Risks 385 - 6 December 2008

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

Union News

Coroner warns of deadly contract pressures

A coroner investigating the killing of a BBC journalist in Somalia has called on the corporation to ensure journalists are never put under pressure to go on dangerous missions. Dr Peter Dean said he would be writing to the BBC to stress that managers must recognise staff have an overriding right to turn down dangerous jobs, regardless of fears they might have for future employment. Last week he recorded a verdict of unlawful killing in the case of Kate Peyton who was shot dead in Mogadishu, Somalia, in February 2005. Evidence to the inquest suggested she may have sidelined safety concerns because she was worried about keeping her job. Although BBC procedures allow for journalists to turn down dangerous assignments, the request for Kate to go to the Somali capital came at the same time as discussions over whether to renew her contract. Journalists' union NUJ is warning media companies that they must recognise the impact of poor job security on freelance workers and ensure that a similar tragedy does not occur in the future. NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear, who gave evidence to the inquest, said: 'The coroner's verdict highlights the unacceptable pressures placed on Kate Peyton - but it is symptomatic of the kind of pressures many freelances, casuals and those who lack proper job security face. They feel they have to go to any lengths to prove their worth.' He said that in light of the coroner's conclusions, managements need to recognise 'some risks are unacceptable' and they 'need to review the security procedures in place for all staff and freelances.' Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, who also gave evidence to the inquest, said recent court judgments in the UK make it imperative that risk assessments such as those in use at the BBC are reviewed wherever there is a change of circumstances (Risks 343). Such assessments are supposed to take account of particular risks to high risk groups, like contract workers, he said. 'If the BBC and other media employers do not bear this in mind, they may find themselves at risk from legal action in future.'

Scottish news goes from bad to worse

Glasgow's Herald newspapers, already facing complaints of serious safety abuses by stressed out journalists on its under-staffed titles, has responded by dropping a Christmas bombshell. The group has made all its journalists and publishing staff redundant and asked them to re-apply for their jobs. The company claimed a work-to-rule prompted by health and safety concerns was a reason why - even though the work-to-rule never in fact took place. Commenting before the decision by management of the Newsquest-owned titles the Glasgow Herald, Evening Times and Sunday Herald, NUJ Scottish organiser Paul Holleran said: 'We have submitted a document outlining a hundred problems journalists have with the computer system and working practices at the Herald papers along with the results of our health and safety survey. Increased workloads and stress are leading to serious health and safety problems.' Staff had been so concerned they had voted to work-to-rule. Tim Blott, the group's managing director, said the work-to-rule over safety concerns had, in part, prompted the move. 'Regrettable industrial action this week by members of the NUJ at the titles makes the need for radical change even more urgent as we work to secure the future of the business and as many jobs as possible,' he said. The union had not in fact proceeded with the work to rule, instead believing it was entering negotiations with the firm regarding its concerns. Commenting on the 3 December hammer blow from the Newsquest management, Mr Holleran said: 'This is a brutal attempt at forcing changes which can only cause major problems in these titles. There are changes taking place across the media industry, with redundancies and new technology being introduced. Every other media employer in Scotland is working with the union to try to handle these changes in a civilised manner.' Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond urged the company to rethink their decision during question time at the Holyrood parliament.

Study uncovers stress management problems

A report from public sector union UNISON has revealed workplace stress is not being tackled effectively in many Scottish workplaces. UNISON Scotland is calling for improved monitoring of stress at work, so that better anti-stress policies can be implemented. It wants to see the Health and Safety Executive's stress management standards properly applied across the public sector. Although most employers have good knowledge of the HSE standards and have stress policies, the study found many do not differentiate between stress caused by or at work and other forms of stress. According to the UNISON research, some employers 'do not even keep proper records of stress amongst their workers at all.' UNISON Scottish organiser Dave Watson said: 'Whilst there is evidence of action in response to the new HSE standards, many employers have outdated policies and poor monitoring. If you don't know the extent of the problem you cannot take effective action.' He added: 'Stress at work can clearly be damaging to the health of the worker, and that is our immediate concern. But the problem of stress at work is also harmful to delivery of important public services.' UNISON reps are to be briefed on issues that need to be raised with employers to more effectively tackle stress at work, he said.

Solder flux sensitised staff

Two GMB members from Cumbria have received compensation after being exposed to dangerous fumes in the workplace. Joanne Moorby and Lorraine Sharpe suffered from flu-like symptoms while working for Marl International in Ulverston. Joanne, 38, suffered from sinus headaches and felt ill for over a year before discovering fumes in soldering flux were causing her symptoms. Lorraine suffered similar symptoms. The production operatives used lead-free solder and tin lead solder as part of their jobs making electrical components. A faulty extraction fan meant the women were exposed to high level of fumes from soldering flux. It was not until Joanne searched for an explanation for her symptoms on the internet that she realised the cause. Both women have been left sensitised to soldering flux and can no longer work in the industry. Marl International accepted liability for the women's exposure and settled out-of-court. Joanne received a £12,500 payout and Lorraine an undisclosed sum. GMB regional secretary Tom Brennan said: 'It is important employers ensure their staff are protected from all health and safety risks. These members were exposed to toxic fumes which, while not deadly, made them feel unwell and had a negative effect on their lives for several months. More should have been done by the employers to ensure their staff members were fit and healthy and not being affected by the chemicals they were working with.'

Union fears over university's bullying culture

A 'serious and growing problem' of workplace bullying at Aberystwyth University has prompted a union survey. Lecturers' union UCU says it is running the institution-wide survey of all academic, professional and managerial staff after witnessing a rising number of complaints. The move follows recent negotiations between UCU and the university to bring into force a 'Dignity and respect at work policy.' UCU regional official Mark Oley said: 'The growth, and severity, of the personal cases that the union has been involved with is a growing concern. We do not feel the university is dealing with the problem either quickly or robustly enough.' He added: 'It's fine having a policy in place, but unless there is training for all managers and staff then the policy is worthless.' He said UCU would 'not allow this issue to be swept under the carpet' with the survey 'the first step to stopping what we see as a very serious and growing problem.' A recent UK-wide survey by the union revealed that 6.7 per cent of members in higher education claimed they were 'always' or 'often' bullied at work and 16.7 per cent said 'sometimes'. Only half (51 per cent) said they had 'never' be bullied at work.

UNISON calls for safer needles

Hospitals should be required to use safer needles to protect their staff, health service union UNISON has said. The call follows the case of a care assistant who was stuck in the leg by a needle at Kettering General Hospital. She suffered the injury while putting rubbish in a bin - a plastic bag containing eight needles had been discarded on the floor next to it, instead of in a sharps bin. The unidentified 39-year-old was left with a three-month wait for the results of blood tests for HIV and hepatitis. She was eventually cleared of any bloodborne diseases. A UNISON backed compensation claim resulted in a £6,500 out-of-court payout from the hospital. UNISON senior regional organiser, Lilian Greenwood, said: 'The vast majority of needlestick injuries could be prevented if trusts switched to using safer needles. The difference in cost is pennies and not using them is a false economy.' She added: 'It is estimated there are 100,000 injuries every year and they lead to a range of expensive tests for diseases, time off work, compensation claims and more importantly a great deal of both physical and mental pain and anguish.' Brendan Quinn from Thompsons Solicitors, who represented the care assistant for UNISON, said: 'Any workplace where needles are in use should have a strict policy to make sure they are discarded appropriately. Additionally, checks and balances need to be in place to ensure the policies are working in practice.'

New cases highlight vibration risks

Two settlements for a classic occupational disease caused by vibration show old workplace conditions are persisting in modern workplaces. GMB member Mark Twinn, 51, has been awarded £5,000 compensation in an out-of-court settlement with his employer, the London Borough of Waltham Forest, after suffering permanent injury to his hands from using vibratory tools. His job at the council required the use of compressors and jackhammers for most of his working day, which caused Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS), also known as vibration white finger. Paul Meehan of Pattinson and Brewer Solicitors, who represented Mr Twinn for GMB, said: 'Thankfully Mr Twinn was diagnosed at an early stage and has now been removed from use of vibratory tools at work.' Ben Wright, 29, received a £60,000 payout after developing the same condition after prolonged exposure to vibrating tools while working for UK Assistance, owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). RBS admitted that Ben's injury occurred due to their negligence. He started with the company as an apprentice panel beater when he was 16, using vibrating tools on a daily basis to repair vehicles. He first started showing mild symptoms of HAVS in 2002 but was unaware of the significance. By 2005 his condition deteriorated and he was told by doctors he could no longer work in his chosen career. He continued to work for UK Assistance in a number of temporary roles and was eventually retrained as an estimator. Mike Duffy from Thompsons Solicitors, who represented Ben Wright, said: 'Ben has a long working life ahead of him. His career prospects and earning capability has been adversely affected by his injury.'

Other news

TUC welcomes new HSE strategy

The TUC has welcomed the Health and Safety Executive's draft strategy to make UK workplaces safer. The plan, 'The health and safety of Great Britain - Be part of the solution', was launched by the HSE in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff on 3 December, and is the start of a three month consultation on its future direction and role. Commenting on the draft strategy, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'This represents a welcome clarification from the HSE of the direction it wants to take in the coming years. Unions will particularly like the commitment to safety regulation and enforcement, as well as the recognition of the role unions and safety reps can play in improving the safety culture of UK workplaces.' He warned, however, that the plan so far was just broad strokes and questions also remained about whether HSE had sufficient resources to deliver. Mr Barber said 'the main detail of what the new strategy will mean in practice is yet to be developed and we look forward to working with the HSE to ensure that the TUC has a leading role in supporting the work of the HSE and its staff. The government must ensure that the HSE gets the political and financial support it needs to take its strategy forward in what are likely to be difficult times to come.' Inspections, investigations and enforcement action by HSE have all dropped dramatically in recent years, mirroring a fall in frontline HSE inspectors (Risks 382). This performance would have to improve if HSE is to realise one of the key goals identified in the draft strategy: 'To ensure that those who fail in their health and safety duties are held to account.' The document acknowledges there are 'pressures to improve', noting: 'The disturbing fact is that Great Britain's health and safety performance has stopped improving.'

  • HSE news release and full draft strategy document, The health and safety of Great Britain - Be part of the solution [pdf]. TUC news release. Building.
  • HSE consultation: Comments can be submitted online or in writing. so by visiting where they will find the HSE strategy and its supporting documents. The consultation closes on 2 March 2009.

Concern about work health blueprint

More organisations have raised concerns about measures announced by the government last month to improve the health of the workforce. The TUC has already said the proposals should have been more ambitious, with a greater focus on prevention and on the needs of the worker (Risks 384). And BMA said GPs wanted to see new measures trialled first and warned they would not police sick leave. This week there have been more critical comments on the government's response to the Dame Carol Black review of the health of Britain's working age population. Phil Gray, chief executive of physios' union CSP said 'the lack of emphasis on early intervention is disappointing. The evidence suggests that early intervention by healthcare professionals can help prevent short-term sickness from becoming a reason for long-term absence from work.' Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser to manufacturers' body EEF and a member of the Health and Safety Executive board, said the decision not to introduce tax incentives for employers providing occupational health support was 'stupid'. In an interview with Personnel Today magazine, he added: 'I am disappointed that there are no tax incentives. If we want to kickstart firms using occupational health services then we need to stop taxing them for doing so.' Work and pensions secretary James Purnell defended what Personnel Today called 'the government's watered-down response' to the review. Proposals ignored by the government included the tax breaks and measures to force employers to report on their progress on reducing sickness absence. The work secretary told the magazine: 'We are not planning to ask companies to report on occupational health in their annual reports at this stage. It is part of their bottom line, and we are looking at how we can help employers understand the costs to them of sick pay, occupational health, hiring and training new staff.'

Bullying linked to sickness and disability

Workers with disabilities or those with long term ill-health are facing higher levels of hostile and negative treatment in the workplace, according to new research. In a survey of nearly 4,000 workers, the British Workplace Behaviour Survey 2008, conducted by Cardiff University and the University of Glamorgan, found employees with a disability or long-term illness reported they were more likely to have negative experiences at work. These experiences range from low expectations of workers, bullying and humiliation to, in some cases, physical violence. Nicola Brewer, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which published the report, said: 'In these difficult economic times we must do all we can to help as many people as possible to stay in work. If disabled people and those with long-term ill-health are more likely to experience hostile and negative treatment at work, we risk losing both their talent and their economic contribution.' She added: 'Disabled people and those with long term ill-health should be supported to get into, or back into, work, but they'll only stay in work if they are treated with dignity and respect.'

Council fined for sawdust asthma

A Scottish council has been fined £5,000 after a woodwork teacher developed asthma caused by exposure to sawdust. Sheriff William Gilchrist said he would have fined Stirling Council even more - but lawyers claimed it would come out of their children's services budget. The occupational asthma victim, John Shand, is now being transferred to teaching biology. Stirling Sheriff Court was told John developed occupational asthma after inhaling high levels of fine wood dust in the design and technology department at Bannockburn High School between November 2002 and January 2007. Stirling Council admitted three charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act and Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations. It admitted failing to give proper training to prevent John, 55, and other staff being exposed to high levels of wood dust during the teaching of woodwork. It also admitted failing to assess health risks to teachers in the department and failing to prevent or control the exposure of teachers to wood dust. Fiscal depute Caroline Dickson said the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was called to Bannockburn High School after a complaint from John in 2006. 'Mr Shand had realised after visiting his doctor that he was suffering from occupational asthma. The health and safety inspectors who called at the school found various breaches of the regulations. No risk assessments had been carried out, the control mechanisms for exposure to employees were inadequate and there was a lack of training.' She added: 'Hard and soft wood dust can cause asthma and cancer. Because of that there is a maximum exposure level. The school had not exceeded the maximum but because they are particularly nasty substances there is a duty to keep exposure as low as possible.'

Companies fined over oil rig tragedy

Two multinational energy companies have been fined £150,000 each after a court heard how a rig worker plunged to his death because proper safety measures were not in place. Technician David Soanes was working more than 40 miles offshore on the Clipper North Sea gas rig when he fell five metres. The 59-year-old mechanical technician had been carrying out maintenance work on stairs which were heavily corroded by the sea air when he slipped through a gap in a walkway on 11 November 2005. Norwich Crown Court was told that industry giants Shell UK, which owned the rig, and Amec Group, which employed Mr Soanes and provided maintenance staff, were both responsible for health and safety. The companies pleaded guilty to charges of failing to properly assess the risks and failing to provide adequate supervision. In addition to the fines, Shell and Amec were each ordered to pay costs of £41,500. Judge Peter Jacobs said: 'The companies have witnessed the effect of this death and have shown remorse. Their resolution is that nothing will happen like this again.' HSE principal inspector, Dr David Perry said: 'This incident resulted from Shell and Amec failing to manage well known and readily foreseeable hazards, in particular falling from height. Had the companies carried out adequate risk assessments and implemented and supervised the necessary control measures, including the use of a fall arrest harness, this accident could have been avoided.' A year ago, the union Unite said Shell's offshore safety record was so appalling it should quit the North Sea (Risks 332). Royal Dutch Shell last year suffered more workforce deaths worldwide than any other large western oil company, according to a report this week in the Financial Times.

Most sites too dangerous to work

An inspection blitz on construction sites in a London borough led to work in three-quarters of the workplaces visited being shut down. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) crackdown in Waltham Forest saw inspectors order all work stopped on 12 of 16 sites visited. Unsafe working practices including unsafe structures, fire risks, a lack of competent workers and unsafe excavations were identified at the sites, which were then served with prohibition notices. Inspectors also served five improvement notices on the owners of the buildings and on the contractors involved, ordering safety standards to be improved. HSE inspector Sarah Snelling said: 'We have been working with local authority officers in this area for several months and have been appalled at the willingness of building owners and their contractors to ignore basic safety precautions. They are literally risking the lives of those working on these sites as well as others in the immediate area. We will not tolerate poor standards and will take appropriate enforcement action.' The inspector added: 'Our advice to those who work in the refurbishment and conversion sector is to plan work, use competent workers and, if working at height, use the right equipment and use it safely.'

International News

Global: Corporate responsibility is still missing

When campaign and advocacy groups and unions highlighted employment and safety abuses in the international supply chains of multinational firms, the companies did respond. 'Many established 'corporate social responsibility' (CSR) programmes involving corporate codes of conduct, in-house monitoring of the codes, third-party or 'independent' monitoring of factories, CSR business associations, and multi-stakeholder initiatives involving non-governmental (NGO) and community-based (CBO) organisations,' workplace standards expert Garrett Brown told a conference of US industrial hygienists last month. 'There is now a sizeable global CSR 'cottage industry' which now involves literally millions of dollars annually for conferences, magazines, journals, websites, CSR consultants and 'social auditors'.' But fifteen years of CSR has had a limited impact, he says, with sweatshops 'alive and well throughout the global economy.' According to Brown, who co-ordinates the US-based Maquildora Health and Safety Support Network: 'The balance sheet of 15 years of CSR programmes is only marginal improvements for global supply chains as a whole; uneven, haphazard progress among industry leaders; while the vast majority of transnational corporations have no occupational health and safety (OHS) programmes for their supply chains at all.' He points to a 2006 study by the Investor Responsibility Research Center that found that of 6,000 leading transnational corporations, only 2,000 filed annual CSR reports and only 12 per cent of these had the requirement that their suppliers comply with the corporate code of conduct. Brown told the conference the situation is not hopeless. 'If we can raise awareness, focus on effective strategies, mobilise the necessary political will and resources, then we can bring about a 21st century global OHS that is based on a genuine integration of CSR into sourcing decisions and practices, on support for government efforts to establish a 'level playing field' for all, and on workers as informed, empowered and active participants in supply chain plant OHS programmes.'

South Africa: Some progress on mines safety

Legislation on safety in South Africa's notoriously hazardous mines has been beefed up following a lengthy union campaign. The amendments to the mine health and safety law approved by parliament now only require the signature of the president, Kgalema Motlanthe, to come into effect. While welcoming the new law, which will introduce stiffer penalties for safety breaches, mining union NUM has expressed dismay that the findings of a presidential mine safety audit have yet to be published. NUM has called for the immediate release of the national audit report. 'The way the report has been held up gives suspicion that it may contain controversial safety details. We believe that the audit will reveal the true status of safety standards in the various mining companies,' said NUM general secretary Frans Baleni. The audit was commissioned by former president Thabo Mbeki in October 2007, after 3,200 workers were trapped underground at Harmony Gold's Elandsrand mine. In this instance, all the workers survived, however the union reports over 180 workers have died in the country's mines so far this year. The union is also concerned about health risks to miners. An impact assessment determined the blasting process used in the mines produces large amounts of dust, causing most miners to suffer respiratory diseases, such as pulmonary tuberculosis and silicosis. Other problems include asbestos-related conditions, skin and eye diseases, acute diarrhoea and noise-induced hearing loss.

USA: Democrats urged to act on safety crisis

A major US newspaper is urging lawmakers to get past politics and take occupational health and safety seriously. The Las Vegas Sun, which earlier this year ran a hard-hitting series on safety and enforcement problems in construction (Risks 359), says in an editorial that lawmakers should see worker safety for what it is ? a public health crisis that costs America billions of dollars a year. Safety has been a hot political issue in the US this year, with a series of construction and crane fatalities attracting the attention of politicians, media and the general public. According to the editorial: 'Democrats and labour leaders excoriated the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], the federal agency commissioned to protect workers. They called for changes in the agency and improved regulations. Republicans and business leaders tried to downplay any connection between government oversight and the tragedies. They said new regulations would be burdensome to small business and cost too much money.' The paper notes: 'With a new administration about to take office and a renewed public concern about safety, the Democratic-controlled Congress stands on the cusp of a true overhaul of OSHA. But to make needed changes, Democrats will have to have the spine for it.' President Bush, meanwhile, has every intention of continuing in the bad old ways until the last possible minute. A remaining legislative priority is to push through a rule that would make it much harder for the government to regulate toxic substances and hazardous chemicals to which workers are exposed.

USA: Wal-Mart stampede death 'preventable'

The death of a temporary Wal-Mart worker trampled by sales shoppers at a New York store could have been avoided, the union that represents retail workers has said. Jdimytai Damour, 34, was crushed as he and other employees attempted to unlock the doors of the Long Island store at 5am on Friday 28 November. 'This incident was avoidable,' said Bruce Both, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 1500. 'Where were the safety barriers? Where was security? How did store management not see dangerous numbers of customers barrelling down on the store in such an unsafe manner?' He added: 'This is not just tragic; it rises to a level of blatant irresponsibility by Wal-Mart.' The death of Jdimytai Damour, a temporary maintenance worker, came on 'Black Friday', the day after the US Thanksgiving holiday and traditionally one of the year's busiest shopping days. Police say a queue began forming at 9pm on Thursday and that, by 5am Friday, there were as many as 2,000 customers outside. A video showed about a dozen people knocked to the ground as the doors were opened and the crowd surged, breaking the doors. The union is calling for an investigation 'by all levels of government' to ensure justice for Damour's family and to make sure that such an incident never happens at Wal-Mart again. 'If the safety of their customers and workers was a top priority, then this never would have happened,' said Patrick Purcell, a projects director for the local UFCW. 'Wal-Mart must step up to the plate and ensure that all those injured, as well as the family of the deceased, be financially compensated for their injuries and their losses.'


Winter weather working tips

Retail union Usdaw has issued topical tips on working in adverse winter weather. The short online guide covers the legal duty on employers to maintain a reasonable temperature at work. There's also pointers on slips on icy surfaces, adequate lighting as the day's get shorter, and on maintenance and checks on vehicles.

Events and Courses

Deadly stress seminar, London, 14 January 2009

An Institute of Employment Rights (IER) half-day seminar, 'Stress: Still a workplace killer', will take place in London on 14 January. Expert speakers will cover the effects of stress on workers and businesses, the legal framework on 'stress, injury and death at work' and the European perspective on deregulation and stress at work. IER says: 'Achieving changes in the culture of work will require a recognition of the health impact of poor work organisation and much greater commitment to challenging norms of management behaviour than the government has yet made. In this seminar we will bring together legal and technical opinion, pose questions and analyse European perspectives on deregulation and injury and death at work to uncover why stress is still a killer in the UK's workplaces.' It adds the seminar 'will be of great interest to trade unionists, employment lawyers, personnel and health and safety specialists, academics and students and those concerned with the development of public policy.'

  • Stress: Still a workplace killer, Wednesday 14 January 2009, 1.30pm-4.00pm, NUT, Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9BD. IER subscribers and members £45.00; Trade unions £60.00; Commercial £120.00. Further details. IER conference registration form. Other IER events [pdf].

TUC courses for safety reps


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