Risks 185 - 4 December 2004

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issue no 185 - 4 December 2004

Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at healthandsafety@tuc.org.uk

Risks is the TUC’s weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 10,000 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.

WSA up? Money for worker safety advisers

The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) is calling for second round bids from the Worker Safety Adviser (WSA) Challenge Fund. It says applicants 'must demonstrate a commitment to improve health and safety, support the work of a WSA to promote worker involvement and demonstrate the vitality of the partnerships they have established to achieve this aim.' HSC chair Bill Callaghan said: 'We have already seen enterprising projects having an impact, making worker involvement in health and safety happen.' He added: 'Increasing worker involvement has been shown to improve health and safety performance and is a key part of HSC's strategy' (Risks 148). The maximum grant available in this round is £200,000 spread over two years - £100,000 for April 2005-March 2006 followed by a further £100,000 for April 2006 to March 2007. Up to £1 million pounds is available for each year. HSC partnerships applying for funding can include workers, trade unions, trade associations, local authorities, voluntary organisations, chambers of commerce and professional bodies. Award winners will be announced in March 2004, with funding commencing on 1 April 2005. The TUC is encouraging unions to make bids to the fund - the great majority of successful bids to the first round were union-led. It adds that union safety reps have now proven the system works, so the government should now give unions the right to appoint roving safety reps and spread the benefit.

  • Online WSA application form. Completed and signed application forms should be sent to: Les Johnson Business Support Services, Project North East, 7-15 Pink Lane, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 5DW, to reach him by Friday 21 January 2005.

Put directors in the dock over workplace casualties

Top trade unionists are promoting a private member's bill that would hold individual directors to account for workplace casualties. Following the failure to include directors' duties in the framework for the draft bill on corporate manslaughter that was announced in the November Queen's Speech (Risks 184), the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) have joined forces to press for a tough new law. The latest phase of the campaign was launched with a 2 December House of Commons lobby of MPs. TGWU and UCATT said under their Health and Safety (Directors' Duties) Bill there would be the prospect of custodial sentences for directors where serious health and safety breaches or negligence results in death. Tony Woodley, TGWU general secretary, said: 'The law has to support victims of health and safety negligence, not protect the bosses whose recklessness kills. Workers are losing their lives and it is only right that companies are held accountable for safety in the same way they are for financial impropriety.' Alan Ritchie, UCATT general secretary, said: 'My union believes that it is vital to have in place strong legislation to protect workers, ensuring that negligent employers, corporations and individual directors can be brought to justice as a direct result of their actions.'

TUC wants workplace HIV policies

The TUC wants employers to introduce clear and effective HIV and AIDS policies in the workplace. With the support of the National Aids Trust, TUC has published new advice, 'Dealing with HIV and AIDS in the workplace', on its Worksmart website. The launch came ahead of the 1 December World AIDS Day. The new online guide shows how to break down existing prejudices about people with HIV at work, how an HIV and AIDS policy can be incorporated into existing policies, the law, and guidance for occupational health workers. Latest figures from the Health Protection Agency show that 53,000 people in Britain are living with HIV. Most are of working age and improvements in drugs and therapies mean they are able to live and work much longer than ever before. TUC says, however, that discrimination and prejudice surrounding HIV and AIDS means many people are reluctant to disclose their HIV status to their employer for fear of being ostracised or sacked. Frances O’Grady, TUC deputy general secretary, said: 'With a year on year increase in the numbers of people with HIV and with the majority of those of working age there is no room for complacency among employers. That is why the TUC is demanding that an HIV and AIDS policy is adopted in all workplaces.'

Daughter’s call for action on asbestos risks

The daughter of a South West Trains driver who has died of a fatal cancer caused by exposure to asbestos in the works mess room has hit out at those who ignored the warnings of danger from her dad and other work colleagues. Sharon Reed-Evans, daughter of Ray Reed, who worked out of the Guildford depot said: 'My dad would be alive today and loving life as he always did if someone had listened to his warnings. My dad's exposure was minute in comparison to some you hear of who lagged with the stuff or chipped it off pipework. All he did was brush past the asbestos which was exposed on a boiler in the mess room but that was enough to kill him. Through ignorance or arrogance of those to whom he repeatedly complained he died a painful and premature death.' She added: 'The death of my dad proves that even a tiny bit of asbestos was and is a killer. It is a warning to us all. No one should touch asbestos or put up with it in any form at their workplace.' Solicitor Clare Mellor, who is pursuing a compensation case for the family with backing from ASLEF, said: 'Liability has been admitted in the case and whilst nothing can bring Ray back we are hoping to conclude it as quickly as possible to get proper compensation for Mr Reed's family.'

Mapping out solutions to workplace slips and trips

Retail union Usdaw is urging its safety reps to use risk maps to tackle the problem of workplace slips and trips, which account for a third of all reported major injuries. The union says its safety reps can use risk mapping to involve members in identifying problems and hazards in the workplace using their knowledge and experience. Its short guide tells reps to sketch an outline of the workplace and mark with crosses the location of all the slips and trips reported recently. It adds that reps should talk to members to identify any 'near misses' and add them to the risk map. 'Find out from members what is causing people to slip or trip in that area. Any 'hotspots' will quickly show up on the chart,' it says. The guide says once the problems and their causes have been identified, safety reps should: Discuss them with management; decide what action needs to be taken; continue to monitor to ensure control measures put in place are working; and make sure improvements are communicated to members to show what the union has achieved.

STUC dismay as Stockline injured face xmas hardship

The decision by Stockline to end enhanced sick pay to those injured in the Maryhill explosion in May has dismayed unions. Nine workers died in the tragedy at the Stockline-owned ICL Plastics factory (Risks 156). Scottish union federation STUC says the move to withdraw their enhanced sick pay arrangements will coincide with the end of the workers’ entitlement to statutory sick pay. STUC safety specialist Ian Tasker said: 'It is staggering that over seven months have passed since the tragedy and the company have made no effort to engage with workers on a personal basis. They rely on sporadic written communication to enquire about the health and welfare of those most directly affected by the events of 11 May.' He added that the company should make sure it uses available funds to assist workers. 'We would suggest that the directors of ICL Plastics should consider utilising any remaining funds in their own Hopehill Trust to make ex-gratia payments to those who continue to suffer ill health and injury following this disaster. We would also urge workers facing additional hardship during the Christmas period to make application for grants to the Grovepark Fund to which the people of Glasgow and further a field have so generously contributed.'

Fire control centre cuts will 'put lives at risk'

The leader the firefighters’ union FBU had condemned plans to merge fire control rooms in the East Anglia. FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist has said the move is 'unnecessary' and 'irresponsible.' Speaking at a press conference in the county, he said the government’s plans would see the end of county emergency fire control rooms in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. 'This is absolutely unnecessary and irresponsible,' he said. 'I believe this will badly affect the safety of firefighters and the public of East Anglia.' FBU says last month’s computer crash at the Department of Work and Pensions 'shows the folly of the government plans to axe all existing emergency fire control rooms.' Gilchrist added: 'The move will make the fire brigade 999 service far more prone to catastrophic failure, putting lives at risk. If you rely on a single computer and communications system for fire controls and axe almost all the back-up controls, you are heading for disaster.' A spokesperson from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said the setting up of regional fire control centres would create a better, more efficient fire and rescue service that saved more lives.

RMT calls for zero tolerance of attacks on rail staff

Rail union RMT has renewed its call for positive action to prevent attacks on railway staff. As a major 'Hands off our staff' publicity campaign was launched by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'We welcome this campaign and any positive initiative to stem the rising tide of physical and verbal assaults our members have to endure. We need a zero tolerance policy from all rail employers, and a properly resourced and responsive transport police.' He added 'we also need adequate uniformed staff on every station all the time they are open and properly trained guards on all trains. Our members should have the right to work in safety, just as members of the public should feel secure when using trains, particularly late at night.' Another rail union, TSSA, also welcomed the campaign. General secretary Gerry Doherty said: 'We welcome any move to protect rail staff, who often bear the brunt of the public's frustration with poor services on the railway. Even the threat of violence can be a source of considerable stress for these staff, as our research has shown.'

Call for global accountability for UK firms

British companies whose serious negligence causes deaths abroad will not be brought to account under the provisions of a draft manslaughter bill due to be published this month (Risks 184). The Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA) says the government is planning to restrict the application of its new offence of corporate manslaughter so that it only applies to companies that cause death in Britain. Writing to the Home Secretary on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, CCA urged Mr Blunkett to reconsider the government's position. CCA director David Bergman said: 'Unless the British government changes its current position, if a Bhopal disaster happened after the new manslaughter bill becomes law, and the company responsible was a British company, it could not be prosecuted for manslaughter, even if the deaths were the result of very serious failures on the part of the company, and even if the policies and decisions were made in England and Wales.' He added: 'By operating outside Britain, British companies should not be able to abandon all health and safety standards and cause deaths with impunity.' Many major British multinationals have been linked to workplace deaths in their overseas operations, including RTZ, Cape, Thor Chemicals and BP.

Back to work is working says minister

Twice as many people on incapacity benefit return to work when they have access to the government’s pilot 'Pathways to Work' schemes, according to a new report. The research, published a year after the first pilots were launched (Risks 130), concludes the package of financial and rehabilitation support coordinated by trained Jobcentre Plus personal advisers is paying off. Work and pensions secretary Alan Johnson said: 'Nine out of ten people expect to work again when they first claim incapacity benefits. Our Pathways to Work pilots are helping sick and disabled people to manage their conditions, fulfil their aspirations and move off benefit and into work. Thanks to Pathways to Work people are swapping sick notes for payslips and getting a salary rather than a benefit. That's good news for them and for society.' DWP says the seven pilots to help people on incapacity benefits into work have achieved early success with double the number of people getting jobs through Jobcentre Plus compared to last year and an 8-10 per cent increase in the rate of people coming off incapacity benefits after four months of their claim compared to non-pilot areas.

Work environment linked to rheumatism job loss

A change in working conditions may help adults with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) stay in work, preliminary research suggests. The survey of nearly 600 adults with the condition found that certain work-related factors, such as whether workers received ergonomic adjustments to their workstations or had a difficult commute to work, affected their ability to stay on the job. People whose personal work space was modified to make them more comfortable were 60 per cent less likely to currently be away from work, compared with those who reported no such workstation adjustments. Adaptations included, for example, a change in the position of a computer keyboard, or a footstool added to a person's desk area. Dr Diane Lacaille of the Arthritis Research Centre of Canada and colleagues concluded that discovering the modifiable factors that determine RA patients' ability to stay on the job is important because the condition often strikes in middle-age or earlier, frequently in the prime of a person's working life. Of all these factors, work space modifications would be the easiest to tackle, Lacaille said. She noted that some changes, such as providing a footstool for a desk worker's feet or using books to raise a computer screen to eye level, 'can be quite easy and not expensive.'

Job exposure to pesticide linked to lung cancer

Workers exposed to the pesticide chlorpyrifos may have an elevated risk of lung cancer, according to a report from US government researchers. Scientists at the National Cancer Institute found that among the more than 54,000 farmers and insecticide applicators they followed for six years, those with the highest chlorpyrifos exposure had twice the risk of developing lung cancer as those who did not work with the pesticide. Those in the highest exposure group had worked with the chemical an average of 224 days over their lives. The findings are reported in the 1 December issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The study found that while exposed and unexposed workers had a similar risk of developing cancer in general, lung cancer risk was higher among those who had worked with the pesticide. The link held after the researchers weighed other factors, such as age, smoking, family history of cancer, and other on-the-job exposures.

  • Won Jin Lee, Aaron Blair and others. Cancer incidence among pesticide applicators exposed to chlorpyrifos in the Agricultural Health Study, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, volume 96, pages 1781-1789, 2004 [abstract]. Newsday. Reuters Health.

Commuters 'more stressed than pilots'

Commuters can experience greater stress than fighter pilots going into battle or riot policemen, a study has found. Many workers feel extreme pressure when their journey to work goes wrong, said psychologist Dr David Lewis, who carried out the research. While fighter pilots or police officers feel stress, they have the advantage of being in relative control of their situation. Dr Lewis, who is a fellow of the International Stress Management Association, analysed the heart rate and blood pressure of pilots in flight simulators and police officers in training exercises. The readings were then compared with those from 125 volunteers who have had their stress levels monitored while commuting over the past five years. 'It's a bit extreme to say people are actually damaging themselves - we don't know that,' said Dr Lewis. 'But they are certainly not benefiting from it. At best it's a dismal experience; at worst it may well have health consequences.' He added: 'We have measured a systolic pressure in the region of 170-180 in some people. These have been occasions when the person we've been monitoring has lost their temper and had a serious row. And under those circumstances you can have a heart attack.' Lack of control has been identified as a major cause of workplace stress, leading to higher sickness rates and a greater risk of heart disease.

Staff monitoring is on the increase

Office workers could face an explosion in workplace monitoring, scrutiny and micro-management, according to a new report. Supply chain technology developed for monitoring goods is now being applied to individuals instead of products, warns research from the London School of Economics (LSE). The report, The future role of trust in work, is based on a long-term 'Tomorrow’s world' study initiated by the LSE and software giant Microsoft in October 2003. It argues that outdated command and control management culture is causing managers to misuse technology, over-scrutinising worker performance. Carsten Sørensen from the LSE said that British business needed to find new ways of managing people in the face of the changing technologies at work. Ian Brinkley, head of the economic and social affairs department at the TUC, said that workers were becoming unhappy with levels of control. 'Recent research from the ESRC [Economic and Social Research Council] found that job satisfaction has fallen over the past 10 years because employees feel that they have more and more people looking over their shoulder. We need to rebuild trust, share risk and move to more partnership in the workforce.' Health studies have shown monitored workers produce less and are more likely to suffer from stress, depression and strain injuries.

Zoo fined after worker is killed by elephant

The mother of a zoo worker who died after he was struck by an elephant said she was 'very pleased' after his employer was fined £25,000. Professor Gordon Reid, director of Chester Zoo, admitted at Chester Crown Court to breaching health and safety regulations in connection with the death of elephant keeper Richard Hughes. The 34-year-old died in February 2001 after he was struck several times by female elephant Kumara, who had a history of violence (Risks 116). Judge Roger Dutton fined The North of England Zoological Society, which runs the zoo, £25,000 and ordered the zoo to pay a further £50,000 costs. Speaking outside court, Mr Hughes’s mother Irene said: 'We are very pleased with the result. As far as we are concerned they have held their hands up. We are just sorry it took Richard’s death for them to realise their failings.' The court heard that Mr Hughes had raised his own concerns in a self-assessment form in 2000 in which he wrote 'more attention should be paid to the worries and concerns of elephant staff over safety.' This is at least the third elephant related fatality in the UK in the last five years. Keepers at London Zoo and Port Lympne Wildlife Park have also died.

Australia: 'Abominable' banker earns union wrath

An Australian banker pocketing $4.5 million (£1.81m) each year and who thinks dangerous bosses shouldn’t face jail has been condemned by unions. Commonwealth Bank CEO David Murray launched a blistering attack on New South Wales’ health and safety regime, describing proposed jail sentences as 'absolutely abominable.' He added that the existing system that allows successful prosecutors to recoup costs in safety cases was 'corrupt.' Under state law, unions in NSW have since the 1940s been able to charge employers with health and safety offences. Research by Unions NSW found over the last 20 years the 'moiety' paid to unions who brought successful occupational health and safety actions amounted to less than Murray's salary for one year. One reason for Murray’s disquiet may be that unions have put banks in the firing line, with the Finance Sector Union launching a number of successful actions against banks who had failed to take adequate security measures to reduce the risk of robbery. Murray's Commonwealth Bank recently pleaded guilty to a safety offence and faces at least three other counts. Unions NSW secretary John Robertson said Murray's aggressive attack only underlines how useful the threat of jail time will be in changing executive behaviour. 'The issue for banks is that there have been several successful prosecutions under safety laws against banks whose failure to invest in security has allowed bank robberies to occur, causing injury to staff.' Robertson said he was unaware of a single complaint about any union having abused the right to launch a health and safety prosecutions.

Canada: Women’s work worse than records show

Injury statistics do not provide a complete picture of the occupational hazards experienced by women in the workplace, according to a report in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Canadian researchers Peter Smith and Cameron Mustard compared injury rates between genders within different occupations and found 'some concerning patterns,' especially among women working in jobs with high physical demands. The study looked at lost-time compensation claims in Ontario among major industry groups for the years 1990 to 2000. 'Our analysis suggests that more than half of the difference in injury rates between women and men can be attributed to the types of jobs they performed and the industry group in which they worked - for example manufacturing, health services or retail trade,' said Peter Smith. 'When we look at women who are doing the same jobs with similar physical demands as their male colleagues, they have rates of injury as high as or sometimes higher than their male colleagues. This is possibly because the job equipment and personal safety equipment are designed to fit the average man.' Smith concluded: 'Employers should consider strategies such as job rotation in addition to adjustable machinery and safety equipment that fits women as a way to decrease the risk of non-traumatic and traumatic injury among women in physically demanding jobs.'

Canada: Safe needles laws spread further

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Canada is applauding a commitment from the provincial government in Manitoba to convert from conventional to safety-engineered medical sharps devices. 'Legislation is absolutely vital to protect the workers and people of Manitoba from these potentially deadly injuries,' said Sharleen Stewart, Canadian international vice-president with SEIU. 'We must have mandatory use of safety-engineered devices in every workplace - anything less will give us less.' Ted Mansell, SEIU Canada's health and safety coordinator, points to the legislation in the US, as well as an announcement made by the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan last month, as a model (Risks 182). 'Both of those jurisdictions have realised that in order to avoid a patchwork of protection, the conversion must be done across the board,' he said. 'If not, we will have some workers protected, others not protected and the on-going threat of used needles in public spaces.'

China: Global bid to improve deadly mines

A global deal aimed at improving the health and safety of China’s mining industry was signed this week in Beijing. The agreement comes in the week that China suffered its worst coal mine disaster in recent history, with 166 confirmed dead. The new Memorandum of Understanding was reached between the 20-million-member ICEM - the leading global union federation in mining - and seven other parties, including the UN’s International Labour Office (ILO). The agreement will pave the way for technical cooperation between ICEM, industry body the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) and ILO with the Chinese mining industry in order to improve safety and health across all mining sectors in China. 'The ICEM together with its 140 mining affiliates in 78 countries is now poised to assist the Chinese government, mining enterprises across China, as well as our trade union counterparts in China on safety and health,' said ICEM general secretary Fred Higgs. 'We feel the collective experience of our trade union affiliates in cooperation with the ILO and ICMM representing the mining houses of the world can and will play a pivotal role in safeguarding the lives of Chinese miners.' China produces 35 per cent of the world’s coal, yet has recorded 80 per cent of all workplace fatalities in coal mining worldwide. The latest tragedy killed 166 died in a fire in Tongchuan on Sunday 28 November. Press reports allege some miners had been forced back to work under threat of fines or suspension during a fire earlier in the week.

Europe: Unions call for action on paint solvent hazards

Construction unions from across Europe have called for urgent action to protect workers from brain damage and other hazards from solvent based paints. A conference organised by the Danish Painters’ Union brought together top expert and representatives of trade unions from 10 European countries, the Nordic Federation of Building and Wood Workers (NFBWW) and the European Federation of Building and Wood Workers (EFBWW). Delegates heard that several European countries are not aware of or do not recognise all the harmful effects of organic solvents, including 'organic psycho syndrome,' also known as solvent dementia or toxic encephalopathy. Replacement of solvent based paints with water based paints is a straightforward way to improve painters’ health, the conference was told. Delegates agreed there must be Europe-wide action on solvent hazards, preferably backed up by legislation. Since 1976, workers in Denmark have been able to claim government compensation for 'solvent dementia.' Unions in the UK have won compensation for a number of workers with related conditions. Hazards magazine reports that Amicus (AEEU) member Tony Bradshaw was awarded £280,000 after developing cerebellar ataxia caused by workplace solvent exposure. UCATT member Gordon McIvor got £100,000 after solvent injuries led to his retirement.

  • BAT Cartel. Hazards guides: 'Solvents do your brains in' [pdf] and 'Pound for pound' compensation page [pdf].

Global: Clouds of injustice hang over Bhopal

The failure of the Indian government and an American corporation to tackle the after-effects of one of the worst industrial accidents in history has left a legacy of continuing pollution and inadequate medical care for survivors, according to an Amnesty International report. Released in the week of the 3 December 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster in India, the group says survivors are still desperately in need of medical treatment and have not been properly compensated. It adds that neither the Indian government nor Union Carbide, now part of Dow (Risks 179), have done enough to provide proper redress for the victims or to clean up the site. The report confirms survivors' claims that far more died in the immediate aftermath of the gas leak than the figure of 2,000 claimed by the Madhya Pradesh state government. Amnesty concludes that 7,000 died in the immediate aftermath, and 15,000 more have died of related diseases since 1984. It reveals that 100,000 people still suffer from chronic or debilitating illnesses. The report says Union Carbide 'did not apply the same standards of safety in design or operations to Bhopal as it had in place in the USA. Unlike in the USA, the company failed to set up any comprehensive emergency plan or system in Bhopal to warn local communities about leaks.'

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