Risks 317 - 4 August 2007

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Hazards logo - warning signEditor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at [email protected]

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Cash-starved HSE fails to probe major injuries

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is failing to investigate hundreds of the most serious workplace accidents every year because of a lack of resources, safety campaigners have found. Figures obtained by the trade union-backed safety magazine Hazards and featured last week on BBC Radio 4's Face the Facts programme show that an increasing number of major injuries which should according to HSE rules require investigation are overlooked because of 'inadequate resources'. HSE's definition of a major injury requiring an investigation includes most fractures, amputations, certain eye injuries, injuries resulting from burns or electric shock, loss of consciousness from lack of oxygen and any injury that requires hospital admission for more than 24 hours. But the figures obtained by Hazards show that HSE inspectors in 2004/05 logged lack of resources as the reason for failing to investigate incidents meeting the investigation criteria on 188 occasions. By 2005/06 this had risen to 255. Last year the 'inadequate resources' reason was given for a failure to investigate some of the most serious workplace injuries on 307 occasions. Hundreds more incidents meeting HSE's official investigation 'selection criteria' were not investigated for other reasons, although Hazards discovered HSE has now stopped collecting statistics on these other categories. Steve Kay, Prospect HSE branch vice-chair, said: 'With adequate funding in the past, we succeeded in making substantial progress. But now the Executive is being starved of the resources needed to improve safety at work. This is not a question of strategy, it is a simple matter of funding.' The growing failure to investigate comes despite HSE's guidance on the investigation of major injuries being restricted in 2004 in response to resource constraints; it now excludes injuries such as the loss of fingertips. Rob Miguel, health and safety officer with the union Unite-Amicus, said: 'These are not statistics, they are real people with families. We are fed up to the back teeth with the lack of funding given to the HSE, who have of late been accused of failing to investigate hundreds of serious accidents.' Stirling University's Professor Andy Watterson said HSE risked suffering 'death by a thousand cuts.'

Work deaths fall out continues

Work fatality figures released last week and described by TUC as 'dreadful' ( Risks 316 ) have led to more calls for extra resources for the beleaguered Health and Safety Executive. HSE inspectors' union Prospect said the 11 per cent rise in the number of workplace fatalities over the last year is a confirmation the safety watchdog is under-resourced. Prospect negotiations officer Mike Macdonald said: 'HSE's policy is often a matter of intense debate but this is simple; unless HSE is properly funded it cannot function. It cannot meet its public expectations to advise, inspect and enforce workplace health and safety so that Britain's 28 million workers have confidence they will not be injured or killed at work.' HSE has already lost over 250 jobs since April 2006 and faces a further 100 job losses in the remaining half of this financial year. It then faces a 15 per cent budget cut by 2011 to meet Treasury efficiency targets. Since 2002, HSE has lost over 1,000 posts as a result of government spending cuts; the organisation now employs fewer than 3,250 staff. 'Better funding for the HSE would be good for workers concerned about their safety, employers seeking advice and the taxpayer who meets the costs of higher benefit and insurance because of rising accident rates,' said Prospect's Mike Macdonald. The calls were echoed by safety specialists from the union Unite's Amicus section. Bud Hudspith, commenting on the figures and the new corporate killing law ( Risks 316 ), said: 'These deaths are a travesty, and yes the new legislation will help, but we will push for individual duties on directors to be included, only then will real improvements be made to ensure these deaths are averted.' Unite's Rob Miguel added the union would not be satisfied 'until HSE fulfil their role as enforcers and industry accepts full accountability for their actions, only then are real improvements possible leading to a substantial reduction in loss of life.'

Enforcement reduces deaths says site union

Construction union UCATT is demanding that Britain's safety watchdog learn a lesson from its Irish counterpart when it comes to construction safety. The union has also called for top Health and Safety Executive (HSE) bosses, who announced last week a massive hike in construction deaths, to 'consider their positions'. The new HSE figures show 77 workers died on construction sites in 2006/07, up 28 per cent the previous year. UCATT says it is alarmed by an HSE policy approach which means in future it will rely less on inspections and more on advice and support for employers. Alan Ritchie, general secretary of UCATT, said: 'The latest figures are truly gut-wrenching. Last year far too many families experienced the tragedy of a loved one going to work and never returning home.' He added: 'The blame for many of these deaths needs to be placed both at the doors of bad bosses who will cut any corner, including the safety of workers, to make ever larger profits. Equally the HSE has quite clearly failed in its duties to protect construction workers, their policy approach has failed and the senior management of the HSE should consider their positions.' UCATT said the British experience is in stark contrast with the Republic of Ireland, where figures released in July show the number of safety inspections in 2006 increased by 13 per cent while the number of construction deaths decreased by nearly 50 per cent from 25 to 13. Alan Ritchie said: 'It is not rocket science to realise that if you implement a rigorous inspection and enforcement regime, sites will become safer and bosses will be forced to accept their safety responsibilities. If you sit back and do little or nothing deaths will increase.'

Give us toilets or prepare for a sitdown strike!

London's bus workers are to stage a series of protests at key London transport and local government offices on Thursday 23 August to protest at the lack of toilet facilities. The campaign has taken a new turn with the capital's bus workers, all members of the TGWU section of Unite, threatening a full strike ballot if Transport for London (TfL) and London's local authorities don't act. In a hard-hitting newsletter to members the bus workers' leaders say some drivers have been so desperate for a toilet break they have had to relieve themselves in public places and have been arrested as a result. The union says lack of toilets equals lack of respect for drivers and their health, adding that serious health problems are linked to being unable to go for long periods, especially bladder, kidney and prostate conditions. Unite adds that TfL's plan to attract more women into the industry will be undermined 'when it cannot even provide adequate toilet facilities for staff... Perhaps it expects these women to bring their own bottles to work!'

Airport security staff need protection

Airport operators are being told to do more to protect their security staff from assaults by passengers. The demand from civil aviation union Unite-TGWU came after a meeting last week of BAA shop stewards where concerns about assaults were raised. 'Passengers are getting angry and frustrated with the varying hand baggage and liquids restrictions at international airports,' said Brendan Gold, national secretary for civil air transport. 'They are taking their anger and frustration out on the nearest member of staff, our members.' He said incidents of verbal and physical assaults are on the increase and the shop stewards meeting felt the time is now overdue for the operators to act. He said reports had come in especially from Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, but the problem was becoming an unpleasant and unnecessary feature at most UK airports. 'Confrontation born of frustration may be understandable but that doesn't mean it's acceptable," he stressed. 'The industry and the authorities need to do a much better job of informing passengers at airports in this country and around the world of how UK restrictions operate.' The union has also called on the industry to encourage security staff to report incidents and for managers to record them so a full picture can emerge of the scale and nature of the problem. 'Operators do have policies for dealing with assaults,' added Mr Gold. 'But they are being honoured more in the breach than the observance.'

Strike looms after rail safety 'betrayal'

More than 100 train guards, revenue protection inspectors and retail staff at 'One' railway in north Essex are to strike on 18 and 20 August after a safety-related sacking. Guards based at Colchester and Clacton, revenue protection inspectors based at Colchester and retail workers between Chelmsford and Manningtree, all members of the union RMT, voted by 83 to one to strike. The union, which says the dispute is over the sacking of guard Paul Yarwood and the company's failure to support other members involved in an incident with a fare evader ( Risks 315 ), has now also called a company-wide ballot. 'The anger of our members over this issue should now be quite clear to One management,' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said when the ballot results were announced. 'Our members are furious that the company has failed to support staff who were left to deal with an abusive fare evader who refused to stop smoking on a train, assaulted a platform supervisor and threatened a passenger and other staff. The company's decision to sack one loyal member of staff and suspend two others stunned their colleagues and left them feeling betrayed.' The union leader said the sacked worker should be reinstated and all other disciplinary action dropped, adding: 'Our members face the prospect of assault and abuse daily, and the least they should be able to expect is support from their employers. The RMT executive has responded to the magnificent vote for action by calling two days of strike action, and has today also agreed to ballot the entire One workforce over the crucial issues involved.'

Shunters action on 'highly dangerous' job cuts

Workers at an EWS depot by the huge Corus steelworks at Margam in south Wales have said they will strike for 24 hours on Monday 6 August in a dispute over 'absurd and highly dangerous' moves to make redundant half the groundstaff responsible for shunting operations. Engineering staff at the depot are also being balloted for industrial action over EWS's cost-cutting redundancy plan, which will see what the union RMT describes as 'the arduous and dangerous' work made their responsibility. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'The company intends to force the bulk of the shunting onto engineering grades who already have enough demanding work of their own to do, and they have now asked to be balloted as well to defend their safety and conditions.' The union leader added: 'Their supposed criteria for selecting people for sacking include levels of sick leave, but they are well aware that there is a high level of absence due to injuries sustained at work. Selection benchmarks that include 'dynamism' are almost certainly unlawful and we have referred their selection policy to our lawyers to mount a legal challenge.' Mr Crow added: 'It is time that EWS sat down with us and talked seriously about the issues, including our reps' counter-proposals which would save jobs and keep our members safe.'

Upped work rate caused clerk's strain injury

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has paid out almost £500,000 after an RAF computer clerk developed a chronic repetitive strain injury caused by an increased work rate. A total of £484,000 in compensation and legal costs was awarded following the onset of the condition in the hand of the unnamed employee. An MoD spokesperson said: 'The claimant was serving in the Royal Air Force and was engaged in data entry work. The condition diagnosed was de Quervain's tenosynovitis,' adding: 'It is not always clear what causes this condition. In this case, however, the timing of the onset of the symptoms occurred at the same time as a reported increased work rate. The symptoms appeared in the claimant's right hand which was used for numerical data entry and the medical experts therefore considered that the work had made a material contribution to the duration and seriousness of her condition. Medical experts also agreed that the claimant would be unlikely to return to part-time or full-time work as the condition had become permanent. The claimant also developed associated depression. The total of £484,000 is made up of compensation and associated legal costs.'

Stressful jobs cause depression

Having a high pressure job doubles the risk of depression and anxiety in young adults, UK researchers have warned. A study of 972 32-year-olds found 45 per cent of new cases of depression and anxiety were attributable to stressful work. They defined a highly demanding job as involving a lack of control, long hours, non-negotiable deadlines and a high volume of work. The authors say their study is the first of its kind to establish a firm link between stressful working conditions and poor mental health among people who had no previous history of the disorders before their career began. The researchers looked at people who had taken part in a major, long-term study being carried out in Dunedin, New Zealand, to follow their progress through life. They were asked whether they had workload and time pressures, had to work longer hours than they would like, had too much work to do everything well, whether their job was hectic, were often unclear about what they had to do and have to work too hard. Overall 10 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women in the study suffered a first episode of depression or anxiety over the year-long study. But the risk was double in those with the highest pressure jobs, according to the paper published in the August issue of Psychological Medicine. Women rated as in the highest third for work-related job stress were twice as likely to have suffered depression or anxiety as those in the lowest third. Men in the top third were 2.28 times more likely to have either diagnosis. Study leader Dr Maria Melchior, an epidemiologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London, said: "Our study shows work stress appears to bring on diagnosable forms of depression and anxiety in previously healthy young workers.' She added: 'We found that high work pressure, high workload, working very quickly to tight inflexible deadlines doubled the risk of depression and anxiety. Clearly we can also deduce work stress is associated with mental health problems of clinical significance that have health-care and financial implications for wider society.' Dr Melchoir said other factors also played a part. 'A lot of jobs have changed over time. The affects of commuting, longer hours and having to combine work and family life for many would appear to be playing a part.'

Office printers 'are health risk'

An office laser printer can damage lungs in much the same way as smoke particles from cigarettes, a team of Australian scientists has found. An investigation of a range of printer models showed that almost a third emit potentially dangerous levels of toner into the air. Lidia Morawska and her colleagues focused on particles less than a micrometre in diameter. These are not easily filtered out by the lungs and are suspected of causing long-term health problems. The Queensland University of Technology scientists have called on ministers to regulate these kinds of emissions. They say some printers should come with a health warning. The researchers carried out tests on 62 machines. Over a quarter (27 per cent) were found to emit particles of toner-like material so small that they can infiltrate the lungs and cause a range of health problems from respiratory irritation to more chronic illnesses. Conducted in an open-plan office, the tests revealed that particle levels increased five-fold during working hours, a rise blamed on printer use. The problem was worse when new cartridges were used and when graphics and images required higher quantities of toner. The researchers have called on governments to regulate air quality in offices and want companies to ensure that printers are based in well-ventilated areas so that particles disperse. Not all printers were equally bad. In fact, 60 per cent of them emitted no particles at all. Eight of the printers tested emitted only low or medium levels of particulates, but 13 were 'high emitters'. There was also no clear indication that any specific brand was worse than another.

Royal Mail manager charged after road death

The driver of a Royal Mail lorry who was arrested after a road accident which killed a father-of-five was a manager not employed to drive heavy goods vehicles. Phil Edmonds, 46, was bailed by police until October after being arrested on suspicion of causing death by careless driving. The office worker was driving the Royal Mail lorry during a postal strike. It is understood he was drafted in as a driver after staff staged a 24-hour walk out over pay and job cuts. Father-of-five Henry Charles Brown, 56, known as Harry Brown, died after the crash last week on the A379 Bridge Road in Exeter. A passenger suffered a fractured wrist and had to be cut free from the wreckage when the Royal Mail lorry collided with Mr Brown's Vauxhall Astra van. A spokesperson for the Communication Workers Union (CWU) said: 'This is an appalling tragedy. Sadly it demonstrates the extreme measures the Royal Mail is taking to mitigate the effects of the strike instead of talking about it.' Royal Mail had stressed beforehand that deliveries in Exeter would go ahead despite the strike. CWU nationally said it had heard other reports of 'unsafe or illegal functions' performed by managers undertaking jobs usually done by the striking workers.

Work vehicles danger warning

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is warning firms they must ensure safe systems are in place to control workplace transport. The alert followed HSE's prosecution of two companies after a worker suffered serious head injuries when he was struck by a car. Rigid Containers Ltd was fined £65,000 after pleading guilty to safety offences. Surrey based G4S Security Services (UK) Ltd was fined £50,000. Costs of £10,650 and £7,900 respectively were awarded to HSE. Robert Campbell, a 56-year-old security officer employed by G4S Security Services (UK) Ltd, suffered serious head injuries after being struck by a car leaving the premises of packaging company Rigid Containers Ltd on 17 February 2006. The security officer was checking an HGV leaving the site when he was hit by an employee's car that was also exiting the site through a different security barrier. HSE inspector David Welsh said: 'This incident showed all the classic signs of a workplace transport collision between a vehicle and pedestrian. There was no separation of vehicles and pedestrians at Rigid's main entrance, the area where the accident occurred was poorly lit and road signs and markings to direct traffic were insufficient.' He added: 'Rigid had not thought about the effect of making changes to the routing of vehicles and Rigid and G4S had not communicated effectively with each other to decide issues of worker training, and the use of a safe system of work around workplace transport.'

Report criticises shunting practices

The death of a railway worker at Dagenham Dock has led to new safety guidelines being issued to stop it happening again. A report by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) into the fatal accident which killed experienced railwayman Steve McKay was released last month. The 42-year-old shunter, employed by Freightliner Heavy Haul Ltd, was crushed between the buffers of a locomotive and a wagon after securing them on a track on 17 July 2006. He had only worked at the site for two weeks before the incident, but had 16 years of shunting experience and had formerly worked for British Rail. It is thought he may have tripped or collapsed into the gap between the buffers after shunting the train, but there were no witnesses to the incident. The RAIB, a government-appointed investigatory body, examines such incidents in a bid to improve railway safety. Seven safety recommendations for the Freightliner rail yard were made in the RAIB report. Better training for new staff and the implementation of designated safe walking routes feature among suggestions, along with the need for clearer hazard signalling at the site. The report says all staff should undergo a new safety briefing in the light of the findings, with this covering issues including shunting rules and the importance of wearing sun protective head gear.

Canada: Payouts for smelter cancer deaths

The families of 10 former workers at a Canadian smelter who were killed by occupational cancers are eligible for compensation, the body responsible for payouts has ruled. The Quebec workplace accident commission determined the workers in the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean, Quebec, Alcan smelter were exposed to dangerous levels of carcinogens which ultimately led to cancer. This decision overturned an earlier ruling that found the cancer was caused by smoking. All 10 workers died of lung cancer. They had worked at aluminium smelters operated by multinational Alcan in the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region, about 250 kilometres north of Quebec City. The workers were all hired between 1943 and 1970. 'They worked in an environment that was hot and dusty,' the ruling reads, adding: 'Up until the end of the 1960s, the workers... worked without individual protection.' The ruling means the workers' families will be able to apply for compensation under Quebec's workplace safety laws. The families of the deceased workers will be eligible to receive Can$50,000 -$100,000 (£23,000-£46,000). Press reports say it is still unclear whether the judgment actually forces Alcan to settle with the families. Reports suggest the families are seeking Can$2 million (£926,000) in compensation. Jacques Gravel, a national representative with the union CAW, said although he was pleased with the verdict, it was too long in coming. 'It's not a case that dates from two years ago, we've been fighting this since 1997,' he said.

Finland: SAK says get tough on safety crimes

Finland's largest union confederation wants longer jail terms possible for workplace safety crimes. SAK says penalties should be comparable with those in force for environmental and economic crimes. 'The one year maximum imprisonment should be significantly lengthened,' concludes a SAK policy. 'As the central goal of occupational safety legislation is protection of life, health and ability to work, its neglect must have consequences that are related to the seriousness of these cases.' SAK also wants to give occupational safety authorities the right to impose an immediate fine for clear-cut safety shortcomings. The union organisation is pushing for a change in the law to allow the creation of more safety reps. Under the current law, only workers in firms with 10 or more employees can elect safety reps. SAK proposes that the limit be lowered to five employees. Latest figures show the upward trend in payouts for workplace accidents and occupational diseases is continuing.

Global: Union safety alert after live news deaths

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has called for more attention to safety in media coverage of breaking news events following the tragic collision of two news media helicopters in the United States last week that left two journalists and two pilots dead. The accident happened as five rival television networks were using helicopters to cover a police chase in Arizona. 'This tragedy illustrates how dangerous journalism has become in the age of breaking news and heavy competition for dramatic news footage,' said Aidan White, IFJ general secretary. 'It is most important that there is an inquiry to make sure that no-one was taking unnecessary risks that could have led to this terrible event.' The two helicopters were among six in the air at the time of the collision - five news helicopters and a police helicopter all following the police chase in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. The other helicopters immediately broadcast images of the burning wreckage. Those killed were a pilot, Craig Smith, and a photographer, Rick Krolak, of KNXV, an affiliate of the national United States network ABC and a second pilot, Scott Bowerbank, and a photographer, Jim Cox, of KTVK, an independent television station. 'It is important that guidelines are in place that make sure that at no time is the safety of news people compromised,' said IFJ's Aidan White. The IFJ says that there is growing concern over pressure on news teams to deliver dramatic and exclusive news footage. The global media safety watchdog the International News Safety Institute has written to KNXV-TV, KTVK and the US-based Radio and TV News Directors' Association expressing concern and reminding them that journalist safety should be a priority over competitive issues in dangerous conditions.

Global: Nanotech needs strong oversight says coalition

A strong, comprehensive oversight of nanotechnology and its products is urgently required, a broad international coalition of consumer, public health, environmental, trade union and civil society organisations spanning six continents has said. A new statement, 'Principles for the oversight of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials', warns that nanomaterials already in use may pose significant health, safety, and environmental hazards. George Kimbrell of the International Center for Technology Assessment said: 'Since there is currently no government oversight and no labelling requirements for nano-products anywhere in the world, no one knows when they are exposed to potential nanotech risks and no one is monitoring for potential health or environmental harm. That's why we believe oversight action based on our principles is urgent.' Bill Kojola of the US national union federation AFL-CIO commented: 'Even though potential health hazards stemming from exposure have been clearly identified, there are no mandatory workplace measures that require exposures to be assessed, workers to be trained, or control measures to be implemented. This technology should not be rushed to market until these failings are corrected and workers assured of their safety.' Ron Oswald, general secretary of global food and farming trade union federation IUF, highlighted the importance of defending against the massive intrusion of nano-products into the global food chain, pointing out that 'hundreds of commercially available products - from pesticides to additives to packaging materials incorporating nanotech - are already on the market or just a step away. Workers, consumers, and the environment must be adequately protected against the multiple risks this development poses to the global food system and the women and men who produce the food we all depend on.' The rapidly growing nano-workforce is predicted to reach two million workers globally by 2015.

Global: Asbestos pushers dealt two serious blows

The global asbestos industry suffered two serious blows last month. In the first, LAB Chrysotile Inc started bankruptcy proceedings on 25 July, a move that should see the closure of Canada's last asbestos mine. The end of asbestos mining in Quebec could have a dramatic knock-on effect for the industry worldwide. The Quebec-based Chrysotile Institute, the global asbestos industry's main lobbying organisation is financed by the Canadian industry and money from the federal Canadian and provincial Quebec governments. With the industry's demise in Canada, it could now lose its major backers. If this happens it would deal a serious blow to the asbestos industry's resurgent marketing efforts in developing nations. In the US meanwhile, a ban on asbestos moved a step nearer. Democrat senator Patty Murray's Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007 was passed unanimously on 31 July by the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. It will now move to the Senate floor. The Ban Asbestos in America Act is an effort to ban all production and use of asbestos in America, launch public education campaigns to raise awareness about its dangers and expand research and treatment of diseases caused by asbestos. 'Senator Patty Murray's Ban Asbestos in America Act is critical if we are to end the asbestos epidemic and we applaud the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works for their clear recognition of its importance with today's bipartisan effort and unanimous vote of support,' said Linda Reinstein, executive director of Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). 'We now look to the Senate to follow this Committee's important lead by moving this monumental bill even closer to law. We look forward to the day when asbestos disease will no longer needlessly claim lives.'

New Solutions on women's work health

The new issue of New Solutions, a US-based international journal on environmental and occupational health policy, focuses on women's occupational health. Papers look at how policy, prejudice and practice combine to place women at risk at work and in the wider community. There are contributions from some of the top experts on workplace health and gender, including Professor Karen Messing, author of 'One-eyed science: Occupational health and women workers.'

Excellent work cancer campaign resources

The European trade union safety thinktank HESA has published an excellent online occupational cancer resource. HESA says it is safe to say that cancer is now the main cause of 'death by working conditions' in Europe. It adds that this cancer epidemic is part of a major health and safety challenge facing workers. To help spread information about the risk factors and the tools - especially legislative - that workers can use to eliminate or reduce them, HESA says its dedicated webpages now give readers access to many reference papers on the links between cancer and work, 'as well as details of union campaigns run against this killer disease.' The Hazards website is a superb complementary resource, providing news on occupational cancer and a work cancer prevention kit designed for use by union reps.

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