Risks 440 - 23 January 2010

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Hazards 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

RMT secures safe staffing milestone

Rail union RMT this week struck a deal to guarantee safe staffing levels on East Coast Main line trains. Under the agreement, a guard will remain fully in charge of the opening and closing of the doors on the class 180 trains running on the line. RMT says the agreement is 'an important victory in the fight against Driver Only Operation (DOO).' It added the protection of the role of the guards on the East Coast route as 'an important milestone in the battle against Driver Only Operation and hugely significant in terms of our on-going fight to retain guards on the new Scotrail Edinburgh / Glasgow via Airdrie to Bathgate route' (Risks 439).RMT is preparing a ballot on Scotrail over the company's refusal to accept the 'overwhelming financial and safety case for retaining guards.'

RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'Our success on protecting the role of guards on the East Coast Main Line is a great victory in our continuing campaign to have guards on all trains and the fight to ensure that these key staff should retain full operational and safety duties.' He added: 'This is a campaign supported by the public and the East Coast success will put pressure on other train operating companies to follow suit and particularly Scotrail on their new Edinburgh/Glasgow via Airdrie to Bathgate route.'

Aslef go slow 'saves lives'

A union call for train drivers to drive slowly - no more than 20 mph - over open level crossings has been praised after it was claimed to have saved at least one life. ASLEF says last week a van driver had to be cut from the wreckage of a crash in Caithness, close to the scene of crossing smash in which three people died last year (Risks 432). The van struck the rear coach of the Inverness-Wick passenger train at the Hoy level crossing, near Halkirk. It hit the train a glancing blow and crashed through a wooden fence before becoming wedged between the rear of the train and a junction box. The driver suffered minor injuries. Local councillor David Flear said: 'There would have been another fatality at the weekend if it had not been for train drivers' union ASLEF's 'go-slow'. There's little doubt that if the train had been going at 50mph, we would have had another fatality.' He said averting the tragedy 'resulted from the action taken by the union - not the government or Network Rail or the train operators.' ASLEF says ungated crossings account for 2 per cent of all level crossings in the UK but a third of all crossing accidents. ASLEF general secretary Keith Norman commented: 'Others may talk about level crossing safety, but our union actually does something about it. I hope others, like Network Rail, will follow our lead and get serious about this continuous loss of life.' The train driver was taken to Caithness General Hospital in Wick with a wrist injury but no one else on the train was injured.

Blacklist law won't end 'despicable' practice

Construction union UCATT has said it is 'deeply disappointed' with the government's 'fundamentally flawed' blacklisting regulations. The union had told ministers the regulations as originally drafted would not end blacklisting and had hoped the government would revise the proposed law, but this has not happened. UCATT says the planned regulations fail to make blacklisting a criminal offence, despite the government in 1999 promising to introduce such measures. It adds the regulations only cover a limited definition of 'trade union activities' and specifically rule out protecting workers involved in 'unofficial industrial action'. UCATT is also concerned that under the regulations as they stand, 'workers who downed tools due to safety concerns or who refused to undertake overtime, could be legally blacklisted'. Many of the 3,000 plus construction workers listed on an industry blacklist uncovered last year were targeted for their safety activities (Risks 436). The regulations will not provide automatic compensation for any blacklisted worker and workers on a blacklist will not be entitled to be informed automatically of the fact, the union adds. UCATT is also dismayed that in certain circumstances companies will still be able under the law to draw up lists of trade unionists for recruitment practices, something it dubs 'backdoor blacklisting'. UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie said: 'The blacklisting regulations are fundamentally flawed. It is deeply disappointing that the government has failed to listen to the genuine concerns of trade unionists and have failed to make the appropriate amendments to the regulations.' The regulations were laid before parliament on 5 January. They need to be agreed by both houses of parliament before they can be enacted into law.

Shop union presses for assaults law

People who assault shopworkers in Scotland could get tougher penalties if a new bill is successful, says retail union Usdaw. The Workers (Aggravated Offences) Bill is being brought by Hugh Henry MSP and calls for the assault of shopworkers to be recognised as an aggravated crime. This would bring the law into line with that currently covering workers in Scotland's emergency services. Usdaw is also campaigning for the same protection for shopworkers in England and Wales. The proposed law, which has the necessary support from MSPs to move forward, is backed by Usdaw, Unite, UNISON, CWU and ASLEF. Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: 'Shopworkers provide a vital service to the public, but they are all too often seen as an easy target for violence and abuse. Our latest survey showed that one in 10 shopworkers has been assaulted whilst at work.' He added: 'Usdaw is supporting Hugh Henry's bill through the Scottish parliament and we have started campaigning for a similar law in England and Wales.' Hugh Henry MSP said: 'This proposed legislation seeks to apply the protections contained within the Emergency Workers Act to any worker who provides a face to face service to the public.' Since the introduction of the Emergency Workers Act, the number of assaults on emergency staff has fallen and the number of convictions has risen.

Broken ankle leads to lifetime clot risk

A driver who faces the risk of developing a life-threatening blood clot after breaking his ankle at work has received £20,000 in provisional damages. The GMB member from Kent, whose name has not been released, will have to take medication for the rest of his life to avoid a potentially fatal clot from occurring after he developed Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) as a result of the break. The 53-year-old has already suffered three blood clots and has been told a further episode could mean he will be unable to work - or may even cause his death. He suffered the break in August 2004 when he stepped down from a van onto an uneven manhole cover while working at West London Waste Authority's depot. Two years after the injury he suffered from three blood clots just months apart and was put on blood-thinning tablets which he must take every day. His condition meant he had to go on long term sick leave and eventually had to resign because he could no longer drive. He decided to pursue a GMB-backed compensation claim after he was told by his consultant that the blood clots resulted from the ankle break. GMB's Richard Ascough said: 'This member must live with a serious health condition for the rest of his life all because his employer failed to maintain and inspect its forecourt. This case highlights how the most straightforward accident can have long term consequences.'

Employers are failing to prevent falls

Public sector union UNISON is warning employers that they are 'treading on thin ice', if they fail to take extra measures to protect staff slipping and falling. It says many thousands of people have suffered broken bones or injuries from falls in the recent snow and says more bad weather is forecast. The union's call comes as an outreach play and learning worker for Staffordshire County Council received £6,250 after slipping on ice in December 2008. Sandra Lewis, 50, broke her left wrist and suffered severe bruising to her hips in the slip at Queen's St Community Centre in Burton. The mother-of-two was off work for six weeks and has been told she will suffer problems with her wrist for life. The car park was maintained by East Staffordshire Borough Council, who admitted liability and settled the claim out of court. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: 'It is only right that Sandra Lewis received compensation for the council's failure to take action to prevent falls during bad weather.' He added forecasts of poor weather to come mean 'employers are treading on thin ice if they fail to take action.' Sandra Lewis said: 'The car park I slipped in should have been gritted by the council, I thought it would be safe. I had been working with a group for parents and babies at the time. It is worrying that it could have been one of them who fell instead - they could have been seriously harmed.'

Scaffolder survives a 40ft fall

A Unite member who survived a 40ft fall has been awarded £90,000 in compensation. Trevor Cox, 43, an advanced scaffolder from Newcastle, was off work for eight months with his injuries after the incident in July 2007. He was dismantling scaffolding at Drax Power Station for his employer, Wakefield-based Cape Industrial Services, when he fell through what he assumed to be a metal grating platform. It was in fact plastic demister packs. He suffered from fractured ribs, suspected fractures to his spine, and a dislocation and nerve damage to his left shoulder. His injuries mean he cannot use his arm to work above shoulder height without pain and discomfort. As a result, he has been unable to return to his trade as a scaffolder. Personal injury lawyers brought in Unite argued the platform was unstable and unable to hold Mr Cox's weight. They said Cape should have warned him about the dangers. Cape Industrial Services disputed liability throughout but with a trial pending they settled the claim out of court. Davey Hall from Unite said: 'Scaffolding is a dangerous job which must be meticulously planned so all hazards are identified. Cape is one of the world's largest suppliers of scaffolding so it is simply unacceptable that it did not live up to the highest health and safety standards on this occasion.'

Injury pain led to morphine addiction

A care assistant who developed a dependence on morphine following a serious workplace injury has received £18,000 in compensation. The GMB member from North Yorkshire, whose name has not been released, was off work for several months after she was hit on the ankle by a hoist, used to move immobile patients. The 66-year-old was left with a severe cut to her left ankle and heel which became infected and ulcerated. Her ankle was in such a bad condition she needed morphine to control the pain. Her subsequent dependency on the drug meant she suffered symptoms of withdrawal. Morphine dependency can lead to feelings of anxiety and fear, while withdrawal can feel like a severe case of the flu. Although she made a full recovery from the dependency and her ankle has healed, it still gives her discomfort and pain. The member has now returned to work for the care home run by Bupa Care Services. The firm admitted liability and settled the claim out of court. GMB's Tim Roache said: 'What initially seemed like a minor injury turned into something much more serious and had a deep underlying impact on our member. Fortunately the accident was properly reported and documented at the time and as a result we were able to help this member claim compensation for the unexpected consequences.'

Lunch breaks led to asbestos cancer

A gardener exposed to asbestos when he took his lunch break in a boiler room has been awarded £205,000 compensation after developing a deadly cancer. UNISON helped the 57-year-old, identified as Mr Gaffney, to claim the compensation after he was exposed to asbestos while working for the University of Liverpool during the 1980s. Mr Gaffney took his lunch breaks in the boiler room at the university, which had asbestos insulation. He was diagnosed with the asbestos cancer mesothelioma in February 2008. After the successful conclusion of the 12 month compensation case in the High Court, London, he said: 'I am pleased that we have won, but this is still a death sentence. There is nothing more doctors can do for me now and I've got five grandkids that I will never see grow up.' Dave Prentis, UNISON's general secretary, said: 'Whilst we are delighted with the settlement awarded to Mr Gaffney, the money can never replace the years he will lose with his family. It is a disgrace that he was exposed to these dangers. Many people are still suffering the consequences of being exposed to asbestos in the workplace.'

Other news

Shock global safety ranking for the UK

The UK does not make Europe's top 20 for occupational health and safety performance and only just scrapes into the top 30 worldwide, according to a new ranking. The Health and Safety Risk Index (HSRI) prepared by Maplecroft, a UK firm that assesses global risks for business, assessed the occupational health and safety performance of 176 countries. Using data sources including the International Labour Office (ILO), World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Bank, HSRI scored performance across eight indicators, including work related fatalities and injuries, number of accidents causing work absences, number of deaths from work related diseases, expenditure on health, life expectancy, government effectiveness, regulatory quality and the total number of ILO conventions ratified. According to the research, nine countries fall into the 'extreme risk' category, with the Democratic Republic of Congo worst rated, followed by Nigeria, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. The UK is ranked the 30 safest nation, placing it at the mid-point of the 'low risk' group. Among the 30 OECD nations, the UK is ranked at a lowly 20th - although some other major OECD nations have worse still rankings, including the USA, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Worldwide, Denmark achieves the best occupational health and safety ranking, followed by Luxembourg, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland. According to Alyson Warhurst, chief executive of Maplecroft and a professor at Warwick University's business school: 'A safe and healthy working environment is vital. Organisations should ensure that best practice is observed not only in their own operations, but throughout their supply chains, to increase competitive advantage and reduce the risk of complicity in human and labour rights violations.'

BAE fined over woman's blast death

Defence company BAE has been fined £80,000 over the death of a worker who was killed in a blast at its explosives factory in Lancashire. Lynda Wilkins was working with lead styphnate, a sensitive primary explosive, in March 2005 when she was killed at the Chorley site. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) brought the prosecution against BAE Systems Land Systems (Munitions and Ordnance). At Liverpool Crown Court, BAE admitted breaching health and safety law. HSE said it had been unable to establish the exact cause of the explosion as Mrs Wilkins was working alone. However, its investigation found that the company allowed unsafe working procedures to develop by providing too little supervision and monitoring. Last week, BAE Systems was ordered to pay £118,000 towards the cost of the prosecution, in addition to the £80,000 fine. HSE inspector Colin Hutchinson said: 'This was a tragic incident and my sympathies go to Lynda Wilkins' family. Although we have been unable to conclude what caused the explosion, it is clear that BAE Systems' failings contributed to her death. The substance she was using is known to be extremely sensitive and must be handled carefully. BAE Systems failed to ensure the process was properly supervised and monitored.' He added: 'Explosives companies must learn from this incident by making sure their safety procedures are both sufficient and rigidly followed to avoid needless loss of life in the future.' In 2008, the firm was fined £50,000 after a worker was badly burned while handling chemicals at its Monmouthshire factory (Risks 372). Similar HSE criticisms were made of BAE's management systems after that August 2004 incident.

Young worker crushed to death

A construction company has been fined after a young employee had his head crushed at a site in Gloucestershire. Macob Administration Limited, based in Bridgend, Wales, was charged by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after 23-year-old Lance Taylor was killed on a Gloucester construction site on 11 February 2005. Mr Taylor was driving a mini digger ? which he was not qualified to operate - and unintentionally hit a lever as he leaned out of the cab window. The digging arm of the vehicle was raised, crushing his head between the cab and the arm. He suffered fatal injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene. The firm pleaded guilty at Gloucester Crown Court to two breaches of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations and was fined £80,000 and £29,798.14 costs. Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Martin Lee said: 'This terrible incident highlights the extremely serious risks posed by equipment and vehicles on sites if the workers using them don't have adequate training or are not versed in safe working procedures. Mr Taylor and other site workers were not all properly trained to use the equipment they were handling and, just as seriously, vehicle keys were routinely left in the machines. As a result, the vehicles were accessible to anyone on site, regardless of their qualifications.' He added: 'Construction site managers need to know which workers on site are qualified to operate the machinery and that their control systems are working effectively.'

Head's suicide 'linked' to school inspection

The death of an 'outstanding' headteacher was 'inextricably linked' to the outcome of a school inspection, a sheriff has concluded. Irene Hogg's body was discovered at a secluded spot near Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders in March 2008, days after she received critical feedback from the visit (Risks 358). Ms Hogg, the headteacher at Glendinning Primary School in Galashiels for 18 years, was said to have been 'disappointed and visibly distressed' by what she was told. A fatal accident inquiry (FAI) found that she decided to take her own life by overdosing on paracetamol. Sheriff James Farrell declined to make a formal finding that the school inspection was a fact relevant to the circumstances of the 54-year-old's death. However, he said: 'There can be no doubt that Irene Hogg's death is inextricably linked to the outcome of the Glendinning School inspection on March 2008.' He added that witness statements made it clear 'Irene Hogg proved herself to be an outstanding headteacher.' The inquiry heard Ms Hogg had found herself under intense stress, working as a headteacher who also taught a composite class of 10 to 12-year-olds for three days a week. This was an 'onerous' teaching commitment on top of her duties as headteacher, the sheriff said. She had admitted to education officials from Borders council that she was feeling under pressure, and said she was feeling unhappy about her performance and leadership, and appeared less and less able to cope.

Compensation reform must not hurt justice

Proposed reforms to the civil compensation system must not compromise access to justice, the TUC has said. The union body was commenting on the publication of the final report of the Civil Litigation Costs Review by Lord Justice Jackson. His proposals would introduce the biggest ever shake-up to the costs of taking cases through the civil courts.

These courts deal with personal injury claims and well as other legal matters including disputes over goods and services. 'Claims farmers', which sell on cases to personal injury lawyers, would be banned under the plan, part of a clampdown aimed at cutting back the 'no win no fee' legal industry. Lord Justice Jackson, a judge in the Court of Appeal, said: 'The focus of our litigation process should be upon compensating victims, not upon making payments to intermediaries and others. That such substantial referral fees are being paid shows that there is too much money swilling around in the personal injury compensation process.' The proposals aim to cut the total number of claims, while speeding up settlements in those cases that do proceed. The review recommends general damages for personal injuries and other civil cases, such as libel and defamation, should be increased by 10 per cent to ensure that successful claimants were properly compensated. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber commented: 'The recommendations made are extremely comprehensive and complex, but unions are concerned that any changes introduced may limit access to legal redress for employees injured or made ill by their work.' He added: 'The TUC will be working with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that no injured employee is prevented from taking legal action against a negligent employer, nor denied access to damages. We welcome moves to speed up the process of litigation, but not at the cost of access to justice.'

Union disgust at asbestos law appeal

Insurers have appealed against the decision to allow legislation giving victims of an asbestos-related illness in Scotland the right to claim damages. Last week, a judge rejected a bid to invalidate The Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions)(Scotland) Act which came into force last year (Risks 439). It allows sufferers of pleural plaques, a usually benign scarring of the lungs, to make compensation claims. Insurance giants Aviva, AXA, RSA and Zurich, who brought the legal challenge, say the Scottish parliament act is 'flawed'. Nick Starling, director of general insurance and health with the Association of British Insurers (ABI), said: 'Insurers have not taken this decision lightly, and it reflects their strong view that The Damages Act is fundamentally flawed as it ignores overwhelming medical evidence that plaques are symptomless, and the well-established legal principle that compensation is payable only when there are physical symptoms.' Construction union UCATT said it was 'disgusted' at the insurance industry appeal. The union's general secretary, Alan Ritchie, said: 'These actions prove that the insurance industry has no shame. This is a cynical action designed to try to block compensation for asbestos victims both north and south of the border. It is not about principle it is all about money.' He added: 'The Scottish parliament must stand up to the bully boy tactics of the insurers, there must be no further delay on pleural plaques victims receiving compensation in Scotland. I hope that people will note the actions of these insurance companies and remember them when they come to renew their insurance policies.' People with pleural plaques are at higher risk of developing certain asbestos-related cancers.

International News

Bangladesh: Pesticides pushers kill thousands

Thousands of Bangladeshi workers are dying of pesticide poisoning each year, as a result of unsafe use of often banned pesticides. Meanwhile, safer, greener approaches to production are ignored in the face of a sustained and richly-resourced lobbying campaign by multinational pesticide producers. An annual health survey by the Bangladesh government has found that pesticide-related poisoning is a significant cause of death. The 2009 Health Bulletin, released in December and based on health statistics from 2008, recorded 7,438 pesticide-related poisoning deaths at more than 400 hospitals nationwide amongst men and women aged 15-49. Compounding the problem is the increasing usage of pesticides in the country. According to the most recent government figures available, 37,712 tons of pesticides were sold in the country in 2007, an increase of 145.3 per cent on the amount sold in 2001. The problem is compounded by unscrupulous traders and a plethora of incentive schemes pushing unregistered pesticide formulations that promise to protect crops against pest attacks and disease. It means safer products and alternative greener, pesticide free approaches, like integrated pest management, don't get a look in. According to Pesticides Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP): 'Pesticides prevail because a multi-billion dollar industry is behind them, exerting great influence on international standard setting bodies, national governments, and local communities.' In Bangladesh, suppliers continue to sell many chemical substances banned by the government, as well as chemical compounds such as aldrin and endrin, which are classified as 'highly hazardous' by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In addition, many pesticides continue to be sold without names or under false labels, and with no clear warnings or instructions to farmers.

China: Apple supplier hit by poisonings protest

Workers at a Chinese factory that supplies Apple touchscreens smashed vehicles and factory facilities last week in a protest over safety and pay. The China Daily reported that the more than 2,000 workers were involved in the protest at the United Win (China) Technology Ltd Co factory located in the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu province. The company is a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Wintek Corp, a supplier of touchscreens for the iPhone. Workers at the plant say there have been deaths from over-exposure to n-hexane, a toxic solvent used to clean the screens. The China Daily reported that authorities denied there had been deaths reported, and said that 47 people who showed symptoms of hexane poisoning had been successfully treated. An unidentified worker, who claimed to have been poisoned by the factory's unregulated use of n-hexane, said more than 200 workers have suffered the same problem since July last year, and about 40 of them remain in hospital. However, Jay Wuang, Wintek's financial department manager, said: 'We have stopped using n-hexane once we learned of the workers' health problems. We have 13,000 workers in the factory but we cannot confirm if anyone has died from exposure to n-hexane.' He said 'a handful' of workers were sick but they were all cured. In a dispute last year, workers protested outside of Apple's Taiwan offices, trying to bring pressure on Wintek to end workplace employment and safety violations.

USA: Black workers put in radiation risk jobs

A US company that processes nuclear waste has agreed to settle compensation claims with black employees who were assigned to jobs with higher radiation exposures but who then had their dose meters doctored to show lower exposure levels. Workers who spoke out were victimised by the firm. The Studsvik Memphis Processing Facility in Tennessee, formerly known as Radiological Assistance Consulting and Engineering, or RACE, has signed a consent agreement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Under the agreement, 23 black employees are to receive a total of $650,000. The EEOC alleged the company assigned black employees to work with radioactive waste, with exposures higher than their white co-workers, and manipulated dosimeters to show lower levels of radiation exposure than were actually occurring. Black employees were also paid less and subjected to other kinds of discrimination. 'Some of the discrimination alleged in this case is unusually extreme because of the physical danger it created for African American employees,' said EEOC acting chair Stuart J Ishimaru. 'It is deeply disturbing that this kind of race-based discrimination could be inflicted upon innocent workers. Further, the EEOC is particularly concerned when people who have the courage to speak out against such discrimination then experience retaliation by their employer.' Lewis Johnson, president of Studsvik, said the alleged discrimination took place before the Swedish-based company bought the Memphis facility.

USA: OSHA chief calls for good safe green jobs

The newly installed leader of the US government's workplace safety watchdog has made his first public act a call for green jobs to be good, safe jobs. Dr David Michaels, the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), addressing a 'Going green' workshop run by the US government's workplace health research arm NIOSH last month, said: 'Employers who race into this green economy without paying attention to worker safety will blunder into many preventable injuries and deaths. We can't afford this. We can't allow this to happen.' Instead, he outlined his plan to ensure workplace safety is an integral part of the new greener economy. 'It is vital, now, that we integrate worker safety and health concerns into green manufacturing, green construction and green energy,' he told the NIOSH workshop. 'Most importantly: We must push worker health and safety as a critical, necessary, and recognised element of green design, green lifecycle analysis and green contracts. It's not a matter of choosing either a green future or safe jobs. It's both. It's all or nothing, and NIOSH, OSHA and everyone else needs to play a role in building this sustainable economy - an economy that will provide sufficient jobs, green jobs, and jobs that are safe for all workers.' Workers should not be overlooked when planning safer, green ways of working, he added, saying this was OSHA's 'Green Reform Principle Number One.' 'Clearly one of the best ways to move forward on worker safety at the same time that we move forward on green jobs is to ensure that workers are more engaged in the work process and in the development of green jobs,' he said.

Events and Courses

The health agenda at work, London, 17 February

The Institute of Employment Rights has organised a 17 February conference in London on the theme 'The health agenda at work'. It says few major injuries result in a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspection, HSE inspector numbers have dwindled and enforcement action is down. It says the conference will give delegates the opportunity to hear updates from specialists in the field and will add to the debate on how to put health and safety at work back on the agenda. Speakers include Prof Phil James, Oxford Brookes University; Prof Andy Watterson, Stirling University; Prof Sonia McKay, WLRI; Prof Dave Walters, Cardiff University; Steve Kay, Prospect's HSE branch; Everald Brown, London Hazards Centre; Susan Murray, Unite; and Dr David Whyte, Liverpool University.

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