with better safety records and asked them what they would change if they had the chance to start again from scratch. 'They said, ‘we would've got our unions involved earlier,''' said Mike White, GM’s assistant director of occupational health and safety. Earlier this year, a GM plant medical director admitted union rep involvement in rehabilitation efforts had led to a dramatic improvement in identifying and remedying health and safety problems (Risks 102).

Only newly announced events, events next week and very important events will be listed here in future. But there is a comprehensive listing of health and safety events on the TUC website - bookmark it for easy reference!

TUC courses for safety reps


Midlands, North, North West, Scotland, South East, South West, Wales, Yorkshire and Humberside

Hazards Conference, 5-7 September

The Hazards Conference will be in London. Margaret Sharkey at the London Hazards Centre is the coordinator of the London end of the organisation. You can contact her via e-mail at margaret@lhc.org.uk or on 020 7794 5999.

Asbestos and the law conference, Liverpool, 16 September

Merseyside Asbestos of Victims Support Group is organising an 'Asbestos and the law' conference, to take place in Liverpool on 16 September 2003. Speakers include UK and international medical and legal experts.

  • Further details and application form. Other enquiries to Merseyside Asbestos of Victims Support Group, Unit 3, Oriel Close, Water Street, Liverpool, L2 8UQ (marked 'asbestos conference')

European Week for Health and Safety at Work, 13-19 October

The theme for the Week in 2003 will be ‘dangerous substances’ (EU Agency press release). The TUC will be stressing the hierarchy of control, and especially the need for substitutes and general toxic use reduction strategies. Key hazards dealt with will include asbestos, asthmagens and solvents. The HSE’s Euroweek action pack can be ordered online at HSE’s Euroweek website or by calling 0800 085 0050, and the European Agency website has resources and background information too. Future years’ themes have also now been decided.

Corporate safety crimes conference, Glasgow, 23 October

Ministers from the Scottish Executive and Westminster, Crown Office officials, trade unions, employer organisations, the Health and Safety Executive, lawyers, academics and bereaved families will be among the speakers at a Centre for Corporate Accountability 'Safety and corporate criminal accountability' conference in Glasgow on Thursday, 23 October 2003. CCA says it is Scotland’s first major conference on the issue.

Visit the TUC http://www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/ website pages on health and safety. See what’s on offer from TUC Publications and What’s On in health and safety.

Subscribe to Hazards magazine, supported by the TUC as a key source of information for union safety reps.

What’s new in the HSC/E and the European Agency.

HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2WA. Tel: 01787 881165; fax: 01787 313995.

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