Risks 337 - 22 December 2007

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'Falls from vehicles campaign'

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

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Don't criminalise seafarers, says union

A union has warned against 'a knee-jerk reaction' blaming seafarers for maritime tragedies, when lack of resources, understaffing and poor regulation and poor equipment could be the root causes. The plea came last week after a ferry officer was cleared of charges of manslaughter and endangering the lives of three yachtsmen following a six-week trial at Winchester Crown Court. Michael Hubble had been second mate on the P&O ferry Pride of Bilbao which was alleged to have hit or swamped the yacht Ouzo off the Isle of Wight in August 2006, leading to the death of the three men onboard. Seafarers' union Nautilus UK commented after the case that 'there is a knee-jerk reaction following accidents at sea to criminalise the maritime profession.' The union said professional seafarers work in an inherently hazardous environment, and their duties expose them on a daily basis to life and death decisions - often with limited resources and little support. According to Nautilus: 'There is extreme concern amongst our members about the potential dangers posed by the large numbers of yachts and pleasure craft operating in and around busy shipping lanes like the Solent and an incident like this could occur at any time. The union added: 'The official investigation into the loss of the Ouzo highlighted serious shortcomings in the adequacy of navigation equipment. There is now extensive evidence to show that the standards of lights and radar reflectors fitted to many yachts are simply not good enough, and the adequacy of the regulations in this area must also be questioned. The official investigation also raises questions about procedures on ships' bridges - not least in handover periods at night - and consequent implications for crewing levels need to be addressed by the industry.' Working at sea is Britain's most hazardous job.

Pilots welcome call for fatigue probe

A call last week for research into the long term effects of fatigue on air crew has been welcomed by pilots' union BALPA. Commenting on the recommendation by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, BALPA general secretary Jim McAuslan said: 'This is a welcome development and one which all people who care about flight safety should embrace. In a recent survey of UK pilots nearly four out of five pilots said that the public should be concerned about pilot fatigue. It is gratifying that this is being recognised and BALPA looks forward to playing its part in such a study.' The committee's report recommended 'the unions and airlines work together to find a way of ensuring that pilots have appropriate rest periods and to monitor fatigue complaints by pilots. We also recommend that the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority], as the body responsible for the health and safety of air crew while on board an aircraft, commission a study into the long-term effects of fatigue in air crew.'

Union challenges M&S on migrant workers

Migrant workers at a factory supplying meat to Marks & Spencer are suffering exploitation in a drive to maximise profits, according to a union report. Unite says that Polish staff at a factory in south Wales providing M&S with red meat are employed on 'zero hours' contracts with no guaranteed number of hours, and suffer 'harsh and divisive' conditions. An M&S spokesperson said it had launched an investigation and was taking the allegations seriously. The report, which focuses on the Dawn Pac meat factory near Llanelli, says staff employed by a local agency claimed that shifts were regularly abandoned at short notice, leaving workers stranded at the factory, sometimes in the middle of the night, because transport was only provided at the normal end of a shift. Some workers had to walk up to 15 miles to get home after being told by supervisors they were no longer needed halfway through a shift. In addition, those who opted out of agency accommodation and transport had their hours cut, it was claimed. Tony Woodley, Unite joint general secretary, said: 'M&S take a laudable stance on ethical treatment, but the reality in workplaces that supply meat to their stores tells a different story.' He added: 'M&S, and the other retailers, must face up to their responsibilities and start putting workers, communities and consumers first. They dictate the price of the contracts, and when they made £936m in profit last year they cannot wash their hands of responsibility.' The M&S website says it is 'leading on labour standards' and adds it wants to 'build on our existing global standards and robust monitoring programme by carrying out additional targeted unannounced site visits to provide greater assurance that our requirements are being met at all times.' In October, TUC launched a new Polish language website to support the increasing number of Polish workers in the UK (Risks 329).

Police control suffers from low staffing

Workers in police control centres and the public are being put at risk as a result of staff shortages. A study for UNISON, the union that represents civilian staff in the police, concluded it could be only a matter of time before the chronic understaffing and high pressure environment combine with dire consequences. Academics from the Universities of Strathclyde and Stirling, carried out this first independent study of conditions in police control rooms in the UK. The researchers found that 69 per cent of control room staff thought that inadequate staffing was leading to increasing pressure on the job. The volume of calls going into police control rooms has rocketed since mobiles took off and there are now too few staff to do the job, they said. The researchers found nearly one-third of all control room staff feel 'very pressurised' on a normal day and nearly two-thirds said the volume of work has increased 'a lot.' This pressure was leading to staff sickness, compounding the problem. Ben Priestley, the union's national officer for police staff, said: 'UNISON is calling on the police service to deal with understaffing before an avoidable crisis or tragedy takes place'. UNISON's 10-point plan calls for measures including action to address chronic understaffing and provision of a healthy workplace.

Another Corus worker gets deafness payout

A factory foreman who was exposed to excessive noise at work which left him with severe hearing difficulties has been awarded undisclosed compensation by his former employer, Corus. GMB member Martin Bourne, 70, was employed as a mechanical foreman at the Corus UK Llanwern Works in Newport, Gwent. He worked in various noisy environments, including hot and cold mills, blast furnaces and 'pickle lines'. Despite the levels of noise throughout the plant, no hearing protection was available to Mr Bourne until just three years before the end of his employment. After retiring, Mr Bourne realised that he had a severe problem with his hearing. Medical investigations revealed that Mr Bourne's hearing had been irreparably damaged. Nick Hughes, GMB south western legal officer, said: 'Employers are aware of the dangers of exposing staff to excessive levels of noise and must take steps to ensure that workers are protected. Mr Bourne simply got on with his job not realising that his hearing was being damaged daily. Corus should have taken responsibility and provided ear protection far earlier than three years before the end of his employment.' Earlier this year, another former Corus employee, Malcolm Goddard, received a £4,000 compensation settlement from the company after developing work-related deafness and tinnitus, a ringing in the ears caused by noise exposure (Risks 305).

Cash van fines put guards in danger

Security guards' union GMB is calling for cash vans to be exempted from parking rules to reduce the risks of violent robberies. The union says cash vehicles get 10,000 parking fines in London's metropolitan police area in a single year. This happens when security staff park the vehicle near to delivery points to reduce the risk of attack. The union says attacks on cash vehicles are up 89 per cent in the first half of 2007 compared to the same period in 2006. It complains that 95 per cent of the tickets given to cash vans are issued by just 10 of the 32 London boroughs. GMB national secretary Gary Smith said: 'Exemption from parking restrictions would provide a safer environment. This would be achieved by statutory guidance to secure a long-term solution throughout the UK. The current system is putting GMB members' lives at risk.' The union is also raising the issue with London mayor Ken Livingstone, as Transport for London (TfL) trails only the borough of Camden in the tickets league table. Cash vans make in excess of 100,000 deliveries each day using a fleet of around 4,000 specially adapted and armoured vehicles. £500 billion is transported each year - around £1.4bn a day.

Ambulance attacks action call

Health service union UNISON has called for tough legal action to address soaring assaults on ambulance staff in south Wales. Official figures show ambulance crews in Cardiff and the south Wales valleys have been the victims of more than 90 attacks over the last year; 37 were physical assaults which ended up with crew members being injured. Tony Chatfield, UNISON branch secretary and a paramedic for 20 years, said many staff were so accustomed to verbal and physical assaults they at they did not always report them. He said: 'I have been verbally assaulted, hit, kicked, threatened with weapons, including a knife and once in Grangetown a few years ago, was sat in an ambulance when a man threw a big piece of timber through the window.' He said 'one attack is one attack too many. We just hope the new criminal legislation designed to offer better protection to frontline emergency service personnel is taken more seriously by the courts and tougher penalties are imposed.' The Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act came into force in February, and means anyone who deliberately obstructs a worker in England or Wales responding to an emergency situation can be prosecuted and fined up to £5,000 (Risks 295). More extensive legislation is in place in Scotland (Risks 336). The Welsh Ambulance Trust said violence and abuse towards ambulance staff would not be tolerated.

Tragedy highlights deadly teacher stress

Further evidence of the deadly stresses facing education staff has emerged after another teacher suicide. Keith Waller, 35, an experienced primary school teacher who was highly regarded by colleagues, pupils and parents took his own life, an inquest heard last month. He felt 'singled out' and placed under excessive scrutiny after the school received a poor Ofsted report in 2006. Last week, Risks reported several teacher suicides related to work stress and including two others that had been linked to Ofsted inspections (Risks 336). In a bid to reduce the pressure, Mr Waller resigned from the senior management team at St Lawrence Church of England Primary School in Rowledge, near Colchester, and started looking for a new job. But he failed to turn up to work after an unsuccessful interview on 30 April and was found by police hanged in his home on 2 May this year. A will was near his body. A letter he wrote to teaching union NASUWT - which was handed to the coroner but not read in the inquest - complained his competence was being questioned and said he was suffering from depression and losing sleep. 'I feel I have been unfairly treated and victimised by my headteacher,' he added. 'What started as an issue about marking somehow became manipulated to become issues concerning every single aspect of my performance.' Suffolk coroner Dr Peter Dean recorded a verdict of suicide. He told Mr Waller's family: 'We have heard of Keith's own perceptions he felt victimised and bullied. It is not for this court to make any judgments on that.'

Child's heartache over dad's death

The heartbroken daughter of a casual labourer who fell to his death after his boss cut corners to save cash has said all she wants for Christmas is her father back. Iris Savage told Derby's Evening Telegraph newspaper the death of her son, Nathan had left his seven-year-old daughter, Connie, devastated. 'She keeps saying to me 'nanny, I know what I want for Christmas - I want daddy',' she said. She also criticised the punishment handed out to Stephen Martin, director of SM Coldstores Ltd, who was ordered to pay Mr Savage's family £21,000 in compensation but received no penalty. In a case brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Derby Crown Court heard that Martin, who admitted two counts of breaching health and safety rules, had failed to properly supervise or take steps to ensure the safety of Mr Savage and his brother Lee, both of whom were working for the firm. Judge John Burgess said there was a limit to the compensation he could order but he decided not to fine Martin or award prosecution costs against him to leave more assets, which could then be sought by Mr Savage's family through a private prosecution. In sentencing, Judge Burgess said: 'There was inadequate supervision or training, particularly for Nathan Savage or his brother. It's plain corners were cut.' The Evening Telegraph article prompted an angry response from readers. John Bamford commented: 'This man is a disgrace. He should have been fined a huge amount and imprisoned - his life and that of his family should lie in as much ruin as he has caused his victim's family. If he had behaved in such a manner as to cause death outside the work relationship they would call it murder or manslaughter.'

Hats off for safety sanity clause

Workplace campaigners have delivered a seasonal message to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) wishing the watchdog a merry Christmas and a well-resourced new year. Santa hat clad revellers assembled last week outside HSE's London HQ. Battersea Crane Disaster Action (BCDAG) secretary Liliana Alexa said: 'In some countries in the world a state inspector is present every time a crane comes on site. That's what we'd like to see in Britain. The HSE urgently need more government resources to be able to keep the public safe.' BCDAG says it will continue to campaign for an industry that is properly regulated and for a regulatory agency that is properly funded. The crane campaigners were joined by representatives of Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK), who delivered HSE a Christmas card wishing it a much more prosperous new year. Linda Whelan, a founder member of FACK whose son was killed in a construction incident, said 'enforcement agencies are strapped for cash and can't be proactive enough.' She added: 'FACK wants the government to make our Christmas wishes for safer work come true by providing the HSE with more resources to catch the safety criminals before they kill more people.' Early next year, FACK will be responding to the call for evidence from the work and pensions select committee into the work of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. FACK says it 'will make it clear HSE is not doing a good enough job now, and do not see how it can it do better if it faces even more resource cuts.'

Young workers told to 'speak out'

Students taking on seasonal jobs over the Christmas break have been warned to speak out against safety shy bosses, following a 50 per cent increase in young worker deaths over the past year. Denise Kitchener, chief executive of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) said students should 'speak up and stay safe,' so that deaths and injuries can be avoided. 'More than 17,000 young workers were injured over the past year - that's one young worker injured every half an hour,' she said, adding 'we are particularly concerned about the one million students who take on part time jobs to fund their studies. With Christmas around the corner, this number is likely to rise and it is imperative that youngsters speak out if they are concerned about a safety issue at work.' APIL is calling on employers to push health and safety to the top of their agenda, and make sure part time and temporary workers are trained and supervised in the same way as permanent staff. 'Many people are afraid to speak out even if they feel their safety is at risk,' said the APIL boss. 'They may worry about losing their jobs or getting into trouble with the boss, but they have a right to go to work and be safe. The figures suggest that many employers are turning a blind eye to safety, so it is imperative that people stand their ground if all is not well.'

  • APIL news release [pdf].
Don't let seasonal stress strike your staff

Employers are being encouraged to keep an eye out for the signs of stress in their staff during the busy pre-Christmas and New Year periods. Safety professionals' organisation IOSH says those working in shops, pubs and restaurants particularly are likely to be under greater pressure from the late pre-Christmas shopping rush and New Year's sales. IOSH president Ray Hurst said: 'This rush places extra demands on employees who are already likely to be working very hard, so employers need to watch out for signs that their employees are unable to cope. It's important for all employers to remember that they have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their staff.' He added: 'Minor adjustments can often be sufficient to relieve the situation. For example, ensure that your staff take proper breaks during busy periods and having someone to talk to about how they are feeling is often a good starting point. For those with parental responsibilities, allow them a bit of flexibility to sort childcare arrangements. Remember to be particularly careful with any temporary workers you employ especially for the seasonal period. Ensure they are properly supervised and receive support from more experienced members of staff.'

Fine after guard is crushed to death

A South Yorkshire haulage firm has been fined £20,000 after safety breaches led to the death of a security guard on its premises more than two years ago. Insurers for E Pawson and Son Ltd are also expected to make a substantial compensation payout to the widow of nightwatchman John Cavill, aged 54, of Maltby, who was crushed to death when a heavy metal gate at the company's staff car park fell off its runners. The family-owned company, said to be making a loss of £686,000 this year because of a downturn and loss of haulage contracts, was also ordered to pay £5,717 costs by the judge at Doncaster Crown Court. Mr Cavill's body was only discovered by workers the next morning. The gate was normally operated automatically but the electrics had been affected by the weather and the guard decided to pull it shut. But there was no metal stop pin to prevent it coming off the rails, said Chris Smith, prosecuting for Doncaster Council. The firm pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act by failing to ensure the safety of employees.

BP exhausts $1.6bn Texas claims fund

London-based oil multinational BP has said it has spent all of its $1.6 billion (about £0.8bn) fund for paying claims over the refinery explosion in Texas and faces unknown costs for the remaining claims. The company had already increased the size of the fund twice as more claims were filed and settled. BP is on trial in Galveston, Texas, on lawsuits by eight men injured in the 2005 incident, which killed 15 people and injured hundreds. It faces 1,200 more claims. 'BP has paid more than $1.6 billion to date to settle death and injury claims,' spokesperson Neil Chapman, said. 'The cost to resolve additional claims will be determined as and when additional claims are resolved.' The company is 'self-insured' for these costs, he said. The workers in the Galveston trial are seeking $1 billion (approximately £500m).

Top asbestos campaign relaunches

A campaign group set up in memory of a Leeds mother who died of an asbestos-related cancer has won charitable status. The June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund has now officially relaunched itself as an independent charity. It is dedicated to raising awareness of the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, funding research into the illness and supporting sufferers and their carers. The fund is also pushing for the introduction of a mesothelioma charter, which would give guarantees over the treatment and support of victims, and their families. June Hancock was brought up in Armley, Leeds, in the shadow of the JW Roberts asbestos factory. After Mrs Hancock contracted the disease, she brought the company responsible to the courts, and secured a landmark victory against them in 1995, establishing the firm was responsible for asbestos cancers in the neighbouring community. Her mother, who also lived in the shadow of the factory, also died from mesothelioma. The fund was set up by Mrs Hancock's family and friends 10 years ago, shortly after her death. It has raised more than £400,000, mostly in small donations. June's daughter, Kimberley Stubbs, said: 'My mum came to know many special people throughout her illness and many of these friends were involved in setting up the fund in her honour.' The national Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK (AVSGF) has also relaunched its website, promoting activities and groups nationwide.

Australia: Firefighters welcome cancer action

A firefighters' union in Australia has welcomed an official investigation of the cancer risks linked to the job. The government in Australia Capital Territory (ACT) - Australia has a state as well as federal government system - is to set up a working group to investigate possible links between escalating cancer rates among firefighters and their workplace. The move comes after a press report this month said at least six firefighters had died in the past few years as a result of cancer-related illnesses in the small territory. ACT emergency services minister Simon Corbell said the government was taking the issue seriously. He has asked the United Firefighters Union (UFU) to join with the ACT Emergency Services Agency, occupational health and safety officials, and health representatives to put together a working group to investigate the cancer-work link and advise him on the best way forward. Presumptive legislation acknowledging the association between cancer and firefighters' work already exists in the US and Canada (Risks 305). UFU ACT branch secretary Eric Williams said he would see how the working group progressed and added that having the union involved would make it more 'trustworthy.' He said: 'We believe the data is already there, it's compelling and the science backs us, so I can only see it coming out with one conclusion, and that is that this is real. People are dying and this will have to be dealt with. The next step will be a political one.' A University of Cincinnati study, published late last year, confirmed firefighters were twice as likely to develop prostate and testicular cancer and have 'significantly' higher rates of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma (Risks 283). International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) experts this month ranked occupational exposure as a firefighter as possibly carcinogenic to humans, identifying stronger evidence for certain cancers (Risks 335).

Global: Multinationals, toxic toys and toxic work

A spate of recalls of 'toxic toys' exported from China has given lots of emphasis to the risk to consumers, but is ignoring the toxic risk at the companies exploiting cheap labour in the country and supplying brand name multinationals. Anita Chan and Jonathan Unger of the Australian National University's Contemporary China Centre say customers are cautious about the shiploads of toys coming out of China, ever since the massive recalls started in August. 'The Western news media and political cartoonists almost exclusively point the finger at 'China,' as if the country was guilty of negligently injuring American children,' they write. 'Not often noted in the uproar was that the toys shipped from China are mostly made by Hong Kong firms using cheap labour in China. Their factories in China make toys for big brand name companies such as Mattel and Disney based on designs that the American corporations provide.' They add: 'No mention has been made of the many hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers who labour under dangerous conditions, making toys and many hundreds of other kinds of export products. If lead paint is used, workers are the ones exposed to lead hour after hour. In numerous industries, all too often workers are exposed to noxious fumes and dangerous machinery. They are poor migrants from China's countryside, and they endure work days averaging 11 hours, six to seven days a week, to earn take-home pay of $100 or less a month.' Chan and Unger conclude: 'Most of the CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] programmes have made little headway in improving the conditions of workers who contract occupational diseases or are injured. Bosses simply discard most of them with scant compensation.'

Pakistan: Cotton pickers suffer pesticide poisoning

Pakistan's cotton-picking women are suffering pesticide poisoning symptoms ranging from mild headaches and skin allergies to cancer, a study has shown. A study by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), found that blood samples of only 10 per cent of the female cotton pickers were clear of pesticides after the harvesting season. It is estimated that about 80 per cent of the total pesticides consumed in Pakistan are applied on the cotton crop. 'The cuts and skin rashes of cotton pickers further expose them to the hazards of pesticides,' the study published in the SDPI research journal said. It said that picking cotton was also common during pregnancy and breastfeeding, which posed additional risks to the health of women and their children. 'Cotton pickers are trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, fuelled by low wages they receive and the health hazards they are exposed to,' the report noted. It adds that low wages mean the cotton pickers are not in a position to purchase any protective clothing. The authors call for implementation of pesticides regulations, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation's International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides and Pakistan's 2005 national environment policy which promotes integrated pest management and discourages the use of agro chemicals.

USA: Chemicals linked to nurse ill-health

A national survey of US nurses' exposures to chemicals, pharmaceuticals and radiation at work suggests there are links between serious health problems such as cancer, asthma, miscarriages and children's birth defects and the duration and intensity of these exposures. The survey included 1,500 nurses from all 50 states. The survey, released online last week by the Environmental Working Group and several other US academic, advocacy and nursing organisations, found nurses confront daily low-level but repeated exposures to mixtures of hazardous materials that include residues from medications, anaesthetic gases, sterilising and disinfecting chemicals, radiation, latex, cleaning chemicals, hand and skin disinfection products, and even mercury escaping from broken medical equipment. There are no workplace safety standards to protect nurses from the combined effects of these exposures on their health, the report says. 'Nurses are exposed daily to scores of different toxic chemicals and other hazardous materials whose cumulative health risks have never been studied,' said Jane Houlihan, EWG vice president for research. 'Nurses ingest, touch or breathe residues of any number of these potentially harmful substances as they care for patients, day after day and face potential but unstudied health problems as a result.' Barbara Sattler, professor and director of the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, commented: 'For many of the toxic chemicals in hospitals there are safer alternatives or safer processes. We must make these healthier choices for the sake of our patients, nurses and all hospital employees.' Nurses who were regularly exposed to chemicals reported higher incidences of cancer, asthma and miscarriages than their peers with limited exposure, the report found. Those who were regularly exposed to chemicals while pregnant had children with higher incidences of birth defects than the children of nurses with limited exposure.

Stress at work update

Stress is one of top workplace health problems - and it comes with a big cost. A new policy paper published by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health (SCMH) says mental ill health costs UK employers more than £25bn a year. 'Mental health at work: Developing the business case' puts this cost a £1,000 per employee in the workforce. On any given day, one worker in five will experience mental distress, the report said. It adds mental health problems accounted for 40 per cent of sickness absence from work. SCMH employment programme director Bob Grove said: 'Employers need to be aware of mental health as it affects every workplace in the UK. It is a normal part of the human condition. Yet most employers vastly under-estimate how many of their staff will have mental health problems. Employers who take effective action to improve the wellbeing of their staff will reap the rewards for their efforts.' Those wanting to find out more about prevention of stress at work, should put next year's National Stress Network conference in their diaries. The event is scheduled for 15 November 2008.

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