Risks 470 - 21 August 2010

Share this page


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

Pre-employment medicals ruled out

The use of pre-employment medicals to weed out applicants on health grounds is to become illegal. Changes introduced under the Equality Act 2010 and that take effect from October 2010 mean prospective employers cannot ask health questions of applicants 'until the applicant has been able to successfully pass an interview, or some other assessment, to show that they meet some of the non-health requirements of the job,' says a TUC briefing. There are some limited exceptions, the new TUC briefing adds, including questions designed to assess whether an applicant 'would be able to carry out a core function of the job, with reasonable adjustments having been made as appropriate' and positive efforts to employ workers with disabilities. TUC head of health and safety Hugh Robertson commented: 'Far too many employers still ask potential employees to fill in a health questionnaire or even take a medical examination before they are offered a job. The TUC welcomes the ban on this which will stop employers weeding out people with a disability or illness before the interview process. Instead they will have to justify any decision not to employ someone on health grounds and show why they cannot be accommodated with adjustments.' He added: 'We know of numerous cases of where someone has been made ill because of stress or bullying, but is unable to get another job because potential employers ask about their sickness absence. It will also help give more disabled people the confidence to apply for a job without the fear that their application will be automatically rejected.' TUC says union representatives should make sure that their employer's recruitment policies are reviewed before the changes come into effect on 1 October.

  • Equality Act 2010: A TUC briefing for affiliates [pdf].

Council condemned over schools risks

The leadership of a London council has been condemned by UNISON for its 'staggering' failure to address potentially deadly health risks to school staff and pupils. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation into the possible presence of asbestos and legionella bacteria in four schools in the London borough of Waltham Forest found that the council had no plans to deal with the risk of exposure to pupils. The council has received three HSE improvement notices relating to the failings, after the watchdog found none of the four schools visited had an asbestos management plan and that no action had been taken to reduce the risk of Legionnaires' disease. UNISON branch health and safety convener Su Manning said: 'It is very worrying to learn that the council has not been carrying out its duties to safeguard the children and employees who attend Waltham Forest schools. The HSE have told us that the council has not met the requirements of its own risk assessment and we now have a situation where the council is being ordered to carry out its duties under health and safety legislation.' Bill Palmer, UNISON's branch health and safety officer, said: 'Waltham Forest schools have been allowed to scrimp and save on health and safety and it is no surprise to see the council being criticised and given a notice to improve their monitoring of asbestos and the risk of legionella in schools. The trade unions have long complained of inadequate health and safety management in schools and hope that these notices will make the council take the actions that are clearly laid out in their own risk assessments and the inspector's report.'

Security concerns at bio-terror move

The proposed relocation of a key government bio-terror research centre could increase security risks, a union has warned. A Unite survey of Health Protection Agency (HPA) staff at the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response (CEPR) at Porton Down found 80 per cent of the centre's 600 staff oppose a move to Harlow. Unite says CEPR staff have 'serious concerns' and believe a transfer could lessen security at the centre, which is responsible for research into countering bio-terrorism and deadly diseases. HPA is currently being integrated into the Department of Health as part of government moves to slash the number of quangos. Unite regional officer, Dorothy Fogg, said: 'Staff don't want this move and have demonstrated this with an overwhelming 'no vote' in our survey. We are actively involved in discussions with the organisation, however it won't talk to us until it has the details from the Department of Health whether it will fund this illogical move. We believe this is the wrong move to make and we are hoping to change the mindset of the HPA.' Senior Unite representative at the CEPR, Mark Riches, said: 'These results show a decisive rejection of the HPA board's proposals and will form the basis of a sustained campaign to oppose the move.'

Threat to sack all London's firefighters

Firefighters' union FBU has condemned a threat to fire all London's firefighters for resisting what they believe are potentially dangerous changes to staffing levels and shift patterns. The capital's 5,000 firefighters were given 90 days' notice on 11 August by the London Fire Authority that they would be sacked if they refuse to go along with cuts to night cover. The authority wants to impose drastically altered shifts with longer days and shorter nights which unions warn will leave fewer fire engines and staff protecting the capital. FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: 'Sacking all of London's firefighters as a way of trying to impose new contracts is the action we would expect from Victorian mill owners - not from a modern public service. I am sure Londoners will be appalled at how their firefighters are being treated. We will fight the disgraceful attack every step of the way.' He said there had been constructive talks on the issue until the latest move. The union leader suggested the Conservative-controlled fire authority, chaired by Barnet Tory councillor Brian Coleman, was behind the move and is spoiling for a fight with the union. 'I cannot believe the professional firefighters in charge at the London Fire Brigade would have wanted to do this damage to their service,' Mr Wrack said. 'It may be that this foolish action was forced on them by their political master, Brian Coleman, who seems to have a very personal dislike of firefighters and their trade union.'

RMT warns of Euro rail safety risks

Steps to introduce a train that does not meet key Channel Tunnel safety standards could have 'potentially lethal consequences', rail union RMT has warned. The union alert comes ahead of tests on a Deutsche Bahn ICE (Inter City Express) train in the Channel Tunnel, due to commence in October. Under current safety regulations trains running through the Channel Tunnel must be at least 375 metres long - the DB sets, known as the ICE-3, are only 200 metres long. Current regulations also stipulate trains must have inter-connecting fire doors to enable in-tunnel evacuation. The DB trains do not, creating what the union says is 'an immediate and obvious safety risk.' RMT adds that the trains also fail to match up with the escape system operational in the Channel Tunnel. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said the union was concerned regulators would approve the trains to get in line with deregulatory moves being pushed by European Union (EU) lawmakers. 'RMT will fight any watering down of safety standards on the Channel Tunnel High Speed Rail Link - if those standards are tampered with simply in order to appease EU diktat it would be a major scandal with potentially lethal consequences,' he said. 'We are being sent a clear signal that European liberalisation takes precedence over staff and passenger safety in the Channel Tunnel as far as the EU are concerned and if the ConDem government allow this outrage to be bulldozed through they will show themselves to be totally impotent when it comes to dealing with the European Union.'

Coalition 'unsafe' on transport

Transport union RMT has said jobs, quality and safety have been lined up for an all-out assault this autumn, with passengers forced to pay more for 'over-crowded, under-resourced and unsafe services.' Commenting as the coalition government this week marked its first 100 days in office, the union said rail fares are being 'jacked up to the hilt' while rolling stock replacements, upgrades and renewals work have been scrapped or delayed. RMT added that thousands of transport jobs are under threat on rail, the buses, the tube, the ports and at sea 'compromising safe working standards and condemning key workers to the threat of the dole.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'One hundred days in to the ConDem government we know that transport is being lined up for further, massive cuts this autumn that threaten jobs, infra-structure projects, safety and the quality of service to the travelling public.' He added: 'RMT will continue to fight for jobs, safety and investment in services and against a fresh round of privatisation using every tool at our disposal. With fares expected to be jacked up through the roof come January there is no doubt that this government is hell bent on ring-fencing the profits of the private operators while forcing passengers to pay through the nose to travel on over-crowded, under-resourced and unsafe services.'

Union concern over runaway Tube train

Rail union RMT has said it is concerned about any role the use of maintenance contractors may have played in an incident last week when a runaway train travelled four miles without a driver on a London Tube line. The Rail Accident Investigation Bureau (RAIB) said it had launched a full investigation into the incident on the morning of Friday 13 August. The engineering train went through six stops on a 13-minute journey on the Northern Line with other trains having to be cleared out of its path. RMT assistant general secretary Pat Sikorski commented the union was 'appalled and horrified' at an incident that 'could have very easily resulted in disaster' and 'represents a safety failure of the highest order.' He said the union was concerned that overnight maintenance work may have contributed to the incident. He said: 'The overnight works were the responsibility of TfL [Transport for London] subsidiary Tube Lines, managed by the private company Amey, and RMT are seeking urgent answers as to whether or not third party contractors were involved in this incident - particularly as the findings from Potters Bar ruled that third party contractors should not be involved in rail maintenance works.' Commenting on the morning of the incident, he added: 'This horrific failure comes against a background of a systematic reduction in safety critical jobs and safety procedures as a direct result of TfL's financial cuts programme. In the light of this morning's events it is essential that TfL call a halt to their cuts plans and bring an end to the dilution of Tube safety.'

Attack leads to job loss for carer

A grandmother who was forced to quit her career as a care worker after an attack by an aggressive patient, has been awarded a £12,500 out of court payout. The UNISON member, identified as Mrs Hunt, was held in a headlock and punched by an elderly patient, Jack Tooby, in September 2005. The care home knew Mr Tooby had a history of violence, particularly towards women. Concerns had also been raised by staff, but bosses refused to transfer him to a secure home or hospital. Mrs Hunt had worked at Swan House care home, in Winslow, Buckinghamshire since 2002, but had never been given any training in dealing with aggressive patients. The 56-year-old had been alone in the home's dementia unit, helping a patient go to the toilet, when Mr Tooby attacked her. She managed to reach the emergency alarm to call a colleague, but still suffered a trapped nerve and serious neck and shoulder problems. The attack forced Mrs Hunt to give up her job, as she could no longer lift. She has found a new career helping adults with learning difficulties. She said: 'I was shocked at how I was treated by the care home, as I was a good employee, who regularly worked 14 hour shifts'. She added: 'It was also upsetting that my friends at the home were told not to speak to me after the attack, as bosses just wanted to brush it under the carpet.' Steve Brazier, head of health for UNISON's south eastern region, said: 'It is shameful that bosses fail to protect care assistants like Mrs Hunt, who face the threat of violence at work on a daily basis.' He added: 'Attacks in the caring professions are a real concern, with one in three workers being assaulted every year.'

Other news

Appeal court backs risky work fines

Big fines for unsafe firms are justified even if they are caught breaking the law before any injury occurs, a Court of Appeal ruling has established. Retailer New Look was originally prosecuted after a fire broke out at an Oxford Street store on 26 April 2009, when about 400 people had to be evacuated. In November 2009 the company was fined £400,000 at Southwark Crown Court for failing to carry out an assessment of fire risks to individuals and failing to adequately train employees in fire safety. New Look appealed, claiming the penalty was disproportionate as the offences did not cause the fire or lead to severe injury or death. The Court of Appeal agreed with the sentencing judge that a court does not have to wait until death or serious injury has occurred to express its displeasure at wholesale breaches of the defendant's responsibilities. It said the fine was severe but not manifestly excessive and shared the original sentencing judge's view that New Look's performance was 'lamentable'. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber welcomed the principle confirmed by the 16 June 2010 Court of Appeal judgment. He said: 'It shows that the courts accept that if an employer creates the risks that could lead to people being killed they should be punished for their irresponsible actions, rather than be let off with a much reduced fine because good luck meant that, on that occasion no-one was harmed.' Mr Barber added: 'It is a commonsense judgment that shows that an employer should be prosecuted for their actions rather than the consequences. As employers never think it will happen to them this may help make them a bit more careful. We would want to see this principle apply to all health and safety offences, and the Health and Safety Executive's prosecution policy.'

Putting NHS violence on the record

Patient records can be tagged to warn staff of violence and aggression risk, new official guidance confirms. Guidelines from the NHS Security Management Service (NHS SMS) spell out policy on the use of markers on patients' care records, to alert NHS staff to the risk of physical violence or aggression, either from the patient or someone associated with them. They say markers on electronic and paper records should only be used where there has been a reported incident or evidence of violent or aggressive behaviour. NHS SMS says the system acts as an early warning system and helps health providers to meet their health and safety responsibilities, by providing security warnings and handling advice to avoid or minimise the risk of violence. Welcoming the guidance, the British Medical Association said: 'It is important that anyone who works for the NHS is properly protected against the risk of violence,' adding: 'We hope all providers of care will use it when reviewing or implementing their own procedures.' UNISON also welcomed the guidance. A statement from the union said the guidance 'gives providers essential advice on how patient markers should be used. It makes it clear that the safety of staff and the public is paramount to the delivery of services whilst recognising the importance of patient confidentiality. We hope that all healthcare providers will use it to help prevent or reduce the risk of violence to staff.'

Fine just £8,000 after devastating injuries

A construction company has been fined £8,000 after a young worker was seriously injured when he fell from a building's roof. Gwyndaf Davies, from Carmarthen, was helping re-roof a farm building in Pembrokeshire when he fell three metres onto a concrete floor. He suffered multiple spine and facial fractures and a brain injury and was in hospital for nine months. Delme L James Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). At Haverfordwest magistrates court, the company admitted breaching work at height regulations. In addition to the £8,000 fine, it was ordered to pay costs of £2,189.40. Mr Davies, who was 21 at the time and had worked for the company since leaving school, needed facial reconstructive surgery and eye surgery. He has been left blind in one eye and partially-sighted in the other following the incident in April 2009 at Penwerddu Farm, Boncath. He has limited speech, cannot walk without aid and still needed physiotherapy and speech therapy. He is likely to require significant care for the rest of his life. HSE's investigation revealed that the company did not plan, supervise or carry out the work safely. There was only limited edge protection to prevent workers falling from the roof and no measures to prevent them falling into the building. HSE inspector Anne Marie Orrells said: 'Mr Davies is a young man who has suffered dreadful injuries as a result of this accident which could have resulted in his death. This situation could so easily have been prevented and Mr Davies and his family are still trying to come to terms with the lasting effects of what has happened.'

Five foot fall hurts steeplejack's foot

A Stoke-on-Trent steeplejack firm has been fined after one of its workers fell a short distance from scaffolding, suffering foot injuries that left him in plaster for four months. Rafferty Chimneys Engineering Ltd was operating at a site in Tunstall when Kevin Ford fell 1.5m (five feet) to the ground, causing a serious injury to his heel. The company pleaded guilty at Newcastle-under-Lyme magistrates' court to a safety offence and was fined £8,000 and £5,000 costs. Magistrates heard how on 4 March 2009 the company had been contracted to inspect four 20-metre tall steel chimneys at Churchill China (UK) Ltd pottery firm. A tower scaffold was used to access the eves of the roof. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation revealed that the tower's guard rail was too low, it did not use the right boards and there no toe boards were in place. Two workers walked across a fragile asbestos sheet roof using boards just 45cm wide with no safety measures in place. They carried equipment back and forth throughout the day despite the potential for falling nearly four metres into the workshop below. Mr Ford fell when he was dismantling the tower scaffold at the end of the job. He had lowered a board down from the upper level when he slipped and fell suffering a serious fracture to the heel of his left foot. He needed pins inserted into the bone and spent 16 weeks in plaster. HSE inspector Guy Dale commented: 'Working at height is the most common cause of workplace injuries and this incident shows the very real dangers, no matter what the distance to the ground.'

Factory worker gets deafness payout

A process worker has been awarded £15,000 compensation after developing a disabling level of noise-induced hearing loss. Gerald Cox, 52, worked for LG Philips Displays from 1980 to 2005, when the Durham factory closed. He says that over the 25 years he worked for LG Philips Displays his employer failed to provide him with the protection he needed. 'It was only since I left the factory that I've realised the damage that's been done,' he said. 'The biggest effect on me has been the seclusion, you just find you go into a world of your own. I know it's been very frustrating for my wife to have to shout at me just so I can hear her. The loss of hearing has had a huge impact on my quality of life. For example, if we go out to a restaurant and I have my hearing aids in I have to listen to the entire room's conversation, but if I take them out I'm secluded again. It makes things very difficult.' Nicola Waugh from Thompsons Solicitors, the firm that represented Mr Cox in his claim, said: 'Working in a factory does not mean signing up to have your hearing permanently damaged. Mr Cox's employer failed him in that respect, and it's only fair that he has been compensated for a loss of hearing that he will have to cope with for the rest of his life.'

Trades led to asbestos cancers

Two men from the West Midlands developed cancer as a result of exposures to asbestos at work. Ronald Webster, 70, was diagnosed with the aggressive cancer mesothelioma in December 2009. It is believed he was exposed while working as a painter and decorator for Birmingham firm Harris & Sheldon Ltd from 1960 to 1965. The shopfitting firm, which was later known as Eastlake Ltd, was a large company with several divisions but is now no longer trading. Barry Halford, a Smethwick electrician, died aged 76 from the same cancer in August 2008. He worked as an electrician for West Midlands Electricity Board at their Smethwick site as well as Stafford based GEC Measurements. An January 2009 inquest confirmed Mr Halford had died of an industrial disease caused by asbestos exposure. Iain Shoolbred, a workplace illness expert with Irwin Mitchell Solicitors, is representing Ronald Webster and the family of Barry Halford. He is appealing to their former work colleagues to come forward with information about working practices, which could prove essential to their compensation claims.

International News

Asia: Deaths undermine 'social responsibility' claims

The cancer (Risks 466) and suicide (Risks 459) scandals that have hit microelectronics firms operating in Asia has cast doubt on the supply chain oversight employed by multinationals. The high profile 'corporate social responsibility (CSR)' policies of companies such as Apple and Samsung are not delivering in many of the Asian factories actually producing the goods, says global safety campaigner Garrett Brown. Writing in the US-based Occupational Health & Safety magazine, he notes the codes of conduct promoting worker well-being fall foul of 'their contradictory business model, and the near-zero participation by workers in factory health and safety programmes.' He claims the 'standard features' of these global supply chains - low pay, long hours, high production quotas, piecework and harsh management regimes - 'have produced high levels of workplace stress, significant occupational illnesses, and traumatic injuries.' Brown concludes: 'The top-down, management systems-focused CSR programmes of international brands and their contract manufacturers have failed to bring significant, sustained improvements to the actual factory floor. No matter what the codes of conduct call for, monitoring of them is 'gamed' by both contractor factory managers and 'independent, third-party' auditors, and actual conditions have only marginally improved over the last decade.' He adds: 'The promises of CSR programmes - now a $40 billion-a-year business globally - have been fatally undermined by the 'iron triangle' of lowest possible per-unit price, highest possible quality, and fastest possible delivery times. Contractor factories, not provided with financial support for CSR policies required by the brands, instead face slashed profit margins and additional costs that can be made up only by further squeezing their own labour force.'

China: Province shuts all fireworks factories

All nine fireworks factories in Heilongjiang province in northeast China were ordered to shutdown on 19 August, days after a blast at one killed 20 people. The factories have been told to dismantle their production facilities by the end of the month, according to a statement on the website of the Heilongjiang Work Safety Administration. 'We have rescinded their permits for production,' the statement said. The official Xinhua news agency said three government officials and two factory executives were fired or detained after the 16 August blast. Preliminary investigations show the plant was engaged in illegal fireworks production, as its production permit was confiscated in June by the local work safety department, according to a statement issued on 17 August by the national State Administration of Work Safety. The plant was told in June to suspend production and improve its safety work, said the statement. The blast killed nine of the factory's 51 workers and injured 35, with four still unaccounted for two days after the blast. Eight other people were killed and 35 injured when the explosion hit the neighbouring Taiye Wood Factory, which makes chopsticks. The blast also killed two pedestrians and injured 83 residents near the factory.

USA: Record payout for popcorn lung

A jury in Chicago has awarded a $30.4 million payout to a worker disabled by exposure to diacetyl, a chemical used in butter flavouring found in products from popcorn to cakes, sweets and butter substitutes (Risks 401). The Jasper Globe reports the verdict awarded to Gerardo Solis, 45, and against BASF Corp, a supplier of diacetyl and the world's largest chemical company, is the highest to date in popcorn and butter-flavouring worker lawsuits in the US, according to Ken McClain, the attorney for Solis. Solis worked at a Flavorchem Corp plant in the Chicago area between the years 1998 and 2006 when he was diagnosed with the rare lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans. McClain said Solis is totally disabled with 25 per cent of normal lung capacity and is projected to require a lung transplant within the next 10 years. The previous largest popcorn lung payout was the $20 million awarded by a court to Eric Peoples and his wife in 2004. Two $15 million verdicts and a $2.7 million award were made to other workers at the former Jasper Popcorn Co plant in Illinois where the problem first came to light. Those cases involved Bush Boake Allen Inc and International Flavors & Fragrances Inc, suppliers of butter flavouring to the plant, and not BASF.

USA: BP agrees to record death blast fine

London-based oil multinational BP has agreed to pay a fine of $50.6 million (£32.5m) for violations related to the 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery that killed 15 and injured 170. The company also must pay another $500 million to protect workers at the plant, Labor secretary Hilda Solis said. 'We feel this agreement achieves our goal of protecting the workers at the refinery,' she said. 'The size of the penalty rightfully reflects BP's disregard for workplace safety. We hope it sends a message to all employers that we will enforce the law so that workers can return home safe at the end of their shifts.' Last October, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposed fines of $87.4 million after it found that the company had failed to correct problems at the Texas City refinery under a previous settlement following the 2005 explosion and more than $30 million for some 439 new violations the agency found in 2009 (Risks 431). BP had contested those penalties, something that occurs routinely under the US system. As part of the settlement, BP has agreed to what Jordan Barab, OSHA's second in command, called 'unprecedented oversight' from OSHA on its safety procedures, including monthly meetings between BP and local OSHA officials, detailed quarterly reports, third-party verification and high-level meetings between OSHA and BP officials of safety. The United Steelworkers (USW), which represents workers at the Texas City refinery, will be involved in monitoring safety procedures.USW vice president Gary Beevers said: 'Our members at the Texas City refinery have a lot at stake here. They want to keep their jobs and they want a safe environment to work in.' He added: 'The members will be watching BP's every move to make sure that the settlement agreement is met and that BP fulfils its obligations.'


National inspection day, 27 October

Wednesday 27 October, the mid-point of this year's European Health and Safety Week, is National Inspection Day, when union health and safety representatives are encouraged to inspect their workplace. TUC has published an online guide and poster to be used at work. It has also produced a safety reps' guide to maintenance work. TUC says during their 27 October inspection, union reps should ensure that their employer has a maintenance programme in place.

Health and safety gone mad?

An online briefing from the Institute of Employment Rights spells out why decent health and safety regulation and enforcement is a lifesaving necessity. It notes: 'This is a dangerous time for workplace safety. In popular and political debate, a virtual consensus has been created that businesses are over-regulated, over-burdened and completely tied up in red tape - health and safety, in short, has 'gone mad'. But a review of the evidence on safety law enforcement shows this new 'commonsense' to be entirely ill-informed - the reality, in fact, as this briefing demonstrates, is quite the opposite.' The briefing comes as a Hazards Campaign 'We didn't vote to die at work' initiative is attracting increasing support from unions and safety activists. A new facebook group already has approaching 700 members.

Events and Courses

TUC courses for safety reps


Useful Links

  • 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
Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Share this Page