Risks 342 - 9 February 2008

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Number 342 - 09 February 2008

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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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New push for temp rights at work

MPs and trade unions have given their backing a new bill to ensure equal treatment for agency workers. The Private Member's Bill, brought by Andrew Miller MP, was launched at the House of Commons on 6 February, ahead of its second reading on 22 February. Temporary workers can miss out on employment protection, compensation, sick pay, holiday and other rights, and have been shown to be at greater risk from accidents and some work-related health problems. Supporting the draft bill, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'There is nothing wrong with legitimate employment agencies providing short-term work for those with short-term availability. Some people are always going to prefer to work a series of temporary contracts, but just because they opt for agency work shouldn't mean they are treated less fairly at work. But rogue agencies and dodgy practices are now tarnishing the whole sector.' He added these agencies were creating an 'underclass of workers who cannot get permanent work, who have no loyalty to employers, and who have to move from part-time job to part-time job. Andrew Miller's Private Member's Bill is an important opportunity to introduce decent minimum standards for all. We ask MPs to be present for the debate on Friday 22 February, and urge the government to support the Bill's passage through parliament.'

Safety strike warning on Tube

Unions have warned they could ballot more than 7,500 London Underground staff on plans to strike over 'a raft of safety and staffing issues'. Rail unions RMT and TSSA said workers faced an 'unacceptable' attack. The unions have told London Underground Limited (LUL) that measures including 40 ticket office closures, de-staffing, lone working, the introduction of 'mobile supervisors' and the use of agency staff all undermine safety. They say the there is increasing 'casualisation' of safety-critical work. 'Each of these issues is serious in its own right, but together they amount to a fundamental and unacceptable attack on staffing across the network which strikes at the very heart of its safe operation,' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said. 'When LUL imposed driver-only tube trains it assured the public and its own drivers that good station staffing levels would keep the system safe, but those assurances are now being undermined. The systematic denial of driving jobs and promotion to experienced Tube workers in favour of external recruitment is another serious problem that is undermining the safety culture.' TSSA general secretary Gerry Doherty said: 'LUL has insisted on changes to its emergency plan that water down the staff required on duty and which our safety reps believe will undermine the ability to respond to emergencies and undertake safe evacuations. We now have agency staff in LUL uniforms and station staff left to work alone at night, and they have even got agency staff carrying ticket machine cash around on trains. LUL has also sought to change its policy on when and how staff can refuse to work on safety grounds, in a way that is unworkable and in breach of legislation.'

Union joy at Southend cash van move

Security union GMB has welcomed a decision by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council to allow cash vans to park near cash drop offs. Members working in 'cash and valuables in transit' (CVIT) vehicles delivering to shops and banks in Southend are now allowed to park as close as possible to the delivery and collection point to reduce the risks of attacks on staff. GMB says this is the first major breakthrough in its cash van safety campaign, prompted by a sharp escalation in attacks and robberies. It says in other areas vans routinely receive parking fines if they pull up close to their delivery or collection location. GMB's security worker organiser Paul Campbell said: 'GMB welcome the decision by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council as they pay tribute to the GMB members who campaigned tirelessly for this breakthrough. Hopefully it will be the first of many.' He added: 'CVIT crews need to park as close to their delivery location as is safely possible and help to reduce the number of CVIT attacks, protecting both our members and the general public. Exemption from parking restrictions provides a much safer environment. In additional to action by the local councils this could also be achieved by statutory guidance to secure a long-term solution throughout the UK. The current system is putting GMB members' lives at risk.'

Car jacking highlights driving threat

Professional drivers need better protection from violent attacks, the union GMB has said. The call came this week after two men 'car jacked' a vehicle at Heathrow airport on 3 February, injuring the chauffeur. One of the men distracted the GMB member by banging on the rear of the vehicle. When he got out of the Mercedes to investigate a second man jumped into the driver's seat and started to drive the vehicle away. The chauffeur attempted to stop him and was dragged by the moving vehicle for some distance before he lost his grip. He suffered injuries to his wrist, arm and knee and to the side of his body. He had to attend an accident and emergency unit in hospital to receive treatment for his injuries. The driver, who has not been named, was working at Heathrow airport for Sovereign Chauffeurs. He is currently unable to work due to his injuries and the lack of car. The Mercedes, which cost £60,000 new, was insured for £44,000. The car was later involved in a police chase. It was recovered after it had been crashed into a brick wall in West London. Terence Flanagan, GMB professional drivers' branch secretary, said: 'GMB want to see coordinated action by everybody involved in the industry to minimise and eliminate the avoidable risks to which GMB members are exposed.' Calling for CCTV in passenger vehicles and at waiting points, he added the union also wanted 'to see the specialist insurance companies who deal with professional drivers amending the insurance policies to cover the full gamut of the damages to drivers, their vehicles and their livelihoods that are now commonplace in the industry. GMB will be seeking meetings with the relevant bodies to learn the lessons from this carjacking.'

Training won't prevent back pain

If employers do not lift a finger to reduce manual handling at work and just rely on training in 'safe' lifting they'll not stop workplace back injuries, researchers have concluded. Commenting on study findings published last week on the British Medical Journal (BMJ) website, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'This is an important piece of research. It shows that employers shouldn't be relying on their employees lifting heavy weights 'correctly' to prevent back injury, but instead should be reducing the weight of things that need to be lifted manually. The Health and Safety Executive will now have to review its advice on manual handling as a matter of urgency.' He added: 'If employers want to protect their staff from the pain of back strain, they should not be banking on their staff using the correct techniques to lift heavy objects at work. The best way to keep staff injury free is to make sure that everyone understands the importance of not lifting heavy weights on their own.' The authors of the Finnish study said a 'no lifting' policy might be more effective than training in correct lifting techniques. They reached this conclusion after looking at eleven studies: eight studies dealt with health workers who manually handled patients, the other three looked at baggage handlers and postal workers. All the participants in the studies worked in jobs where there was strain on the back and where there was the potential for alleviating any strain through an intervention such as training. None of the workers in the studies were actively seeking treatment for back pain. The researchers found no difference in back pain in studies where one group received training and the other did not. Training compared to minor advice (a video) showed no effect on back pain after a year. The researchers wrote: 'Many health professionals are involved in training and advising workers on lifting and handling. Even though there may be other reasons to continue this practice, this review does not provide evidence that it prevents back pain.'

Scotland makes asbestos disease move

Victims of several asbestos-related conditions will benefit from Scottish legislation allowing them to claim damages, even if they do not suffer ill-health as a result, the Scottish government justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has said. People with pleural plaques, asymptomatic asbestosis or pleural thickening will be able to seek compensation if they have been negligently exposed to asbestos, under a proposed bill published by the Scottish government. In October last year, the House of Lords ruled that symptomless pleural plaques would not be actionable under the law of damages, overturning 20 years of case law and sparking outrage from asbestos campaigners and politicians (Risks 341). Mr MacAskill said the Scottish legislation, which was announced in November last year, would overturn the previous House of Lords ruling. He said: 'Pleural plaques in anyone exposed to asbestos mean they have a greatly increased lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma and a small but significantly increased risk of developing bronchial carcinoma. This will mean that people diagnosed with this condition will have to live with the worry of possible future ill-health for the rest of their lives.' The minister added: 'This government takes this issue very seriously and I hope this move to help those who have been affected by exposure to asbestos will bring some relief to people living with this condition.' The wider scope of the proposed law was welcomed by asbestos campaign groups. Harry McCluskey, secretary of Clydeside Action on Asbestos, said: 'We are delighted with the news that the justice secretary Kenny MacAskill will incorporate pleural thickening and asbestosis within the pleural plaque bill. This will allow those people with any asbestos-related disease to continue to have the legal right to pursue civil damages.'

More school trips for pupils

The government says teachers will find it easier to take pupils on school trips with more help and advice, less bureaucracy and quality badges for popular destinations. Ministers say the 'Staying Safe Action Plan', new guidance from the Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) launched this week, will make it much easier for teachers to take their pupils out of the classroom, with a reduction in the 'the bureaucratic burden of risk assessment on teachers.' Secretary of state Ed Balls said: 'We should not let a fear of a compensation culture prevent pupils from learning outside the classroom. On school trips - as in other areas covered in our staying safe action plan - we need to help parents and teachers strike the right balance between protecting our children and allowing them the freedom to develop and enjoy childhood.' Steve Sinnott, general secretary of teaching union NUT, welcomed the guidelines. He added: 'The NUT has never called for teachers to boycott external activities. Nevertheless there has been a ripple of anxiety, which has run through the profession when there has been a rare accident involving a pupil on a school trip. I look now to the plan to provide the basis for creating an entitlement for all children and young people to outdoor activities, and to provide the necessary protection to teachers when organising school trips.' Health and Safety Commission (HSC) chair Judith Hackitt said the reduction in unnecessary paperwork was welcome. 'Most schools do a very good job of managing risks sensibly and responsibly and we should all be grateful to them,' she said. 'However there are growing examples of unnecessarily long paperwork, risk assessments being carried out for trivial risks and over protective measures being taken... As part of our sensible risk campaign we are working closely with DCSF and others to provide further practical support to schools so they know what is - and isn't expected of them.'

Coventry teachers under attack

More than 400 school staff in Coventry, mostly women, have been attacked or threatened by pupils in the past year. A report in the Coventry Evening Telegraph says almost all the victims were female members of staff at primary and secondary schools, and one in eight of the 400 attacks - 50 assaults - involved a weapon of some kind. Figures from Coventry City Council show that 446 school staff were on the receiving end of varying forms of attack during 2007, mainly from pupils. There were 208 attacks on teachers, 11 on deputy headteachers and seven on headteachers. Education assistants were the subject of 142 attacks and 32 attacks were on nursery workers. Most victims were women - 380 women were attacked, compared to 46 men. Jane Nellist, joint divisional secretary for teaching union NUT in Coventry, told the newspaper the figures may not reflect the true extent of the problem. 'We believe there is under-reporting as teachers don't always formally report these assaults. It's always an issue of concern,' she explained. 'Verbal assaults can be just as intimidating as physical assaults.'

'Serious risk' of new migrant tragedies

Many migrant workers are being put at 'serious risk' by cost-cutting employers who aren't providing sufficient training or suitable supervision to new recruits, safety professionals' organisation IOSH has said. IOSH president Ray Hurst, speaking ahead of the fourth anniversary of the death of the Morecambe Bay cocklers, said: 'We know that between 2002 and 2004 in the agriculture sector another 11 migrant workers were killed in addition to those who perished at Morecambe Bay. What we don't know is how many were killed in other industries.' He added: 'Migrant workers are entitled to the same protection of health and safety legislation as other workers regardless of whether or not they work illegally. But the reality is that with many migrant workers keen to earn as much in as short a time as possible, taking on jobs with existing safety concerns and their lack of understanding of the UK health and safety system, they are a vulnerable group and at greater risk.' Half of the respondents to a survey by IOSH's food and drink group said their organisation's health and safety policy did not address how non-English speaking employees were informed, instructed or trained in health and safety. Almost half (46 per cent) of companies provided the same health and safety training packages to non-English speaking employees as to English speakers, while 42 per cent offered English lessons to staff, although these were general and not specific to the company or industry. 'We might not suffer another disaster on the scale of Morecambe Bay again, but with 5 million migrant workers in the UK and the apparent lack of action by employers we could be inviting tragedy to the door of our workplaces again,' Ray Hurst said. 'I hope the Gangmasters Licensing Agency (GLA) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will heed our warning, and seek to better protect migrant workers in the workplace.'

Serial failures in work death probe

A probe into the horrific death at work of a Glasgow butcher was hampered by a series of failures by official agencies, a hearing has concluded. Thomas Bolesworth, 65, died after a pot of boiling stew fell on top of him, Glasgow Sheriff Court heard. He had grabbed the metal container holding 65lb of meat when he lost his footing on 30 December 2005. He suffered 38 per cent burns after the contents spilled over his face and body, dying of multiple organ failure on 6 January 2006. In a written judgment, Sheriff Kenneth Mitchell listed flaws in the inquiry into the incident. He accused Glasgow City Council of 'a most serious error of judgment' because it failed to speak to Mr Bolesworth - the only witness to the accident - while he was in hospital and before he became too incapacitated to respond. Sheriff Mitchell added that the official Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) had not heard from any police officer, paramedic or nurse who might have spoken to him after the incident. He also commented on the city's procurator fiscal department's failure to instruct a post-mortem examination on Mr Bolesworth's body, which he said 'has turned out to be a most unfortunate decision, which certainly resulted in this inquiry becoming lengthy and expensive.' The hearing was told that the experienced butcher had come out of retirement to help out at R McMillan Butchers during the festive period in 2005.

Peg bonuses to worker safety success

Britain's biggest companies are being urged to radically alter the way they pay their directors by linking their bonuses to non-financial measures such as environmental protection and the safety of employees. The Guardian reported this week that the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum, which represents public sector pension funds with £85bn of assets, has already urged its members to oppose pay policies at oil companies BP and Shell because they do not include any references to the safety of employees (Risks 290). The forum is beginning a campaign to encourage all FTSE 100 companies to include targets such as employee relations and environmental protection in the performance measurement for directors' bonuses. It found only seven FTSE 100 companies had non-financial measures included in their long-term incentive plans to reward directors. Only one company, United Utilities, has a plan that includes more than one non-financial factor. In the wider FTSE 1000 there were 66 companies that set out so-called key performance indicators to measure non-financial performance. The forum said: 'Executive incentive schemes that only measure performance against financial targets do not adequately focus executive directors' minds on the non-financial factors that influence a company's long-term prospects.'

Firm fined for forklift folly

A Carlisle joinery firm has been fined after an employee was lifted eight feet into the air on a forklift truck to fit a company sign, just as a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector made a call. Dick Thompson and Co (Cumbria) Ltd was fined £2,000 and ordered to pay £834.39 costs at Carlisle Magistrates Court this week after pleading guilty to a safety offence. When HSE inspector Mhairi Duffy visited the premises in August last year she saw Ryan Jewett being lifted eight feet into the air on a pallet on a forklift truck to fit a company sign to its own premises. The company was issued with a prohibition notice at that time. According to the HSE inspector: 'Although no one was injured on the occasion, this incident had all the hallmarks of an accident waiting to happen.' She added: 'Working at heights should never be carried out from the fork arms or from a pallet balanced on the fork arms of a lift truck. Specifically designed work platforms secured to the truck may be used under limited controlled conditions.' A Hampshire company had to pay out almost £37,000 in fines and costs last month after a worker was injured by a forklift truck (Risks 341).

Six-figure fine after scrapyard death

A Coventry scrapyard has been ordered to pay out over a quarter of a million pounds in fines and costs after a worker was killed by a reversing skip lorry. Easco (Midlands) Limited was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay £55,000 costs at Coventry Crown Court on 5 February, after pleading guilty to a safety charge. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which brought the prosecution, said it was 'most unlikely' the death would have occurred if basic safety precautions had been followed. Burner Ronald Barnacle, 58, was killed on 14 June 2005. Speaking after the case, HSE inspector Jenny Skeldon said: 'Scrapyard owners need to ensure that they make a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of the movement of vehicles and pedestrians on site and identify and implement appropriate control measures to prevent people being struck by moving vehicles. In this case, particularly between March 2004 and December 2005, there were inadequate precautions in place to segregate pedestrians from vehicles, despite previous warnings from HSE at other sites within the Easco group.' She added: 'Had basic health and safety precautions been observed it is most unlikely that such a fatality would have occurred.'

Australia: Stress drives workers to road rage

Overworked and underpaid employees are being driven to road rage, according to research that suggests employers must take more responsibility for displays of aggression outside the workplace. The Work and Stress Research Group at the University of South Australia studied 130 Adelaide workers and analysed the impact of feeling undervalued at work on their anger and driving. In a paper in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, the researchers report a significant relationship between what they call effort-reward imbalance (ERI) and driving rage. 'This finding implies that individuals who suffer a perceived imbalance between high effort and low reward in the workplace may develop increased over-commitment and general anger, which in turn increases the individual's tendency to experience frequent and intense anger in driving,' the paper concludes. The study included male and female, young and old workers of varying income levels, and found 'driving anger increased with levels of ERI.'

  • Benjamin L Hoggan and Maureen F Dollard. Effort-reward imbalance at work and driving anger in an Australian community sample: Is there a link between work stress and road rage? Accident Analysis and Prevention, volume 39, pages 1286-1295, 2007 [abstract]. The Australian.
Bangladesh: Bird flu outbreak spreading

Bangladesh's poultry industry is facing a crisis as bird flu spreads throughout the country. As of 5 February, H5N1 avian influenza outbreaks had been reported in 37 of the country's 64 districts. Chickens, ducks, pigeons, quails and wild cranes are reportedly dying in their thousands. Scores of crows have reportedly died after feeding on dead chickens. According to Mesbahuddin Ahmed, a veterinarian in Bangladesh's central Gazipur District - often referred to as the poultry capital of the country and home to over 5,000 poultry farms - the impact is already being felt. 'Many poultry farms and hatcheries have been closed down. If we fail to prevent [a] bird flu pandemic then this promising industry might face collapse,' he warned. 'Our resources are limited. We need more trained personnel, more testing laboratories and more personal protective equipment to more effectively control the disease.' At present, some 180 people who worked at H5N1-affected farms - including those government officials involved in the culling of sick birds - are being monitored by health experts, although to date none have tested positive for the virus. People living in close proximity to sick birds and who later showed symptoms of either fever or flu are also being closely watched. Health experts at Bangladesh's Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research said so far no cases of human infection had been found.

France: Gruelling work linked to early retirement

Older manual workers in France are more likely to retire early or be registered economically inactive than the workforce as a whole, with their tough jobs and poor health identified as a key reason why. French employment ministry researchers explored the link between the hardships of work and early departure from the workforce using the findings of a 2003 national health survey. In 2003, a quarter of France's population aged 50 to 59 were out of the labour force, either fully retired, on early retirement, registered unemployed or economically inactive. Most who had given up work early were public sector workers who had more often been exposed to shiftwork and night work. In general, they thought themselves healthy compared to the other categories. Manual workers are more likely to be registered unemployed or economically inactive, noted the study. Most unemployed or economically inactive older persons were manual workers who had previously worked in industry, building, and consumer services, where they had been exposed to many physical hardships during their career. They had high exposure to gruelling work, especially carrying heavy loads and work in painful positions. Among this group, 38 per cent reported 'average' and 15 per cent 'poor' health, against 20 per cent and 3 per cent for all early retirees and 26 per cent and 4 per cent for all French fifty-somethings.

Global: Joint action on maritime accidents

Organisations representing seafarers and shipping companies have launched an initiative to curb maritime accidents. Global union the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and industry bodies the International Shipping Federation (ISF) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) signed the deal in London last week. It commits all three to promote the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) guidelines on fair treatment of injured seafarers. The three organisations also pledged to approach governments to encourage adoption, implementation and monitoring of the guidelines. ITF general secretary, David Cockroft, remarked: 'The knee-jerk scapegoating of seafarers following accidents at sea is a growing concern to us all. In recent years the response of too many national authorities has been to reach for the handcuffs first and find out what actually happened last.' He added: 'Incidents like these prove how vital the guidelines are. I'm proud to say that the ITF and ISF in their capacity as ILO 'social partners', with support from ICS and other industry organisations, helped to develop these guidelines, which were the product of tripartite negotiations with governments prior to their agreement by IMO and ILO.'

USA: BP looks to cut costs again

The oil giant BP has said it will cut 5,000 jobs after reporting 'very disappointing' profits after refining margins were squeezed and costs rose. BP said the jobs were about 5 per cent of its total global workforce, but declined to pinpoint where the cuts would fall. It was a similar cost cutting programme in 2004 that an investigation concluded contributed to the March 2005 BP Texas City refinery blast that killed 15 and injured 170 (Risks 299). Low points in BP's year have included receiving a $50m fine (approximately £25m) for the 2005 Texas City explosion. This was part of a larger $373m fine by the US Department of Justice for committing environmental crimes and fraud, and included a fine for price manipulation (Risks 330). The job cuts at BP are part of plans by the company to cut it overheads by 20 per cent in order to boost profits and close the gap on some of its larger rivals. Former BP chair Lord Browne's blueprint to increase profits in 2004 followed a similar - and ultimately deadly - path. Announcing the findings in March 2007 of a Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigation into the Texas City tragedy the then CSB chair Carolyn W Merritt said: 'The combination of cost-cutting, production pressures, and failure to invest caused a progressive deterioration of safety at the refinery.' She added: 'In 2004, BP executives challenged their refineries to cut yet another 25 per cent from their budgets for the following year.' US District Judge Lee Rosenthal this week heard bereaved relatives and their legal representatives oppose the proposed penalties deal - which includes a guilty plea to a felony environmental crime, the $50 million fine and three years' probation - saying it's too lenient for a tragedy that caused such carnage. BP and federal prosecutors counter that it's harsh enough because the $50m fine is the largest so far under the Clean Air Act and the agreement requires BP's North American products division to become a felon.

New construction site health tool

In a bid to help the construction industry tackle occupational health issues, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has launched a new online resource, Construction Occupational Health Management Essentials (COHME). HSE says last year 1.8 million days were lost in the construction industry due to work related ill-health compared to 0.9 million days lost due to accidents. HSE chief construction inspector Stephen Williams said: 'We want occupational health to move up the agenda for all construction companies. Large companies can show real leadership in influencing this cultural change. Properly managing occupational health is not a new legal requirement and we expect to see good practice in the industry. The COHME tool will equip all construction companies with practical advice on how to tackle rising occupational health issues such as dermatitis, asbestos, respiratory diseases and musculoskeletal disorders.' He added: 'The COHME tool will facilitate the initiative and leadership that the construction industry needs to take to tackle the occupational health issue. I urge large construction companies to act on this, with smaller companies adopting this as a part of the supply chain process. Time is ticking and now is the time to show ownership of this issue.'

Zero occupational cancer conference, 25 April, Stirling

As a contribution to the global trade union zero occupational cancer campaign, an international conference will address a major threat to public health: the toll taken by occupational and environmental cancers. The 25 April event to be hosted by Stirling University, Scotland and supported by unions in the UK and across the world, will feature top union, campaign and academic experts from Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Finland, the UK and USA. Speakers from international health and safety agencies including the World Health Organisation, the European Agency (EU-OSHA) and the International Labour Organisation will also contribute. The conference will assess the best available policies and practices, including presentations from leading researchers and commercial organisations on toxics use reduction, from members of bodies such as the Canadian Cancer Prevention Coalition and from trade unions and non-governmental organisations. Union safety specialists and safety representatives will have the opportunity to make contact with top international experts on occupational cancer causes and incidence and on prevention strategies.

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