Risks 198 - 12 March 2005

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issue no 198 - 12 March 2005

Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at [email protected].

Risks is the TUC’s weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 10,500 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.

Directors’ duties bill dies of apathy

A union-backed bill that would have placed explicit duties on company directors for health and safety in their companies (Risks 197) and that was debated in the House of Commons last week has failed after too few MPs turned up to give it any chance of progressing. Labour MP Stephen Hepburn’s private member’s bill received all 28 votes cast, but fell at its second reading because a bill must have 40 votes to proceed. Health and safety minister Jane Kennedy told the 4 March debate: 'We accept and recognise that a change in the law as proposed in the Bill may well assist prosecutions of errant directors of large companies. However, it is far from clear what improvements in health and safety would result from the proposed changes.' She added: ' The government are not able to support the Bill, but neither shall we oppose it.' Commenting on the fall of the Health and Safety (Directors' Duties) Bill, Jack Dromey, TGWU deputy general secretary, said workers and their families 'had been failed again', and said: 'We won the argument and the vote but we are extremely disappointed that parliament did not provide the leadership this important issue deserves. Parliament and government are wrong to duck their responsibilities.' He added: 'This campaign has given us the platform to press for the inclusion of directors' duties in the forthcoming draft bill on corporate manslaughter, which must not be delayed any further.' TUC general secretary Brendan Barber echoed the TGWU comments: 'It is disappointing that this bill failed, it was a real opportunity to ensure directors take greater responsibility for accidents and injuries that happen in their workplaces. Only the negligent had anything to fear from this sensible Bill. Directors' duties towards the safety of their staff should be set out in the forthcoming draft bill on corporate manslaughter.'

Ban smoking now but help staff stub it out

The TUC is calling on bosses not to wait until a smoking ban forces them to banish tobacco, but to act today. The call on employers to protect the health of their staff came on 9 March, National No Smoking Day. It followed new research suggesting that two employees die every working day as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke at work (Risks 197). The TUC says that most public places are also workplaces, and people employed in pubs, bars and restaurants are often working in smoky environments, increasing the risk of them becoming ill or dying. It adds that any employers considering banning smoking at work should consult with staff and unions when making the workplace a smoke-free environment. The union body want companies not to stigmatise smokers, but to help them by running smoking cessation classes or offering free or subsidised nicotine replacement therapies. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Every day we allow smoking to continue where people have to work, we are condemning more hospitality workers to a premature death.' He added that smoking bans must be introduced sensitively. 'Around 70 per cent of smokers say they want to give up, so it makes sense for employers to try to help their employees to quit, rather than just simply forcing them to huddle outside on the pavement every time they fancy a smoke.' Safety officers’ organisation IOSH this week called on the government to implement a total ban on smoking in the workplace.

TUC’s two step on women and work hazards

The TUC wants to know what’s happening on women’s health and safety in the workplace. Its women’s health and safety working group is focussing on measures to ensure a gender-sensitive approach to occupational health and safety and equal rights to protection for all workers. To do this it has devised a two step plan. Step one is asking trade union safety reps about their experiences, good practice and successes on women’s health and safety and related issues. The group says it would like to hear particularly from women safety reps - but also from men. As well as finding out why they took the safety rep job and continue to do it, TUC wants to hear what works well when recruiting women safety reps. And it doesn’t want just the success stories, it want to hear about problems encountered too. Step two is the creation of an electronic network to raise awareness and share information on gender and health and safety.

  • Safety reps can send details of their experiences to the group coordinator, Hope Daley, national health and safety officer, UNISON, 1 Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9AJ.
  • New resource: The European Agency has revised its women and health at work resources, including an A-Z on related materials, links to practical information about working women and the hazards they may face and details of research and information about workplace strategies.

Rail unions go public on risks of privatisation

London Underground unions have called for an end to private sector involvement in the Tube after leaked documents confirmed the private sector is failing to deliver promised improvements through the Public Private Partnership system (PPP). 'The only winners from the PPP are the contractors who are pocketing £2 million a week in profits at our expense,' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said. 'Several reports have already shown that privatising work on the Tube infrastructure has brought nothing but delays, excuses and increasing safety concerns. How many more do we need before the government accepts that the PPP is not the solution but a growing part of the problem?' TSSA assistant general secretary Manuel Cortes said last month, after Tube boss Tim O’Toole admitted that PPP was failing to deliver improvements, that under privatisation passengers' needs would always come after profit. RMT members will be demonstrating nationwide between April 16 and April 30 to highlight the case for public ownership of railways and an end to the PPP.

ASLEF call for massive investment in rail safety

Train drivers’ union ASLEF is calling for a massive investment in rail safety. Acting general secretary Keith Norman said he wants to see technology used to allow drivers to 'see' obstructions on the line through cab computer screens. 'The technology exists to enable transponders to be placed on rails that can ‘read’ an obstruction on the track,' he said. 'It is in use in the USA, and its introduction is vital if we are to avoid future unnecessary rail disasters. Accidents of the type that killed one of our members this year when a car was parked on an unmanned level crossing (Risks 182) can be made a thing of the past. It is criminal irresponsibility to ignore available technology.' He said that last year the number of prosecutions linked to rail safety doubled, and total fines for rail firms exceeded half a million pounds for the first time. 'The Old Bailey trial over the Hatfield rail disaster shows clearly that ever since rail privatisation, no one has taken responsibility for rail safety,' he added (Risks 190). The trial heard this week that the Hatfield train crash could have been prevented if safety standards had been followed. David Ventry, Railtrack's head of track at the time of the accident, said guidelines were correct and in place. He said if the standards had been followed 'in my opinion the crash would not have occurred.' He was giving evidence in the trial of five other rail executives who deny manslaughter charges over the October 2000 crash, which killed four people.

HSE not as free with information as hoped

Britain’s official health and safety watchdog has refused one in seven (14 per cent) of the applications it has received for information since a new freedom of information act took effect on 1 January. The Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA) says that in the two months after the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules were introduced a further 15 per cent of applications to the Health and Safety Commission/Executive (HSC/E) resulted in only partial disclosure. There has only been full disclosure in a third of cases (34 per cent). In the period up to 8 March, HSC/E dealt with and completed 842 applications for information under the Act. These figures do not include applications dealt with and completed under the Data Protection Act (DPA), which totalled 398. The people who are making the most applications are solicitors - 916 out of the total 1,566 FOIA and DPA requests made. The general public have made 181 requests and special interest groups have made 30. Journalists have only made 23 requests, and MPs only two. CCA director David Bergman commented: 'The CCA is finding the new FOIA an important tool in making enforcement bodies like the HSE more transparent. It certainly has its limits but we want to encourage people to make requests when they want information. It is extremely easy, all you have to do is phone or send an email.'

Leaked report suggests new UK hours opt-out challenge

Britain’s opt-out from Europe’s 48-hour working week ceiling could be once again under threat. The Financial Times says it has obtained copies of a leaked report, suggesting the European Commission is going to press the UK to come into line with European law. The report to the European parliament's employment and social affairs committee is expected to call for an end to the opt-out, which allows employers to ask staff to work an average of more than 48 hours a week. The Financial Times reported last week that it had seen a working draft of the report, by Alejandro Cercas, the Spanish socialist MEP, which said that opt-out provisions 'should be abolished when the revised directive comes into place'. Its findings conflict with European Commission proposals, which recommended that the opt-out be retained but under stricter conditions (Risks 175). According to the Financial Times, Mr Cercas’ draft report says the opt-out poses 'a serious risk to workers' health and safety' and should be phased out by 2010. Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, backed the call for an end to the opt-out. He said: 'More than 4 million people in Britain still work over 48 hours a week and one in five UK workers work more than 60 hours a week yet we know that working excessive hours is bad for workers' health, their family life and it is bad for business.' The TUC has been at the forefront of the campaign for an end to the UK opt-out.

HSE backs kerb action to curb bad backs

New guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) aims to tackle the injuries and chronic musculoskeletal problems experienced by kerb-laying workers. ‘Handling kerbs: Reducing the risks of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)’ was developed in consultation with the industry’s Kerbs Forum and gives advice on controlling the risks associated with the manual handling of kerbs. HSE says it wants to help more companies to comply with their legal duties under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992. Richard Boland from the HSE’s construction sector group said: 'The project has been a success and we are now close to our goal, to make mechanical handling of heavy kerb products the industry norm.' During March 2005 HSE is carrying out a nationwide blitz of construction sites across Great Britain to tackle serious work-related ill-health. During the ‘Healthy Handling 2005’ drive HSE inspectors will focus on reducing risk from manual handling, dermatitis, cement burns, excessive noise, and hand arm vibration. Statistics for manual handling in construction show that around 90,000 workers suffered musculoskeletal injuries during 2000/01, which is double the all-industry average. A typical kerbstone weighs around 67kg, about the weight of the average man.

  • HSE news releases on the kerbs guidance and the construction blitz. HSE Handling kerbs: Reducing the risks of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), Construction Information Sheet No 57 [pdf].

Better risk management equals lower costs

Improved risk management in the workplace is helping to contain employers’ liability insurance costs for many businesses, according to an Association of British Insurers (ABI) survey of its member companies. ABI says the rate of the average liability premium has 'fallen significantly' compared with two years ago. Average rate rises now reflect the level of personal injury claims inflation. 'There are encouraging signs that the painful but necessary premium increases of the last couple of years and better risk management are starting to ease the pressure on the liability insurance market,' said Nick Starling, the ABI’s director of general insurance. 'Firms that manage their risks effectively will face lower insurance costs.' Calling for a shake-up of the workplace compensation system, he said: 'Reform of workplace compensation will help ensure a competitive liability insurance market. We need a cost-effective, streamlined system to ensure that fair compensation gets to the right people as quickly as possible. This is why we continue to press for better use of rehabilitation, and alternative ways of paying for long-tail occupational disease claims.' ABI says the total bill paid by UK insurers for all personal injury claims in 2003 was £8.5 billion.

Factory produces over 100 asbestos claims

Hundreds of former employees of a south Wales factory are taking legal action after developing asbestos-related illnesses. More than 100 people who worked at the Dunlop Semtex factory in Brynmawr have been awarded compensation, with payouts ranging from £5,000 to £36,000. The factory, now demolished, made pipe lagging, floor tiles and carpet underlay and used asbestos to make them fire-resistant. Insurance firm Zurich, which is handling claims on behalf of Dunlop Semtex, has said it is trying to settle claims as quickly as possible. Dr Philip Edben, a chest consultant at Swansea's Singleton Hospital said: 'We expect to see these (cases) rising over the next 20 years. The reason is that it can take up to 30 or 40 years to develop the problem. Many of these workers were exposed that time ago.'

Plight of asbestos cancer victims 'ignored'

People suffering from a cancer caused by asbestos exposure are being neglected, campaigners say. The British Lung Foundation (BLF) says the asbestos cancer mesothelioma kills 1,800 people a year - more than cervical cancer - but there is no cure and treatment only relieves the symptoms. A BLF conference this week heard demands for more government investment in research and for improved access to compensation. BLF chief executive Dame Helena Shovelton said she wanted the conference to 'put mesothelioma on the map.' She said: 'Mesothelioma is a particularly cruel disease because sufferers simply contract it through their choice of job, where they live, who they live with or in some way they could never have known about.' She added: 'The government needs to make it more of a priority, it was hardly mentioned in the 2000 Cancer Plan and victims are basically told there is nothing that can be done for them.' Liz Darlison, of support group Mesothelioma UK, said one of the problems was that not many health professionals were fully aware of the disease. 'The government needs to take a two-pronged approach towards mesothelioma - improve the current treatments available and offer proper compensation,' she added. A Department of Health spokesperson said ministers had set up a lung cancer advisory group to help improve the delivery of services. She added that a subgroup set up to look at this type of cancer will make its initial report to the wider advisory group in April. The number of mesothelioma cases is expected to continue rising for at least a decade.

Six figure payout for life-ruining fall

A Teesside dad who suffered years of agony and depression after falling from a work ladder has won a six-figure settlement for his injuries after refusing an original offer of just £18,000. Robert Cowley 47, from Billingham, has been unable to work since the 10 foot fall at a construction site in northern France in October 1999. The hod carrier, who was working for Bedford-based building contractors Irvine Whitlock Ltd, was knocked unconscious and admitted to hospital before being discharged the next day, making his own way home in considerable pain. Other Irvine Whitlock employees at the site had previously raised concerns about the safety of ladders, yet nothing was done, he said. He suffered head and spinal injuries as a result of his fall and was diagnosed with severe depression and post traumatic stress disorder. He also lost around six stones in weight. He said: 'I'm still depressed and still in pain now, and I can't see myself ever working again.' Irvine Whitlock originally offered a compensation payment of £18,000, although this was increased to £125,000 in January. His solicitor, Mark Lee of Irwin Mitchell, said a final, undisclosed but even higher settlement was reached last month.

Worker loses finger, wins £45,000

A Sheffield man has been paid £45,000 compensation by his employer after an accident at work chopped his index finger from his dominant left hand. Neil Clover was working as a machinist at High Speed and Carbide Ltd. He was demonstrating how to operate an industrial lathe when a face plate slipped and trapped his hand in a groove. Mr Clover said: 'I have recently found out that there had been previous accidents on this machine and nothing had been done to change the procedure or the machine. Since my accident the machine has been changed and this job no longer needs to be done manually.' His solicitor Sally Rissbrook said: 'This case settled out-of-court, with the claimant's employer admitting responsibility for the accident. Mr Clover has suffered considerable pain and distress from the injury and the level of damages reflects the fact that he will have to live with the consequences of losing a finger for the rest of his life.' She added: 'It is crucial that businesses make sure that safety procedures are checked and followed at all times and that machines are regularly maintained to prevent accidents like this from happening in the future.'

Safety lessons of a school trip tragedy

The findings of a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation into the drowning of a 10 year-old boy, Max Palmer, during a school activity weekend has highlighted management failings. The 2002 tragedy at Glenridding Beck in the Lake District was investigated by HSE and Cumbria Police and found 'weaknesses in the management systems' which allowed an 'unsuitable' group leader to be in charge of a party of schoolchildren in a high hazard environment. It says schools and providers of outdoor education and adventure activities need to have effective management arrangements in place to ensure that leaders taking young people into hazardous environments are properly selected and supported. HSE deputy director general Justin McCracken said: 'HSE believes that school trips are a vital part of a child's education. It would be a sad day if misplaced risk aversion deprived them of such opportunities. On the contrary, adventure activities provide the ideal opportunity to make children 'risk aware' by involving them in practical decision-making in challenging environments.' Steve Sinnott, general secretary of teaching union NUT, commented: 'The sad death of Max Palmer emphasises the supreme importance of ensuring that every aspect of a trip is planned very carefully. Teachers and pupils benefit enormously from school trips. It would be damaging to children's education and development if such events did not take place in the future.' NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates welcomed the HSE report, adding: 'NASUWT also agrees with the HSE that risk assessment and quality of staff training must be improved significantly.' The report echoed recommendations on school trips published by the education select committee last month (Risks 195).

Tobacco funded group 'talks nonsense' on passive smoking

Tobacco industry front group FOREST is 'blowing a dense cloud of poisonous smoke' over the issue of passive smoking, says health campaign group ASH. FOREST, which receives almost all its funding from tobacco companies, this week held a press conference to 'challenge the Chief Medical Officer' to prove that secondhand smoke is a danger to health. It also demanded that the government set up an 'independent panel of experts' to look at the scientific evidence. ASH counters that the government already has such a committee. The Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health (SCOTH), made up of fifteen of the most eminent medical scientists in Britain, reported last year that there is an increased risk of lung cancer for non-smokers exposed to secondhand smoke of about 24 per cent (Risks 179). ASH director Deborah Arnott said FOREST was just using delaying tactics and 'is paid by the tobacco industry to deny the truth that other people’s tobacco smoke is a risk to your health.' She added that 'every time doctors and scientists produce their evidence FOREST simply refuses to accept it. Like the tobacco companies for which it fronts, FOREST is trying to cover the truth in a dense cloud of poisonous smoke. It has no credibility on this issue and its pronouncements do not deserve to be taken seriously.' Hospitality groups, keen to evade workplace smoking controls, raised near identical FOREST-style challenges to the passive smoking evidence this week. Local authorities in more than 30 cities and towns in England are considering local bans on smoking in public places.

Australia: New on-the-spot fines for minor safety breaches

The safety agency covering the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), the region including capital city Canberra and the home to the federal government, has announced new spot fines for minor safety breaches that may have otherwise gone to court. Commissioner Erich Janssen says WorkCover inspectors can now issue the fines for breaches of safety laws. He added that parties will have 28 days to pay or dispute an infringement notice after which the matter can be referred to the Magistrates Court. 'This would serve the purpose of reducing time and resources spent on prosecutions, but provide a ready tool to get compliance where there have been breaches without the need for a complete prosecution,' Mr Janssen said. Earlier this year, the Canadian province of Ontario implemented similar on-the-spot fines, with inspectors allowed to levy them on either employers or workers, a move condemned by unions as 'outrageous' and a 'blame the worker' mentality (Risks 192).

Canada: Wal-Mart hushes up worker injuries

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is to pay fines in Canada totalling Can$500,000 (£215,700) for multiple health and safety violations. Wal-Mart Canada Corp., part of the viciously anti-union global chain, pleaded guilty to 25 charges of failing to notify the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) within three days of learning of injuries to its workers. 'People who fail to comply with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, are undermining the effective operation of Ontario's workplace safety and insurance system,' said Wayne Pushka, director of the WSIB security and investigations branch. 'By prosecuting these offences, the WSIB is helping to ensure a fair and effective workplace safety and insurance system and safe and healthy workplaces for all Ontarians.' Last month in the US it was revealed that Wal-Mart, the country’s largest employer, not only used child labour to do highly hazardous work in its US stores, it struck a sweetheart deal giving the company fifteen days advance notice before any investigation of future violations of federal child labour laws. The multi-billion dollar company agreed to pay a $135,000 (£71,600) fine, but as part of the agreement its representatives got the sweetheart deal that could insulate it from getting caught in future violations (Risks 195). After facing widespread criticism, the US Labor Department has now agreed to investigate the sweetheart deal.

Global: ' No to liberalisation, yes to safety,' say rail workers

A 1,000-strong rally of railway activists voiced its opposition to attempts to liberalise European railway passenger services, as part of the ITF's sixth annual International Railway Action Day on 7 March. Organised by the ITF's European arm, the European Transport Workers' Federation, the demonstration in Strasbourg, France, involved activists from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland and the UK. Unions fear that liberalised passenger services will see workers paying the price with job cuts, poor working conditions and pressure on safety. The European Parliament is due to vote on the package in the coming weeks. Mass meetings, protests and other events took place worldwide to mark the day of action and to highlight serious safety concerns. 'This action day is an investment: by involving union activists at grassroots level, we are educating future union leaders on international trade unionism,' said Mac Urata, ITF inland transport section secretary.

USA: Pig plant watchdog has few teeth and a blind eye

Every day, 30,500 hogs enter a sprawling complex of metal buildings in Bladen County, North Carolina, at the heart of the US pork belt. The job of killing, cutting and packaging is performed by 6,000 people at the Smithfield Packing Co. plant, the world's largest pork slaughterhouse. The plant in Tar Heel has been described by some as a harsh and dangerous workplace where people toil until their bodies give out and they either quit or get fired. But what really goes on inside the walls of the massive plant remains unknown, even to the state agency charged with protecting North Carolina workers. When the state’s Department of Labor inspected the plant earlier this month, it was only the second planned inspection there since Smithfield began its operation in Bladen County 13 years ago. Against stiff company resistance, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union (UFCW) has been trying to organise workers at the plant for more than a decade. A collective bargaining contract would, among other things, strengthen worker safety programmes at the plant, the union contends. In December 2004, the National Labor Relations Board ordered a new union election at the plant after it determined that the company had used unfair labour practices, including threats against employees, to try to quash the union campaign. Animal slaughtering and processing plants record some of the highest injury rates in North Carolina: 9.2 cases for every 100 workers in 2003, the last year for which statistics are available.

Guide to safety, work schedules, shiftwork and long hours

US government safety research body NIOSH has published an online guide to the health and safety problems related to demanding work schedules, shiftwork and long working hours. Issues covered include overtime and extended work shifts, road related risks in overtired workers and shift patterns. There’s also a useful links section, although one enormous omission is union-related resources - particularly remiss given the message on many bumper stickers in the US: 'Unions: the folks that brought you the weekend.' Worldwide, struggles for a shorter working week were central to the formation and development of unions.

  • Order your own 'Unions: The folks that brought you the weekend' bumper stickers, mugs, posters, t-shirts and badges from Northland Poster Collective.

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