Risks 234 - 26 November 2005

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Number 234 - 26 November 2005

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Risks logoEditor: 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 12,000 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 .

Cancer chemicals killing tens of thousands, says TUC

Britain is facing an occupational cancer epidemic that could be killing up to 24,000 people every year, four times official estimates, according to an authoritative new TUC report. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says that just four per cent of the UK's annual cancer death toll is as a result of exposure to carcinogens at work, which it says is equal to 6,000 deaths a year. But a new report by Hazards, the TUC-backed health and safety magazine, concludes that the incidence of occupational cancer in the UK is much higher, and suggests that it is between 12,000 and 24,000 deaths a year. 'Burying the evidence' says that the reason why official figures so underestimate the scale of the problem in the UK is because HSE's strategy is based on US research conducted 25 years ago which systematically excluded most occupational cancers. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Much more could be done to prevent workers being needlessly exposed to potentially life-threatening chemicals and toxins, but a massive underestimation of the problem is jeopardising people's lives.' He added: 'Six thousand deaths a year from occupational cancers is terrible enough, but the tragedy is that the real death toll is much, much higher. Every day workers are being exposed to harmful substances such as formaldehyde and nickel that could be responsible for tomorrow's cancers.' Report recommendations include the creation of a properly resourced government awareness and prevention campaign and a phase-out of the most dangerous cancer-causing substances .

Employers failing to tackle the UK's long hours culture

Government claims that Britain's long hours culture is being transformed by new rights to request flexible work patterns have been challenged in a new TUC report. The 'Challenging Times' report found hundreds of thousands have had requests for shorter hours turned down. Almost one in 10 employees in the UK (2.3 million people) would like to work fewer hours, even if this meant taking home less money each month, according to the report. However, more than half a million workers who have asked for a shorter working week have had their requests turned down by their employers. The report reveals that over three quarters of UK employees (77.4 per cent) have no element of flexibility in their employment contracts, prompting the TUC to call for employers to do more to introduce new ways of working that suit companies and individuals alike. The TUC report says union members are nearly twice as likely to be working flexibly (34.5 per cent), compared to employees from non-unionised workplaces (19.1 per cent). TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said 'many bosses are not imaginative enough to meet flexible requests from employees with anything other than a firm no.' He added: 'Extending the right to request to work flexibly to all workers might actually help more employers embrace a new working culture that benefits them as well. Sadly, our figures suggest that the day when all employees can enjoy a decent work-life balance is still some considerable way off.'

RMT warning of 'rail disorder crisis'

Violence on the railways in Wales is reaching 'civil unrest' proportions, the transport union RMT has warned. Figures from the British Transport Police show there have been 42 attacks on train staff since 1 April 2005. RMT official Brian Curtis said incidents included bricks being thrown through windows and gang fights spilling onto trains. The union said it has met train operator Arriva to discuss violence against staff. Mr Curtis said assaults on rail staff were a 'long standing' problem but that recent incidents have been 'very, very severe'. He called for a dramatic increase in policing on the railways and more monitored CCTV coverage of stations. Employing security guards on trains to help keep order was not the same as having regular police who could make an arrest, he said.

Fury with EU ports directive prompts day of action

UK port workers joined their colleagues from across Europe on 21 November to protest against a new EU directive which unions say will undermine employment and investment as well as compromise port safety. The protest was timed to coincide with a meeting of the Transport and Environment Committee of the European Parliament (TRAN). Ports union TGWU was represented at a demonstration in Brussels by a delegation of port workers as well as at a meeting with Manuel Barroso, European Commission president. The union and the major port employers in the United Kingdom Major Ports Group (UKMPG) have worked together to oppose the 'liberalising' Ports Package 2 (PPII). TGWU national organiser for transport Graham Stevenson said the directive could undermine job security and skills, bring in more casual labour and put at risk the safety regimes in ports. TGWU is encouraging port workers to sign an online petition against PPII.

Scottish report backs jail terms for work killers

Unions have welcomed the report of an official expert committee convened by the Scotland's justice minister which has recommended jail terms for killer employers. The expert group set up by the Scottish Executive has recommended a new offence of corporate killing and ministers say they are now seriously considering the proposals. The report also suggested a lesser charge for those not directly involved in an accident but whose omissions played a significant part in it. The experts recommended that a new offence of corporate killing through recklessness be put on the statue book. It would mean organisations whose actions or failings resulted in death could face prosecution and courts should have available a range of penalties, including imprisonment. It is possible for an organisation to be charged with culpable homicide in Scotland but the only prosecution of its kind - against Transco - was thrown out by the Appeal Court ( Risks 222 ). The expert group report said: 'There is significant public dissatisfaction in Scotland with the lack of prosecution against individuals.' Justice minister Cathy Jamieson said: 'The group has come forward with some innovative and radical proposals. The executive now needs to consider in detail the legal and practical issues surrounding those recommendations before we indicate the next steps.' TGWU regional secretary in Scotland, Mike Brider, welcomed the expert group report and said it presented a real opportunity 'to deliver real change for working people in Scotland, by bringing about effective legislation that will make Scottish workplaces much safer.' STUC deputy general secretary Grahame Smith said: 'We welcome the commitment shown by the minister and the executive on this sensitive issue and look forward to legislation that will result in safer workplaces throughout Scotland. The Scottish Executive and parliament now have an opportunity to take significant steps to make that a reality by adopting the recommendations of the expert group.'

Minister pledges to deliver law on work manslaughter

Plans to make it easier to prosecute companies in England and Wales after fatal accidents will 'absolutely' be implemented before the end of this parliament, the minister responsible has told the Financial Times. Fiona Mactaggart, the Home Office minister, said this week that the draft bill could not be shelved indefinitely. Asked if she was confident it would be on the statute book by the end of this parliament, the minister said: 'absolutely'. Earlier in the week she had told the Home Affairs and Work and Pensions Sub-Committee on the Draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill she hoped the Bill would be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allowed. She added that the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) would be reporting on whether there should be regulations brought in to make health and safety duties the responsibility of directors. HSC chair Bill Callaghan told the sub-committee its recommendations would be published in December. The minister told the Financial Times, however, that the principal sanction under the new law would be a criminal offence for companies only, not board members, stressing under the new law directors would not be facing jail terms. Ms Mactaggart added that the 'government hasn't been given the credit we do deserve for the very radical step of lifting crown immunity' for public sector bodies in relation to most of their operations, including their treatment of employees and their provision of goods and services.

Jailed quarry boss ignored safety

A quarry owner who ignored Health and Safety Executive (HSE) orders to stop work posing an immediate risk has been jailed for nine months. Mark Broadbent, 35, from Earthstrip Plant in Wymondham showed 'contempt' for HSE prohibition notices and put 'profit over safety', Norwich Crown Court was told. Broadbent was also said to have threatened an inspector when he visited the site, although in court he claimed this was a misunderstanding. His partner and fellow director, Louise Chubb, 29, was fined £25,000 with costs of £30,000. Speaking after the case, HSE inspector Frank Sykes said: 'I have been an inspector for the Health and Safety Executive for 26 years and in all that time I have not dealt with a case of such blatant and ongoing breaches of health and safety advice and legislation, which was not only in breach of the law but also put people's lives at serious risk.' The company had failed to stop work after two HSE prohibition orders. Meanwhile, employee Steven Briggs was hit by a lump of concrete which fell from a piece of equipment and plunged 12ft to the ground breaking his pelvis, cracking three ribs and puncturing a lung. Failure to observe a prohibition notices is one of the very rare instances where a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act can result in a jail term. Judge Peter Jacobs at Norwich Crown Court said: 'It was one of the most flagrant breaches of health and safety regulations I have ever come across.' The company that was operating the quarry at the time, Earthstrip Plant, admitted five breaches of safety regulations. Because the company only had assets of £489 it was fined £475.

Boss guilty of worker's death

A construction boss has been convicted of manslaughter after his 'total contempt' for worker safety led to the death of an employee. Wayne Davies, 36, who ran Knighton-based A&E Buildings, employed 40-year-old Mark Jones to help erect steel-framed barns. Mr Jones plunged to his death when a home-made overhead platform on a teleporter toppled over as he worked for Wayne Davies on a barn roof at Kinver, south Staffordshire, in February 2004. During the three-week trial it emerged that Davies also ignored safety concerns expressed by Mr Jones's wife about his working conditions. A jury at Birmingham Crown Court found that Wayne Davies was grossly negligent in his duties as an employer and was criminally responsible for Mr Jones's death. It also unanimously found him guilty of failing to ensure equipment was properly maintained and failing to ensure the health and safety of employees. He was cleared of a charge of failing to ensure persons not in his employment were not exposed to risks. Commenting after the verdict, Det Insp Bob Titley, who led the police inquiry into the tragedy, said: 'Wayne Davies showed total contempt for the safety of his employees and ignored health and safety guidelines. He also dismissed concerns raised by Mark's wife about her husband's working conditions before his death.' Davies will be sentenced in the week of 12 December. He was released on bail.

Balfour fined £60k for roadworker death

Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering has been fined a total of £60,000 and ordered to pay £45,000 costs at Wolverhampton Crown Court, after pleading guilty to breaches of health and safety legislation. The case brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) followed its investigation into the death of employee Stephen Haywood during construction of the Nesscliffe Bypass in Shropshire on 4 October 2002. Speaking after the case, HSE investigating inspector Katherine Walker said: 'This incident is one that could have easily been avoided. It is a sobering reminder of the dangers that exist during roadworks. Employers must carry out risk assessments and take proper precautions to protect their workers from oncoming vehicles when involved in temporary traffic works.' Mr Haywood was operating a 'stop-go' board to control traffic flow, from an island on the A5, while an anti-skid surface was applied to the road, when he was struck by a heavy goods vehicle and killed. Balfour Beatty's rail maintenance offshoot received a £10m fine in October for safety offences related to the Hatfield rail crash, Britain's second largest safety fine ( Risks 228 ).

Britain's continuing asbestos cancer crisis

Two things are certain in occupational health and safety - asbestos is a potent workplace killer and negligent employers will make sure it remains so. Margaret Gibbon was this month awarded £120,000 compensation for the death of her husband Philip, who died aged 60 of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. He had worked with asbestos without protection when employed as a shopfitter by Leeds firm William Nicholson and Son Limited ( Risks 228 ). An inquest last week heard that Peter Compton died aged 73 of the same cancer after working with asbestos cement boards when employed as a building labourer in the late 60s and early 70s. A Derby inquest ruled this week that former pipefitter Morris Parker died aged 79 of industrial disease caused by asbestos, as a result of his exposures to pipe lagging at a former Plessey plant in Beeston. Pensioner Fred Edwards is suing Rolls Royce plc after contracting mesothelioma. A writ has been issued at the High Court in London claiming Mr Edwards was exposed to the cancer-causing asbestos when he worked at the Barnoldswick engineering plant. Negligent employers continue to put a current generation of workers at risk. Llanelli publican Paul Brookfield was fined £10,000 last week after pleaded guilty to three charges of asbestos-related offences at the town's former British Legion Club. The 40-year-old failed to ensure the health at work of three of his staff, including a barman, who he instructed to undertake asbestos removal work in a bar he was renovating.

Euro MPs back major chemicals law

The European Parliament has approved far-reaching legislation which will lead to the safety testing of thousands of chemicals used in common industrial use. The law, called Reach - Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals - would create one database including all chemicals used in the EU. MEPs also included a measure requiring firms to seek to replace hazardous chemicals with safe ones. The agreed version of the law, which has been the subject of heated debate for years, has been watered down considerably in response to industry pressure. Employers, however, still say it will impose heavy costs and cause firms to flee Europe, where environmental groups say the proposal has been badly compromised by the concessions. The regulation has to be approved by national governments before it can become law, and may return to the parliament for another vote next year. Under the revised proposals, 30,000 chemicals will still need to be registered, but up to two-thirds of them may be exempted from tests. Instead, a new European Chemicals Agency, based in Helsinki, will decide which of these chemicals used in low volumes are risky enough to have to pass through the testing procedure .

Unhappy workers 'risk becoming ill'

Workers who are unhappy in their jobs are more likely to become ill, according to research. A study of 250,000 employees by Lancaster University and Manchester Business School found that job satisfaction influenced mental health in particular. People with low job satisfaction were most likely to experience emotional burnout, have reduced self-esteem and suffer from anxiety and depression. Depression and anxiety were now the most common reasons for people starting to claim long-term sickness benefits, overtaking illnesses such as back pain, it found. Even a modest drop in job satisfaction could lead to burnout of 'considerable clinical importance', the report warned. Professor Cary Cooper, of Lancaster University Management School, said: 'Workers who are satisfied by their jobs are more likely to be healthier as well as happier. New working practices and technological advances are rapidly changing the way we work. Many jobs are becoming more automated and inflexible.' The findings echo those of a Finnish study this year ( Risks 230 ).

Worker Safety Adviser funds up for grabs

A £1 million fund to encourage greater worker involvement in health and safety in small businesses is accepting applications. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) operates the Worker Safety Adviser (WSA) Challenge Fund. The latest call for applications is the third and final round of the scheme, and will fund initiatives running between April 2006 and March 2007. The maximum grant available during the third round is £100,000 per application. Commenting on the last funding round, Health and Safety Commission chair Bill Callaghan said: 'We want to build on the success of projects from the first two rounds of the fund. We have already seen seventeen enterprising projects over the first two years having a positive effect on worker involvement in health and safety.' HSE says partnerships applying for funding can include trade unions, trade associations, local authorities, voluntary organisations, chambers of commerce, professional bodies and other organisations committed to working together. Award winners for the third round will be announced in February 2006, with funding commencing in 1 April 2006. Worker Safety Advisers are a watered-down version of the national system of roving union safety reps unions have been seeking for over a decade. Due to resource limitations, only a minute proportion of UK small businesses have had WSA coverage.

First prosecution by NHS security

The company set up to protect NHS staff and patients has successfully prosecuted a man who hit two members of staff at a Birmingham hospital. Prosecutors had earlier refused to take action in the case. Stuart Suckling was ordered to undergo 12 months of psychiatric supervision after admitting punching the nurse and security guard. Suckling had pleaded guilty to two counts of assault and one of affray. The 38-year-old was also ordered to pay £16,000 in compensation. The case was the first successful prosecution brought by the new NHS Security Management Service. The service launched the private legal action when prosecutors declined to charge Suckling after the attack at Sutton Coldfield's Good Hope Hospital in June 2004. The accident and emergency unit nurse was left with severe bruising and cuts to her lip and cheek. The security guard suffered a split lip and bleeding gums.

Seven figure payouts for injured workers

Two workers who sustained devastating injuries in workplace incidents have been awarded seven figure payouts at the High Court. Wayne Moore, 38, was awarded £3.7m for injuries sustained when he fell more than 40 feet from a scaffold platform while working in Holland in 2000, suffering numerous fractures and a 'very severe brain injury.' SGB Holland BV - which supplied the defective scaffolding - agreed to the payout. Lincolnshire horse trainer Sally Wilson, 50, paralysed from the waist down in a riding accident, was awarded £1.5m compensation at London's High Court. She fell on to the concrete yard when the mare she had mounted reared in March 2004. Mrs Wilson sued the owners of the mare, which she was training for racing. Her lawyers said the owners had failed to tell her the animal had been in an accident which may have left her in discomfort and prone to rearing up.

New national centre on workplace health opens

A new national centre of excellence to promote health in the workplace was launched in Buxton this week. The Centre for Workplace Health 'is a groundbreaking initiative, building on the work of partner organisations, the University of Sheffield, The Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust and the Health and Safety Laboratory in the area of occupational health and medicine.' Based at HSE's Health and Safety Laboratory in Harpur Hill, Buxton, the centre aims to develop simple, practical solutions to workplace health problems through academic research. In addition it will provide a range of training and occupational health services designed to minimise ill health and injury in the workplace. Scientific director of the centre, Dr Andrew Curran, said: 'The Centre will be a national centre of academic excellence that develops solutions to workplace health problems, delivers those solutions and trains others to do so.' He added: 'We will also work closely with the Health and Safety Executive to reach their goal of reducing the number of working days lost to ill health.' TUC head of health and safety Hugh Robertson commented: 'This is a major and important initiative that the TUC warmly welcomes. For too long research on the prevention of occupational ill-health has been overlooked as money has been put into treatments. This will help address this imbalance and hopefully develop practical solutions to some of the many work-related illnesses that destroy the lives of far too many workers.'

TUC Compensation Bill briefing

The TUC has published an online briefing on the government's planned Compensation Bill. The Bill was published on 2 November 2005 and proposes two key changes. The first is to introduce a clause which would allow courts when examining evidence of negligence to consider whether preventive action would have prevented or discouraged a desirable activity. The second proposal is to regulate claims management services, with the aim of curtail the activities of irresponsible claims farmers. The legislation will create an offence of providing claims management services unless the person is authorised, exempted, or subject to a waiver by the regulator. There will be a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment for a breach of the offence. The TUC will be seeking an exemption for trade unions and the voluntary sector from the 'claims management' provisions. In addition, TUC will be seeking removal of, or amendment to, the clause attempting to 'clarify the existing law of negligence'.

Information on chemicals in your pocket

The US government's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has made available online the 2005 version of its 'Pocket guide to chemical hazards'. It provides useful hazards summaries on several hundred substances for workers, employers, and occupational health professionals. NIOSH says the information should help users recognise and control occupational chemical hazards. The information is also available for download, so you can have it on your computer or, for the super keen, you can download it to your palm pilot.

Canada: Dangerous global toy trade exposed

Toys sold in rich nations are being made by exploited workers in dangerous, sweatshop conditions, Canada's national union federation has said. A Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) brochure, 'Toys made in sweat and pain,' exposes the 'appalling' labour practices in the toy industry, particularly in China where 75 per cent of the world's toys are manufactured. 'To maximise profits, some companies continually demand lower prices with unsustainable delivery schedules from their suppliers, often abandoning their own corporate code of conduct. Workers bear the burden and the pain of these practices,' said CLC president Ken Georgetti. 'This brochure is an eye-opener about labour rights violations, abuse and exploitation of workers.' CLC says workers in China who try to form free and democratic unions are thrown in jail. It adds authorities do not enforce existing labour laws and working conditions are often inhumane, with forced labour still a common practice.

Global: Unions call for action after China bird flu death

Global foodworkers' union IUF is demanding urgent action after government officials in China confirmed the first death from bird flu of a commercial poultry worker. Reports say a woman in the eastern province of Anhui died from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza. According to an IUF statement: 'This death must serve as a warning to the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), whose current efforts to avert a global pandemic in humans do not recognise H5N1 as an occupational hazard and ignore the core issue of agricultural workers' health and safety rights in arresting the spread of the virus.' IUF says an action plan released by WHO on 2 September 2005 ( Risks 231 ) said 'no case has yet been detected among workers in the commercial poultry sector.' The statement was not accurate at the time of publication, says IUF. 'While there have been few attempts at determining the extent of exposure among workers, public health authorities had already detected cases of exposure to H5N1 among poultry workers in India and Indonesia. But as a result, the WHO has no measures to propose to national governments to protect agricultural and processing workers.'

  • IUF news release and Briefing paper on Avian Influenza (H5N1) and agricultural workers [ pdf ].
South Africa: No worker is safe, says asbestos expert

Workers exposed to chrysotile (white) asbestos are developing deadly diseases, discrediting industry 'safe use' claims, a South African asbestos industry expert has said. Brian Gibson has advised South Africa's largest historical user of asbestos, Everite Building Products, for more than 20 years. He was responding to an announcement by the Zimbabwe National Chrysotile Task Force that it intends to lobby the South African government following the publication of draft regulations this month that seek to outlaw the use of asbestos. 'In the early 1980s Everite tried to eliminate the risk of asbestos by introducing arguably one of the most advanced occupational health and safety programmes in South African history,' he said. He added that the company had quickly reduced asbestos dust levels in its factories to the 'globally accepted limit' of 0.2 f/ml and used only white asbestos after 1985. But the firm was still diagnosing asbestos-related diseases among staff who were recruited only after the asbestos risk was thought to be under control. 'Regardless of the company's state-of-the-art occupational health and safety measures, pre-employment medicals and exclusion of employees with previous exposure to asbestos, nine Everite employees who joined the company in the early 1990s were recently diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases,' Gibson said. A further 42 employees who joined the firm in the 80s had been diagnosed, in spite of being exposed to very low levels of asbestos, mainly chrysotile. From 1970 to the introduction of an asbestos ban in 1999, most asbestos used in the UK was chrysotile. Asbestos cancers in the UK are still increasing, although many of these cases will be due to exposure to asbestos of all forms, introduced to buildings and workplaces before prohibitions were introduced.

Tube fire safety demonstration, London, 26 November 2005

A union organised demonstration in defence of fire safety rules on the underground rail system will take place at Kings Cross, London, on Saturday 26 November. Rail unions RMT and ASLEF and firefighters' union FBU say crucial safety rules for sub-surface stations, put in place after the 1987 Kings Cross fire that claimed 31 lives, are once more under attack.

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