Risks 434 - 28 November 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

Paper deaths prompt transatlantic campaign

An increase in workplace fatalities and serious injuries in the paper industry may have been brought on by employers trying to increase profit margins at the expense of health and safety, unions in North America and the UK have warned. A UK investigation, to be conducted by Workers Uniting - a global link up of the unions Unite and USW - comes after a survey of paper industry workplaces in the US found widespread dilution of health and safety procedures. That survey was carried out by the United Steelworkers (USW) from the United States and Canada. The survey revealed widespread cutbacks on safety training, fewer union safety committees and the use of financial incentives paid to staff when the number of reported accidents falls. These behavioural safety systems have been linked to an under-reporting of problems rather than a genuine reduction in injuries - known as 'bloody pocket' syndrome as workers hide cuts and other wounds. Tony Burke, Unite assistant general secretary, said: 'Globalisation of the paper industry is pushing employers to shirk their responsibilities for the health and safety of their staff. Workers Uniting is very concerned with the emergence of a financial rewards scheme for reduction in reported accidents in the workplace. It is a cynical development designed to hide safety problems and avoid investigations. The global union intends to come down hard on this practice wherever we find it.' USW vice president Jon Geenen said: 'The USW share many common employers with workers in the UK paper industry. The safety problems we have discovered in the United States will already be in existence or will soon be imported into the UK.' In January, Workers Uniting will offer a freephone number for members to report unsafe work practices, which will be then be reported to the health and safety authorities in both the US and the UK.

Floods expose cutbacks 'madness'

The deadly floods that that have hit Cumbria in recent days show the 'madness' of cutting back on rail maintenance and emergency services, unions have said. Rail union RMT said the impact of the floods on the West Coast Main Line had exposed the potentially fatal flaws in Network Rail's plans to axe 1,448 maintenance jobs - with 679 of the job cuts targeted at the West Coast route. A landslip at Southwaite on 20 November led to a temporary suspension of the West Coast Main Line but thanks to immediate action by Network Rail crews the line was soon re-opened, the union said. Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, said: 'There is no doubt that it is the sheer hard work and commitment of rail staff, slogging it out in atrocious conditions, that has kept services running and re-opened blocked lines. I pay tribute to them and to our emergency services who have once again shown that they are the best in the world.' He added RMT was 'calling on Network Rail to recognise the potentially lethal consequences of cutting corners on rail maintenance and axing jobs to fit budgets rather than the needs of our railways and to scrap their cuts plans.' Firefighters' union FBU said the floods highlighted the central role firefighters play in responding to a range of emergencies. It said extra resources should be made available to the fire service to deal with floods. The union added cutbacks could impair the service's ability to respond, with FBU general secretary Matt Wrack saying 'floods and other challenges raised by climate change means that operational demands are not falling.' He added: 'If more cuts go ahead there will be fewer and fewer fire crews able to respond to all the emergencies we have to deal with.'

'Dire' risk from Tube safety check cuts

Plans to cut track safety inspections on a stretch of the Tube will risk public safety, a rail union has said. Track checks on the Jubilee Line extension are to be reduced from twice a week to once, officials have confirmed. Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union, blamed a 'black hole' in Transport for London's (TfL) finances for the cuts. He said: 'We have warned all along that the multi-billion pound black hole facing TfL would result in real service cuts and would impact on safety and reliability. We now have concrete evidence that our fears were well founded. The shift of policy from twice weekly to weekly track safety inspections is one that RMT will fight.' The cutback in track safety patrols on the Jubilee Line Extension may be extended across the Piccadilly, Northern and Jubilee Lines, the union said. It added that halving of the frequency of safety inspections on the line is in contravention of current safety standards, and would require London Underground to obtain a formal concession to abandon the current inspection system. RMT said the move is 'clear evidence' that claims by London mayor Boris Johnson that the £5 billion funding shortfall facing TfL will not result in front line cuts 'are nonsense.' Mr Crow said: 'There is a very real danger that if Tube Lines are able to rip up existing safety agreements and standards on the Jubilee Line that the rest of their tracks will follow with dire consequences for jobs and passenger safety.'

Payout for fired whistleblower

An equalities officer who suffered years of stress and harassment and was sacked after blowing the whistle on management has been awarded £442,466 in compensation. UNISON member Pauline Scanlon has been forced to take a lower paid job in a call centre since she was dismissed from her job at Redcar and Cleveland Council. The 45-year-old had complained that the appointment of a human resources manager was in breach of the council's equal opportunities policy, as the post had not been advertised. UNISON says following her complaint, Mrs Scanlon's bosses carried out a two-year long campaign of harassment against her, which led to her being dismissed and denied an appeal. But, in a damning judgment, a tribunal found that the council's chief executive and senior officers tried to cover up the breach of procedure. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said it was 'dreadful' that an employee whose job was to champion equality at the council 'has been bullied out of work because she blew the whistle on her employer. Pauline Scanlon has suffered years of stress and harassment and her reputation and career were ruined.' He added: 'UNISON is determined to clamp down on victimisation and sex discrimination in the workplace and will hold employers to account, no matter how long it takes.' Pauline Scanlon said her career had been 'destroyed', adding: 'I have lost six years of my life because I dared to challenge the unlawful actions of the former chief executive. The council abused its power, ruined my reputation and sabotaged my attempts to find another job.'

Tool use caused hand injuries

A retired power station worker has received a £15,000 payout after his hands were left permanently damaged by using vibrating tools at work. Unite member David Hopps, 65, from Doncaster was left with the debilitating condition Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS), also known as vibration white finger, after using vibrating tools in his job at Drax Power Station. David, who worked as a maintenance craftsman and then as a planner during his 12 years at the Yorkshire power station, said: 'I noticed problems with my hands years ago but I didn't know what it was. It wasn't until I mentioned it to a colleague that he suggested it might be HAVS. I went to my doctor who said it was likely I had the condition. This was confirmed by tests.' He added: 'I worked with vibrating tools on a daily basis while with Drax. The condition means I have to be careful with my hands particularly through the winter. If it is a cold day I cannot do the gardening and have to protect my hands or they get very sore.' Drax did not admit liability but settled the union backed claim out of court. Davey Hall, regional secretary of Unite, said: 'HAVS affects many of our members working with vibrating tools. Like David most have no idea that the condition is permanent and caused by their work. Despite there being regulations in 2005 requiring them to do so, too many employers fail to make a proper assessment of the risk to their employees from exposure to vibration.'

Injury after boss ignores stairs warning

A GMB member who needed surgery after he fell down a flight of stairs had previously warned his employer about the dangerous staircase. The office worker, whose name has not been released, received more than £9,000 compensation in a union backed claim. He needed surgery on his shoulder following the fall in February 2006. He was approaching the stairs down to his office when he slipped on the top step which had become smooth from wear and tear. He fell to the bottom, damaging his right shoulder and exacerbating an existing problem. He was forced to take 13 weeks off work as a result of the injury and now suffers pain when using his arm for extended periods. The injured worker said: 'I had warned my bosses about that step on a number of occasions. I was always careful when approaching it because I knew how slippery it could be, but this time my feet just slipped from under me and the next thing I knew I was in agony at the bottom of the stairs. I had to take three months off work because of this accident and as a result missed out on wages, so this compensation is important to me.' Nick Hughes from the GMB said: 'Slips and trips are one of the most common causes of workplace accidents. While this fall may seem innocuous it forced this member to take time off work and lose wages. His employers should have made sure the stairwell was fixed as soon as the problem was highlighted.'

Other news

Employers keen but clueless on 'good jobs'

Employers accept the benefits of 'good jobs' but don't have much idea about how to create them, a new report from The Work Foundation suggests. The thinktank says that far from seeing decent quality jobs and commercial or organisational success as conflicting objectives, growing numbers of employers see them as mutually supporting goals. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) commissioned survey of 600 employers found they understood a 'good job' to involve: being valued and appreciated; interest and fulfilment; job satisfaction; autonomy; decent working conditions; morale and teamwork; effective management; and staff development. Poor quality of jobs was seen as being part of an underlying explanation for problems with sickness absence, retention, poor motivation levels and difficulties hiring the right people. Stephen Bevan, managing director of The Work Foundation, said: 'Employers grasp the link between staff well-being and how it can affect productivity. What is missing is how to deliver this.' He added the problem was compounded because 'responsibility for health and well-being of the workforce is spread across different government departments. We need one centralised body with a clear identity and a clear remit to work in partnership with employers to crack many of the UK's persistent job quality problems.' Peter Brown, HSE's head of health and work division said the report 'confirms that there is a considerable level of interest in building good jobs and good workplaces, but that many employers need help to answer the question 'How do I start?'. The research shows that there is clearly a role for both the government and businesses that have already taken action to promote good practice.'

Prevention the cure for NHS staff

The government has accepted in full recommendations from an independent report into the health and well-being of NHS staff. It says implementing the measures called for by the Boorman report will help the NHS save up to £555 million a year and save up to 3.4 million working days - the equivalent to 14,900 extra staff. The Department of Health commissioned the original report on NHS staff health and well-being led by Dr Steve Boorman. His report recommended measures including a prevention-focused health and well-being strategy in place for all NHS staff, with senior management made accountable for the strategy at each organisation. It also recommended early interventions for staff with musculoskeletal and mental health conditions. Health secretary Andy Burnham said: 'We want to see the NHS become an exemplar for other organisations to follow, valuing its employees as it values its patients. Savings of up to £555m per year that we can reinvest in the NHS will undoubtedly improve the quality of patient care and importantly in the current economic climate - save the taxpayer money.' UNISON head of health Karen Jennings welcomed the government commitment. She said: 'There is a solid connection between staff health and well-being and good standards of patient care, so it is in everyone's interests to make the health of staff a priority. Prevention is always better than cure and targeting problem areas like back injuries and stress will save staff from unnecessary pain and the need to take valuable time off work and away from patients.'

Unfair workplaces can kill you

Male workers are two to five times more likely to suffer a heart attack or die from heart disease if they suppress their frustration about unfairness at work, a Swedish study has found. The research found that those who expressed their frustration quickly were much healthier than those who suffered in silence. However, it did not look at other consequences of venting concerns - like victimisation or dismissal. Researchers from the University of Stockholm studied 2,755 male workers from 1992 to 2003. During that time 47 of the subjects died of a heart attack or heart disease. The researchers calculated that those men who relied on 'covert coping' mechanisms - where they were silent about unfair treatment - were much more likely to suffer heart problems. The study published online this week in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, also included women and found that bottling emotions up was equally damaging, but a low female death rate meant they could not draw any specific conclusions from the results. Dr Constanze Leineweber, who led the study from the Stress Research Institute in Stockholm, said: 'There has been research before pointing in this direction but the surprise is that the association between pent-up anger and heart disease was such a strong one.'

  • Constanze Leineweber and others. Covert coping with unfair treatment at work and risk of incident myocardial infarction and cardiac death among men: Prospective cohort study, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Published online first 24 November 2009. doi:10.1136/jech.2009.088880 [abstract]. The Independent. BBC News Online. ABC News.

Paper faces £800,000 stress payout

A News of the World reporter who suffered from a culture of bullying led by former editor Andy Coulson, who is now David Cameron's head of communications, has been awarded almost £800,000 for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. The Guardian reports Matt Driscoll, a sports reporter sacked in April 2007 while on long-term sick leave for stress-related depression, was awarded £792,736 by the employment tribunal. It is believed to be the highest payout of its kind in the media, and legal costs could take News International's total bill well over the £1m mark. Driscoll, who has not been in a full-time job since his dismissal, said the award reflected the severity of the case. The tribunal found in December 2008 that Driscoll had fallen victim to 'a consistent pattern of bullying behaviour.' It added the problem started with Andy Coulson and spread to other senior managers. The judgment singled out Coulson for making 'bullying' remarks in an email to Driscoll after a first formal warning, letting him know that he thought he should have been sacked. According to the tribunal, the bullying continued after Driscoll went on sick leave. Senior management at the paper sent Driscoll a barrage of emails, phone calls and visited his home to demand that he see a company doctor, despite Driscoll's GP advising him to 'distance' himself from the source of his stress.

Green firm guilty of mercury poisoning

Workers at a Huddersfield factory became sick with mercury poisoning as a result of 'blatant' management neglect of health and safety, a court has heard. Staff at the Electric Waste Recycling Group site, which recycles hazardous electrical equipment including mercury-containing TVs and fluorescent light tubes, suffered headaches, stomach upsets and mood swings. Mercury poisoning can damage the brain and other organs, leading to personality changes and even low level exposures may cause brain and other neurological cancer. On 23 November 2009, at Bradford Crown Court, company director Craig Thompson, 38, admitted two charges of failing to discharge his duty in relation to hazardous substances. The company, one of the UK's leading recycling firms, said it would be pleading guilty to all 10 health and safety charges. The director and the firm will be sentenced in January 2010. At an earlier hearing at Huddersfield Magistrates' Court, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Jeanne Morton said: 'This is a blatant example and one of the worst failings of health and safety management seen for a long time.' The factory filtration system was not working and had pumped air containing mercury vapour and lead into the factory office, she said. Tests on 34 workers revealed that 20 showed mercury 'way above the limit expected in the general population.' Thompson knew about the high levels of mercury as he was given readings carried out by his own staff but he 'ignored' them and the poisoning continued, the court was told. Latest figures suggest the long-term downward trend in mercury use worldwide may now have stalled, as the metal is pressed into use in low energy lightbulbs and other applications.

Skanska bids to evade blacklist blame

Building firm Skanska, the construction giant that last year ran up the largest single bill for use of The Consulting Association's blacklisting services, has resorted to a novel defence of the illegal practice. It claims it used the blacklist of construction workers to vet employees for a history of violence and drug or alcohol abuse - a claim dismissed out of hand by those who have obtained their files. Harvey Francis, executive vice-president for human resources (HR), told People Management magazine that it had subscribed to the list, which contained confidential details of 3,213 construction workers, 'to ensure the safety of people working on our sites.' He said: 'Health and safety in construction is of paramount importance,' adding: 'While I'm not excusing [using the blacklist], this was also a way of trying to keep the sites safe.' The claims have been met with incredulity by blacklisted construction workers. Blacklist Support Group (BSG) members who obtained their files via the Information Commissioner say they do not include any mention of alcohol or drug use or violence. Instead they focus on trade union activity, particularly where workers have complained or taken action about site safety conditions. Nor was Skanska just a passive recipient of information. Files obtained by BSG members include information submitted to The Consulting Association by Skanska. The information submitted by the firm was related to trade union activity and raising safety concerns on site.

Blacklisting is a human rights abuse

Nearly 10 months after it was confirmed by the Information Commissioner that blacklisting in the construction industry was rife, something common knowledge for decades among trade union reps in the sector, new laws outlawing the practice are in preparation and the victims featured on the blacklist have started their tribunal cases. Draft laws have already been the subject of a consultation and do not have to be debated and once published, can be signed into law by the business secretary, Lord Mandelson. MP John McDonnell wants a committee to consider the proposals to ensure they are properly worded and says this must be done soon or the result will be ineffective legislation. 'We need to scrutinise the wording but if this goes on after Christmas we might lose that chance in the run-up to an election,' he said. The MP added that the blacklisting scandal requires a public inquiry so that those affected can properly air their grievances and those responsible can be cross-examined. 'This is one of the worst ever cases of organised abuses of human rights in the UK,' he said. A 24 November protest at the opening of a Manchester employment tribunal, which will consider the cases of 23 blacklisted workers, was supported by campaign group Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK). The group was critical of what it believes is a failure by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to support victimised workers. A spokesperson said: 'Members of FACK know from our own personal loss, that poor safety on sites puts workers' lives at risk and we totally condemn employers who sack, victimise, blacklist or otherwise mistreat workers and trade union safety reps when they complain about risks to their lives and health.' She added: 'It is amazing that in the UK it is not yet illegal to blacklist workers and that the HSE does not react strongly to support workers who stand up to criminal employers by taking enforcement action against them.'

Firms fined after fatal scaffold collapse

Two construction firms involved in a major scaffolding collapse have been fined for their role in the incident, which left one man dead and two others seriously injured. John Robinson and his son Mark were working on the Jury's Inn site in Milton Keynes on 11 April 2006, alongside Ivan Penkov. All three men were on the 40-metre-high scaffolding when it collapsed. They fell to the ground and were trapped under rubble until rescue workers could reach them. Father of three, John Robinson, 49, was taken to hospital suffering from serious injuries to his left leg. Three days later he died from a pulmonary embolism, as a result of the injury. John's son, Mark Robinson, suffered a punctured lung, broken vertebra and ribs and significant cuts and bruising in the fall. Ivan Penkov suffered serious fractures to his legs and arms and spent a month in hospital recovering. He has undergone a number of operations and has had to re-train as a draftsman. At Huntingdon Crown Court this week, principal contractor McAleer & Rushe Limited was fined £90,000 and ordered to pay costs of £42,000. The cladding contractor on the site, Lee Smith Carpentry Limited, was fined £36,000 and ordered to pay costs of £28,000. The court heard that a combination of failures led to the scaffolding collapse. The scaffolding was not strong or stable enough for the work being carried out and inspection of the scaffold was also inadequate, despite specific instructions from HSE and McAleer's health and safety manager.

International News

China: Over 100 dead in mine blast

A total of 104 coal miners have been confirmed dead in China's worst mining disaster for almost two years. Another four workers trapped underground after the huge gas explosion at the mine on 21 November are also feared dead. Chinese state media reported that safety staff knew gas had reached dangerous levels and were evacuating miners when the explosion - so powerful that it was felt 10km away - happened 500 metres underground. More than 500 miners were below ground at the time. The Xinxing mine produces more than 1m tonnes of coal each year and is run by the state-owned Heilongjiang Longmei mining holding group. Chinese authorities say overall mine safety is improving in the country. In the first half of this year, 1,175 people died in pits across China, a fall of 18.4 per cent compared with the same period last year, the state administration of coal mine safety said. But China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based organisation supporting workers' rights, said the Xinxing deaths showed that nationalising mines was not enough. The organisation said more effective safety measures were needed, including giving a voice to workers, whose safety concerns are often overruled by their bosses. It said investigations into previous disasters had shown that managers refused to clear pits, even when gas monitors indicated problems or evacuation alarms sounded, because of the losses caused by shutting down production. State media reported that the families of each victim are expected to receive at least 250,000 yuan (£22,000), 25 per cent more than the standard compensation for fatalities in incidents caused by negligence.

Global: Pirate-infested seas 'not fit for seafarers'

Global transport union federation ITF has called for urgent action to fight Somali piracy, before the threat makes it virtually impossible for seafarers to pass through an ever-widening danger area. The union body said 'save in exceptional circumstances, ships should not transit the (affected) area. The risk of attack is now so great that putting seafarers in harm's way amounts to a breach of the shipowner's duty of care.' ITF maritime coordinator Steve Cotton said: 'There are countries actively fighting piracy and there are owners training and supporting their crews to resist it. Then there are others who are shirking responsibility and as good as accepting its steadily growing menace, which has now brought us to the point where one of the world's great trading routes is now almost too dangerous to pass through.' He said the union statement 'reflects the frustration of all those who work at sea at the dire situation we've reached. One where pirates act virtually unmolested and, even if intercepted, with virtual impunity from arrest. It calls into question the very legality of continuing to send ships through much of the Indian Ocean. It is therefore imperative that not only must protective escorts be used but that flag states immediately decide on the protective measures that they must recommend for the ships that are flying their flag and that those ships' operators comply with them.'

India: Shipping giant told to act on violence

Global transport union federation ITF is demanding that Danish shipping and port multinational Møller-Maersk sack one of its contractors after it allegations it carried out violent and repeated assaults against port drivers in India. The latest attacks against port drivers, represented by the ITF-affiliated Transport and Dock Workers' Union (TDWU), took place in Mumbai on 23 October 2009 and were thought to be perpetrated by representatives of SC Thakur, a Møller-Maersk contractor. Three union members say they were beaten by SC Thakur supervisors, who forced their way into their homes - one of the assaults was carried out in front of the man's wife and children. The victims had all made court depositions regarding the company's failure to pay their social security and pension contributions. They were also told to leave the union. These assaults followed two earlier attacks. ITF assistant general secretary Stuart Howard said: 'This latest bloody attack is doubly shocking given the efforts made since the first thuggish assaults two years ago. Since then we have sought to end this appalling situation with Maersk's cooperation. The company has taken some measures to aid these workers and hinder the reported criminal behaviour of this contractor, but these clearly still fall short of what the workers on the ground want and need.' He added: 'This kind of violence is unacceptable. This company is a repeat offender. We will not wait for a fourth incident to happen. The company has to go, and go now.'

Philippines: Fears for media staff after massacre

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has pledged its full support to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) in an urgent campaign on news safety as reports emerged that an estimated 20 media workers died in a 23 November massacre of journalists and political campaigners in the Philippines. Press reports say 57 people were killed in the atrocity in the troubled Maguindanao province in the south of the country, among them at least 12 journalists and around eight other media staff, according to the information from the NUJP branch in Mindanao. An NUJP mission is investigating the circumstances around the killings, and will provide immediate support to the families of the victims and assess the security failings and safety needs for the region. IFJ has made available its International Safety Fund to provide humanitarian support. The union federation has criticised the failure of the government of Gloria Arroya 'to tackle the crisis of impunity in the killing of journalists and media staff in recent years.' IFJ general secretary Aidan White said: 'The Arroyo administration must make a clear and unequivocal commitment to an immediate, independent and effective inquiry into this atrocity.' He added: 'With elections due in six months time the authorities must act now to guarantee the safety of journalists throughout the country.' Under the current government, the Philippines has become the most dangerous place in the world for media workers. At least 74 journalists have been killed during its eight-year tenure, but IFJ says the government has not acted to end the culture of impunity. At last count, only four convictions had been secured. The journalists slaughtered this week were part of a convoy led by Genalyn Tiamzon-Mangudadatu, who was on her way to file her husband's nomination as a candidate for the forthcoming election for governor of Maguindanao.


GMB's not-that-accident-book accident book

A regular thumb-through the workplace accident book is a technique used by lots of union safety reps to determine any worrying trends. The union GMB notes: 'Tracking accidents and near misses at work is critical to reducing the risk of serious injuries in the workplace. By developing a complete picture of the risks in the workplace, it is possible to tackle problems before they ever become serious enough to severely hurt someone.' But GMB has now gone a step further, with the introduction of its own 'unofficial' purpose-designed safety reps' accident book. The union says: 'This 'GMB unofficial accident and near-miss report book' in no way intends to replace or usurp the official accident book, which is the responsibility of the employer. The intention of this 'GMB unofficial accident and near-miss report book' is to track all incidents within the workplace suffered by GMB members and would-be GMB members in order that GMB can ensure that all accidents are recorded correctly and acted on by the company.'

  • GMB unofficial accident and near-miss report book [pdf].

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