Risks 420 - 22 August 2009

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards at Work

Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 17,000 subscribers and 1,500 on the TUC website. To receive this bulletin every week, click here. Past issues are available. This edition contains Useful links TUC courses for safety reps Disclaimer and Privacy

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

Union News

Unions push for pleural plaques progress

Unions Together has launched a petition calling on the government to sort out compensation for those suffering from pleural plaques. Pleural plaques are a sign of deep scarring to the lungs caused by long-term exposure to asbestos. The organisation, the campaigning arm of the Trade Unions and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO), says workers found to have plaques are more likely to subsequently develop asbestos-related cancer. One recent study also suggested plaques could explain the excruciating pain experienced by some asbestos disease sufferers. Until October 2007, sufferers were able to claim compensation in the UK courts, but since then what the group describes as a 'truly disgusting' House of Lords decision has meant employers have not had to pay compensation. Unions Together says its petition 'calls on the government to do the right thing for victims of pleural plaques and restore compensation. The Scottish parliament and the devolved administration in Northern Ireland have already done this - and with your help we'll get Whitehall to stop dragging their feet and get this sorted in England and Wales too.' It adds: 'Together we can make a difference. We want to see the government take action to reverse the Law Lords' judgment and make this unjust situation right. All we're asking for is justice for the people who need our help.'

Caretaker busts a gut at school

A school caretaker needed surgery after suffering a hernia when lifting a heavy room divider. UNISON member Alan Thomas, from South Kirby, near Pontefract, was off work for two months following corrective surgery in November 2007. The 43-year-old, based at Common Road Infant School, in Kirkby, was moving the divider so he could clean and polish a classroom floor when he was injured. Following the operation, UNISON advised Mr Thomas to pursue a compensation claim which resulted in a £3,471 payout. The school's local education authority, Wakefield Council, admitted negligence and settled the claim out of court. Mr Thomas said: 'Schools should take into account how difficult it is to lift heavy equipment and put measures in place to stop injuries. I am now back at work, but I will have to be careful with my health for the rest of my life.' Cliff Williams, UNISON's Yorkshire and Humberside regional secretary, said: 'This accident could so easily have been prevented. He should have received help from a colleague with moving the divider and he could have been provided with mechanical work equipment to assist with the manoeuvre. Employers must stop these preventable injuries by carrying out risk assessments and training.' Keely Goldup, from Thompsons Solicitors, who represented Mr Thomas for the union, said: 'It is the responsibility of any employer - in this case Wakefield Council - to make sure there are systems in place so that jobs are performed safely and in this case they failed to do so. While Mr Thomas' hernia has been resolved it was an uncomfortable injury which needed surgery followed by a significant period of rehabilitation.'

Council refused to watch lifeguard's back

A sports centre supervisor was forced to retire when he injured his back lifting a faulty set of swimming pool steps. UNISON member David Barber, from Rochdale, who had worked at the council-run Haywood Sports Centre for 20 years, had complained about the steps a number of times, but had been told that fixing them was not a priority. The 62-year-old is now being cared for by his wife and will have to endure epidural injections and constant pain for the rest of his life. Mr Barber was off work initially for four months following his injury. When he returned in June 2004 he had to take painkillers to get through the day. The former armed forces worker was forced to retire when his back injury was further aggravated in October 2004, while taking part in on-the-job training to renew his life guarding examination. Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, which runs the centre, did not admit liability, but settled the claim for £50,000 after proceedings were issued. Heather Wakefield, UNISON's head of local government, said: 'Mr Barber has not just lost a job he loved, he has also lost his independence. The council has lost a dedicated member of staff because they failed to listen to his warnings over health and safety.' She added: 'It would make sense for employers to listen to staff and put training in place to prevent these type of injuries.' She said the union 'also want the authorities to enforce the legislation, which would help to provide a deterrent to employers.'

Eurostar cleaners consider strike option

Rail union RMT is to ballot Eurostar cleaners on industrial action relating to a range of bullying and pay and conditions issues. The union says their employer, the Carlisle Group, is stalling on any pay deal and is pushing through compulsory redundancies at Eurostar's St Pancras International hub, despite the union arguing 'the service is under-staffed and already struggling to cope.' RMT is also objecting to pressure on staff to use 'Orwellian' finger printing machines at St Pancras International, where they have replaced traditional clocking in machines. The union says some staff being coerced into using the finger printing machines despite a clear vote by RMT members to boycott their introduction. The union is also angry at what it sees as victimisation of RMT rep Mohammed Yellow on what it believes to be trumped up charges. It adds there has also been 'a catalogue of other cases of bullying and harassment of staff.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said the cleaners have 'been subjected to some of the most draconian working conditions in the entire UK transport industry. It's like a cross between the Dark Ages and 1984 and RMT has decided that enough is enough.' He added: 'We cannot have a situation where cleaners preparing the high profile, flagship Eurostar fleet of trains are treated by the private cleaning company engaged by Eurostar in this disgraceful way. We will begin balloting for strike action on 25 August 2009 and will be calling for public support and particularly from the Eurostar passengers who benefit from the hard work of the cleaning crew.'

Evacuation highlights train guard role

Train evacuations on the c2c London to Southend rail line on 18 August have highlighted the dangers of driver-only operation (DOO) and the need for trained guards, rail union RMT has said. Passengers were evacuated from trains by making their own way through the driver's cab following an attempted theft of overhead cabling and a related fire. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said this once more highlighted the dangers related to driver-only operated trains without guards. 'Passengers need to know that trained staff can protect the train and their safety,' he said. 'But under DOO the driver is the only member of staff on board and he can only communicate through the public address system and does not know the condition of its passengers. A trained guard can immediately drop his commercial duties and protect the train and its passengers.'

Other news

Red alert on the perils of green jobs

Recycling, clean energy, energy conservation - we've been told to expect a 'green jobs' bonanza. But a spate of fatalities and poisonings in the sector show more work needs to be done to make the jobs as good for workers as they are for the environment, according to a new report from Hazards magazine. It says depending who you believe, the green industries gold rush could result in anything from 400,000 to well over 1 million new 'green collar' jobs in the UK. It warns, however, that far from being our economic and employment salvation, left to its own devices the green economy could deliver the same unhealthy mix of hire-and-fire, poison-and-pain jobs that remain a blight on the reputational landscape of the not-so-green economy. 'This isn't paranoia. It's already happening, and it is happening on a grand scale,' the report says. It points to recent fatalities, poisonings and occupational disease outbreaks in UK green firms to illustrate the point. 'Creating good green jobs is not something that will happen by accident,' it concludes. 'Bad jobs are not a green solution for the UK. It will take a concerted union effort to make sure the green jobs agenda doesn't save the environment but cost lives.' The article highlights problems from traditional hazards like falls from heights and toxic chemicals, and from the use of novel substances and technologies where risks might not yet be fully apparent. A new 'safe jobs, green jobs' web resource provides pointers on how to avoid known and possible pitfalls.

Hunt for cause of worker's cancer

The solicitor acting for a cancer survivor from Bradford is looking for information about his working conditions. The man, who developed bladder cancer in 2007, has undergone surgery to remove the tumour, but his condition is still under careful review. He has not been able to return to work and is fearful that the cancer will return. The 48-year-old, whose name has not been released, has never smoked, but has worked with potentially cancer-causing chemicals for a number of different companies in the Bradford area. Following his diagnosis he was advised by his doctors that his condition may be caused by work. Specialist personal injury law firm Thompsons Solicitors is trying to build up a picture of what chemicals and other materials he was exposed to and is pursuing a number of different lines of enquiry. It would particularly like to hear from anyone who worked at AH Marks in Bradford between 1977 and 1989 when the company made weed killers and other pesticides. Thompsons would like to hear from anyone with information about the working conditions and the chemicals used in sheds 37 and 36. The company was known to make phenoxy herbicides at this time. Manufacture of this group of pesticides, which requires the use of phenolic chemicals, has been linked to occupational cancer. Marion Voss from Thompsons Solicitors said: 'Certain chemicals are recognised as bladder carcinogens. We are trying to build up a picture of the chemical substances and materials this client worked with so that we can consider whether it may be the cause of his bladder cancer. We would like to speak to anyone who worked at AH Marks in Wyke Lane, Bradford between 1977 and 1989. Our preliminary enquiries do not constitute any allegation of fault against any particular company.'

Worker unfairly fired for night shift nap

A Glasgow metal worker who was sacked for nodding off on night shift and missing a fire drill has been awarded £25,374 compensation for unfair dismissal. David Hart, 59, claimed he had gone to a shower room to splash water on his eyes as he was feeling tired but sat down and must have inadvertently fallen asleep. He was dismissed for gross misconduct and complained he was unfairly sacked by the Waukesha Bearings factory in Glasgow after a clean 37-year service record. Mr Hart, who suffers from high blood pressure and osteoarthritis, was on medication which his doctor said could make him feel sleepy. He slept through a six-minute-long fire alarm. The tribunal, led by employment judge Shona MacLean, said their impression was that factory manager Michael Phelps had believed from the outset that Mr Hart had deliberately gone to the shower room to sleep while on duty and that the company did not carry out sufficient investigation before deciding to dismiss Mr Hart. The tribunal noted that it was not unknown for employees to cat-nap during breaks and be woken by the nightshift supervisor. One employee had been found asleep in front of machinery and was awakened by the nightshift team leader and allowed to continue working. Another employee heard the fire alarm but failed to leave the building. The tribunal found there was no contributory conduct on Mr Hart's part and awarded him a total of £25,374 in compensation. Night shift workers are known to be at greater risk of fatigue, high blood pressure and other conditions.

Payout for woman floored by forklift

A Worksop distribution centre worker has received 'substantial' damages after she was knocked down by a forklift truck. Kathryn Warren suffered serious crushing injuries to both ankles after the incident at the Clipper Group warehouse and needed surgery and treatment for stress. She was picking an order when the incident happened and was trapped against some racking. The 45-year-old required surgery to insert screws into one of her ankles, which had been fractured in the accident. Mrs Warren also suffered from depression and post-traumatic-stress-disorder, which have left her unable to return to work at the factory. Personal injury law firm Irwin Mitchell, who represented Mrs Warren, said businesses needed to ensure safety requirements were met to avoid putting staff in danger. Lynne Parker, from the firm's industrial accident team, said: 'Mrs Warren's traumatic and nasty accident could have been easily avoided had the warehouse been organised to ensure that vehicles and pedestrians could circulate in a safe manner as set out by strict health and safety regulations.'

Tanker fall death 'preventable'

The death of a Scottish tanker driver could have been prevented if a second guardrail had been fitted to his vehicle, a sheriff has ruled. James Hutchinson, 57, died after falling from his tanker at a farm in Leuchars, Fife, in February 2007. He suffered brain injuries, a broken neck and fractured jaw. He also broke both wrists trying to break his fall. A fatal accident inquiry (FAI) found that even if he had been wearing his hard hat he would not have survived. The inquiry at Cupar Sheriff Court heard that Mr Hutchinson has been making a delivery at Vicarsford Farm, Leuchars, on the evening of 8 February 2007. His body was found by workers at the piggery the next day. The FAI heard that Mr Hutchinson was an ideal, careful and meticulous employee with Carntyne Transport Co Ltd. The court was told that his lorry had a guardrail which could be raised at one side of the tanker, but there was no rail on the other side. Sheriff Peter Hammond ruled that providing a double guardrail would have been 'the single reasonable precaution whereby his death might have been avoided.' Carntyne Transport was fined £5,000 in October last year over the death for breaching health and safety rules (Risks 379). Since the fatality, the Glasgow-based firm has fitted double guardrails to all its tankers and introduced new rules for people who are working alone.

Building firm fined over fall

A west country building firm has been prosecuted after an employee fell through the asbestos roof of a building he was trying to demolish. Magistrates in Devizes heard that plumber Peter Flippance sustained a broken hip and wrist after falling through the roof at the site in Pewsey in April last year. Richard Dewey, director of F Dewey Limited, pleaded guilty to safety offences. Elizabeth Trzoska, prosecuting on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), told the court that the site was owned by the company and the existing buildings were being demolished to make way for a residential development. Mr Flippance, who was not trained in demolition, had climbed on a roof made of asbestos sheeting. The 60-year-old had just removed some of the roof ridge when timbers below gave way and he fell onto the concrete floor. He was in hospital for several weeks and was off work for 11 months. Although he has now returned to work at the firm, he is on light duties only and is likely to undergo more surgery on his wrist. Miss Trzoska said the company had not undertaken a proper risk assessment, did not have a safe system of work in place and had made no arrangements for preventing the spread of asbestos dust. The company was fined £15,000, reduced to £10,000 in recognition of the early guilty plea. The bench also ordered that £5,000 be paid in compensation to Mr Flippance, to be deducted from any civil award. The firm was also ordered to pay £7,500 in prosecution costs.

Farm worker survives five metre fall

Employers are being warned to take correct precautions when their staff work at height, after a farm employee sustained serious injuries when he fell nearly 5 metres through a roof. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Francis Caley, of Manor Farm, Sproatley Road, Hull for safety offences relating to the incident in May 2008. Mr Caley pleaded guilty and was fined £8,000 and ordered to pay £1,858 costs at Hull and Holderness Magistrates Court. The court heard that farm employee Charles Leslie Nendick fell through a roof whilst carrying out repairs. He suffered fractures to his spine, pelvis and hip, as well as a gash to his head. Mr Nendick's employer, Mr Caley, failed to take suitable precautions to prevent a fall through the roof, which was not strong enough to support the weight of a person. After the hearing HSE inspector Alan Sheldon commented: 'HSE has produced a lot of guidance over many years specifically for the agriculture industry where approximately 70 fatalities have occurred from falls in the last 10 years. More than half of these resulted from falls through fragile surfaces. In this case a farm employee fell over 4.5 metres to the ground as he stepped from a ladder onto the roof of a farm building. He suffered serious injuries. The measures in place at the time were not adequate to prevent this happening'.

Government reveals swine flu priorities

The priority groups who will be first in line for vaccination against swine flu will include pregnant women, frontline health and social care workers, and everyone in at-risk groups aged over six months, health secretary Andy Burnham has said. The government says it was acting on advice from independent experts on who should be first in line for vaccination. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation reviewed the evidence and advised the Department of Health on the crucial risk groups to be offered vaccination in order to reduce the rate or possibility of serious illness. This advice was endorsed by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Vaccination of frontline health and social care workers - approximately 2 million people - will begin at the same time as the first at-risk group, and will continue for as long as necessary. The government says this group is at increased risk of infection and of transmitting that infection to susceptible patients. It adds that protecting these people will help the NHS workforce to remain resilient and able to treat sick patients.

Swine flu and schools (and everywhere else)

Teaching union NUT has produced commonsense advice on swine flu and schools. It says the updated advice 'has been issued in response to the constantly evolving situation in respect of swine flu, particularly in relation to changing advice on school closures, prescription of anti-virals and testing for the virus.' The guide contains information useful to anyone, but is particularly relevant to the schools environment. TUC's more general guide to pandemic flu and the workforce has been revised once more, this time to include greater detail on sick leave self-certification. There's also new information on provision for workers whose jobs require them to visit other people's homes. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, commenting on the implications of swine flu for workers and employers across the board, said: 'All the evidence so far suggests those employers who had good sickness absence policies in place have had little trouble coping with absence from swine flu, however too many employers simply were not being flexible enough and were insisting on certificates after seven days. As this was often not possible, it was likely to lead to people returning to work too early or going to doctor's surgeries while still infectious. Some employers have even insisting that their employees get private sick notes which again means the employee has to travel to a surgery while still infectious.' He added: 'Employers must start accepting a bit more responsibility and stop treating those with swine flu as somehow being in the wrong. It is in everyone's interests for anyone with symptoms of swine flu to stay at home and employers must do all they can to expedite this.'

International News

Australia: Stats prove case for strong law

Australia is falling well short of national targets to reduce workplace deaths and injuries - and proposed new national occupational health and safety (OHS) laws could put Australian workers further at risk, unions have warned. A progress report issued by Safe Work Australia, the federal government agency charged with reducing workplace injuries and disease, has revealed that self-imposed targets for reducing serious injury claims have not been met. Jeff Lawrence, secretary of the national union federation ACTU, said the report added weight to union concerns that standards and rights for workers could be compromised by proposed new national occupational health and safety laws, due to replace state-based safety regulation. 'Australia has a long way to go before success can be claimed on achieving national targets for workplace death, injury and disease,' Mr Lawrence said. 'But working Australians will not support the proposed new OHS laws if it means compromising standards.' Brian Boyd, secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, said: 'Unions have made it clear that when Australia moves to a uniform national OHS system, it should be harmonised up to the best laws across the board.' He warned, however: 'Our information is that the proposed new OHS national framework is not giving consideration to this principle, thereby many hundreds of thousands of workers could be facing a diminution of OHS protection. This is not acceptable, so we are moving to a higher campaign mode in order to convince the federal and state governments to rethink their approach.'

Canada: Risks raised for young with dyslexia

Young people with dyslexia may be at greater risk of getting hurt on the job, according to a new study from the Toronto-based Institute for Work and Health (IWH). 'The early indicators are that dyslexia contributes to higher injury rates among young workers,' said IWH's Dr Curtis Breslin, who led the study. 'It could be that the particular problems with reading, spelling and writing that characterise dyslexia make it more difficult to understand and remember safety training or contribute to poor supervisor-worker communications.' The study, published in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health, is one of the first to look at the relationship between learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and job injury rates among young people. After taking into account other factors that could explain a higher injury rate, young people with dyslexia were still 1.9 times more likely to be hurt on the job than those without. However, young people with ADHD were at the same risk of work injury as their peers without a learning disability or ADHD. Breslin believes the association between dyslexia and injury rates underscores the important role of the education system in measures to protect workplace health and safety.

  • IWH news release. F Curtis Breslin and Jason D Pole. Work injury risk among young people with learning disabilities and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Canada, American Journal of Public Health, volume 99, number 8, pages 1423-1430, 2009 [abstract].

Italy: Union organisers take to the tomato fields

Every summer around 50,000 migrant workers, many of them undocumented, are brought by labour agents to Italy for the tomato harvest. The crop - almost 3 million tonnes a year - is key to the Italian economy and to production of world-famous Italian products like canned tomatoes and tomato paste. But unions say the workers who harvest the tomatoes work in dangerous conditions often in breach of Italian labour law. Some, through violence and threats, end up virtually enslaved. The unions add the workers risk their lives when they try to escape or denounce the criminals who exploit them. Italian union FLAI-CGIL has been a long-time critic of the exploitation, but says the government has failed to heed its calls for action. This has prompted a change of tactics, with the launch of a 'Red Gold' campaign to fight exploitative employment practices. From 2-12 August, 70 union officers spent from dawn until dusk in the tomato fields of Foggia province. They met thousands of men and women workers in the fields, talked about rights, distributed leaflets about legal pay rates in 15 languages, and tried to organise the tomato workers into the union. 'We mobilised our union at all levels because it is time to denounce the practices employed in agriculture in our country and because we believe we need to be physically side-by-side with the workers to do so,' said Salvatore Lo Balbo, FLAI national secretary for agriculture. "We ask that the Italian government, the relevant institutions and the employers to implement the necessary legal measures to break the exploitation cycle and favour the legalisation of migrant agriculture workers,' he added.

Russia: Power station tragedy kills dozens

A total of 76 workers are thought to have died as a result of a 17 August explosion at Russia's biggest hydroelectric power station. Initial reports said 12 people had been confirmed dead and 64 were missing after the explosion at the Sayano-Shushenskaya plant in southern Siberia. The remaining victims are thought to be in a turbine engine room that flooded, as well as the Yenesei river outside the power station. Sergei Shoigu, the emergency situations minister, said that the missing workers were likely to have drowned or been crushed by falling debris. 'Finding anyone alive in the flood zone is unlikely, but the search continues,' Vasili Zubakin, the chief executive of RusHydro, the state-controlled company that owns the plant, said the day after the tragedy. RusHydro said the damage would run into 'billions of roubles' and would take several months to repair. The power station is located in the Siberian region of Khakassia, some 3,000 km (1,875 miles) east of Moscow. The dam above it is 245m (800ft) high and stretches 1km (0.6 miles) across the Yenisei river. Opened in 1978, the station provides a quarter of RusHydro output and is a major supplier of power to at least two smelters owned by United Company RUSAL, the world's largest aluminium producer.

USA: The real way to fight cancer

Prevention not drugs is the real solution to cancer, top experts have said. Responding to a 5 August New York Times op-ed by Nobel Prize winner James Watson, Dr Samuel Epstein said Watson 'could not be any more wrong' in his belief that new 'miracle drugs acting alone or in combination' are the answer to a sharp rise in cancer incidence. Epstein, chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, said: 'The right answer is to take action to prevent cancer before it starts.' He is concerned that cancer prevention received no attention in President Obama's Cancer Plan. A 9 June letter by Dr Epstein and 20 other national experts on prevention, addressed to four Congressional committees, recommended that Congress enact legislation including a statement that it is the policy of the United States to reduce cancer-causing exposures by at least half during the next decade. The group also recommended that the US government's National Cancer Institute (NCI) be responsible for the publication of a comprehensive public register of all known carcinogens in air, water, consumer products and the workplace, with annual updates as necessary. They call for the creation of a new NCI post, deputy director for cancer prevention, and the allocation of at least 40 per cent of the institute's budget to prevention programmes from 2010. The NCI budget is $6 billion this year, of which $130 million, 2.17 per cent, is allocated to prevention.


Working In These Times

'Working In These Times' is a US blog 'dedicated to providing independent and incisive coverage of the labour movement and the struggles of workers to obtain safe, healthy and just workplaces.' The blog is a new part of the wider, respected 'In These Times' magazine and blog. You can also sign up to a weekly e-newsletter giving the latest headlines.

Safe jobs, green jobs

The clamour for new and very necessary green jobs must be accompanied by proper consideration of the quality of those jobs, new resources have warned. A special 'Green jobs, green recovery' edition of the occupational health journal New Solutions spells out 'powerful ways to rebuild the US economy with good, green jobs in sustainable energy generation, conservation, new transportation systems, and other ways of greening industry.' The journal editors note: 'The leaders and activists contributing to this issue provide a set of ideas and concepts for a 'green recovery,' 'green new deal,' and 'green economy' - terms chosen to frame a broad programme to address the national and international crises resulting from destructive modes of production and consumption and failures to commit to socially just distributions of wealth and resources.' The articles also deal with the quality of the jobs and potential risks to workers. There's contributions from top North American union leaders and union safety officers. The journal is one of a welter of resources on a new 'safe jobs, green jobs' resource from Hazards.

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