Risks 472 - 5 September 2010

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Hazards Magazine
Hazards at work

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

Payback offenders attack supervisors

Supervisors of offenders on unpaid work schemes are increasingly being subjected to threats and verbal and physical abuse, with many complaining of feeling intimidated and afraid, according to a union survey. Most threats are made by offenders, but probation officers' union Napo also points to attacks by rival gangs, including shootings. The union's report details hundreds of incidents in London, Merseyside and Hertfordshire over recent months. The situation has become so serious that a protection system has been set up for supervisors in the south-west of England. Last year, 55,000 offenders were sentenced to unpaid work in the community, two-thirds of them in group work placements. Napo says placements are increasingly staffed by sessional workers who are paid at an hourly rate - on average £8.50 an hour. Staff have told Napo that the present ratio of up to 12 offenders to one supervisor is unsafe; it was previously six to one. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, said: 'Reports of abuse and threats are now occurring every working day. It is of great concern that there have now been shootings. There are clear implications for the health and safety of staff, offenders and the public. It is quite scandalous that staff are paid £8.50 an hour to be systematically abused.' The survey found supervisors were reluctant to report abuse because it would be tantamount to saying they were unable to do their job properly, so they would not be offered more work.

Union plan for better community service

Community sentences can deliver a cost-effective alternative to prison - but only with the necessary investment, management and support, UNISON has said. The union is calling for better alternatives to jail terms and has launched an 'eight star plan' it says will result in community sentences delivering a real payback to local communities and for the offenders taking part. The union is warning that 'current pressures on supervisors threatens to undermine that work, leading to problems with group size, the threat of violence, no shows and disruption.' UNISON wants an official review of the problems reported by members, more resources, an average of no more than six offenders to one supervisor in a work group, a complete ban on mobile phones and action against violence. Ben Priestley, UNISON's national officer for probation staff, said supervising offenders was a tough job 'being made harder by the threat of cuts and the daily pressures that our members face. Group sizes have risen relentlessly over the past five years. It cannot be good practice or safe to have one supervisor watching over 14 offenders. Is it any wonder that violence is an increasing fear among our members?' He added: 'We know from evidence from Probation Trusts across England and Wales that the beneficiaries of community service - charities, community and voluntary organisations and local authorities - are pleased with the work that is delivered. But there are ways to improve the service to ensure that the public gets the best out of these sentences and offenders are to learn new skills and reform their offending behaviour.'

Pensions move will hurt manual workers

Manual workers will suffer serious disadvantage as a result of an upward shift in the retirement age, UCATT has warned. The construction union was commenting after new figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed manual workers were more than twice as likely as professional workers to die before they reach 65 years of age. UCATT said the research means the government's plans to increase the retirement age to 66 years by 2016 with a subsequent shift to 70, 'is directly discriminatory against manual workers.' The ONS report found that manual workers died before the age of 65 at a rate of 407 per 100,000. For professional and managerial workers the rate is 178 per 100,000. UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie said: 'The ONS figures prove what manual workers already know, that the decision to raise the retirement age discriminates against them. Manual workers are over twice as likely to die before they reach retirement age than professional workers and their overall life expectancy is far lower.' He added: 'If the government had a shred of decency they would rethink their proposals and allow manual workers to retire earlier, in order to be able to enjoy their hard earned retirement.' US researchers warned last month that as governments look to reduce the pensions bill by delaying retirement, manual workers could be faced with jobs they can no longer physically manage while not being eligible for a retirement pension (Risks 471). Hye Jin Rho, the author of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) report, commented: 'Many older workers are in jobs that require substantial physical effort, jobs that may not afford them the option of working into their 70s in order to get full retirement benefits.'

Derailment underlines guard's 'crucial' role

The crucial role played by the conductor of a train derailed in a level-crossing collision in Suffolk last month has underlined the importance of safety-trained guards, the rail union RMT has said. Twenty-one people were hurt, two seriously, when a train derailed in a crash with a lorry on a level crossing. The official log of the 17 August crash at Bures records that conductor Candice Ong, despite being injured herself, requested emergency assistance and continued to evacuate injured passengers from the train, where fuel was leaking. According to RMT: 'National Express East Anglia managing director Andrew Chivers also paid tribute to the part played by Candice - despite running a rail franchise on which most commuter services do not have a guard.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'The bravery and cool-headedness of Candice Ong and the text-book role she played in the Bures derailment is a matter of record, not least from the passengers she helped. Once again we have an incident in which everyone acknowledges the guard's crucial role in helping passengers to safety, yet that role continues to be under attack by privateer franchises more worried about profits than safety.' The union leader added: 'RMT has been fighting a constant battle with franchises who see the guard as an unnecessary cost, when time and again they prove their worth in major and minor incidents the length and breadth of the network.'

Other news

Vedanta stripped of safety award

Multinational mining group Vedanta Resources has been stripped of a British Safety Council (BSC) international safety award after it was revealed it had not declared at least 40 workers died in a chimney collapse on 23 September 2009 at one of its sites in India. BSC immediately withdrew the award in response to findings thrown up by the Observer newspaper in its broader analysis of deaths of workers at all FTSE 100 mining groups. BSC told the Observer it had stripped Vedanta of its honours because this was necessary to protect the integrity of the awards, which are actively 'supported' by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The publicity is likely to be a source of embarrassment to both HSE and BSC. It would be remarkable if both organisations were unaware of the disaster in Korba, India, which was widely reported at the time (Risks 426), and any fatality in the award year automatically invalidates an application. Nor is it the first time BSC international awards have attracted controversy. A sequence of BSC 'Sword of Honour' awards to RTZ's Rossing uranium mine in Namibia in the late 1980s and early 1990s came at a time the country's mineworkers' union and campaigners were raising concerns about the impact of radiation, silica and other exposures at the mine. Among this year's award recipients is National Semiconductor's Greenock plant, which received an International Safety Award for the twelfth straight year. For much of this time, the plant has been at the centre of an occupational cancer controversy (Risks 471). The BSC international safety awards are supported and actively promoted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), whose logo appears on the front cover of the application form. A 17 March news release from BSC noted HSE 'continually showed its support for the British Safety Council's International Safety Awards (ISAs) Scheme.' BSC is one of a select group of external agencies that can rely on HSE's promotion of its commercial safety activities. This includes a 26 February HSE plug that noted 'HSE is delighted to continue its support of the British Safety Council's International Safety Awards,' which attract a £180 application charge in addition to requiring BSC membership, costing an additional £100 for the year.

Death shows need for director accountability

Health and safety campaigners have demanded that company directors be held personally accountable for the 'serial killing' of workers after the latest death at a Corus steelworks. Barry Shaw died on 28 August in what police described as a 'crushing accident' at Corus's Scunthorpe steel mill. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been called in to investigate the second death at the steelworks in four months. Unite organiser Terry Pye expressed 'shock' at Mr Shaw's death, adding: 'It is obviously upsetting for both the family and the workers and I would demand a thorough explanation of what happened.' The tragedy followed the death of steelworker Thomas Standerline, who was crushed to death on 23 April as he worked in the mill's casting plant (Risks 460). In a statement, the national Hazards Campaign demanded to know 'when will senior directors of companies such as Corus be held personally accountable for their serial killing and injuring workers?' The campaign says Corus's 'abysmal' health and safety record 'is illustrated by the 16 separate entries in the HSE's prosecutions database which relate to death and injury. These incidents include the Port Talbot furnace explosion where Stephen Galsworthy, Andrew Hutin and Len Radford were all killed in 2001.' Corus has been hit with several large fines for killing and injuring workers (Risks 452). In December 2006 it was ordered to pay £1.3 million in fines and £1.7 million in legal costs in a trial related to the deaths of the three Port Talbot workers (Risks 288). But the Hazards Campaign statement said the fines have 'not stopped Corus from committing more offences and injuring and killing more workers. Fines may look large, but are a drop in the ocean of the company's turnover and profits and act as no real deterrent, as Corus has shown again and again.'

Directors get small fine for severed fingers

Two directors in Leeds have been found guilty of safety offences after a worker had his fingers crushed in a hydraulic press. The 57-year-old man, who has not been named, had the ends of two fingers severed in April 2009 at Lupton Fabrications Ltd, a metal fabricating company formerly owned by Dennis Brunt and Peter Critchard. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that photoelectric detectors used to protect workers from being caught in the closing press were not operational at the time and had been routinely over-ridden for a number of years. Leeds magistrates heard the detectors, known as 'light curtains', only became operational again following the serving of prohibition notices as part of HSE's investigation. Brunt and Critchard were found guilty of breaching the work equipment regulations, as former directors of Lupton Fabrications Ltd. Stealsafe Ltd, their new company, was also found guilty of breaching the same regulation. The directors and Stealsafe were jointly fined £2,001 and ordered to pay £250 costs. After the hearing, HSE inspector Angus Robbins said: 'This incident is unacceptable, this employee lost his fingertips but he could have lost most of his hand and suffered severe injury.' He added: 'The fact the light curtains were in place and were readily repaired following the serving of the prohibition notices means this terrible incident could - and should - have been prevented.'

Director guilty after worker's plunge

A Cheshire building company and its director have been fined after a worker fell nine metres from scaffolding at a building site in Llanfairfechan, sustaining severe injuries. JBB Homes Ltd - which has subsequently gone into liquidation - pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £20,000 plus costs of £10,835. The company's director, James Burt, pleaded guilty to breaching section 37(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and was fined £10,000. Llandudno Magistrates' Court heard that 28 years old builder Nicholas Roberts, from Rhyl, was working on scaffolding at a site on 4 December 2007 when the incident happened. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found he fell while replacing a lintel. He fractured his pelvis in three places, broke some teeth and bruised his pelvis and groin. Following the hearing HSE inspector Debbie John said: 'Falling from a height of around nine metres, Mr Roberts was extremely lucky to survive. It's incredible that he managed to walk away with broken bones.' She added: 'JBB Homes Limited and James Burt failed in their duty to provide a safe system of work, including a lack of suitable means to prevent falls from the scaffolding. Mr Burt also failed to properly supervise his staff. Falls from height remain the single biggest cause of workplace deaths and one of the main causes of major injury and construction companies must not leave safety of their workers as an after-thought, which could lead to tragic consequences.'

Schoolboy died after farm roof fall

A Scottish farming partnership has been fined £13,500 following the death of a 13-year-old boy. Austin Irvine, who was the stepson of a junior partner in the Moray farm, fell through the roof of a farm building on 21 August 2006. He sustained serious injuries from which he later died. The schoolboy was watching the gutter in the valley between the cattle shed and feed passage roofs being cleared. Elgin Sheriff Court heard he was raised up to roof level in the bucket of a tractor by his stepfather, Raymond Irvine, whose parents John and Elizabeth ran the farm. As he walked across the roof he stepped onto a skylight which collapsed. He fell around four-four and a half metres (approximately 13 feet) to the ground. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation into the incident revealed that there was no proper edge protection on the roof and no measures in place to prevent falls through the corrugated asbestos cement sheeting which made up the roof. John Irvine and Son, of Inverlochy Farm, Tomintoul, Ballindalloch, pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach. Following the case, HSE inspector Ann Poyner said: 'This tragedy should never have happened and could have been prevented if John Irvine and Son had properly assessed the risks of working on a fragile roof and taken steps to prevent falls through the roof. Farmers and those working in agriculture frequently carry out roof work, yet fail to appreciate the risks involved are always substantial.' He added: 'If possible, avoid going on fragile roofs and always keep children clear of high risk activities. If you are planning this type of work should always make sure you have the right equipment to ensure that the work area is strong enough to work from and that guard rails are in place at open edges and suitable access is provided.' The Irvines did not appear in court.

Bricklayer paralysed by falling steel beam

Doncaster based developer Strata Homes has been fined for a criminal safety breach after a worker was left paralysed from the chest down when he was crushed by a steel beam weighing more than 660 pounds. Anton Burrows, 24, was working as part of a bricklaying team sub-contracted to Strata Homes Yorkshire Ltd, at a Huddersfield development on 7 April 2009. He was helping a driver of a telescopic forklift truck to lift the steel beam onto two brick pillars. Although the beam initially landed as intended, as the forklift was withdrawing, the forks caught the beam, dislodging it from the pillars. Burrows walked into the area as this happened, and the beam crashed down on top of him. He suffered extensive injuries, including spinal damage, which resulted in him being left quadriplegic. Strata Homes pleaded guilty to a breach of the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 and was fined £30,000 and ordered to pay £16,062 in costs. After the hearing, HSE inspector Alasdair Green said: 'Had the lifting operation been properly planned and supervised, in line with the regulations, the Approved Code of Practice and HSE's guidance, this devastating incident which could have very easily killed someone, would have been avoided.'

Man brain damaged by falling panel saw

A Keighley haulage company has been fined £5,000 after one of its employees suffered permanent brain damage when he was struck on the head by a 290 kilogram panel saw. Nicholas Holmes, 49, from Bradford, was delivering panel saws to the Saw Centre in Glasgow on 16 August 2007 when one fell off the vehicle, hitting him on the head. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that Mr Holmes' employers, Joda Freight Limited, did not have a reliable system of communication in place to make sure their drivers were informed about the securing and stability of loads. Mr Holmes had not been told anything about how the panel saws were secured in the lorry. When he removed the straps securing the saws, the load became unstable, causing the incident. At Glasgow Sheriff Court Joda Freight Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach. Following the case, HSE inspector Jean Edgar said: 'This was a horrific incident and will have terrible consequences for Mr Holmes and his family for many years to come. Haulage companies must make sure information is properly communicated between drivers in how a load is secured and strapped. Verbal messages through a third party may not be enough. This is particularly important where the delivery driver did not load the vehicle - and has little information on the precise strapping method used to secure it.'

Double jeopardy at Scots sawmill

A Scottish sawmill has been fined £28,000 after two of its employees were severely injured in separate incidents less than three months apart. On 28 May 2007, John Wilson, 55, was working for Adam Wilson and Sons in Troon, Ayrshire, when he fell through a gap in a raised walkway left open after work had been done on a conveyor belt below. He suffered serious injuries to his arm and permanent loss of movement in his shoulder as a result of the fall. Less than three months later, on 24 August 2007, Robert Cumming, 59, was working for the same firm at the same plant when his head was trapped between the metal parts of a hoist after it was switched on while he was working on it. He suffered serious crush injuries to his head and neck and required emergency surgery. He is having ongoing physiotherapy for his injuries. Adam Wilson and Sons Limited pleaded guilty to multiple criminal breaches of health and safety law in relation to the two incidents. The firm was fined £8,000 for the first incident and £20,000 for the second incident. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Helen Diamond said: 'These were two serious and entirely preventable accidents which will affect both Mr Wilson and Mr Cumming for the rest of their lives. Employers need to recognise the importance of making sure that safe systems of work are in place to prevent these sorts of accident, and to give their employees the training, information, instruction and supervision they need to carry out their work safely.'

Modern-day 'slaves' face brutal treatment

Thousands of foreign domestic workers are being abused sexually, physically and psychologically by employers, according to an investigation by Channel 4's Dispatches team. Their report, broadcast on 30 August, says more than 15,000 migrant workers come to Britain every year to earn money to send back to their families. But campaigners say many endure conditions that amount to modern-day slavery. 'Two-thirds of the domestic workers we see report being psychologically abused,' said Jenny Moss, a community advocate for Kalayaan, a London charity that advises domestic migrant workers. 'That means they've been threatened and humiliated, shouted at constantly and called dog, donkey, stupid, illiterate.' The group, which registers about 350 new migrant workers each year, says about 20 per cent report being physically abused or assaulted, including being burnt with irons, threatened with knives, and having boiling water thrown at them. A similar proportion say they were not allowed out alone and have never had a day off. 'The first thing to understand when we're talking about slavery is that we're not using a metaphor,' said Aidan McQuade from Anti-Slavery International. 'Many of the instances of domestic servitude we find in this country are forced labour - a classification that includes retention of passports and wages, threat of denunciation and restriction of movement and isolation.' It is urging people to sign up online to a letter calling for the government to act to prevent domestic slavery.

International News

Egypt: Safety campaigners escape military jail

A military court in Egypt has acquitted three workers accused of leading a strike to protest poor safety conditions inside an army-affiliated factory and has given five others suspended sentences of between six months and one year. Unions, however, are to challenge the legality of the prosecution. 'Even though sentences by military courts cannot be appealed, we will file a lawsuit to contest the constitutionality of the law allowing the trial of civilians before a military court,' said Adel Zakaria, a spokesperson for the Centre for Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS). On 3 August, the eight Helwan Engineering Industries Company workers were arrested for leading a three-day strike after a worker was killed when a nitrogen tube exploded in Military Factory 99, a facility making military planes (Risks 471). The workers were accused of refraining from work, assaulting a public official - the chairman of the board, an army general - and causing damage to a public facility. Press reports say the board chair was subsequently fired.

Global: Canada gives asbestos mine more money

A last-ditch effort to revive Quebec's asbestos industry has received a government cash lifeline while the deadly mining operation scrabbles to find private investors. The rapid approval by the Quebec government of a Can$3.5 million (£2.15m) guaranteed line of credit, plus political support from Canada's federal government, means the Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Quebec will reopen for the month of September. The new cash has given the company - which has virtually exhausted its asbestos deposit, is under bankruptcy protection and which ceased operating in October 2009 - breathing space to find private investors. Without this it has been told a Can$58m (£35.5m) loan guarantee from the Quebec government, which would underwrite the cost of opening a new asbestos mine, would not be forthcoming. Press reports in Canada have claimed 'potential investors' from India and London will travel to Quebec this month to observe mining operations with an eye to future investment. If the mine goes ahead, it will export 200,000 tonnes of asbestos a year to developing countries for 25 years. It is a move strongly opposed by a global network of campaign groups. Mohit Gupta of the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India said: 'We will denounce any and all Indian companies which choose to invest in this deadly industry.' And Tony Whitston, chair of the Forum of Asbestos Victims' Support Groups UK, said: 'With more than 4,000 people dying in this country from asbestos-related diseases every year, it is outrageous that any UK company would be considering co-financing an asbestos mine in Canada. Forum members are in discussion with trade unionists, politicians, campaigners and ban asbestos supporters as to what action should be taken in the event such investments are made.'

Ukraine: Steel worker dies during safety visit

A steelworker has died at an ArcelorMittal steel plant in the Ukraine while the firm's global safety committee was meeting on the premises. The tragedy at the Kryviy Rih plant on 19 August highlights the 'unacceptable' fatality rate at the company, said global metal unions' federation IMF. Just minutes before the fatality occurred, the Global Joint Health and Safety Committee made up of representatives from ArcelorMittal and IMF's union affiliates, heard about 'the real progress that is being made following visits by the committee to South Africa, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Romania and the Czech Republic.' According to IMF's Rob Johnston: 'Sadly, despite progress and a reduction in fatalities since signing the global agreement the number of workers killed or injured in the company remains unacceptable.' The Global Joint Health and Safety Committee was created by a June 2008 agreement between ArcelorMittal, IMF, its European arm EMF and North American steel union USW, committing them to work together to improve health and safety within the company. The committee is composed of trade union and management representatives and supervises the implementation of the agreement across the whole ArcelorMittal group. Steel fatalities in Morocco last month were also linked to the firm. Three SOMRAPE workers subcontracted by ArcelorMittal died in a workplace incident last week.

USA: BP quizzed on its safety record

US federal investigators last week pressed senior BP officials about whether the company had a troubled record of safety problems even before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. The government panel raised pointed questions about what lessons had been learned from several previous emergencies in 2002 and 2005. Time after time, BP appeared to have gambled with safety, said a chair of the panel, Captain Hung Nguyen of the Coast Guard. 'One dot is a point, two dots is a line, and three dots is a trend,' Captain Nguyen said. 'There's a trend there about the safety culture of BP. These things keep happening.' Incidents cited included two little-known near-blowouts on oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico in 2002, the near-capsizing of a rig in 2005 and a major explosion that killed 15 at BP's Texas City refinery in 2005. In response to each, BP conducted investigations and took necessary action, including spending $1.4 billion (£0.9bn) after the explosion in Texas, said Kent Wells, the company's senior vice president for exploration and production. But the panel called on Mr Wells to read aloud from a 2003 letter from the federal Minerals Management Service that rebuked BP after the 2002 incidents. 'The circumstances surrounding these incidents have raised questions about the ability of BP to safely conduct drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico,' the letter states. Wells defended the safety culture of BP. 'We don't jeopardise safety for cost,' he testified. He said Texas City was 'a devastating event for us... In BP it's had a dramatic impact. We tried very diligently to show there's not a conflict between safety and cost. Never should cost get in the way of doing something safely.'

USA: Safety is top worker concern

More than eight in 10 US workers ? 85 per cent ? rank workplace safety their top workplace concern, according to a new study from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. The study, 'Public attitudes towards and experiences with workplace safety,' draws on dozens of surveys and polls conducted by NORC and was prepared for the Public Welfare Foundation, a Washington DC-based organisation that supports efforts to improve workers' rights. Despite this widespread public concern about workplace safety, the study found that the media and the public tend to pay closest attention to safety issues when disastrous workplace accidents occur. Even during those tragedies, the fate of workers is often overlooked, such as during the recent oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. 'Workplace safety is too often ignored or accidents taken for granted,' said Tom W Smith, director of NORC's General Social Survey (GSS). 'It is striking that coverage in the media and public opinion polls has virtually ignored the 11 workers killed by the blowout and destruction of the drilling platform.' Instead, Smith pointed out, the media coverage and the polls focused on the environmental impact of the disaster, overlooking the worker safety aspects. But he noted that 'if optimal safety had been maintained, not only would the lives of the 11 workers been saved, but the whole environmental disaster would have been averted.' Robert Shull, the workers' rights programme officer at the Public Welfare Foundation, commented: 'Workplace safety should be a constant concern. Given the importance that workers themselves place on this issue, we should not have to mourn the loss of people on the job before government and employers take more effective measures to ensure that employees can go home safely after work.' A 2006 survey by the management-side US Employment Law Alliance found that 'a union's ability to address safety concerns' was the leading factor in a worker's decision on whether or not to join a union, eclipsing concerns over getter higher wages, better benefits or increased job security (Risks 274).


SUBSPORT guide to chemical substitution

A new European online resource is being developed, to provide information about safer alternatives to the use of hazardous chemicals. The EU-backed substitution portal, being prepared by groups from Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Spain, including the trade union safety research body ISTAS, aims to be the leading database for substitution worldwide. At the moment, there are few specific SUBSPORT resources on the webpage, but there are links to resources prepared by the participating organisations. However, you can sign up for updates from the resource or contribute substitution case histories. Over time, an advice service on substitution will emerge from the portal, which will also 'offer systematic and reliable information on substitution in the form of a database.'

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