Risks 443 - 13 February 2010

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Editor: Hugh Robertson of the TUC. Comments to the TUC at [email protected]

Union News

Unions welcome consultation on asbestos compensation

Unions and asbestos campaigners have welcomed a consultation by the government on the setting up of a fund to pay compensation to those who develop diseases many years after exposure where the insurer cannot be traced. The Department for Work and Pensions has published a consultation paper which sets out plans to create an Employers' Liability Tracing Office to help people track down their employers' liability insurance policies, and an Employers' Liability Insurance Bureau to provide a fund of last resort for those who are unable to trace them.DWP Minister Lord McKenzie said: 'Far too many people suffering from serious industrial diseases are unable to trace their insurance policies and get the compensation they deserve. That is why we want to set up a better tracing service with a dedicated database to help them track down these policies, and a fund of last resort if all else fails.' TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said 'The introduction of an Employers Liability Insurance Bureau and a tracing office is a fair and common sense solution that the TUC has been campaigning for. Building on the compensation changes that the Government had already implemented for those with mesothelioma, these proposals will make a marked difference to those who suffer from a fatal disease as a result of exposure to this deadly fibre. Alan Ritchie, General Secretary of UCATT, said: 'The Government's announcement is excellent news and an important step forward. Far too often workers develop life-threatening illnesses because employers have failed to provide adequate protection from harmful substances. If a workers' health is ruined, they deserve compensation, by establishing ELIB, the Government will ensure this occurs.' Tony Whitston, Chair, Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum stated: 'Government's decision to set up a fund of last resort for injured workers, whose employers' liability insurers cannot be traced, is welcomed wholeheartedly by asbestos victims throughout the UK. At last, dying asbestos victims, who, through no fault of their own, cannot trace their employers' insurance may be able to call on a fund of last resort. This landmark decision by government addresses a long-standing and fundamental injustice and, if implemented, will provide comfort and solace to many people affected by asbestos disease.'

PM meets union to discuss new dog laws

Officials from the Communications Workers Union have met the Prime Minister as part of their campaign to get dangerous dog legislation changed. The union has been waging a long-standing campaign to close a loophole in the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act which fails to provide legal redress for people attacked by animals on private property. An estimated 6,000 CWU members, which includes postal workers and telephone engineers, are attacked by dogs every year, many are bitten whilst on private property and this often means that no action can be taken. Billy Hayes, CWU general secretary, commented "It's great news that Gordon Brown has taken a personal interest in this campaign. Current dangerous dogs laws leave many workers at risk so backing better protection is a win-win for politicians, workers and the public." National health and safety officer Dave Joyce said that he is "optimistic" that the argument for new laws protecting workers from dangerous dogs is now being won following his meeting with Gordon Brown.

Cooker company ignored lifting regulations

Factory worker Michael Mountford from Stoke on Trent suffered serious damage to his shoulder and neck while putting together heavy cookers for Indesit Company UK, based in Blythe Bridge, Staffordshire. His job on the assembly line involved lifting the cookers before adding parts to them. On the day of the accident the belt was running too quickly, so that Mr Mountford had insufficient time to lift and work on each appliance. As he lifted one cooker it snared on the conveyor belt and he tore ligaments in his neck and shoulder. This led to Mr Mountford having to take two months of work and he also faces surgery to fix his shoulder. He reported that colleagues had suffered similar accidents in the past yet the firm had done nothing to change working practices. Mr Mountford was a GMB member and has now received £10,000 in damages after his union took up his case and Indesit admitted liability and settled the claim out of court. The union's solicitors, Thompsons, argued that Mr Mountford's job should have been carried out by two people to allow for the weight of the cooker. Joe Morgan from the GMB said: 'Employers need to be more aware of the health and safety issues faced by their employees and should address complaints when they are made. Indesit's concession on liability in our member's case shows that failing to amend work practices when there have been similar accidents in the past is legally unacceptable.' Monica Bhakri at Thompsons Solicitors added: 'The Manual Handling Operation Regulations are specifically aimed at avoiding injury from heavy lifting. The cookers in this case were far too heavy for one person to lift and others had been hurt before. Previous accidents and a failure to amend work practices is almost always evidence of negligence.'

Union alleges bullying by BA

Members of the Unite the union have accused British Airways of behaviour that amounted to bullying after the airline put up a 'graffiti wall' in its headquarters building and encouraged comments that were derogatory and insulting to cabin crew. The incident happened while Unite was balloting cabin crew over industrial action as part of a long-running dispute. Unite members said messages written on the board included "I won't let Unite destroy BA", "overpaid cabin crew", and "we don't want to see spoilt cabin crew bring down this airline". "It was diabolical," said Ken Ablard from the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association section of Unite. He added that it represented "bullying and harassment". BA said the wall at its headquarters near London Heathrow Airport was part of a programme of internal communications called "Backing BA", intended to enable staff to express their commitment to the airline by writing messages of support. The incident happened on the same week as the union wrote to the Information Commissioner claiming that it suspects that confidential information the airline held on employees had been leaked to the press. According to Unite, confidential information relating to some crew members' earnings, holiday records and unlisted home addresses somehow came to be in the possession of a national newspaper, the Daily Mail, in the run up to the proposed industrial action by crew last December. The information subsequently formed the basis of a story printed in the paper. Unite says that the resultant articles caused tremendous distress to the individuals concerned directly and, more widely, to other cabin crew who were subject to harassment by members of the public including verbal attacks and some were even spat at when wearing their uniform. Len McCluskey, Unite assistant general secretary, said 'if it is found that this information was deliberately leaked to the newspaper to whip up anti-cabin crew sentiment, then this must be viewed as a deliberate act of malice and Unite will demand that BA takes the necessary actions in relation to those concerned.'

Strike over train safety concerns

RMT members working for Scotrail are to strike over safety concerns after the company announced plans to introduce driver-only operation on the new Airdrie-Bathgate line. Members voted by a margin of nearly five to one on an 82 per cent turnout to strike for 24 hours on February 20, March 1 and March 13. This is part of a long running dispute over plans to reduce staffing on trains which, the union claims, will put safety at risk. The union also urged the Scottish government not to use public money to indemnify the company against fines or losses incurred during strike action which it says is provoked by the company tearing up a 2001 agreement not to extend DOO. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said 'I hope that rail users in Scotland will understand that we are making a stand for their safety as well as our members', and join with us in demanding that the Scottish government steps in to stop First Scotrail putting cash before safety.' At the same time the union is campaigning to highlight the safety implications of plans by Network Rail to axe 1,500 maintenance jobs (Risks 442). RMT officials are to tour the country to get out the message that 'Cuts cost lives'.

Compensation after asbestos exposure

A former power station worker Clifford King, 85, from Newark in Nottinghamshire has received compensation thanks to his union, Unite, taking up his claim for damages after he was diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease. Mr King was diagnosed with asbestosis, with a 20% disability, in 2008 after suffering from a chest infection. He said the condition has left him breathless and unable to do the gardening and other jobs around the house. Mr King was exposed to asbestos while working at a CEGB power station for more than 32 years in a variety of roles. He remembers being exposed to asbestos on a regular basis but was not warned of the dangers or given any protection. Mr King said: 'When the doctor told me I had asbestos in both lungs I was angry about the way my employer had gambled with my health. When I found out I could claim compensation I was determined to pursue it.' Unite regional secretary Adrian Axtell said: 'We are pleased we have been able to assist our member to obtain compensation. Asbestosis can be a debilitating progressive disease which could have been avoided if employers had adopted a more responsible attitude towards workplace health and safety. We will continue to fight for full and prompt compensation for our members who have been harmed by negligent employers.' David Fisher from Thompsons Solicitors added: 'Asbestosis is a crippling respiratory disease caused by prolonged or heavy doses of asbestos exposure. It was possible to bring Mr King's compensation claim to a successful conclusion quickly and efficiently because of the free specialist support he received through contacting his trade union.'

Cuts put firefighters at risk

The Fire Brigades Union have reacted angrily to plans by Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service to reduce emergency response fire cover in Norfolk to save £1.5 million between 2011and 2014, warning that this will put both the public and firefighters at greater risk. The union believes that the cuts will mean the loss of 8 front line fire engines. Some stations would see the number of fire engines available halved. A total of 63 frontline firefighter posts will be lost out of the current 750 frontline station-based firefighters meaning a loss of one in eleven frontline crews. The union has been told the proposed cuts will mean they will take longer to arrive at some emergency incidents, so the first crew will have to deal with fires and other emergency incidents for a longer time without proper resources. As a result fires will spread further and cause more damage. Peter Greeves FBU Brigade Chair said: 'In financial terms business and home fire losses have reached yet another new high. Government rules require the fire authority to undertake professionally integrated plans to improve community safety but what they've come up with are pure and simple cuts proposals. We believe these proposals will lead to a worse service and increase risk to the public and fire crews at emergency incidents. The fire service does a lot more than attend fires, there are a whole range of emergencies these cuts will have an impact on. Not only do we save lives and reduce injuries, but we also protect businesses and workplaces from damage.'

Other news

Company fined for poisoning its workers

A recycling company and its director have been fined a total of £145,000 for exposing workers to toxic mercury fumes at a site in Huddersfield. Electrical Waste Recycling Group Ltd recycles electrical equipment, including fluorescent light tubes containing mercury and TV sets and monitors containing lead at a plant in School Lane, Kirkheaton. EWR was fined £140,000 and ordered to pay £35,127 costs and company director Craig Thompson, of Reinwood, Huddersfield, was also fined £5,000 after pleading guilty to health and safety offences at Bradford Crown Court. The court heard that ventilation problems at a plant meant employees were being exposed to potentially harmful emissions from both substances. Several workers had reported ill health as a result of the exposure, including a pregnant worker who was concerned that her unborn baby was at risk. Twenty employees had levels of mercury in their system above UK guidance levels, and five of them showed extremely high levels following the exposure. HSE issued five Improvement Notices and one Prohibition Notice to the company in relation to the incident. After the hearing HSE Inspector Jeanne Morton said: "This is a shocking case involving a large number of employees, many of them young and vulnerable, who were suddenly faced with the worrying possibility of damage to their long-term health. The risks associated with handling toxic substances like mercury have been known for generations, so it is all the more unacceptable that something like this has happened. The company failed to see the risks created by their recycling work and failed to develop effective plans for safe working. They also did nothing to check their workers' health after exposure. Workers have a right to expect a reasonable level of protection in the workplace, and employers have a legal duty to provide it." The HSE recently announced that the recycling industry has nine times more fatal accidents than the national average and four times as many workers suffer injuries.

Company fined after stonemasons suffer long-term lung damage

A York-based company of stonemasons William Anelay Limited, of York, was fined £30,000 and ordered to pay £6,000 by York Crown Court after pleading guilty of breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act. The court heard that two employees, who had been working for the company as stonemasons for many years, fell ill after being exposed to uncontrolled levels of respirable crystalline silica, which is caused primarily by dry stone carving without extraction ventilation or use of protective equipment. Although the exposure happened between 2004 and 2008, high levels of airborne silica had been identified 14 years earlier but subsequent measures taken to protect employees were not adequate. As a result of the exposure both men have been left with long-term lung damage. So severe are their disabilities that one of the men has since been forced to take early retirement and the other man has been unable to return to work as a stonemason. As a result of the case, the HSE is warning employers who work with silica-based materials to take correct safety precautions after two employees were left with potentially life-shortening lung diseases. HSE Inspector Julian Franklin said: 'Had the company acted on the information they received after a survey in 1994, these men may not now be suffering from serious illnesses. I would like to remind employers working with silica-based materials such as limestone, cement, mortar and sandstone, that it is vital that they take the correct steps to prevent a similar situation." However the TUC said that while cases like this were welcome they were rare, despite the high levels of disregard for the law. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said that 'in cases like this the HSE should not wait until employees have their lungs destroyed before prosecuting the employer. Enforcement action must be taken at an earlier stage to prevent this kind of long-term and irreversible damage.'

Guideline on Corporate Manslaughter published

The Sentencing Guidelines Council have published guidance for courts in dealing with companies and organisations that cause death through a gross breach of care or where breach of health and safety requirements are a significant cause of the death. The council states that fines for companies and organisations found guilty of corporate manslaughter may be millions of pounds and should seldom be below £500,000. For other health and safety offences that cause death, fines from £100,000 up to hundreds of thousands of pounds should be imposed, although in deciding the level of fine, account must be taken of the financial circumstances of the offending organisation. The guidelines also state that when fixing the fine, a court should not be influenced by the impact on shareholders and directors, nor consider the costs of complying with other sanctions. However, the effect on the employment of the innocent may be relevant, as may the effect on provision of services to the public. The guidance also recommends that Publicity Orders, which order companies and organisations to publish statements about their conviction, are part of the penalty and should be imposed in virtually all cases. Council member and Vice President of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) Lord Justice Anthony Hughes said: 'Fines cannot and do not attempt to value a human life - compensation will be assessed separately in these cases. These are serious offences and the fines must be punitive and substantial and have an impact on the company or organisation.' However the TUC expressed regret that the guidelines had moved away from an earlier recommendation that they be based on a company's turnover. TUC health and safety officer Hugh Robertson said 'While the proposals mean that many fines will be higher than at present, many unions will still be disappointed that these fines will be a drop in the ocean for some big companies. In addition we are disappointed that the guidelines did not take the opportunity to remind courts that they should consider disqualification of directors in all cases where a death has occurred.' The sentencing guidelines take effect from Monday 15 February 2010.

Company fined after bowling alley death

A leisure company, Mitchells and Butler Retail Ltd, which ran the former Hollywood Bowl site in East London, has been fined £40,000 after pleading guilty to a health and safety breach in a prosecution brought by Newham Council. Ferdinand de la Cruz was crushed to death by a ten-pin bowling machine he was cleaning because the company had not provided adequate protection - namely a guard that would have prevented the awful accident. The company was also ordered to pay costs of £14,838.37. After the court hearing, Newham Council's executive member for public protection, Councillor Andrew Baikie, said: 'The council welcomes Judge Fraser's decision to impose a fine on the company for its failure to protect a father who was killed doing his job so he could provide for his family, and our thoughts are with them at this time. Our study discovered that machinery used nationally in bowling alleys did not have adequate safety features and therefore posed a risk to centre staff when carrying out repairs and maintenance. The study also revealed that the machinery did not comply with GB or European safety standards. The Health and Safety Executive has since the accident issued new guidance to all Local Authority Health and Safety Enforcement teams and regulators as a result. Newham Council will never shy away from dealing robustly with employers, large or small, where evidence exists that they flout the law at the expense of people's safety.'

Verdict of unlawful killing reinstated

An inquest has heard that a pit worker died from a gas leak because his employer did not enforce its health and safety policy. Richard Clarkson, 26, died in 2004 in an argon gas-filled pit at Bodycote Ltd metal parts factory in Hereford. A colleague, Stuart Jordan, who tried to help him also died. The inquest heard the gas built up over 25 hours due to a faulty fan. Jurors returned a verdict of unlawful killing on Mr Clarkson and a verdict of accidental death for Mr Jordan. In 2009 the firm had pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety at work laws and was fined £533,000 (Risks 417). This was the second inquest to be held into the deaths. In 2006 an inquest had recorded a verdict of unlawful killing for both men in 2006, but the earlier verdicts were overturned by the High Court in 2008 after the judge ruled the previous coroner's summing up had been inadequate. However in the second inquest the jury said that because Mr Clarkson was able to override the first flashing alarm, a subsequent alarm was not triggered and that could have warned him oxygen levels were dangerously low. Mr Jordan went to check on him and both he and Mr Clarkson were quickly overcome, the jury said.

European Risk Assessment Campaign on dangerous substances

European health and safety inspectors are to run a Europe-wide inspection campaign to improve working conditions associated with the use of dangerous substances in the workplace. The campaign, which will run from January 2010 to March 2011, is being run by SLIC, the European Union Senior Labour Inspectors Committee, and is supported by the European Commission. It covers wood transformation and furniture production, vehicle maintenance, cleaning (including dry-cleaning and industrial cleaning) and bakeries and will target companies employing up to 50 workers. The first stage of the campaign will be to give information on the risks but this will be followed up by inspection visits to workplaces. The campaign will be one of the first to try to use a common approach and common guidelines across the whole of Europe and SLIC have promised that unions will be involved in the campaign. At present there is no information of how the campaign will be run in the UK and whether the HSE, or local authorities, will be taking the lead.

International News

Thai railway workers need support

An international campaign has been launched to support six Thai union officials who have been sacked after union members refused to drive trains they believed were unsafe. The action also happened after the Thai national rail company (SRT) had cut jobs. The driver of the train that crashed has been working for a month with only one rest day and was believed to have fallen asleep. As a result of the industrial action the Thai rail management sacked six union officials. Their case has now been taken up by the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and its affiliate, the State Railway Workers' Union of Thailand (SRUT).They are demanding the reinstatement of the dismissed workers, an end to further victimisation of union officials, the dropping of a law suit for damages filed against the union and a new safety culture in SRT with the workers and the union where whistle-blowers are not penalised. In January the case was investigated by the State Enterprise Labour Relations Committee, which voted 5 to 4 against the management's decision. Nevertheless, the Transport Minister is pushing the SRT to take the case to court. The ITF are urging unions to protest to SRT about their actions and demand that they accept the Labour Relations Committee's report.

USA: Poisonous record of prison e-waste recycling

US prisoners and staff supervisors were exposed for years to excessive levels of toxic heavy metals during computer recycling operations, a government workplace health research agency has confirmed. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report, however, says the absence of recordkeeping inside the prisons, made it impossible to confirm any health problems from these illegal levels of exposure. The December 2009 NIOSH report was submitted to the Justice Department Office of Inspector General as part of its system-wide review of all the federal prison e-waste recycling centres. This NIOSH report covered conditions at federal prisons at Elkton in Ohio, Texarkana in Texas, Marianna in Florida and Atwater in California and must be publicly displayed at each institution. Campaign organisation PEER - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility - obtained a copy of the report and in January 2010 published it on its website. The NIOSH report says recycling operations at the for-profit prisons involves inmates breaking up computer components, often with hammers. NIOSH concluded that, for years, these recycling operations lacked adequate containment to prevent workers from being coated with dangerous amounts of lead, cadmium and other heavy metals inside the hardware. NIOSH says prison industry managers failed to assess risks adequately prior to work starting, failed to identify potential hazards with the result that 'adequate hazard controls were not established for several years at some BOP [Bureau of Prison] institutions'; and failed to provide any 'training, guidance or oversight needed to address health hazards associated with electronics recycling' to staff and inmate workers. NIOSH found that prison staff and inmates had been exposed to illegally high levels of toxins for years at all of the facilities it inspected except the one at Marianna, Florida. This report is part of the Justice Department Inspector General (IG) investigation, begun in 2006, into occupational and environmental compliance of prison computer recycling operations and the accountability of managers who ignored previous reports of problems. PEER executive director Jeff Ruch commented: 'It is outrageous that federal prisons have been illegally undercutting legitimate recyclers to the potential detriment of their own staff and the inmates in their custody.'

Long hours linked to US gas explosion

It has been claimed that workers in the Connecticut power plant that was rocked by an explosion which killed five people last week were often working more than 80 hours a week. It is also alleged that workers smelled gas less than an hour beforehand and were told to open doors wider for air. The blast destroyed parts of the recently completed 620-megawatt Kleen Energy Systems plant as workers purged a gas line Sunday morning. The cause is being investigated but it is already clear that many employees were working excessively long hours. Erik Dobratz, the son of one of those killed, said his father was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for six months. "A lot of the guys on the job were doing this for six months, and they were exhausted," Dobratz said. "They were all exhausted. To me that just seems a little ridiculous. Eighty-five hours a week -- accidents happen, if you ask me." Dobratz said he wouldn't be surprised if the long hours turned out to be a factor in the explosion, which occurred as workers cleared natural-gas lines in a test. "If something comes out that someone forgot to do something could it be because they were really tired and thought they did it and didn't do it," Dobratz said. One worker who survived, Paul Gaskins, confirmed that he and his colleagues worked 12 to 13 hours every day but he also claimed that workers had expressed concerns less than an hour earlier about a natural-gas smell in the building and were told only to open nearby doors a bit wider to let in more air. Only the previous week the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates chemical accidents, had approved new safety recommendations for purging gas. These urged employers to ensure that gas was vented outdoors and if that was not possible, all nonessential workers should leave the area. An enquiry is underway but meanwhile the state Governor has called for an investigation into the issue of long hours.

Forced labour in El Salvador

The true cost of cheap imports to markets like Europe and the US has been exposed by a report from the International Confederation of Trade Unions into the free trade export zones in El Salvador. These 15 zones employ around 67,000 workers, most of whom are women. The ITUC has uncovered appalling treatment ranging from verbal abuse and threats to physical abuse and sexual harassment. Health and safety concerns are also routinely ignored. There is a clear anti-trade union policy and dismissal of workers planning to join or form a union. Although El Salvador recently ratified the ILO core Conventions on trade union rights in order to benefit from access to the EU's trade benefits scheme, these are still not applied in practice. Many consider that working conditions in export processing zones can be assimilated to forced labour. Child labour remains a widespread problem, in particular in areas such as fireworks manufacture and recycling. Another of the report's findings is that, although outlawed, forced labour occurs through the trafficking of human beings, especially women and girls for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. Forced labour also exists in prisons where convicted prisoners are under an obligation to work. The ITUC report finds that many public workers are barred from exercising their right to organise, and that the right to strike is so restricted as to be virtually impossible to implement. Anti-union practices are widespread, and public authorities do not intervene to stop them. On 15 January 2010, Victoriano Abel Vega, the general secretary of SITRAMSA (Sindicato de trabajadores y Empleados Municipales de la Alacaldía de Santa Ana), was murdered on his way to San Salvador where he was due to attend a meeting with several other trade unionists.

Union testifies to Helicopter crash inquiry

A Canadian union has called for major changes in the way that the helicopter industry operates to ensure that there are no further tragedies such as the one last March when a Cougar chopper fell into the sea about 60 kilometres east of St. John's killing 17 of 18 people aboard. Brian Murphy, a local vice-president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, made the call during an enquiry into the tragedy. Murphy and two other union spokesmen representing about 700 offshore workers at the Hibernia and Terra Nova sites described a corporate culture in which workers' concerns about ill-fitting survival suits, a lack of underwater breathing devices and helicopter incidents went unanswered or were given short shrift - sometimes for years. Although they acknowledged that there had been improvements since the crash, the union called for more realistic training and open communication, among other changes. Murphy said workers who travel more than 300 kilometres to three offshore sites shouldn't have to ride next to an auxiliary fuel tank in the passenger cabin. Robert Decker, the sole survivor of the Cougar disaster, told the inquiry in November that he suspects a large tank on the left side of the cabin would have complicated any escape from the fast-sinking helicopter. It was located between double seats and the windows. Murphy said fuel tanks should be attached outside the passenger cabin, but the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, which regulates oil activity, has ruled that helicopter travel is inherently risky and that fuel tanks in the passenger cabin don't increase that hazard. Murphy also wants any helicopter that turns back to shore for technical problems to be considered a "potential ditching" that triggers a search and rescue response. Sheldon Peddle, local president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, said there has to be a way to ensure worker concerns about helicopter safety are not just heard but acted on. "Some of these issues ... they've been around for a long time. And it doesn't seem like there's a way to get anything changed once we bring it up and we talk about it," he said. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the Cougar crash.


Workers Memorial Day materials

Now that Workers Memorial Day is officially recognised by the Government there is even more reason to make a splash in your workplace. The Hazards movement have produced a range of materials that you can use in your organising for the day including 'forget-me-not' ribbons, car stickers and posters. To order posters please send an e-mail to [email protected] Order forms for ribbons and car stickers are on the Greater Manchester Hazards Centre website here.

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