Risks 480 - 30 October 2010

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards magazine
Hazards at Work

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Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at [email protected]

Union News

Soaraway stress warning from TUC

Stress, bulling and harassment, back strains, slips, trips and falls, and overwork top the list of workers' safety concerns, according to new TUC research. The union body's 2010 survey of safety reps found stress is by far the most common health and safety problem at work. Nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of reps say that stress is in the top five problems faced by the workers they represent. More than a quarter of reps (27 per cent) pick out stress as the hazard at work that most concerns them. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber warned that spending cuts, job insecurity and escalating workloads could all make a bad problem worse. 'Stress can be caused by heavy workloads, cuts in staffing, long hours and bullying. The economic crisis and redundancies have created more anxiety about job security, and as the spending cuts begin to bite and even more jobs start to go, stress at work is bound to increase,' he said. 'Unions and employers must work together to combat stress at work as it can have a devastating impact on workers and a damaging cost on businesses.' Bullying and harassment was the second most common health and safety concern reported by safety reps this year. More than a third of reps (37 per cent) list it as a top five concern in the workplace - almost double the proportion (20 per cent) who cited bullying as an issue in 2008. Back strains constitute the third most frequently mentioned hazard, with a third (33 per cent) of reps saying this was a top five concern for their workplaces, slightly up on the 31 per cent figure in 2008. Overwork is listed as a separate issue to stress for the first time in the survey, and it is the fifth most likely hazard to be identified as a major concern with more than one in four (29 per cent) of safety reps listing it as one their top five issues.

Stress set to soar due to savage cuts

Time off work due to stress has risen in the past year, and is a greater problem in the public sector than in the private sector, new research suggests. Public sector workers took on average 9.6 days off sick over the period, three more than their private sector counterparts, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said. More than one in three employers said time off through stress had increased. The institute said the recession was to blame for increased stress levels. Extra workload, worries about company reorganisations and domestic problems had led to higher levels of anxiety and depression, employers reported. The research also found that more employees were struggling into work even when they were ill, because of concerns about losing their jobs. CIPD adviser Dr Jill Miller said 'organisational change and restructuring is cited more commonly by public sector employers than those in other sectors as a major cause of stress, which will only increase in the near future as a consequence of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review.' UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said the combination of job stresses and 'threat to jobs because of the cuts and workers covering for jobs already axed' created 'a lethal cocktail that takes a physical and mental toll on people's health.'

Scotland faces 'rising tide' of assaults

Public service staff in Scotland are facing a 'rising tide' of assaults, research by UNISON has found. The union's annual survey of violence at work has revealed an increase of over 3,000 assaults compared with last year. 'Violent assaults on public service staff in Scotland', a report presented to the union's annual health and safety conference in Stirling last week, revealed that more than 28,000 assaults on staff were recorded for the year 2009/10. The figures were obtained from employers of UNISON members, using Freedom of Information requests. Dave Watson, UNISON Scottish organiser said: 'Any act of violence on a member of staff going about their business of providing vital public services is completely unacceptable. To have over 28,000 in a year is shocking. Employers clearly have to do more to protect their staff.' He added: 'It is clear that where rigorous monitoring and active preventative measures are in place, this has resulted in improvements for the health and safety of our members. But some employers are clearly failing to monitor violent assaults effectively, and as a result are failing to do enough to protect their staff.' The figures obtained through Freedom of Information requests were provided by 30 of Scotland's 32 councils and 10 health boards. A number of police forces, universities and colleges also responded. The union and Labour MSP Hugh Henry, whose Protection of Workers (Scotland) Bill is going through Holyrood, said workers must be given better protection. Under Mr Henry's bill, which seeks to protect anyone working with the public, people caught committing an offence could be jailed for up to 12 months and fined a maximum of £10,000.

Power worker gets vibration payout

A power company worker who developed a vibration related occupational disease has received a £8,750 payout. Electricity network operator CE Electric UK agreed the compensation settlement after Deryne Hughes, 52, developed hand arm vibration syndrome. It was caused by exposure to vibratory tools during his 28 years in the company's roadworks division in Stockton-on-Tees. The Unite member's job involved digging trenches, laying cable and back filling using whackers, handrammers and Stihl saws. Later he worked as a jointer doing repair work using Stihl saws, drills and impact wrenches. Mr Hughes first noticed his symptoms three years ago, starting with numbness and tingling in both hands and eventually developing into cramp and pains. In November 2009 he was formally diagnosed with hand arm vibration syndrome. Unite regional secretary, Davy Hall said: 'Health and safety laws exist to make sure workers aren't injured on the job because of their employer's negligence. ' He added: 'It's times like this that it really pays to be a union member.' Mr Hughes continues to be employed at CE Electric UK in a role that does not require use of vibratory tools.

Sheet metal worker gets payout

A Sheffield sheet metal worker who developed vibration white finger (VWF) as a result of his employer's negligence has received £7,000 compensation. The 58-year-old GMB member, whose name has not been released, developed the injury through his work grinding and hammering on metal slides for up to three hours a day. In his 26 years on the job he was never once warned about the risk of developing vibration white finger. He is now expected to suffer from the effects of the injury for the rest of his life. The GMB member, who still works for the unidentified manufacturing firm, initially sought medical attention for his injuries, but when his GP failed to recognise his symptoms he sought advice from his union. His GMB organiser immediately recognised the symptoms as vibration white finger and started a compensation claim. Tim Roache, GMB Yorkshire regional secretary, said: 'Where employers fail to abide by these laws it's in everybody's interest that they are held to account. The GMB will always stand by members who've been injured at work and back them in their fight for justice.'

CWU campaigner wins national safety award

A national safety award has been presented to a union health and safety officer. Dave Joyce, national health and safety officer with communications union CWU, received the Achiever of the Year award at this year's Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) awards ceremony in recognition of the high profile safety campaigns waged by the union. Dave commented: 'I am delighted to win such a prestigious health and safety award. I am proud for myself, the CWU and for trade unions in general who so rarely get the accolades they deserve when in competition with the private sector.' Dave was nominated for his role in developing the CWU Bite-Back campaign to change the Dangerous Dogs Act and address the thousands of attacks on postal workers and telecoms engineers by dogs every year. The campaign won the support of organisations including RSPCA, the Kennel Club, and the Police Federation. It has already secured the introduction of new guidance from the environment ministry Defra, the introduction of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act, which comes into force next year, and a commitment from the coalition government to change the law and improve enforcement and owner accountability.

Other news

Workplace harm up, prosecutions down

The number of people harmed by their jobs increased by 100,000 last year, according to official figures, while the number of prosecutions and convictions reached a record low. The new statistics have prompted a warning from TUC that workplace injuries and diseases could increase as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) struggles to cope with unprecedented budget cuts (Risks 479). HSE figures for April 2009 to March 2010 say 1.3 million current workers reported they were suffering from an illness caused or made worse by their work, up from 1.2 million in 2008/09. HSE said 555,000 of these cases were new illnesses occurring in-year, a 4,000 increase on the number of new illnesses recorded the previous year. A further 800,000 former workers claim they are still suffering from an illness caused or made worse by work. HSE says there were 152 workers fatally injured in 2009/10 - down from 179 the previous year. It says this is the lowest level on record in Britain, with 0.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'It is of grave concern that the rate of work related ill-health has increased in the last year. While part of that may be due to the increased pressures associated with the recession, unions will be concerned that too little is being done to enforce health and safety regulations in this area. The further fall in prosecutions over the past year reinforces this.' Both prosecutions, down to 1,026 cases, and convictions, at 735 in the year, were at a record low. The use of enforcement notices increased. TUC's Brendan Barber said a 35 per cent cut in the government contribution to HSE's budget 'is likely to make the situation worse with less guidance, fewer inspections and less enforcement across the board. This will mean higher illness rates, more days lost through sickness absence and - most importantly - more workers killed, injured or made ill as a result of their work.'

£1 fine over site death 'an insult'

A woman whose husband died after falling from faulty scaffolding has said a £1 fine on one of the firms responsible is 'an insult.' Peter Walton, 55, fell five metres on 10 May 2006, while working as a joiner on a site near Accrington. He was taken to hospital by air ambulance but died surrounded by his family five weeks later. Howorth Scaffolding was fined £25,000, but developer Glenmill Group was fined £1. The judge said the amounts reflected their financial positions. But widow Christine Walton was outraged. 'My husband lost his life, not his livelihood,' she said. 'It is an insult. This doesn't reflect the seriousness of what happened. I lost my partner, my soul mate.'Both companiespleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches. The judge gave his sentence in writing on 22 October. Both firms were ordered to pay £13,793 towards court costs. The Health and Safety Executive, which brought the case, said it showed how important it was for firms to follow health and safety regulations. But Linzi Herbertson of Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) said: 'Insulting fines are not rare and won't deter other employers or make them comply with the law to stop killing, injuring or making workers ill, in what are totally preventable incidents and occurrences.' She said the government's decision to slash the HSE budget 'will cut the already inadequate enforcement safety net and yet more families will suffer like us.' Neal Stone, head of policy at the British Safety Council, said 'Peter Walton's preventable death was not an exception but sadly an all too frequent occurrence in a society that has still to grasp the harm and loss that poorly managed health and safety brings. A £1 fine is an insult to Peter Walton's family.'

Cuts could jeopardise safety, IOSH warns

Budget cuts could risk the steady year-on-year decline in work-related deaths and injuries in the UK, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has warned. IOSH is concerned that the 35 per cent budget cuts the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) faces following last week's government spending review could reverse the downward injury trend. IOSH policy director Richard Jones said: 'In the light of the recent government spending review, we're concerned that the year-on-year decline in death and injury rates could be put at risk by the 35 per cent cuts the HSE is now facing. We're also disappointed and concerned to see a rise in the number of ill-health cases put down to work last year.' He added: 'Cuts to the HSE don't just risk livelihoods, they risk the lives of the people we are trying to protect. And if inspectors are forced off the front line to complete the paperwork that a declining admin staff would previously have done, we could potentially see a hockey-stick effect, where death and injury rates increase once more.' The figures show the total number of people who last year suffered work-related health problems was up 100,000 on the preceding year.

HSE cuts 'to lead to self-regulation'

A leading trade magazine has claimed drastic cuts in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) budget could lead to the introduction of self-regulation in the construction sector. Construction News (CN) reported last week that the cutbacks will mean fewer site visits for large contractors. It cites sources who say industry bodies will be asked to ensure their members self-regulate while HSE inspectors focus mainly on high risk sites. It adds the research departments of the HSE will take the brunt of the budget cuts to ensure frontline inspectors can implement the new strategy. 'The change in focus is good news for big contractors,' said one source cited by CN. The magazine says the plans mirror those of then Conservative shadow business minister John Penrose, who last year set out proposals for external safety audits. Mr Penrose - now minister for tourism and heritage - outlined a system in which firms would be allowed to arrange independent audits and, if they passed, to refuse entry to official inspectors. HSE has denied there are plans to introduce any forms of self-regulation. 'HSE has no contingency plans for this purpose,' a spokesperson told Hazards magazine this week.

Most found fit in benefits clampdown

Over threequarters of people applying for the new Employment and Support Allowance programme (ESA) are being found fit for work after undergoing the Work Capability Assessment, or stop their claim before they complete their medical assessment, according to new official statistics. A total of 78 per cent were either declared fit for work (39 per cent) or closed their claim before the assessment was complete (39 per cent). Employment minister Chris Grayling: 'With over two million people trapped on incapacity benefits, these figures underline how important it is that we make sure everyone who has the potential to work gets the right help to move off benefits and into a job.' He added: 'This is not about pushing the sick and disabled into jobs but giving those that can work the help to do so and those that can't more, not less, support.' However, the minister indicated he was aware of criticism of the medical assessments, and added: 'I am more than happy to take onboard any serious suggestions for changing the assessment as I want it to be as near to perfect as we can be.' TUC warned last week that the government was forcing many disabled and sick people on to jobseekers' allowance (JSA) despite evidence they are unfit to work. The union body said it has evidence that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is moving unfit workers from Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) purely to save money (Risks 479).

Maersk fined for work sea hours failure

A major international shipping company has been fined after overworking seafarers and failing to obey an official improvement notice. AP Moller-Maersk was fined £18,500 this week and ordered to pay costs of £4,439 after admitting eight charges of failing to provide adequate hours of rest for the crew of a UK-registered containership and one charge of failing to improve the situation. Newcastle Magistrates Court heard that a Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) audit of the 31,333gt Maersk Patras in September 2009 found that the master, officers and other crew members had not been getting the periods of rest required in international conventions. The court was told MCA had informed AP Moller-Maersk about the shortcomings, but the company ignored the warnings. On 25 January this year, MCA issued the company with a formal improvement notice, which required it to rectify the position by 28 February, but the firm failed to comply. Graham Duff, prosecuting on behalf of the MCA, told the court: 'The hours of rest regulations are not just a bureaucratic exercise, they are all about safety. It should go without saying that fatigue, particularly for decision makers on board large vessels, is a very real enemy and presents a significant risk to the safety of others.' Allan Graveson, senior national secretary with the seafarers' union Nautilus, commented: 'Members should be advised to keep accurate records, and inform the union in confidence if necessary.'

Farm hand loses leg in harvester

A farmworker's leg had to be amputated after he attempted to clear a blockage on a harvesting machine while the blades were still rotating. The 23-year-old from Whitby, who does not wish to be named, was helping cut forage maize at Skipsters Hagg Farm at Appleton-le-Moors, near Pickering, on 9 November 2009. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Peter Turnbull, a partner in family-run farming firm GR Turnbull & Sons, after investigating the incident. Scarborough Magistrates Court heard the worker was driving a silage trailer while Peter Turnbull was driving the forage harvester in the same field. When a blockage occurred in the cutting disc of the harvester, Peter Turnbull attempted to clear the blockage by reversing the drive mechanism. When that failed, he left his seat to clear it by hand, leaving the machine running. The hired farm hand came to assist but while in the process of clearing the blockage the man's leg was caught in the harvester's rotating cutting discs. The resulting injury was so serious that paramedics, including an air ambulance crew, made a decision to amputate the limb at the scene. Peter Turnbull was prosecuted by HSE for a breach of the Provision and Use of Work Regulations 1998. He pleaded guilty and was fined £10,000 and £1,698 costs. HSE inspector Charlie Callis commented: 'Farmers are under pressure to bring in the crop and time spent shutting down and making safe a machine may, incorrectly, be considered time wasted. Taking unnecessary risks like this is never a sensible option, and Mr Turnbull could and should have done more to mitigate those risks.' HSE says 'farming is now officially the UK's most dangerous industry on a ratio of deaths and injury per size of workforce.'

Firm refused to listen to noise warnings

A Burnley manufacturing company has been fined £16,000 after it ignored a formal warning about noise levels at its factory. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Equestrian Surfaces Ltd for putting its employees' hearing at risk, despite being given two extensions to an improvement notice requiring a reduction in their daily noise exposure levels. Staff at the factory, which makes flooring surfaces for horse riding centres, were required to work for several hours a day near a granulator machine as loud as a chainsaw. The machine uses metal blades to shred material into tiny pieces and can reach volumes of up to 98 decibels. Burnley Magistrates' Court heard that the company failed to put any practical measures in place to reduce workers' exposure to noise, even after receiving an improvement notice and being given advice from a specialist HSE inspector. A further HSE visit with an independent scientist showed that, although some changes had been made, the employees' daily noise exposure remained high and the changes fell short of what could and should have been achieved. HSE inspector Matthew Lea said: 'Equestrian Surfaces could have taken a number of simple practical steps to reduce noise exposure but chose instead to rely on just using basic ear protectors, which in effect is the last line of defence.' Equestrian Surfaces Ltd pleaded guilty to failing to comply with an improvement notice. It was fined £16,000 plus £11,000 costs.

Roadworks company fined over M4 death

A Newport traffic management company has been sentenced after a trainee employee was struck and killed by a vehicle when working on the M4 near Cardiff. Sean Luke Hale, 30, a father of two young daughters, was hit by a car while crossing the carriageway to collect traffic cones from the central reservation during road resurfacing of the busy motorway in 2006. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found Mr Hale's employers, RP Traffic Management Ltd, failed to ensure that a safe system of work was in place that included the use of appropriate signs to warn drivers that workers were on the carriageway at the time. Cardiff Magistrates Court heard Mr Hale was working with a colleague at around 9.30pm on 8 September 2006 when the incident happened. As trainees, both men were being supervised at the time but the quality of supervision was called into question. The court heard both men were observed crossing the carriageway in a dangerous manner on a number of occasions on the same night. RP Traffic Management Ltd pleaded guilty to failing to ensure the safety of the two trainees and was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay £22,000 costs. HSE inspector Wayne Williams said: 'On the night in question, the gang of three workers consisted of one foreman and two trainees. This was not adequate supervision in what is a high risk working environment. Trainee roadworkers should always be under a high level of supervision when undertaking this kind of work as part of an overall safe system of work on the job.' He added: 'Advanced warning signs should always be used when people are working on motorway roadworks to alert drivers that people may be in the road and exercise caution as they approach.'

International News

USA: Gun powder maker fined $1.2m for deadly blast

A US gun powder manufacturer is facing fines of $1.2m after an explosion killed two workers who had been employed by the firm for only a month. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued 54 citations with proposed penalties reaching $1.2 million to Black Mag LLC, following the explosion in May at the company's site in Colebrook, New Hampshire. 'The fines levied here pale in comparison to the value of the two lives lost,' said secretary of labour Hilda L Solis. 'Nonetheless, this was a tragedy that easily could have been prevented had the employer valued the health and safety of its employees. Employers should not sacrifice their workers' lives for a profit, and no one should be injured or killed for a pay cheque.' On 14 May, two workers and a plant supervisor were manufacturing a gun powder substitute known as Black Mag powder when the explosion occurred. The workers had been required to hand feed powder into operating equipment due to the employer's failure to implement essential protective controls. The employer also chose not to implement remote starting procedures, isolate operating stations, establish safe distancing and erect barriers or shielding - all of which are necessary for the safe manufacture of explosive powder. Additionally, the employer chose not to provide the personal protective equipment and other safety measures its employees needed to work safely with such hazardous material. OSHA cited the company for four egregious wilful, 12 wilful, 36 serious and two other-than-serious violations with total penalties of $1,232,500. 'Even after a prior incident in which a worker was seriously injured, and multiple warnings from its business partners and a former employee, this employer still decided against implementing safety measures,' said assistant secretary of labour for OSHA Dr David Michaels.

USA: 'Toxic nightmare' in prison recycling scheme

Inmates and employees at 10 US prisons were exposed to toxic metals and other hazardous substances while processing electronic waste for recycling, a four-year investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general found. A report from the Office of the Inspector General said unspecified amounts of that waste were shipped overseas. The report confirmed concerns raised repeatedly by critics of prison-based programmes. Yet despite finding officials wilfully endangered thousands of prison staff and inmates, none will be prosecuted and most of the officials have retired without any sanction, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). 'In the long tradition of prison labour, these operations employed inmates with hammers but instead of rocks they were breaking computer components with no containment or protective equipment,' stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organisation has supported whistleblowing prison employees. 'Coated in toxic dust, prison staff and inmates worked for years, in many cases trailing heavy metals back to their homes and cellblocks.' Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a group that advocates for rigorous standards for recycling electronic waste, said: 'We have said all along that prisoners should not be managing toxic waste, and the federal government should never allow the export of such wastes to developing countries. Now we are finding out that not only did the federal government continue to allow it... they were doing it themselves and may still be doing it to this day.' The recycling work is overseen by Unicor, a unit of the Federal Bureau of Prisons that employs inmates to manufacture items like furniture and license plates. Since 1997, it has accepted contracts for recycling computer monitors, televisions, printers and other electronic waste.

USA: BP accidents linked to cuts

As BP transformed itself into the world's third largest private oil company it developed a culture of austerity in pursuit of corporate efficiency, lean budgets and shareholder profits, an investigation has concluded. But safety and the environment were casualties of the company's 'furious growth' strategy, the probe found. A ProPublica analysis of US state and federal records revealed that BP has fared far worse in the United States than the rest of the industry in terms of spills and serious safety violations. Current and former workers and executives said the company repeatedly cut corners, let alarm and safety systems languish and skipped essential maintenance that could have prevented a number of explosions and spills. ProPublica, an independent, non-profit news organisation, says internal BP documents support these claims. Nationally, according to an extensive analysis of data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), BP had 518 safety violations over the two decades to 2009, compared with 240 for Chevron and even fewer for its other competitors. 'They just weren't getting it,' confirmed Jordan Barab, OSHA's deputy assistant secretary of labour. In the last decade, OSHA records show that BP has been levied 300 times more in fines for refinery violations than any other oil company. 'BP's cost-cutting measures had really cut into their plant maintenance, into their training, into their investment in new and safer equipment,' Barab said. 'When you start finding the same problems over and over again, I think you are pretty safe in saying they've got a systematic problem.'

Events and Courses

London protest in support of Ark Tribe, 2 November

Construction safety campaigners are to mount a protest outside the Australian High Commission in London to protest at the victimisation of a union rep who is being prosecuted after making a stand on site safety. The 2 November event is in support of Ark Tribe, a safety rep with the Australian construction union CFMEU. He faces jail for refusing to face an interrogation by the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), a body created to curtail the power of construction unions but which unions say has used its wide-ranging powers to undermine safety on site. ABCC had demanded Arc name those who attended a union meeting about terrible health and safety conditions on a site. Ark faces up to six months in jail for defending trade union rights. The London protest is timed to take place hours ahead of Ark's sentencing hearing in Adelaide. The campaign spearheaded by CFMEU to defend Ark Tribe has the backing of national union federation ACTU and has attracted support worldwide. The UK event is backed by organisations including the Construction Safety Campaign, the Blacklist Support Group and the Hazards Campaign.

TUC courses for safety reps


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