Risks 583 - 24 November 2012

Share this page

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

Fitness-to-work tests are not fair

Fitness-to-work tests used by the government to determine benefits entitlements must be made fairer and more humane, the TUC has said. The union body was responding to a report this week by Professor Malcolm Harrington on the government's incapacity tests. The report concluded the system, operated by private contractor Atos, 'needs to be made fairer and more effective by improving both the process and the technical descriptors used to assess eligibility', noting 'progress has been slower that hoped for and the scope and depth of these changes is less than desirable.' TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Professor Harrington is right to call for a fairer and more humane system for those being tested for incapacity benefit. While we are pleased that the government is beginning to implement his reforms it is clear from his final review that changes need to be introduced quicker.' The union leader added: 'It is essential that ministers follow his recommendation to monitor more closely the performance of private firm Atos. The TUC shares the concerns of disability organisations that many people unable to work have failed their assessments. While there have been improvements in the way tests are carried out there is still a long way to go before we have a truly fair system. Furthermore, the design of the current tests continues to exclude many genuinely disabled people. We agree with Professor Harrington that progress in addressing this has been too slow.'

Government 'reckless' on equality checks

The TUC has accused David Cameron of being 'reckless' after he announced plans to scrap the requirement on government departments and other public bodies to undertake equality impact assessments before the introduction of policy changes. Responding to the prime minister's CBI conference speech, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said the move could mean damaging safety and other consequences are overlooked when policies are revised. He said: 'The prime minister says he is committed to clamping down on discrimination in the workplace but at the same time is removing an essential measure for monitoring it. Equality impact assessments are not burdensome 'red tape'. They have proved invaluable in highlighting how proposed legislation could affect women and vulnerable workers.' He added: 'In the transport sector the axing of this requirement would allow staffing levels at stations to be changed without any regard to the impact this would have on female passengers' safety. This move smacks of a desperate attempt to placate the business lobby, which like the TUC, is deeply concerned at our economy's anaemic growth. But scrapping equality impact assessments would be reckless and is not the way to get our country moving again.'

Concern at targeting of journalists in Gaza

UK journalists' union NUJ is backing international union calls on the international community to investigate deliberate attacks by Israeli military against media buildings in Gaza. Three journalists were killed on 20 November when their cars, marked with press signs, were hit in two separate incidents in Gaza city. At least six journalists had earlier been injured, including cameraman Khader al Zarah who lost a leg, after their offices came under sustained bombing from Israel's military on 18 November. The attack targeted Al Shawa and Husari where several media organisations, including Hamas' TB Al Quds TV, Al Qudsa radio, Maan network and many other radio stations are based. Another media facility, the Asshurouq building, which houses Sky, ITN, Al Arabiya TV and Abu Dhabi TV was also attacked. 'This latest deadly attack targeting journalists is clear evidence that the Israeli military has declared war on journalists in Gaza,' said Jim Boumelha, IFJ president. Speaking after the 20 November attack, he said: 'There can be no more lame excuses from the Israeli Defence Force that it was targeting enemy communications. The army, which claims its strikes are surgically precise, must have known there were journalists in these cars and it must be held to account for what appears to amount to a war crime.' Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the NUJ, said: 'These attacks are a disgraceful attempt to intimidate the press and prevent journalists from reporting unfolding events. This is not the first time that the Israeli authorities have deliberately turned their fire on media houses and the journalists they have a duty to protect. The international community must condemn such actions in the strongest possible terms and launch an immediate investigation into these attacks.'

Union campaign wins call centre improvements

A union campaign backed up by industrial action in Department for Work and Pensions call centres has won improvements in working conditions. In a ballot of more than 6,000 members of civil service union PCS across the contact centres, there was a three to one vote to accept a deal that addresses key complaints. PCS said the workers, who advise jobseekers on benefits and employment issues, had taken strike action against 'draconian policies that meant they had almost no flexibility or freedom and that the time of their calls was unrealistically monitored.' The new agreement states that DWP and PCS 'want to do the best that they can for staff while providing quality services to our claimants, who are often the most vulnerable in society.' It adds: 'This means providing interesting work, flexibility, rewards, a safe supportive environment and development of skills and capabilities.' PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: 'I'm pleased we were able to shift the DWP from their starting point, and this result again goes to show that when we stand together and fight we can win.'

Driving instructor forced to change direction

A driving examiner knocked off his motorbike by a car suffered injuries so severe they forced him to change jobs and give up bike riding. PCS member Daryl Donaldson, 49, was left with limited movement in his right wrist and left shoulder after he was hit by a Nissan Almera. He was knocked from his bike and had to be airlifted to hospital where he required several operations including a bone graft and surgery to his shoulder. Before the incident he worked as a driving examiner - mainly examining those sitting their motorbike test. He was able to return to work after six months but was unable to ride a motorbike and, after the operation on his right wrist and more than a year off work, lost his job on capability grounds. He now works in a theory driving test assessment centre.

'The last few years have been both difficult and frustrating,' said Daryl. 'I've had to give up my career and I can't ever imagine riding a motorbike again.' He was awarded an undisclosed sum in compensation after the car driver pleaded guilty to driving without due care and attention and insurers settled the claim out of court. Phil Madelin from PCS said: 'This case shows just how important trade union legal services are to our members. We have been able to support Mr Donaldson during a very difficult time to allow him to concentrate on his recovery and adjusting to his new limitations rather than worrying about this claim for compensation.'

Rail warning on tragedy's anniversary

Unions have called on the government to heed the lessons of a rail tragedy 25 years ago that claimed the lives of 31 people. This week relatives of those who died in the fire at King's Cross Underground station on 18 November 1987 were joined by firefighters and union members at a commemoration. The fire started on a wooden escalator and engulfed the London station. ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said the tragedy underlined the fact that safety must be the first priority of any public transport system. 'This is a time for mourning and honouring the dead,' he said. 'But part of that process it to determine that nothing like this must happen on our railways ever again. We must never be complacent.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said unions were 'calling on Boris Johnson and his officials to end once and for all the threatened cuts to station and platform staffing levels, the cuts to maintenance schedules and the persistent threat to bring in driverless trains, threats that Boris Johnson raised once again at the Tory Party conference only a few weeks ago.' He added: 'All of that posturing and corner-cutting has to stop and the safety regime introduced after King's Cross must be both protected and developed to meet the modern challenge of ever greater Tube passenger numbers.' MPs have been asked to support a parliamentary motion tabled ahead of the anniversary which 'opposes any proposals to de-staff stations and introduce automated trains and supports the retention of the safety regulations, including minimum staffing levels and training levels which were introduced in the aftermath of the King's Cross tragedy.'

Other news

'Toxic soup' of chemicals causes breast cancer

Working in a 'toxic soup' of chemicals can double a woman's risk of developing breast cancer, new research suggests. High risk jobs include those in agriculture, plastics, food packaging, metal manufacture and the bar and gambling industry, according to the University of Stirling study. Women employed for 10 years in some of these sectors had more than twice the normal chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer. For younger pre-menopausal women, working in factories producing plastic components for cars or tin cans increased the risk five-fold. All these occupations involve exposure to potential carcinogens or 'endocrine disrupter' chemicals that interfere with the body's natural hormone systems. The Stirling University-led research team looked at 1,006 women with breast cancer in Southern Ontario, Canada. They were compared with 1,147 randomly selected and matched women from the local community. Information about participants' occupational and reproductive histories was collected through interviews and surveys. Working in agriculture increased the risk by 34 per cent and work in the metal industry was associated with a 73 per cent increase in risk. Jobs in plastics - especially in the automotive industry - bars and canning more than doubled the chances of developing breast cancer. Commenting on the findings, published this week in the journal Environmental Health, co-author Professor Andrew Watterson said: 'What we do know about these industries is that they all use chemicals that are either category one or category two carcinogens (definitely or probably carcinogenic), and we also know there's a whole group of endocrine disrupters involved.' He added: 'Our line is that we need to be precautionary, because we're looking at a toxic soup in terms of exposure. There's a whole range of lifestyle factors and chemicals and other materials that can be interacting.' He warned that relatively low levels of these substances could be having an effect. Shiftwork and working at night, both of which are associated with raised breast cancer risk, may also be involved, he said.

Judge rules building occupier is liable for cancer

A 65-year-old London man has received compensation of £205,000 after a legal judgment against the firm on whose premises he was exposed to asbestos, rather than against his employer. Frank Baker worked as a lagger's labourer for Climax Insulation & Packing Limited in the early 1960s, starting when he was just 16. During this time he worked for five weeks at the Tate & Lyle sugar factory in Silvertown, London, where he was exposed to asbestos. In July 2011 he was diagnosed with the incurable asbestos cancer mesothelioma. Climax Insulation & Packing Limited had ceased trading and efforts by lawyers to locate the firm's employers' liability insurers proved unsuccessful. As a result, Mr Baker was told that he had no claim and that there was nothing they could do for him. However, another law firm, Leigh Day & Co, took up the case and decided to take legal action on behalf of Mr Baker against Tate & Lyle, where his asbestos exposures occurred. In English law it is usual to sue the employer, who owes a duty of care to the employee. Suing Tate & Lyle as occupier was a challenge to established legal principles. Three months after taking up the case, Leigh Day & Co secured the £205,000 payout for Mr Baker. Harminder Bains, who represented Mr Baker in the case and whose own father died of mesothelioma, said: Despite the case being contested, the High Court was satisfied that Tate & Lyle owed a duty of care, as occupier of the building, to Mr Baker.'

Lords criticise plans to end strict liability

Injured workers will be disadvantaged if the government goes ahead with a plan to end the strict liability of employers for safety offences, the House of Lords has heard. On 14 November, peers debated wide-ranging changes included in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. An amendment inserted by the government seeks to change safety law to remove the right of individuals to make civil compensation claims for criminal breaches of statutory health and safety duties. Claims would be limited to those where negligence could be established. Labour's Lord Whitty said the employment changes overall fall into an 'ugly' category. 'Ugliest of the lot are the provisions referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Low, relating to Clauses 61, which appears to provide that victims - physical, mental, financial or mortal - of the failure of private or public corporations to fulfil their statutory responsibilities will, in most cases, no longer be entitled to compensation.' Labour's former safety minister Lord McKenzie of Luton said 'if adopted as it stands, this clause will mean fewer injured employees being able to claim for their injuries, claims will be more costly to pursue, greater costs will fall on the state and safety standards for employees will fall.' Unions have also criticised the proposed change (Risks 580). Unite said the strict liability move 'is the latest of an increasingly long list of attacks on the rights of innocent victims.'

Well-being study shows all isn't well

Financial issues and psychological distress are commonplace in the UK, an official study has found. The Office for National Statistics' new web-based tool, the 'National Well-being wheel', confirms that since the recent recession real incomes have fallen as inflation has risen faster than incomes. ONS found around 1 in 8 people were finding it quite or very difficult to manage financially. About 1 in 5 reported some kind of psychological distress. Despite this, people report life satisfaction has remained broadly stable throughout the last decade. National statistician Jil Matheson said: 'These findings emphasise the need to look beyond the 'average' or national picture - it is understanding these differences that will highlight the real areas of need.' The National Well-being programme was launched two years ago, with the aim to 'develop and publish an accepted and trusted set of National Statistics which help people understand and monitor well-being'. The new tool includes a health and safety section, but so far this includes no new or detailed content. There are concerns among unions and safety campaigners that the stoicism about financial and mental health problems found by ONS might also affect occupational health intelligence. They fear workplace sickness and injury reports may decline in a recession as workers, concerned about losing their jobs, are increasingly reluctant to make reports. This week ONS also published mortality figures for England and Wales by cause.

Job loss increases heart attack risk

Job loss can raise your heart attack risk as much as smoking, with those who have lost a succession of jobs at higher risk still. A study of 13,451 people in the US found heart attacks increased by over a quarter (27 per cent) among people who were recently unemployed, regardless of occupation. And the effect was cumulative - the chances of having a heart attack went up by two-thirds (63 per cent) for people who had lost four or more jobs. The same was not seen in people who gave up work voluntarily noted the study, published online in Archives of Internal Medicine. After accounting for other heart risk factors, the researchers found job loss was independently linked with heart attack risk. Researcher Dr Linda George, from Duke University in North Carolina, said: 'This is a sizeable effect and of a similar size to other well-known, established risk factors for heart attack including smoking and obesity. We think it is the stress of dealing with unemployment that may explain this.' Other studies have linked job insecurity to increased heart attack risks (Risks 573). A second study published this week found older workers who have had a 'coronary event', including a heart attack, are much more likely to have high job strain and little control over decision-making. The research, carried out by University College Cork and published in the journal Occupational Medicine, discovered that older males who had a heart attack or unstable angina were four times as likely to have high job strain.

Violent patients to lose free NHS treatment

Thousands of patients who are abusive or violent to doctors and nurses will be banned from getting free treatment on the NHS. Under radical new proposals, the NHS constitution will be changed to give all hospitals the right to refuse patients, the Mirror reported this week. The move comes after attacks spiralled to record levels, with one health worker assaulted every nine minutes. There were 57,830 assaults on doctors, nurses, paramedics and ambulance crews last year. Less than one in 40 incidents ended in a prosecution. Now aggressive patients face being banned from using their local NHS services. This violence costs the NHS over £100 million every year including security, training, time off for staff affected and legal costs. Although some hospitals already impose sanctions under local guidelines, this is the first time there will be a clear national rule on violence, which will be enforced from next April. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: 'It is a disgrace that NHS staff need protection against the violence and aggression that they face just doing their job - caring for patients. Extending the constitution to strengthen existing guidance should send out a strong message that violence will not be tolerated and action will be taken against those who attack staff.' Hospitals will still treat abusive or violent men and women in emergencies or life-threatening cases. But the new rule means trusts can ban persistent troublemakers from using their hospital or trust services. They will also have the right to choose whether to ban patients as a one-off or for a set period. Those barred from accessing services at their local trust would have to try their luck with another trust - which could mean a long, expensive journey.

Worker injured in fall into sewage well

A company has been fined after a worker fell and slid seven metres into a sewage well stuffed with nappies and other debris. The 34-year-old from Walsall, who has asked not to be named, was clearing a blockage in the Halesowen sewer for Tardis Environmental UK Ltd when the incident occurred on 26 August last year. A pump at the bottom of the sewage well had stopped working because it had become blocked with 'rag', bulky waste material like nappies. To remove the waste the employee used a road tanker with pump and hose attachments. He opened a grid at the top of the well and stood over it to support and manipulate the hose. When the hose kicked back and hit him, he lost his balance and fell into the chamber. He managed to grab the hose as he fell and slid down it into the waste at the bottom, where he stood disorientated for around twenty minutes before he realised he had his mobile phone and was able to call for help. He ingested raw sewage, sustained friction burns to his arms, and bruised his elbows, knees and head in the fall. He was off work for a number of days. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the Tardis employee had been trained in the use of the pumping equipment but had not received any instruction or training in how to empty deep, below-ground sewage wells with specific regard to the risks involved with working at height. The watchdog said the worker could have been killed if he'd not managed to use the hose to control his fall. At Dudley Magistrates' Court Tardis Environmental UK Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £15,000 and ordered to pay £3,000 in costs.

Two tonne slab lands on excavator driver

A demolition firm has appeared in court after part of a stand collapsed onto an excavator driver at Old Trafford Cricket Ground. The 33-year-old worker from Warrington, who has asked not to be named, suffered serious injuries when a two-tonne concrete slab landed on his vehicle's cab. Warrington-based Excavation and Contracting (UK) Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) following an investigation into the 26 April 2011 incident. Trafford Magistrates' Court heard the company had been hired to demolish a two-tier stand at the stadium. However, the work had not been planned properly and the excavator had been positioned too close to the stand being demolished.

The worker sustained several fractures to both legs and severe cuts and bruising when the four-metre wide slab fell from the upper floor onto his vehicle. Excavation and Contracting (UK) Ltd pleaded guilty to criminal breaches safety law. The company was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay £12,000 in prosecution costs. Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Alan Pojur said: 'The excavator driver was lucky not to have been killed when the two-tonne concrete slab collapsed onto his cab.' He said the firm 'should have arranged for a high-reach excavator to be used so that the stand could be demolished from a safe distance away. It was only after the incident that this safe method of work was implemented.'

Some firms need more than persuasion

A construction firm that failed to remedy serious safety breaches despite six visits from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and seven stop work notices has been fined. Peak Construction (London) Ltd was working on a redevelopment project in Bristol city centre. The site was visited six times by HSE inspectors between August and October 2011 following initial concerns raised by members of the public about dangerous working practices. Bristol Magistrates heard that on each occasion inspectors found failings by the company relating to unsafe work at height, including the use of a mobile elevating work platform without worker harnesses, a lack of edge protection to prevent falls, poorly constructed scaffolding and risks with materials falling from the roof. Inspectors also identified multiple fire risks, including no fire plan, no means of raising an alarm, no fire extinguishers, no marked emergency escape routes and the use of an open flame gas torch in the timber roof with no fire precautions in place. Seven prohibition notices were served ordering work to stop immediately but some dangerous practices continued. Peak Construction (London) Ltd pleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches and was fined a total of £10,000 and ordered to pay £4,629 in costs. After the hearing HSE inspector Steve Frain said: 'Right from the start of the job, the company was warned about its health and safety performance and individual directors were made aware of the initial failings we identified at the site.' He added: 'These are not minor technical breaches of the law. They show a failure of leadership across the company which led to a high risk of significant injuries.'

International News

Australia: Unions plan for global asbestos ban

The Australian government must use its influence to curtail the international trade in asbestos, national union federation ACTU has said. ACTU president Ged Kearney made the call as the union body prepared to welcome a delegation of trade unionists from Canada, Laos and India. 'Asbestos has caused a horrific toll of death and suffering in Australia, and the impact of asbestos-related diseases is not expected to peak until 2030,' Ms Kearney said. 'Asbestos is now banned in Australia, but sadly the asbestos industry has shifted to developing nations. The World Health Organisation estimates that over 100,000 die each year from asbestos-related diseases, with 600 of these in Australia. The lessons we have learnt in Australia are not being applied in other countries, where the asbestos industry is taking advantage of lax regulation to make a quick dollar.' She added: 'The Australian government must push for a global ban on the international trade of asbestos.' She said the delegation would meet with federal ministers, where they would lobby for Australia to do more to encourage the use of alternative building materials in South East Asia, to have chrysotile asbestos included in the Rotterdam Convention, which covers trade in hazardous materials, and to move towards a global ban on the international asbestos trade.

Australia: Bosses are telling docs how to treat workers

Australian employers are interfering in their employees' visits to the doctors, going so far as to dictate the treatments worker are allowed. National union federation ACTU organised a seminar last week to discuss how to tackle this 'growing trend.' Speaking ahead of the seminar, ACTU assistant secretary Michael Borowick said: 'How would you feel if your boss insisted on accompanying you when you saw the doctor for a workplace injury, or demanded access to your entire medical history?' He added: 'These invasions of privacy are becoming more and more common, and employees are often too intimidated to resist them. There is a growing trend of employers insisting injured workers visit company-approved doctors rather than a worker's own doctor.' The union leader said the approach 'can lead to substandard care that is focussed on employers' needs, rather than the health of the patient. We've also had reports of doctors being pressured to change medical certificates and return-to-work plans.' Fair Work Australia earlier this year found against construction materials firm Boral, after it insisted on sending a supervisor to accompany a worker to the doctor when he sought treatment for a workplace injury. The employment standards watchdog found this policy placed 'undue pressure' on the employee. Mr Borowick said ACTU was considering the changes needed to protect workers, including amendments to the Privacy Act to protect workers' privacy. Australian Medical Association federal president Steve Hambleton told the seminar the balance had 'swung too far' towards employers dictating how staff dealt with a worker's recovery when there was a workplace injury. 'When workers feel intimidated and don't feel like they have the right to say they just want to talk to the doctor by themselves, that is an issue,' Dr Hambleton said.

Global: BP's top brass get off the hook

By admitting fault, paying a huge fine and allowing two rig level managers to take the rap for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, London-based oil giant BP has avoided any member of its board facing the courts. Following a deal cut last week with federal authorities, where the firm agreed to a record $4.5bn fine and rig supervisors Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine were indicted for involuntary manslaughter, questions have re-emerged about the apparent immunity of the company's leaders from prosecution. A news release from BP said the deal settles 'all criminal claims with Department of Justice' relating to the incident, in which 11 workers died. A defence attorney, however, said the two BP well site leaders are 'scapegoats', given that other government probes have concluded the disaster resulted from a complex web of mistakes and a corporate culture that placed profits ahead of safety. Shaun Clarke, one of Kaluza's attorneys, said: 'If this is about profits over safety, why didn't you go after people who set corporate policy?' He added: 'If the government were really interested in finding out who was responsible for creating that corporate culture, they could have done the hard work of investigating. But the only two guys indicted were 70 miles out in the gulf working on the rig who had no role in corporate policy and no ability to influence corporate policy on safety.' David Uhlmann, a University of Michigan law professor, said the indictment could send a troubling message that the failures were limited to actions on the rig and not at higher levels of the company. 'Corporate culture and management policies are created far above the well site leaders,' he said. A third defendant, David Rainey, the former vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, has been accused of lying to Congress about the extent of the spill as it was happening. In its plea, BP essentially admitted it misled lawmakers.

Global: Chemical firms failing on substance safety

Chemical companies worldwide are not doing enough to make their products and practices safer and more sustainable, an investment rating agency has concluded. Oekom Research's evaluation of 101 chemical companies from 25 countries found they were not living up to their responsibilities to contribute to a more sustainable economy. 'Advances in climate protection and plant safety are countered by shortcomings in chemical and product safety and in the use and procurement of sustainable raw materials,' Oekom said. Finding substitutes for particularly hazardous substances in existing products and designing new products to be environmentally sustainable are challenges that the industry is only just beginning to address, according to the report. It said the chemical industry brings large numbers of new chemical compounds and products into the market every year, but only a small proportion have been comprehensively analysed to determine the risks associated with them. The report emphasises the need for long-term, independent studies before introducing new products into the market, such as nanomaterials. Oekom states that it is particularly important that substances which are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction, as well as other problematic substances such as phthalates and bisphenol A, should be carefully looked at. Even though the majority of the companies analysed reported they carry out risk assessments and toxicity tests, there is little transparency about their content and precise scope, reported Oekom.

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