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Firefighter wins human rights safety ruling
A firefighter has won £80,000 in damages after an employment tribunal found he was unfairly dismissed after raising health and safety concerns. FBU member Christopher Bennett, who has arthritis, was fired for gross misconduct for sending an email to colleagues asking whether the reclining chairs provided at work were caused back pain. Greater Manchester Fire Service had insisted he use a chair he was concerned was injuring his back on nightshifts at work. Three hundred of the £400 chairs were brought in to replace beds in Greater Manchester's 41 fire stations in 2006. In 2007, three firefighters were disciplined after they refused to sleep on the reclining chairs. The tribunal found Mr Bennett's right to freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act had been breached and that his dismissal was unfair. The firefighter, who was sacked in 2008 after 25 years of service, was among a number of firefighters who found the new £400 chairs uncomfortable, the tribunal heard. A failure to address his concerns led Mr Bennett to send an email to watch managers across the county asking if they or their colleagues were suffering with the chairs, an action that resulted in his dismissal. The tribunal found that the email was of political and public interest in that firefighters should be alert and fit to go about their business of fighting fires and effecting rescues. It went on to find that Mr Bennett was seeking in his own way to protect public safety. Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm brought in by FBU to represent Mr Bennett, secured an out-of-court settlement of £80,000 - more than the statutory cap for these types of cases. Steve Shelton, the FBU official who had represented Mr Bennett during his disciplinary hearings, said: 'To lose his job for speaking out about his concerns for safety was a sanction too far. It's reassuring to know that the law recognises this and that our legal advisers were able to successfully argue that the Human Rights Act be applied to Chris's case.'
Tube workers walk out to defend colleague
Tube workers at Rickmansworth walked out this week in support of a colleague they believe was victimised after a passenger was injured. The 77 ASLEF members stopped work for 24 hours at midnight on Tuesday in protest at the 'utterly wrong' decision. London Underground said the driver - who had a 33-year unblemished record - was 're-graded' after a passenger injured her leg and was left on a platform after being trapped in a door. Speaking ahead of the strike action, which caused widespread disruption on the Metropolitan Line, ASLEF acting general secretary Simon Weller said: 'It was a regrettable incident, of course - but the sanction is totally unfair in this instance. This driver had 33 years unblemished service and he was not at fault.' He added: 'The problem was caused by safety deficiencies, especially concerning mirrors, which we had reported regularly to management. It is utterly wrong that one of our members should be disciplined because management failed to react to our warnings. Our members are perfectly entitled to react against this flawed judgment - which is why 90 per cent voted in favour of the action.'
Tube bosses concede system is rotten
After months of accusing Tube union RMT of scaremongering over the safety impact of cuts on London Underground (LU), tube bosses on 20 July conceded that budget cuts have resulted in services running on dangerous and rotten infrastructure dating back to the 1920s. RMT says the admission included a recognition there was worse to come, as the government plans a further assault on the Transport for London (TFL) budget and the Tube upgrade programme. The admission came as RMT underground members began balloting for strike action across the entire network over jobs and safety cuts. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'After months of attacking the RMT for warning that cuts to financing and jobs were leading to massive backlogs in maintenance and upgrade works, and a severe shortage of staff in all areas, LU bosses have admitted this morning that not only were we right all along but that there is much worse to come.' He said the strike ballot was 'over jobs and safety because RMT will not sit back and wait for a tragedy before we act. There is now no question that the staffing and financial cuts are turning the underground into a death trap and the senior management right up to Boris Johnson know that. The time has come for the Mayor to slam the brakes on the cuts programme and prepare for a full on battle with the government over TFL funding.'
RMT warns of 'great danger' on railways
Transport union RMT is warning of a 'great danger' on the railways if government cuts to the transport budget go ahead. Commenting as Network Rail's annual meeting kicked off this week in Manchester, the rail union warned that cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent planned by the government would have a 'catastrophic' and 'lethal' impact on rail infrastructure and operations. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said Network Rail's AGM came at 'a time of great danger for the railways in this country. If reductions on the scale being projected are forced on the transport budget we have no doubt that it will mean thousands of job losses and catastrophic cuts to rail infrastructure and operations with lethal consequences. RMT will continue to mobilise to fight those cuts.' He warned: 'In the background, right wing voices are arguing for the selling off of Network Rail and its assets to raise money in what would be a nightmare return to Railtrack Mark Two - a model of rail operation that was a major factor in the Hatfield and Potters Bar disasters'. He said the travelling public 'should join with RMT in a campaign of resistance to the cuts and for a rail network that's publicly-owned, properly-funded and where safety is paramount.' In evidence last week to the inquest into the Potters Bar rail crash, in which seven people died and 76 were injured, RMT senior assistant general secretary Mick Cash warned that reductions in maintenance staff numbers are leading to a situation where a further serious rail disaster is becoming more likely.
Sex assault trauma for prison gardener
A gardener at a young offenders' institute had to give up work as a result a sexual assault by inmates. Unite member David Thomas suffered psychological trauma as a result of the May 2004 attack at HM Prison and Young Offenders Institution Onley, near Rugby, Warwickshire. It occurred as he was supervising inmates who had been smoking cannabis. Mr Thomas, who was on a phased return to work after an illness, found that safe working systems appeared to have broken down. He was meant to be working with a manager but instead found himself alone with the inmates. The 'irritable and aggressive' group verbally abused him, with the situation deteriorating when he refused to allow them to use a strimmer. He called for assistance, which would usually arrive within minutes, but his call wasn't answered. He was subsequently pushed against a door and sexually assaulted. He managed to get away and phoned again for help, but this took 20 minutes to arrive. Mr Thomas was unable to return to work after the attack. He suffered nightmares, became reclusive, was emotional and tearful and lacked confidence. Although his psychological condition did improve, doctors advised that he should not return to work unless his employer ensured that he did not work on his own again. The prison service refused to accept this so Mr Thomas was medically retired in September 2005. He was awarded undisclosed compensation in a union-backed claim. Mr Thomas said: 'I had raised concerns about health and safety and inmate discipline before and had been attacked and injured by inmates in the past, which left me stressed. I am very angry that this terrifying assault happened because I was left alone with a group of aggressive inmates and no one came to my assistance. Even when I did get through to security they said they couldn't help me as there was another security incident in the prison. This shouldn't have been allowed to happen.'
New union face on HSE's board
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny has been appointed to the board of the Health and Safety Executive. The union leader said he was 'proud' to be appointed to the board as an 'employee interests' representative, adding: 'These days we hear too little about the very real improvements health and safety has brought over the years. As a Board member I will do my best to shift the focus to the true value of protecting workers from unsafe working practices, and to the wider benefits for business and society.' He replaces former Unite officer Danny Carrigan, whose term had come to an end. There has been one other new appointment to the Board. Frances Outram Wright, who had previously worked as a health services human resources specialist and consultant and who is current a non-executive director of a health trust, has 'been appointed as one of the Board's employer interest representatives, with particular responsibility for small firms' health and safety interests,' said DWP.
Oil giants fined for Buncefield blast
Five companies responsible for the 2005 Buncefield oil depot explosion were last week ordered to pay fines totalling more than £9 million. Sentencing the firms at St Albans Crown Court, Judge Sir David Calvert-Smith said: 'Had the explosion happened during a working day, the loss of life may have been measured in tens or even hundreds.' The fact that it hadn't, he added, was 'little short of miraculous.' The explosion occurred at 6.01am on 11 December 2005, a Sunday morning. The destruction at the Hertfordshire depot came after a massive vapour cloud ignited when 250,000 litres of petrol leaked from one of its tanks. The judge said: 'The failures which led in particular to the explosion were failures which could have combined to produce these consequences at almost any hour of any day.' Fuel giant Total was fined £3.6m plus £2.6m costs, Hertfordshire Oil Storage Limited (HOSL) £1.45m plus £1m costs, British Pipeline Agency Ltd £300,000 plus £480,000 costs, and Motherwell Control Systems 2003 Ltd and TAV Engineering Ltd were both fined £1,000 and each ordered to pay £500 in costs. Total UK admitted failing to ensure the safety of workers and members of the public. HOSL was found guilty of failing to prevent major accidents. Forty-three people were injured in the Buncefield depot blast on 11 December 2005. Gordon MacDonald, from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), said: 'Five companies have been held to account publicly for the failings that led to the Buncefield explosions. This is the culmination of a thorough and complex investigation carried out by the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive into what was Britain's costliest petro-chemical accident.' He added: 'Incidents like the explosion at Buncefield are exceptionally rare. But they shouldn't happen at all.'
Tory MP says Buncefield fines 'an insult'
Campaigners, lawyers and a Tory MP have criticised the 'drop in the ocean' fines levied on oil giants after the Buncefield explosion. Lawyer Des Collins, who is representing those affected by the explosion, said the families involved would feel the companies had 'got away with it.' He said: 'The sentences in this case do not even begin to punish the companies, given the extent of some of their profits. Total's fine, plus court costs, is around 0.003 per cent of its profits in the first three months of this year. This is hardly an incentive to encourage those in management to do everything they can to ensure it doesn't happen again, given that the largest fine handed out to date in the UK is approximately £15 million. This is a drop in the ocean to French oil giant Total.' Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead, Mike Penning, condemned the level of fines and said he would ask Attorney General Dominic Grieve to assess whether they were too lenient. 'Frankly these fines are an insult to my constituents,' he said. Hazards Campaign spokesperson Hilda Palmer said the directors of all the companies involved 'should face the consequences of their actions and inactions, via legal duties on directors, and face jail for their crimes, or we will see more incidents like this.' Criticising government safety plans, she said 'deregulation of health and safety and cuts in its enforcement are not going to prevent another incident like this', adding the case for deregulation 'has been blown to smithereens in the Buncefield explosion. We did not vote to die at work and we expect MPs to stand up for our lives, not make them more hazardous.'
- Hazards Campaign news release and We did not vote to die at work campaign. Morning Star. BBC News Online. Channel 4 News. Telegraph.
Court rejects fatality fine appeal
A company fined £100,000 after a worker was crushed to death has failed in a court appeal against the penalty. London-based Marble City Ltd and directors Gavin and Jamie Waldron were all fined in April after 51-year-old Ronald Douglas was crushed by six tonnes of stone slabs he was helping unload from a lorry (Risks 453). Mr Douglas died from his injuries in hospital a week after the incident on 20 March 2008. The company was fined £100,000 and £47,564 costs and the directors were each fined £10,000. This month, lawyers for Marble City Ltd contested the £100,000 fine at the Court of Appeal, arguing before three top judges that is was 'manifestly excessive'. The court also heard the fine would have a bad effect on a company struggling to make it through the current economic downturn - and which already expected to make a loss this year. However, Mrs Justice Sharp, sitting with Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Bean, threw out the appeal and upheld the original ruling. Mrs Justice Sharp said: 'All of the matters advanced before us were advanced before the sentencing judge and she took them fully into account. In our view, the judge's sentencing remarks in this case were a model of fairness and clarity and we can detect no error in her approach.'
Frozen food firm fined for finger
A Lincolnshire-based international frozen vegetable supplier has been fined after a man's finger was amputated when his hand was crushed at work. The incident occurred at Pinguin Food Ltd's site in Boston on 10 February 2009 when the worker tried to straighten some boxes on an automatic palletising machine. Boston Magistrates' Court heard that although the box loading machine on which the man was working had a perspex guard attached, the employee routinely entered the enclosure while the machinery was running. While behind the guard, his fingers were caught between a pallet and the conveyor, resulting in his middle finger being amputated from the tip to the first knuckle. He was subsequently off work for six months. The company was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and it was found a number of employees had been given interlock parts which effectively overrode the safety systems in place and allowed access to the enclosure. Pinguin Foods UK Ltd is part of The Pinguin Group that has eight vegetable production sites in Belgium, France and the UK. It was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay costs of £3,500 at Boston Magistrates' Court after pleading guilty to a criminal safety breach. HSE inspector Scott Wynne said: 'Pinguin is a large international company and it is often assumed companies of this size adhere to health and safety policies at all times.' He added: 'Pinguin should have had robust supervision and monitoring that should have identified staff were overriding interlocks and stopped it happening.'
Pneumatic power press cuts off fingers
A Telford packaging firm company has been fined after an employee lost three fingers while working with machinery. Telford Magistrates Court heard how on 22 September 2008 the I2R Packaging Solutions employee was helping another worker remove aluminium foil from a 130-tonne power press, which had become jammed while making foil food cartons. Her colleague had opened the protective guards, a move that stops the machine automatically, but had not switched off the pneumatic system. As the pneumatic system stores some energy within it - even when the power is turned off - it meant part of the machine snapped upwards, cutting off the worker's index finger, middle finger and the tip of her ring finger on her right hand. A separate manual process would have been needed to ensure the pneumatic energy had been dissipated before trying to get the blockage out of the machine. The company was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £5,677 costs. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Katharine Walker said: 'The injuries may not have been life threatening, but they were life changing. Adequate safety mechanisms, to discharge the pneumatic energy automatically rather than manually, could have prevented this incident from occurring.' She added: 'While the machine had some protective guards and safety mechanisms in place, it seems they were not adequate to prevent danger to operatives during processes such as clearing blockages. This was an incident waiting to happen.'
Engineering firm fined after hand severed
A court has heard how a worker had his hand torn off while working for a Peterlee company. The Conder Solutions Limited employee was working on a metalworking lathe, Peterlees Magistrates' Court heard. The firm was fined £15,000 and also ordered to pay £2,759 in costs last week, after pleading guilty to a health and safety offence. During the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecution the court was told that on 3 June 2009, the 55-year-old employee was polishing a rotating metal shaft on a metalworking lathe with a strip of emery cloth. His right hand came into contact with the lathe's rotating shaft and cutting tool, resulting in his hand being ripped off. Surgeons were able to re-attach the hand but despite undergoing five operations, the worker still has no feeling in the hand and is unable to use it. He was in hospital for more than five weeks and has been unable to return to work. After the case, HSE inspector Cain Mitchell said: 'This employee suffered an extremely painful and possibly life-changing injury because Conder Solutions Limited failed to take measures to prevent access to dangerous parts of the lathe and to ensure a safe system of work was being used.' He added: 'This is the third incident of this kind in the North East in the last 12 months. Employers need to ensure that machines are suitable for the task. Emery cloth should only be used on a metalworking lathe if appropriate safeguards are in place for operators, following a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.'
Pirelli fined over forklift truck injury
Tyre manufacturer Pirelli has been fined £9,000 after a worker suffered a broken leg when he was hit by a forklift truck. Allan Miller, a 62-year-old contractor, was walking through an area in the curing department at the company's Carlisle factory when he was struck from behind by a pallet being carried on a forklift truck. He suffered a broken leg and has been unable to return to his normal duties. Pirelli Tyres Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for failing to manage properly the risks to pedestrians in the area, including failing to inform contractors of the precautions required to ensure their safety. North Cumbria Magistrates' Court in Carlisle heard that forklift truck drivers' vision was frequently obscured because their loads had to be lowered to avoid overhead obstructions. A previous risk assessment by Pirelli had identified that the area should be a pedestrian-free zone. There had also been several previous incidents in the same area of the Pirelli factory involving pedestrians and forklift trucks. Michael Griffiths, the investigating HSE inspector, said 'the forklift truck was moving very slowly and yet it still broke the victim's leg. The storage area should have been clearly marked as 'pedestrian free', and the injured worker should have been told of the risks prior to the incident in October 2009.' The firm was also ordered to pay £4,282 towards the cost of the prosecution.
Bladder cancer risk to painters confirmed
Painters are at a significantly increased risk of developing bladder cancer, with the risk increasing the longer a person works in the trade, a new study has confirmed. The research is based on almost 3,000 cases of the disease in professional painters reported in 41 separate studies carried out between the 1950s and 1990s. The large scale 'meta-analysis', published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found those with more than 10 years in the trade were more likely to develop bladder cancer than those who had been doing so for less than that time. Lead author Dr Neela Guha said the risk arises not solely from exposure to paint but to factors that can occur in the environment in which painters work, such as the stripping of old paintwork, sanding or exposure to asbestos. The authors of the study found that after taking tobacco use into account, painters were still 30 per cent more likely to develop bladder cancer than the general population. Dr Guha said that while harmful chemicals like benzene and lead had been reduced or removed from paints in developed countries, it was too soon to say whether new, 'greener' paints would reduce the risk of bladder cancer as the disease takes between 10 and 50 years to develop. Those working in high-risk environments should wear gloves and keep skin covered, wear a mask or respirator, should not to eat in the area and should ensure the buildings were well ventilated, Dr Guha said. An accompanying editorial by Professor Paolo Vineis of Imperial College London praised the 'important' study. He said: 'The evidence in this case is clearly laid down and is strikingly consistent.' Out of 41 studies reviewed, 37 showed an increased risk, he said.
- Neela Guha and others. Bladder cancer risk in painters: a meta-analysis, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, volume 67, pages 568-673, 2010 [abstract].
- Paolo Vineis. Editorial: Bladder cancer risk in painters, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, volume 67, pages 505-506, 2010 [extract].
- Irish Times. Daily Mirror.
New construction safety training guides
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has produced new online construction health and safety training resources. The new tools, co-authored by Fiona Murie of BWI, the global union federation for the sector, and Glamorgan University's Professor Richard Neale, are 'a comprehensive international occupational safety and health training package', says BWI. It adds: 'The training package is relevant to a global audience and applicable in a variety of legislative environments and construction projects, and is tailor made for the construction sector. The materials address the main 'participant groups' within the sector: Construction clients; construction project management teams; construction contractors; construction workers; and trade unions.' The materials published on the ILO website include: a tutor's guide; a 'knowledge base', giving pointers to web-based resources; and information on 15 key themes. This is backed up by a series of powerpoint presentations.
Face the FACKS - moving new DVD
'Face the FACK - The human face of workplace killing' is a new DVD from Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK). The resource, which was premiered at this month's National Hazards Conference, features personal accounts from family members bereaved by work. The DVD, which is intended to be a campaign and training tool on business responsibility for workplace health and safety, received rave reviews at the conference. Comments included: 'If you love someone who works, watch this DVD and when they come home for work at night, love them even more'; 'So emotive that I had to look away at times'; 'Very moving, now ram it down their throats'; 'Before you deregulate health and safety, watch this!'; and 'All employers should watch this as part of their training'. FACK, which is an entirely voluntary campaign group, is urging unions, union reps, campaigners and trainers to purchase and use the DVD. 'This money will help to cover the cost of production and support FACK's work - you can donate more if you want!,' it says.
- FACK resources. Face the FACK - The human face of workplace killing, £10 including post and packing, cheques payable to 'GMHC', from: FACK, c/o Hazards Campaign, Windrush Millennium Centre, 70 Alexandra Road, Manchester M16 7WD. Telephone: 0161 636 7557.
Global: True cost of asbestos is exposed
A global network of lobbying groups is ensuring asbestos, banned or restricted in more than 50 countries, continues to be using in developing nations. A four-continent investigation by the US-based Center for Public Integrity (CPI) reports that many scientists fear the continued use of asbestos could significantly prolong a global epidemic of asbestos-related illnesses. Dr Vincent Cogliano, of the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) told CPI: 'My own personal view is that these risks are extremely high. They are as high as just about any known carcinogen that we have seen, except, perhaps, for tobacco smoke. Any exposure is going to prolong the asbestos epidemic - continued export and continued use of chrysotile will increase the incidence of lung cancer and mesothelioma for many decades to come.' Backed by a global network of trade groups and scientists, the asbestos industry has depicted the epidemic as a legacy of a darker time, when dust levels were high, blue and brown asbestos were used, and workers had little, if any, protection from the toxic asbestos fibres. Critics say the groups' well funded strategy - since the 1980s in excess of $100m has been spent on asbestos lobbying - is one borrowed from the tobacco industry: create doubt, contest litigation, and delay regulation. Some industry-funded researchers have published hundreds of scientific papers saying that chrysotile can be used safely. But CPI says arguments that white 'chrysotile' asbestos - more than 90 per cent of all asbestos ever mined - can be safely used 'are disputed by the majority of scientists and public health officials we have spoken to.'
- Dangers in the dust - a Center for Public Integrity investigation. BBC News Online. Toronto Star. Montreal Gazette. Vancouver Sun.
Korea: Investors query Samsung cancers
Institutional investors in Europe and the US have asked Samsung to explain the occupational cancer furore that has engulfed the company. The cancers have been linked to toxic chemicals used at Samsung semiconductor plants in South Korea (Risks 453). An online report from Hankyoreh 21 says the publication has obtained a letter issued by eight foreign investors including the All Pensions Group (APG) of the Netherlands, sent to Samsung Electronics President Choi Ji-seong on 21 May. APG initially proposed a joint inquiry into the allegations about Samsung on 30 April, noting: 'Twenty-three former employees of Samsung Electronics have fallen ill with leukaemia through April 22, and they have raised questions about occupational safety at Samsung Electronics plants.' An APG official said other investors had already requested Samsung explain the occupational cancer allegations.
Peru: Site workers in mass safety protest
A safety and pay protest in Peru saw 150,000 workers take to the streets this month. The 14 July 2010 protest, called by Peru's FTCCP construction workers' union federation, saw 25,000 demonstrate in Lima, with major events also held in other cities. Global union federation BWI said members of 125 unions participated in the activities. The union grievances included high fatality and injury rates, poor wages and inadequate working conditions. Press reports said the union action caused huge traffic jams in downtown Lima, Arequipa and Chiclayo. In a statement, FTCCP general secretary Mario Huamán Rivera said that the protest 'will demand of the Congress the passage of a law that protects the lives of workers, that penalises with jailing those businesspeople who... provoke death or injuries to their workers.' He added that while dependants of the dead workers had filed charges in court against the construction firms, the result was just fines paid to the Labor Ministry.
USA: Migrant workers dying in the heat
On 14 July, California legislators were debating whether the state's five-year-old heat safety regulations are strong enough to protect the 650,000 farm workers who harvest the bulk of the nation's fruit and vegetables in temperatures that regularly climb over 100 degrees. As the legislators ruminated from the safety of their air-conditioned chambers, reports US online magazine Working in These Times, 54-year-old Rodolfo Ceballos Carrillo was loading boxes of tables grapes onto trucks at Sunview Vineyards in Kern County, California in 97-degree heat. At 4.30 that afternoon, Carrillo collapsed and died. Another California farm worker also died the same day. 'They are among four farm workers and a construction worker who have perished in apparently heat-related deaths since June,' the article notes. 'Another worker had died at the same vineyard doing the same job as Carrillo in 2008.' It adds many see this as the latest proof that the heat-safety law California passed in 2005 has not saved largely immigrant farm workers and construction workers from painful deaths and health problems caused by toiling often without shade, breaks or water in extreme heat. Each year since the law was passed, workers have died - at least 11 between 2005 and 2009 according to a lawsuit filed last year by the United Farm Workers union (UFW).
Events and Courses
TUC courses for safety reps
COURSES FOR SEP 2010 to DEC 2010
- Visit the TUC www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s website pages on health and safety. See what's on offer from TUC Publications and What's On in health and safety.
- Subscribe to Hazards magazine, supported by the TUC as a key source of information for union safety reps.
- What's new in the HSC/E and the European Agency.
- HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2WA. Tel: 01787 881165; fax: 01787 313995
Issued: 23 July, 2010