Risks 459 - 5 June 2010

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Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 18,000 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

TUC prescription on drugs and alcohol

A decent policy is the key to addressing drug and alcohol problems at work, the TUC has said. The union body adds these policies should 'in no way' be linked to disciplinary procedures. A new TUC guide acknowledges that while the use of drugs and alcohol 'can be a serious workplace issue', some substance misuse stems from the stresses and strains of work. It adds that 'many people have conditions that require drugs to help them live a normal live and could not work without them.' The guide asserts: 'The TUC believes that alcohol and drugs have no place in the workplace, unless required for a medical condition, however we also believe that employers should not interfere in a person's private life unless it impacts on their work.' It notes that among the reasons the problem is an issue for trade unions are 'because many people turn to alcohol or drugs because of the stress of work, or to painkillers because of musculoskeletal problems caused by work. This guidance is intended to assist workplace representatives in developing policies to deal with alcohol and drug problems in the workplace.' The guide notes that studies show illicit drug use is an extremely rare problem in UK workplaces, pointing out the use and misuse of prescription drugs is much more common. 'Negotiating an agreed policy can help ensure that the issues are dealt with as legitimate workplace matters in a way that will aim to support any workers who have a problem,' the TUC guide concludes. 'Under no circumstances should a drugs or alcohol policy be part of a disciplinary policy.'

Firm's blind eye on safety goggles

A driver has received a 'substantial' sum in compensation after he suffered permanent damage to his eye at work. After being hit in the eye by work equipment, the 57-year-old GMB member from Redcar needed surgery to correct a detached retina and then another operation a year later to remove a cataract. The Coast and Country Housing Limited employee, whose name has not been released, was clearing out an empty property and had loaded a stainless steel bath onto the back of his lorry. As he attempted to cover the load with a net, it got caught on a loose bath leg which swung round and hit him in the eye. He was wearing his regular plastic prescription glasses but they provided inadequate protection. The GMB member said it was important to him that his employer accepted responsibility for his injury. 'I had asked for glass prescription safety goggles on a number of occasions because in my line of work I feared I ran the risk of serious injury but they were never provided,' he said. 'If I hadn't been wearing my normal plastic glasses I could have been blinded. Having gone through two eye operations I know just how scary it is to lose your sight. I was lucky that when I did I knew it was only temporary.' Ian McKenzie from the GMB said: 'Safety glasses are a must-have item for those working in a wide range of industries. However there are several types of glasses on the market and it is up to the employer to ensure that the type used is suited to the tasks being undertaken.'

Nuke plant slip hurt worker's prospects

A nuclear plant surveyor who suffered a trapped nerve at work in a workplace slip missed out on promotion as a result. The 54-year-old GMB member, whose name has not been released, was forced to go on restricted duties after slipping on liquid while working at Sellafield in Whitehaven. The experienced health physics monitor was surveying a room in the nuclear processing plant when the slip occurred. She saved herself from falling to the floor by hanging onto a metal gantry - but in doing so trapped a nerve in her back. She was forced to take more than 10 weeks off work as a result of her injuries, which needed extensive physiotherapy. The GMB member, who had no previous history of back pain, has been told her condition is permanent. She received a 'substantial' sum in a union-backed compensation claim. She said: 'This accident has meant I have missed out on a significant promotion and I now have to work on restricted duties. I worry about my future employability as I'm less mobile and unable to lift meaning I am restricted in the type of job I can do in the future.' David Burn from Thompsons Solicitors, the personal injury law firm brought in by the union, said: 'A simple process to clean up spills would have prevented our client from suffering this injury. Her back problems are disabling and she will have to live with the pain the rest of her life and the level of compensation reflects that as well as her lost promotion.'

Caterpillar didn't move after warning

A Unite member who needed two operations to correct a hernia following a workplace injury has received more than £7,000 in compensation. Keith Robinson, 43, needed the major surgery after moving a 12ft high and 30ft long walkway to access a work area. The painter for Caterpillar in Peterlee needed to move the heavy piece of equipment to gain access to the vehicles he was due to paint. The firm specialises in giant vehicles designed to move heavy loads and says the paint plant is 'state of the art.' The walkway, which was extremely heavy and on small wheels, had to be manoeuvred across a gridded floor. The wheels would regularly jam in the floor and lock in place. The flooring was uneven, exacerbating a problem which had been highlighted to factory bosses over a period of three years. However, nothing had been done to address the concerns. The injury occurred as a result of two incidents, in July 2007 and June 2008, when Mr Robinson attempted to move the walkway. On both occasions it jammed, causing the 20 year veteran with the firm to suffer a straining injury. He developed an umbilical hernia which was operated on in November 2008. He is currently recovering from a second operation after he suffered complications. In a union backed compensation case, Caterpillar admitted liability and settled the claim out of court. Mr Robinson said: 'We complained time and again about the walkway and the problems it caused but nothing was ever done about it. We even suggested alternative walkways which could be used but we had to struggle on with the original piece of equipment.' Davey Hall, regional secretary at Unite, said: 'There is no excuse for employers not taking all reasonable steps to correct health and safety concerns. Here ignoring the problem ended up with a loyal employee becoming seriously injured.'

Other news

Warning on 'heavy-handed' welfare plans

More support and not more penalties is what are needed to get the workless into work, unions, safety professionals and poverty campaigners have told the government. New DWP secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith said a radical welfare reform programme would tackle entrenched poverty and 'intergenerational worklessness'. Criticising the plans announced last week, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Unions will support measures to help unemployed and disabled people into work but there is no excuse for such a heavy handed, punitive approach. The recession - not lazy individuals - has caused rising unemployment and most people on disability benefits are out of work because today's labour market is a tough place for those with severe health conditions.' He said plans to cut Jobcentre Plus staff would make the situation worse, a point echoed by civil service union PCS. 'Any plans Iain Duncan Smith has will be massively undermined by his government's cuts programme,' said PCS deputy general secretary Hugh Lanning. 'One minute the government is announcing cuts that will make more people unemployed, then it says it wants to put less support in place to help them. The government will soon find out that cutting staff and cutting unemployment cannot go hand in hand.' Imran Hussain of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said: 'We need a genuine safety net with a bounce in it, instead of trapping people in bureaucracy, sanctions and barriers to taking control of their lives.' Richard Jones, policy director at safety professionals body IOSH, said: 'IOSH believes rehabilitation and the promotion of health and well-being at work needs to become the norm. As a nation, we need to make sure that everyone understands how to protect and improve health, and emphasise the message that 'worker-friendly' workplaces are productive and benefit everyone.'

Not quite the right fit note

A new healthy work guide to assist GPs in fitness for work assessments skirts the issue of curing the unhealthy jobs that make many workers sick in the first place. The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) is behind Healthy Working UK, a website it says will provide GPs and other healthcare professionals with information, training and decision aids concerning the relationship between work and health. It covers making the occupational link, advising on fitness for work and supporting rehabilitation. Mirroring the official 'Health, work and well-being' strategy, it emphasises the health benefits of employment compared to worklessness. RCGP chair Professor Steve Field said: 'The Healthy Working UK resources are useful for both patients and professionals, and provide timely access to training, information and decision tools to support their daily practise.' The website is part of a wider programme which includes e-learning packages for both GP and hospital based health care professionals, as well as a 'Health & Work in General Practice' national education programme for GPs. Critics warn, however, the resources reflect the flaw in the well-being strategy - too little emphasis on how work makes people sick and what should be done about it. 'There's a gaping hole in GP knowledge, and that is any real understanding of how work causes harm and how to make work safe and healthy,' said Jawad Qasrawi of Hazards magazine. 'GPs are now being asked to sign fit notes, a job they are not qualified to do - and these resources unfortunately do nothing to change that.' TUC this year issued new guidance on the fit note system.

Bed makers remove mattress strains

An initiative to address greatly elevated strains risks in bed manufacture has met with some success, says the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The watchdog says 'employees in the bed manufacturing industry are around twice as likely to suffer manual handling injuries such as back and upper limb disorders than those in any other manufacturing sector,' with jobs like the manual handling of mattresses particularly problematic. The HSE prevention initiative, undertaken with the support of the National Bed Federation, set out to identify the key risk activities and encourage companies to identify solutions that would work best for them. In a series of seminars, bed manufacturers were asked to produce three-year action plans to show how they could improve health and safety in high risk activities. An HSE review found improvements in the seven pilot companies, including the introduction of new mechanised equipment and handling aids, and better storage arrangements to reduce the need for manual handling. HSE said one company nearly halved the number of manual handling injuries reported. Other companies noted that new ways of working to reduce manual handling had also increased their productivity. HSE's Tim Small said: 'By working with the industry we have been able to establish where the highest risks are and help to suggest interventions to avoid or minimise that risk. We are now aiming to communicate the findings of the report to the wider bed manufacturing industry and hope that we can help to bring about a further reduction in manual handling injuries.'

BP spill prompts North Sea discussions

North Sea oil industry leaders have created an advisory group to review procedures in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster. The major oil leak began when a drilling rig operated on behalf of BP exploded, killing 11 workers. The Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group (OSPRAG), which met this week in Aberdeen, was formed by the industry body Oil and Gas UK and includes offshore unions Unite and RMT, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and other government agencies. OSPRAG chair Mark McAllister, the chief executive of Fairfield Energy, said: 'The regulatory regime in the UK continental shelf requires companies to put in place robust checks to minimise the risk of oil spills.' He added: 'We have not had a blow-out in the last 20 years of operations and the oil spills we do have tend to be on a very small scale. However, we must always ensure we put the safety of our employees first and minimise any adverse environmental impacts of our operations, so in light of the recent Gulf of Mexico incident, it is only right that we take a fresh look at our practices in the UK for oil spill prevention and response. The review conducted under OSPRAG will be comprehensive and will help ensure that the arrangements in the UK continue to be fit for purpose.' Specialist divisions will focus on issues including protection of personnel, oil spill response and insurance and regulations.

Site death fine increased eight-fold

A building firm has had a fine following the death of a worker increased eight-fold by appeal court judges in Scotland. Discovery Homes (Scotland) Ltd was originally fined £5,000 after admitting a criminal safety breach (Risks 410). However, following a Crown appeal the sentence was increased to £40,000. Bricklayer Andrezej Freitag, 55, died on 29 May 2008 after falling down a shaft from the third to the second storey of a block of houses under construction in Dundee. After the company was fined last year at Dundee Sheriff Court, the Crown decided to appeal claiming the sentence was unduly lenient. The sheriff at the original hearing had said he would have fined the firm £7,500, but reduced it following the guilty plea. He said he would have normally imposed 'a very substantial fine' but was under the impression that would almost inevitably lead to the firm going bust. The Lord Justice General, Lord Hamilton, who heard the appeal with Lord Kingarth and Lord Carloway, said: 'What he did not, however, appreciate was that, on the face of the accounts, there was a mechanism by which the firm could, over time, meet a much more substantial fine than pounds £7,500 without inevitably being forced into administration or liquidation.' The senior judge said the building company had built up substantial profits which allowed it to pay its two director-shareholders £50,000 a year each. The Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh agreed to give the firm time to pay with the company's counsel, Gavin Anderson, offering £5,000 a month. The judges rejected a Crown bid to increase a fine of £4,000 imposed on Discovery Homes director Richard Pratt following the incident. Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK), a campaign run by relatives who have suffered a workplace bereavement, protested to then-prime minister Gordon Brown about the original sentence.

Laundry boss jailed for exploiting immigrants

A Berkshire man who hired 23 illegal immigrants and kept them virtual prisoners at a laundry in Hampshire has been jailed for a year for assisting unlawful immigration. Qing Wu, 42, employed the workers at Universal Chinese Laundry in Alton. They lived in a cramped block at the laundry where he was a director, Winchester Crown Court heard. Qing Wu was found guilty on 17 May on 23 counts and was sentenced on 28 May to 12 months in prison. His co-defendant, laundry manager Man Kung Wong, 45, was cleared of the charges at the earlier hearing. During the trial the court heard that the workers lived in the company's industrial unit alongside the laundry. The jury was told they lived in cramped and filthy accommodation, hidden from view. There was no fresh air and the windows were blacked out. The accommodation block, which contained bedrooms, a kitchen, a toilet and a shower, was built inside the industrial unit and hidden behind a wooden stud wall. The majority of business for the laundry came from carrying out washing for the armed services, the court heard.

Fingers chopped off at plastics firm

A plastics recycling factory in St Helens has been fined £15,000 after a worker had parts of two fingers cut off by blades on a high-speed fan. The employee, who has asked not to be named, suffered serious injuries to four fingers on his left hand including the partial amputation of two. He was injured while trying to repair a drying unit at Roydon Granulation Ltd on 19 May 2009. St Helens Magistrates' Court heard that the employee's fingers had come into contact with the high-speed fan, which rotates 1,450 times a minute, while he was trying to fix a problem. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation concluded that the company's procedure for repairing the machine was inadequate. HSE inspector Richard Clarke said: 'One of the factory's employees suffered serious injuries because basic health and safety procedures were not followed. He has still not returned to work more than a year on from the incident.' He added: 'By law, the preferred solution would have been for the workers to switch off and lock off the power supply to the fan with padlocks. If this was not possible, then temporary guards should have been put in place. These or other equally effective measures were not taken.' Roydon Granulation pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and fined £15,000 and £4,347 costs.

Premier league club fails on safety

Premier League football club Aston Villa has been fined after a worker was badly injured in a fall through a roof during the redevelopment of its training ground. Two contractors from Mechanical Cleansing Services Ltd were working at the Bodymoor Heath complex near Sutton Coldfield when one of them plunged three metres through a fragile rooflight. The company had been employed to drain fuel tanks on a roof during demolition of an old building on the site. Stratford-on-Avon magistrates heard that the 34-year-old worker was cleaning the tanks and fell through a rooflight as he was heading towards a ladder to get down. He broke bones in his heels in the three-metre fall and was off work for more than six months. The club, its contractor and Mechanical Cleansing Services' director, Damon Roe, all admitted health and safety offences. An internal ladder was blocked so Mr Roe decided to use a ladder against the outside front of the building to access the roof's plant room. However, both he and the football club failed to inform workers of the dangers or how to avoid the risk of falling through the fragile rooflights. HSE inspector Carol Southerd said: 'If the internal ladder had been used, then this incident would not have happened. A simple conversation with the club was all it would have taken to arrange for the blocked ladder to be cleared.' She added: 'When working at height all workers must have adequate instruction, training and equipment. It is vital that risks are adequately assessed and managed before employees undertake tasks in hazardous locations. There was clear failure to warn the victim or his colleague of the dangerous condition of the roof or to provide safe access to the tank.'

High voltage shock for stationery worker

A London stationery manufacturer has been fined after admitting removing safety guards and exposing a worker to a high voltage shock that left him permanently disabled. The man was investigating a fault on a plastic welding machine at Chart Design Ltd in Wembley in June 2007 when his fingers came into proximity with components carrying several thousand volts. The resulting shock severely burned his right hand and forearm, and damaged several muscles. He was hospitalised for 14 days and has since had to undergo skin grafts. He has not regained full use of his right hand and has been unable to return to work. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation revealed that guard panels which should have prevented access to live circuits had been removed. Inspectors discovered that no record of maintenance checks was kept for any of the machines at the factory. The company also had no first aiders. Chart Design Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach at City of London Magistrates' Court. It was fined £4,000 and ordered to pay costs of £6,330. HSE inspector Kerry Williams commented: 'A man's life has been turned upside down because of entirely preventable and basic safety failings. It is the responsibility of all managers to make sure that all maintenance work is properly planned and recorded and that adequate guards are fitted to all machinery when it is in use.' She added: 'If these simple things had been done it is unlikely that he would have suffered these horrendous injuries. But this incident could have been much worse - instead of losing the feeling in his fingers, he could have lost his life.'

Vibration disease costs stonemason his job

A stonemason has been forced to give up his specialist trade after his hands were left permanently damaged by using vibrating tools at work. The 46-year-old from Tadcaster, whose name has not been released, has received £56,000 in compensation after being left with the debilitating condition Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS), caused by using vibrating tools on a daily basis in his job as a stonemason for a Yorkshire company. The company admitted liability and settled the claim out of court. The condition means he suffers from constant pins and needles and has been forced to give up his trade after 10 years. He also has had to give up his hobbies of fishing and cycling during the winter. He still works for the firm but is now a delivery driver. He first started noticing a problem with his hands in 2008. He was told by a specialist it was HAVS and was advised to claim compensation. 'Since the doctor said it was work-related I took the claim for my family as I've had to take a significant pay cut,' he said. Oliver Collett from Thompsons Solicitors, who represented the affected worker, said: 'This is a considerable award for this type of condition but this client had to give up his career as a stonemason and take a substantial pay cut. This employer ignored clear rules about properly assessing the levels of vibration and the amount of time workers use vibrating tools. As a result our client's career is at an end.'

International News

Australia: Union bans nuke work

An Australian union has banned its members from working in uranium mines, nuclear power stations or any other part of the nuclear fuel cycle. The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) says other unions have expressed strong support for the campaign against uranium, which it has labelled the 'new asbestos' of the workplace. 'We're sick of hearing about nuclear power as the panacea of global warming, we're sick of people sweeping safety issues under the carpet,' ETU secretary Peter Simpson said. 'Our view is there's enough ETU labour in the place... that we'll be able to starve the industry out.' He was speaking at the launch in Brisbane of an anti-uranium DVD, 'When the dust settles', alongside paediatrician and anti-nuclear campaign Dr Helen Caldicott. The DVD, to be sent to ETU members in Queensland and the Northern Territory, is a warning about the health risks the union says come with working with uranium. On the video the union leader comments: 'We are in the business of safety, and this is one way of showing it.' Mr Simpson said Australian workers had already faced decades of exposure, and warned uranium was the new asbestos of the workplace. 'Over the next 10 or 15 years we're going to see the downside of (uranium),' he said. Dr Caldicott said Australia's uranium export industry meant the nation was 'selling cancer and we're selling nuclear weapons.' Australia has about 20 per cent of the world's known uranium deposits and the largest known deposits of high-grade uranium ore. International campaign group Beyond Nuclear notes: 'Studies have shown increases in cancer around nuclear facilities and uranium mines. Radiation mutates genes which can cause genetic damage across generations.' The union warns that dust masks and air-conditioned cabs may reduce gamma radiation exposures from uranium, but create an illusion of safety as they do nothing to prevent to prevent alpha radiation exposures from radon gas.

Global: Unions call for action on Foxconn suicides

A global union confederation has said it is 'gravely concerned' at the tragic suicides at Foxconn Technology Group in Shenzhen, China. ITUC says the Taiwanese Foxconn group is at the heart of the 'Made in China' export model. The group employs nearly 800,000 workers in China, with the Shenzhen facilities alone employing nearly 420,000. Twelve workers have so far jumped from the buildings or attempted suicide in the Shenzhen production facilities of Foxconn. Ten of these young migrant workers have died, and two others were seriously injured. Facing critical press coverage worldwide, the company has now installed safety nets outside the facility and has promised a pay hike of up to 30 per cent for workers. ITUC says the root problem 'is the product of the Taiwanese company's harsh management practices and the particularly vulnerable situation of the young migrant workers in China as they are locked in the cost-competitive export model of China.' It says the firm supplies Western companies, including Apple, Nintendo, Nokia, Sony, Hewlett Packard and Dell, who need to take some responsibility. 'Many of these companies do have corporate codes of conduct which are supposed to ensure high social standards, and they share the responsibility for what happens in their supply chains,' it says. 'The ITUC appeals to the Chinese government, the All China Confederation of Trade Unions, Foxconn and all the brand companies that are sourcing from Foxconn to take the necessary measures to offer assistance to the bereaved families and victims and make sure that adequate compensation mechanisms are developed.'

USA: Rig spill clean up makes workers sick

A chemical dispersant being used to fight the gulf oil spill is making workers sick, recent reports suggest. The disaster, where BP has failed repeatedly to stem the oil gusher and which started with an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers, has led to an increasing clamour for criminal charges to be levelled at BP, the company that owns the well. Last week seven crew members aboard fishing vessels who had been working to clean up Breton Sound, southeast of New Orleans, blamed the dispersant chemicals for health complaints including nausea, shortness of breath and high blood pressure. All were working on a clean up crew south of Venice, Louisiana, and were admitted to hospital. Doctors who examined them said that their conditions were 'related to some kind of irritant, combined with dehydration'. The US government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had earlier asked BP to stop using the dispersant, known as Corexit, and find a safer alternative. BP disputed the agency's assessment of its level of toxicity. Like previous BP-related disasters in Alaska and Texas, evidence has emerged that appears to show BP knowingly cut corners on maintenance and safety on Deepwater Horizon's operations, which some commentators believe could amount to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. Others say that because people were killed, BP and company officials should face prosecution for negligent and reckless homicide. 'The worker safety issue has been completely lost in this story,' said Tom O'Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. 'It's one of the biggest industrial disasters in recent history, and yet Congress [views it] the same as the public: They're not seeing it as a worker safety issue.' Federal statistics support O'Connor's call for concern. Between 2003 and 2008, 646 US oil and gas workers were killed on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including 120 in 2008.

USA: Safety rules fail the biotech test

Workers in cutting edge biotechnology labs are facing serious and seriously unregulated risks. The New York Times reports the casualties include a US Agriculture Department scientist who spent a month in a coma after being infected by the E. coli bacteria her colleagues were experimenting with. Another scientist, working in a New Zealand lab while on leave from an American biotechnology company, lost both legs and an arm after being infected by meningococcal bacteria, the subject of her vaccine research. And last September, a University of Chicago scientist died after apparently being infected by the focus of his research: the bacterium that causes plague. The head of the US government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) acknowledges that his agency's 20th-century rules have not yet caught up with the 21st-century biotech industry. 'Worker safety cannot be sacrificed on the altar of innovation,' said OHSA head David Michaels. 'We have inadequate standards for workers exposed to infectious materials.' Last month, as a first step toward possible new regulations, the agency issued a sweeping request for information on occupational risks from infectious agents, and for suggestions on how best to reduce them. OSHA is further hampered because it does not have jurisdiction over many academic and government biolabs, where there have been dozens of known cases of worker illness or at least exposure to harmful agents.

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