Risks 568 - 11 August 2012

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards magazine
Hazards at Work

Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 23,000 subscribers. 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

UNISON calls for action on shifts and cancer

Safety reps should demand action to protect workers from shift patterns linked to cancer and other health problems, public sector union UNISON has said. The union was speaking out after a series of reports linked shiftwork with an increased risk of breast cancer (Risks 562). Other recent reports have linked working shifts to heart disease (Risks 567) and other health problems (Risks 551). UNISON is concerns that despite this worrying evidence, 'the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the cancer establishment leave women in the dark by taking a 'wait and see approach' to this occupational risk factor for breast cancer.' The union points to examples cited by the Alliance for Cancer Prevention, which wants to see action to reduce these cases of occupational breast cancer and had called on HSE to follow the example set by the Danish government which now offers compensation to some shiftworkers developing the condition. The union's primary concern is prevention, however. 'UNISON safety reps should demand effective risk assessments on shift patterns and ensure the least unhealthy patterns are adopted. Workers need information about the risk from shiftwork so they can make an informed choice about what they can do to lessen the risk,' notes the union's briefing.

FBU attacks government refusal to act on flood risks

The firefighters' union FBU has attacked a government decision it says will risk public safety by refusing to require fire and rescue services in England and Wales to respond to flood emergencies. Although the fire service routinely responds to serious floods, it is not mandated to do so by law. This means funding for firefighters and the specialist equipment needed is not guaranteed and has to be found within existing budgets. Exercise Watermark, a flood rescue exercise in 2011, established the fire and rescue service does not have enough firefighters, boats and equipment needed to respond to flooding over prolonged periods. But the union has expressed dismay at the government's 31 July response to the report, which concludes placing a statutory duty on the fire and rescue service to respond to flooding 'is not the best way forward at this time'. FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said the union 'fears that the public will be put at risk because fire authorities will not have the resources to respond to flooding, particularly in the context of massive cuts to the fire and rescue service.' He said government reports show 'flood risk has increased and is increasing', and added: 'The public rightly expects firefighters to respond to floods and the government needs to recognise this in order to ensure that the public are protected.' Fire services in Scotland and Northern Ireland are bound by law to deal with the effects of major flooding, but governments in England and Wales have failed to follow suit.

Liberty backs union blacklisting inquiry calls

The surveillance and blacklisting of thousands of workers, many targeted for their union safety activities, should be investigated immediately by the privacy watchdog, human rights watchdog Liberty has said. Unions, the grassroots Blacklist Support Group and prominent Labour MPs have led the campaign for an official investigation into a scandal involving at least 40 of Britain's major construction firms, but prime minister David Cameron has rejected the calls, saying it is a matter for the police (Risks 548). This response caused dismay with blacklisted workers, who point to an admission from the Information Commissioner's Office (ILO) that the police or security forces 'must' have been complicit in the scandal (Risks 546). Liberty has written to the Information Commissioner, Sir Christopher Graham, accusing him of inaction over a privacy scandal that it compares to phone hacking. Liberty is threatening to go to court to force him to investigate the case. Corinna Ferguson, legal officer for Liberty, said: 'We can't believe the inaction of the Information Commissioner on a human rights violation of such wide public interest. Contracting out the blacklisting of innocent workers, politicians and journalists is no better than farming out phone hacking to private detectives and the consequences for our democracy are just as grave. If we cannot persuade the Commissioner to discharge his public duty, we will consider seeking assistance from the courts.' The ICO said it had received Liberty's letter and would respond in due course. It was an investigation by ICO that led to the closure of The Consulting Association, the covert surveillance organisation working for and financed by major construction firms.

Union welcomes Scots rail crossing progress

Train drivers' union ASLEF has welcomed Network Rail's decision to fit barriers across every open rail level crossing in the Scotland's Highlands. 'This is the first major sign of progress on the issue of level crossings for many years,' said general secretary Mick Whelan. 'At last someone is treating this major problem with the seriousness it deserves. What is regrettable is that someone has to die before any consideration is given to safety at crossings.' The union says the impetus for change came as a result of three deaths at a crossing in Halkirk in Caithness in 2009 (Risks 432). That crossing is now to have a full-size barrier which will block off the entire road, while 19 others will have either this or a mini-barrier system installed in the £4 million exercise. ASLEF's officer in Scotland, Kevin Lindsay, said the announcement was 'great news' and a step towards the sort of measures the union would like to see to protect both rail passengers and car drivers at all level crossings. Alex Neil, Scottish government cabinet secretary for infrastructure and capital investment, said: 'Railway safety, including at level crossings, remains reserved to Westminster. However, to demonstrate our commitment, the Scottish government earlier this year announced an additional £10 million fund to help facilitate the closure of level crossings and I will continue to liaise with Network Rail on these issues.'

Other News

HSE wants to take diseases out of RIDDOR

A dramatic revision of the legal system for reporting workplace injuries, dangerous occurrences and diseases is being proposed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The HSE's consultation document, published this week, would mean an end to the current duty under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) 1995 to report conditions including certain strain injuries, poisonings, vibration diseases, dermatitis and occupational cancers, dust diseases and asthma. Only the much rarer work-related biological diseases, including Q fever, rabies and Legionnaires' disease, would remain reportable. HSE is also proposing that self-employed people no longer having to report injuries or illness to themselves, and the removal of both the duty on employers to report dangerous occurrences outside of high risk sectors and activities. The need to report all fatal injuries to workers and those to members of the public as a result of a work activity would remain, as would the duty to report major injuries to workers. David Charnock, HSE's consultation manager, said: 'We are proposing to simplify the requirements by removing the duty to report in those areas where the information can be better obtained from other sources or where the data isn't particularly useful to the regulators. The proposals do not indicate any change in HSE's policy or strategic objectives, and we will continue to focus our investigations on those incidents that meet our published selection criteria.' The Hazards Campaign responded that while the existing RIDDOR system was 'full of holes and inadequate', a more rational response would be 'to improve RIDDOR so we obtain better data, not gut it so we obtain little useful data at all.' The consultation on proposals to change RIDDOR reporting requirements from 2013 is open from 2 August until 28 October 2012. It follows injury reporting changes which took effect in April. Employers now have to report injuries that keep workers off normal duties for over seven days, rather than over three days, which lops an estimated 30,000 injuries a year off the official work injury toll.

HSE wants to leave some self-employed lawless

A controversial move to exempt many self-employed workers from safety laws is being pushed forward by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This week the safety watchdog opened a three-month consultation on the proposal, which it says would limit the exemption to people whose work activities pose no potential risk of harm to others. The proposal is based on a recommendation of the independent government-commissioned review of health and safety law by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt. Activities identified as high risk in the consultative document, so not subject to the proposed opt-out, are agriculture, construction, quarries, mining, diving, COMAH and sub-COMAH sites, offshore activities, nuclear installations, explosives and gas-fitting and installation. Sarah Wadham, HSE policy adviser, said: 'The questions in the Consultative Document concern how best to give effect to Professor Löfstedt's recommendation and HSE would particularly welcome comments from the self-employed about the proposal.' When the report was published in November 2011, the TUC warned there was little doubt that removing the self-employed from the regulations will increase their risk of illness and injury. A review of provisional HSE fatality statistics for 2010/11 by Hazards magazine found almost a quarter (24 per cent) of the 51 self-employed deaths reported under the RIDDOR regulations were in workers in the service and manufacturing sectors, and would be subject to the safety law exemption. Other major killers, including transportation, would also be lifted outside the law. The consultation will end on 28 October 2012. The HSE Board will make a recommendation to ministers based on the results of the consultation.

Worker's legs amputated at 'low risk' dock

An Essex dock firm has been fined £20,000 for criminal safety failings after an employee had both legs amputated. William James, 73, was working on Stanton Grove Limited's berth 47 within the Port of Tilbury his legs were crushed by a cargo container on 26 March 2010. The dock worker was returning to a safe refuge under a quayside crane when he was knocked down by a 45ft container being lowered by a reach stacker. The driver of the reach stacker, unaware that Mr James was on the quayside and had been knocked down, continued to lower the container onto his legs. Basildon Crown Court heard an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that Stanton Grove had failed to ensure the safety of Mr James while he was working on the quayside. The firm admitted a criminal safety offence and was fined £20,000. Costs will be determined at a later date. The injured man's employer, Castlekeep Limited, was also prosecuted but was found not guilty at an earlier hearing. HSE inspector Toni Drury said: 'Good co-ordination and co-operation between all those who are in control of the berth, the operations and the workforce is a necessity, and an agreed safe system of work must be properly communicated and training provided to all involved. HSE will not hesitate to take action where there is a risk of serious harm to people at work.' Docks are classified as low risk by HSE not subject to preventive HSE inspections, a decision condemned by unions (Risks 554). An investigation by Hazards magazine found the UK's docks industry last year had a fatality rate several times the national average (Risks 547).

Olympic projection spotlights Adidas 'exploitation'

On 5 August - the night Olympic champion Usain Bolt won the fastest 100m race in history - campaigners projected a huge reminder on a building overlooking the Olympic Park that the Olympic sportswear partner Adidas is 'making millions out of the exploitation of workers who make its clothes.' The anti-poverty charity War on Want beamed the 65 feet high image - which proclaimed 'exploitation - not OK here, not OK anywhere' underneath the Adidas three-striped logo - as the sell-out 80,000 crowd left the stadium after the Olympic highlight, the men's 100 metres final. According to the human rights campaigners, Adidas has already sold £100 million of Olympic clothing whilst workers making its goods around the world are paid poverty wages and toil in awful conditions. Murray Worthy, War on Want's sweatshops campaigner, said: 'Adidas are making millions yet the workers who make their clothes have to skip meals just to get by. This is exploitation. It wouldn't be OK for Adidas to do this in the UK and it shouldn't be OK anywhere else. Adidas must ensure that workers are paid enough to live.' War on Want contrasts the workers' poverty pay with the £529 million profits Adidas recorded in 2011 and its chief executive Herbert Hainer's £4.6 million pay package last year. In May this year, Playfair 2012, a coalition including TUC and War on Want, published a report warning workers making London 2012 Olympic sportswear for top brands and high street names including Adidas and Next were being paid poverty wages, forced to work excessive overtime and threatened with instant dismissal if they complained about working conditions (Risks 555).

Deaths mar offshore 'improvements'

Two workers died in the UK offshore industry last year, the first deaths since 2007. Steve Walker, the head of the Health and Safety Executive's offshore safety division (OSD), said a continuing decline in hydrocarbon releases was welcome, but expressed regret at the deaths. The combined fatal and injury rate improved to 131 per 100,000 workers in 2011/12 from 152 in 2010/11. Provisional figures released in HSE's Offshore Safety Statistics Bulletin also revealed a reduction in the total number of major and significant hydrocarbon releases in 2011/12 to 52 compared to the previous year's total of 73. The number of minor hydrocarbon releases also fell from 93 to 75. In both cases these were the lowest figures in the last ten years. HSE's Steve Walker said: 'While we welcome the continued downward trend, industry will need continued focus to achieve its target of halving the number of hydrocarbon releases by April 2013. The major gas release from the Elgin platform at the end of March was a salutary reminder of the potential consequences that such releases can present.' He added: 'The deaths of offshore workers are always unacceptable. Although those in 2011/12 are the first ones to be recorded in our statistics since 2007, they are a tragic reminder that this is a high risk industry and safety must remain a priority.' The HSE offshore head also warned 'inroads to reducing the backlog of safety critical maintenance show little movement. This requires sustained improvement of planned safety critical maintenance programmes. The industry needs to address this area and ensure issues are tackled in a timely manner."

Tata guilty after worker dies in molten slag

Global steel giant Tata has been fined £500,000 for serious criminal safety offences after a worker died when he fell into a channel carrying molten slag waste. Covers over the channel had been removed for maintenance and not replaced. Kevin Downey, 49, was working on a night shift on the Number 4 Blast Furnace at the Port Talbot steelworks when the incident happened on 25 April 2006. At the time, the company was operating as Corus. Swansea Crown Court was told that it was believed Mr Downey went to the cast house at the site to inspect the slag pool, which was due to close for maintenance work during the day shift. While he was on a veranda area, his vision was obscured by steam from a granulator. As he tried to retrace his steps visibility may have been as little as three feet and he fell into the open section of a channel that was running slag at 1,500 degrees celsius. He attempted to climb out and was helped out by workers who heard his cries. Although conscious, he died later the same day. HSE's investigation found that the company had a reporting system which showed a significant number of near misses. There had been 16 'near miss' reports filed in the nine months before the tragedy and another 19 reports were filed which listed steam as a safety concern. It was also common practice to operate the furnace with sections of channels - or runners - left uncovered without taking additional precautions to prevent anyone from falling in. His Honour Justice Spencer said Mr Downey's died 'needlessly'. He added: 'The warning signs were there for management to see and they did nothing about them.' Tata Steels UK Ltd pleaded guilty to two criminal safety breaches and was fined £500,000 and ordered to pay £57,487 costs. Kevin Downey's widow, Tanya, said: 'Kevin was a safe and conscientious worker and loved by his family, friends and colleagues. We hope other families will not have to go through the pain we have since his death.'

Workers survive four storey lift shaft horror

Three companies have been fined for criminal safety offences after two workers on an Exeter building site suffered severe injuries when the platform they were working on collapsed and fell four storeys down a lift shaft. Exeter Crown Court heard the men were working on a site building new student accommodation for Exeter University when the incident happened in February 2008. Cowlin Construction Ltd was fined £85,000 and ordered to pay £20,000 in costs in the case brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Prestoplan Ltd, which provides timber frame buildings, was fined £50,000 and £20,000 costs and Somerset Carpenters Ltd, which supplied labour at the site, was fined £35,000 with £22,000 costs. Somerset Carpenters had been served with a prohibition notice by HSE following an inspection at the site which banned them from working until safety measures had been put in place to stop workers falling down the lift shaft. A wooden platform was then erected over the shaft but two weeks later this collapsed, sending Ricki Slocombe, 35, and Matthew Blackmore, 29, both from Bridgwater, falling to the ground floor. Mr Blackmore suffered a broken back and Mr Slocombe suffered two broken legs and had to use a wheelchair for several months. He has been unable to return to work. Recorder Mr Andrew Oldland: 'Either or both of these workers could have been killed. The potential for serious injury was great. The danger was not only foreseeable but obvious.'

Council fined after road worker is crushed

Dumfries and Galloway Council has been fined after a subcontractor suffered severe crush injuries when a tar tipper lorry reversed into a paver machine he was driving while carrying out road repairs. The 20-year-old, who does not wish to be named, was one of two subcontractors working for Hamilton Tarmac alongside a squad of men from Dumfries and Galloway Council to undertake repairs on a minor road. Dumfries Sheriff Court heard that on 27 April 2010 the injured worker was driving the paver forwards along the road followed by a reversing tipper lorry driven by a council employee. The Hamilton Tarmac employee noticed the tipper lorry was gaining on his slower moving vehicle but before he could sound his horn to alert the tipper lorry driver to his presence it struck the paver. The lorry hit the operator safety rail to the rear of the paver, buckling it and moving it forward over the platform on which the subcontractor had been standing, trapping him between the rail and a control panel. As the panicking tipper driver attempted to disengage it from the paver he damaged the prop shaft of his vehicle, rendering it immobile. This prevented the injured subcontractor being extracted, trapping him on his vehicle and in considerable pain until a fire appliance arrived to pull the tipper lorry free. He suffered fractures to his pelvis and spine, bruising to a kidney, internal bleeding and nerve damage. He returned to work 15 months after the incident, where he remains on light duties. Dumfries and Galloway Council was fined £40,000 after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence. After sentencing, Health and Safety Executive inspector Isabelle Martin said: 'Dumfries and Galloway Council had identified the risks involved in reversing vehicles and, through risk assessment, had identified the need to fit cameras to the rear of vehicles that would improve the drivers' visibility. It is disappointing that they failed to implement the findings of their risk assessment.'

Second Legionnaires' disease death in Stoke-on-Trent

A second person has died following an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Stoke-on-Trent, health officials have said. A spokesperson for University Hospital of North Staffordshire said: 'We can confirm that a man in his 70s has sadly died. Two further patients remain in hospital and are in a stable or improving condition.' A total of 20 cases were confirmed in the Stoke outbreak, as of 6 August 2012. The Edinburgh outbreak, which this summer claimed three lives and is thought to have infected over 100 people, was declared over last month (Risks 566). Businesses were told last week to do more to protect workers and members of the public from Legionnaires' disease. The safety notice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which warns of the dangers of reducing planned maintenance and cleaning schedules (Risks 567).

International News

France: Researcher snubs top honour over 'industrial crimes'

A top researcher and campaigner on occupational health issues has refused France's highest honour in protest at official inaction over what she described as 'industrial crimes'. Annie Thebaud-Mony, director of research at France's National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM), turned down the Legion d'Honneur in a letter to housing minister Cecile Duflot made public last week. Thebaud-Mony has written award-winning books on work-related health and is the spokeswoman for Ban Asbestos France. In her letter to the minister, dated 31 July, she said she wanted to 'challenge the impunity that until now has protected those who carry out industrial crimes.' The letter continued: 'My act is intended as a call for citizens, but also for parliament to act, for the respect of basic rights to life, health and dignity. We want to be taken seriously when we expose the deterioration of working conditions...' She denounced what she said was a misguided debate over the issue of safe levels of certain toxic substances. Public officials have to take a stand against the threat that these substances pose, if necessary taking legal action against the offenders, she argued. Thebaud-Mony said that her own career had suffered for years because of her work. She called on the government to secure the jobs of young researchers working in the field of occupational health, in particular those investigating cancer-causing materials in the workplace.

India: Unions outraged at Canadian asbestos push

Indian trade unions have called on the nation's leaders to ban asbestos immediately to thwart an 'immoral' Canadian plan to flood Asia with the lethal fibre. The unions said they are 'outraged' by the Quebec government's decision to underwrite a new asbestos mine that plans to export of over 5 million tonnes of cancer causing chrysotile asbestos to developing countries. Pon Kumar, president of the Tamil Nadu Unorganised Construction Workers Federation (TCWF), said the decision, which 'will have devastating impact on the health of millions of Indian workers, who will handle this dangerous fibre in factories and at construction sites, should be condemned'. Fiona Murie, health and safety director with the global construction unions' federation BWI, added: 'At a time when countries in the west are counting bodies and grappling with the increased number of asbestos-caused cancers, it is indeed immoral that the government of India is importing over four hundred thousand metric tonnes of asbestos every year and putting it into the built environment.' BWI is calling on the government of India and of Tamil Nadu 'to ban the import and use of asbestos immediately, and to help affected businesses, communities and individuals.'

USA: Construction injuries cost the public a fortune

Injuries and fatalities in the construction industry cost residents of the US state of Maryland $712.8 million (£456m) between 2008 and 2010, a study has found. 'The price of inaction', a report from the thinktank Public Citizen, found Maryland recorded 18,600 construction industry accidents in the years investigated, of which 11,000 required days away from work or job transfer. Additionally, 55 construction-related fatalities were reported. Public Citizen said it used a 'conservative methodology' to calculate direct costs, indirect costs and quality of life costs. It concluded that combined the incidents cost the state's economy $712.8 million during the three-year period. 'The economic picture we came up with is quite staggering,' said Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen's Congress Watch division. 'We now know that construction accidents impose huge economic costs in addition to tremendous pain.' A solution proposed in the Public Citizen report is to award public construction contracts only to companies that have strong safety records. Implementing a prequalification process for public construction projects would not address all of the industry's safety problems, Wrightson said. However, he said it was a positive step that could yield significant gains to the economy for minimal costs. 'It's the right thing to do and would position Maryland as a leader in occupational safety and health,' Wrightson said.

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