Risks 600 - 13 April 2013

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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

Does the government want child labour on farms?

The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) could lead to the re-emergence of child labour on British farms, an international union representing agricultural workers has warned. The warning from IUF came ahead of a 16 April Commons vote on the future of the AWB, which has protected the incomes of 150,000 agricultural workers since the second world war. In a letter to work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, IUF general secretary Ron Oswald wrote: 'We believe there is a strong possibility that the abolition of the AWB will make children more vulnerable to exploitation in agriculture.' AWB sets minimum pay rates for children of compulsory school age, and higher rates of pay for the over 16s than the national minimum wage. Unite national officer for agriculture Julia Long said: 'The IUF letter reinforces Unite's case that the board's abolition could herald poverty wages on the land; very suspect employment practices; and the real possibility of child labour being exploited shamelessly by ruthless bosses.' Unite, an IUF affiliate, is lobbying intensively in the run-up to the 16 April vote by MPs on the government amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill that seeks to abolish the AWB.

Rail worker fired for resisting an assault

A rail worker employed by London Midland was fired because he resisted a physical and verbal assault by a known troublemaker. Revenue protection officer James Crabtree was working on the gateline at Watford Junction when he asked the individual to produce a valid travel ticket. After verbally abusing the rail worker, the individual spat chewed up food over his uniform. According to his union, RMT, James then 'pushed the aggressive and threatening individual from his personal space in a clear act of self-defence.' No action was taken against the perpetrator, but James was subsequently fired. As a consequence, RMT is balloting revenue protection staff in the southern arm of London Midland for both strike action and action short of strike in pursuit of his immediate reinstatement. The ballot will close on 16 April. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'London Midland display posters at their stations stipulating 'we always prosecute those who intimidate and abuse or assault our staff.' Yet the company has failed miserably in their duty of care and support towards James Crabtree. Instead of protecting him, the company has dismissed him in the most blatant travesty of workplace justice - siding instead with a known troublemaker who is the kind of menace who should be barred from our railways.' The union leader added: 'RMT remains available for talks aimed at righting this appalling miscarriage of workplace justice which sends out a signal to thugs that rail staff are fair game for abuse and intimidation.'

Union warning on construction skills rip-off

Construction union UCATT is warning workers not to be duped into paying over the odds for construction safety and skills papers. The Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) cards are a mandatory requirement for construction workers on most sites. In order to receive a card workers have to have first passed the health and safety test. UCATT's warning came after serious concerns were raised by CSCS about third party agencies, who charge workers significantly above the standard fees. Steve Murphy, general secretary of UCATT, said: 'The CSCS card is the single most important method in ensuring that construction workers have the correct skills and they make sites safer. For a third party to be profiting from this scheme in an underhand manner is reprehensible.' The normal cost of a CSCS card is £30 and the health and safety test costs £17.50. But in one case a third party agency has been charging an additional £25.50 just for the test. The UCATT leader added: 'UCATT's advice is for workers who need a CSCS card to double check that they are speaking to the CSCS helpdesk or are on the CSCS website before they book anything, in order to ensure that they don't have to pay hidden charges.'

Blacklist demo at Skanska's Stockholm AGM

UK protesters against the construction blacklist this week targeted the annual general meeting of Swedish construction multinational Skanska. The 11 April demonstration, led by the union GMB and the Blacklist Support Group, aimed to enlist support from the company's shareholders and the Swedish public. The campaigners says despite acknowledging its role as one of the principal blacklisters of UK site workers - the firm told MPs in March it regretted its role in the scandal (Risks 596) - Skanska has to date failed to compensate any affected workers. GMB national officer Justin Bowden said: 'Skanska appeared in front of the UK Parliamentary Select Committee into Blacklisting just last month and said how deeply they regretted their 'inexcusable' role in the blacklisting of 3,213 construction workers and green activists.' He added: 'From 1996/7 to 2008/9 Skanska and its predecessors spent £216,000 with blacklisting body The Consulting Association. This was second only to the £220,000 spent by McAlpine. As it cost £2.50 to check a name, Skanska checked an awful lot of names. However Skanska has refused to pay a single penny in compensation. Indeed they have said that they will fight any legal action against them.' Speaking ahead of the protest, he said: 'GMB is travelling to Stockholm to alert the Swedish people and the shareholders of Skanska of such double standards. GMB wants the managers Skanska employed to be told that the building workers and their families, whose lives they ruined, must be compensated.'

Site blitz shows the need for year round inspections

Construction union UCATT is calling for a far higher number of official site safety inspections after a month-long nationwide blitz by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found there has been no improvement in standards since a similar initiative last year. Both concluded 'nearly one in five construction sites visited' were sub-standard, with the latest figures suggesting there has been a slight increase in the proportion of negligently run sites (Risks 599). Brian Rye, regional secretary of UCATT's Eastern region, said HSE discovered an even higher 1 in 4 sites visited in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk - 17 out of 71 (24 per cent) - had major safety failings. He said: 'The initiative by the HSE is welcome but 71 sites is a tiny number of the construction projects currently being undertaken in the region. How many more sites are flouting safety laws?' He added: 'The nature of construction means that sites are starting and finishing all the time. Unless the number of inspections is dramatically increased throughout the year construction workers will continue to be placed in danger by employers who ignore safety laws.'

Danger site exposes construction law loophole

Construction union UCATT is calling for an urgent revision of safety laws after an Aberdeen construction site which has been dangerous for years exposed a deadly legal loophole. In March this year, MK Builders of County Durham was fined £4,000 for a June 2010 breach of the work at height regulations on the site. UCATT says the site, a conversion of the Grampian Hotel in Aberdeen, has a history of similar serious failings. In September 2009, 63-year-old Malcolm Doughty fell to his death from scaffolding (Risks 422). Two years before, in July 2007, original developer Inveresk Developments was issued with a prohibition notice because of the risk of falls from scaffolding. In October 2008, a further inspection led to an immediate halt being placed on all work until there was a 'competent safety manager in place'. On each occasion, after work had been stopped the site changed hands to a new contractor. UCATT says that under the Construction Design and Management Regulations (CDM) the responsibility for the site operating safely is with the dutyholder. But the union believes that because HSE places prohibition notices on a company and not on a site, when the site changes hands the existing prohibition notices are wiped off, even if the problems have not been rectified. Harry Frew, the union's regional secretary for Scotland, said the situation was 'disgraceful', adding: 'There will be many similar sites which have been mothballed due to a combination of safety problems and the recession. When these sites are re-started workers must be assured they are not entering a death trap. Clearly the existing regulations need to be amended if this is not currently the case.'

Fall cuts short worker's career

A civilian police worker had to retire early after injuring his back when he fell down a flight of stairs. The 61-year-old GMB member badly injured his back in the fall at West Yorkshire Police headquarters in Wakefield in November 2008. The maintenance officer, whose name has not been released, was walking down the concrete stairs to the basement when he slipped and fell a full flight, hitting his head against the wall. The stairs had no handrail. He strained his back, bringing on degenerative changes by two years and forcing him to take eight months off work. Although he returned on light duties, the continued pain prevented him from lifting and he eventually had to give up work. West Yorkshire Police denied liability. The case was heard at Leeds County Court where the judge ruled the incident had been caused by the absence of a hand rail. He added that the GMB member's retirement was brought forward by six months as a result of his injuries. He was awarded £17,000 in compensation. Tim Roache from the GMB commented: 'A simple risk assessment would have established that these steps should not have been in use without a handrail. The installation of a handrail - something employers must do by law - would have given this member something to steady himself and prevented the fall.' Stephen Woolford from Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm brought in by GMB to act in the case, said: 'This accident proves that the regulations the government loves to attack are not just red tape but are a practical common sense approach to avoiding accidents in the workplace. Implementing them would have been a lot cheaper for the West Yorkshire Police than paying compensation to an injured worker.'

Other news

Needlestick injuries cause psychiatric trauma

Needlestick or 'sharps' injuries are resulting in persistent and substantial psychiatric illness or depression in workers in a wide range of industries, a new study has found. Research published this month in the journal Occupational Medicine found that those affected suffered psychiatric trauma that is similar in severity to trauma caused by other events such as road traffic accidents. This had a major impact on work attendance, family relationships and sexual health. The duration of the psychiatric symptoms were linked to the length of time the person injured by the sharp had to wait for blood test results, the study found. Although sharps injuries mostly occur in healthcare settings, many other employees are also at risk including prison and police officers, park wardens, street cleaners and refuse collectors, tattoo artists and others who may come across discarded hypodermic needles. A sharp contaminated with infected blood can transmit more than 20 diseases including hepatitis B and C and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This transmission risk causes worry and stress to the estimated 100,000 people who experience a needlestick accident every year. Professor Ben Green, who undertook the research, said: 'The psychological aspects of needlestick injuries are often overlooked. The chances of physical damage - infection and so on - are what are focused on by society, but these risks are in reality very small. The main health implication of needlestick incidents is probably psychiatric injury caused by fear and worry.' Dr Richard Heron, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine, commented: 'We need to reduce the incidence of needlestick injuries by raising awareness, education and making safer equipment available but we also need to ensure that people have rapid access to post-exposure support - including psychological help if needed.'

BBC policy change after journalist's suicide

The BBC has apologised and amended its policy on bullying and harassment after a radio journalist took his own life. The move by the broadcaster came after an inquiry found the BBC's handling of complaints from Russell Joslin was 'not good enough.' The radio reporter for BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, died in hospital last October, three days after walking in front of a bus. The 50-year-old had complained to managers of sexual harassment by a female colleague. Human resources consultant Lesley Granger, the former BBC employee who led the inquiry, concluded that a number of factors, including workplace culture, made it more difficult for Mr Joslin to raise concerns. In a statement the BBC said: 'Disappointingly, the report refers to behaviour which falls below the high standards we expect of all those who work for the BBC. We would like to take this opportunity to reiterate that the BBC will not tolerate any form of bullying and/or harassment and is committed to providing a workplace in which the dignity of individuals is respected.' BBC director of human resources, Lucy Adams, said: 'I apologise unreservedly to the family. Employees raising a bullying and harassment grievance should be able to do so without fear of victimisation.' The corporation said measures taken in response to the tragedy included the introduction of a confidential helpline for staff to raise concerns. Training relating to mental health in the workplace will also form part of standard leadership training, it said.

More firms using zero-hours contracts

Almost a quarter of Britain's major employers now recruit staff on zero-hours contracts that keep workers on standby and deny them regular hours, the Guardian has reported. According to government estimates, 23 per cent of employers with more than 100 staff have adopted the flexible contract terms for at least some staff following a surge in the number of public sector services contracted out to private providers. The contracts have long been popular with companies including McDonald's and Abercrombie & Fitch. Large charities and public sector organisations have also adopted the arrangements. A sharp rise last year in the number of zero-hours contracts in the health sector was blamed by unions on the government's privatisation of essential services, including radiology, which meant professional workers on such contracts found themselves tied to rotas that could be changed at 24 hours' notice. Insecure work has been linked to higher levels of occupational injuries and work-related ill-health. Academic Guy Standing, in an online commentary in the Guardian, wrote: 'Successive governments are responsible for the tragedy unfolding around the precariat, not the victims who are now being demonised, victimised and impoverished.' He added: 'Most of the workers must be constantly on standby, preventing them from being 'on their bike' searching for jobs, retraining or even having the 'work experience' that politicians claim is so uplifting.' In Brazil, fast food giant McDonald's was this year fined US$4 million for operating a zero-hours scheme under which workers sat in the "break rooms" without being paid, until the employer determined there were a sufficient number of customers for hours to be counted. The court ruling required McDonald's to eliminate the working time scheme throughout Brazil and ordered it to provide healthy meals to its workers.

Director fined after employee's fatal fall

A building firm and one of its directors have been sentenced after an employee fell 15 metres to his death in an empty water storage tank in Macclesfield. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Galt Civil Engineering Ltd and Peter Stuart following an investigation into the death of Peter Halligan at Sutton Hall Farm on 14 August 2008. Liverpool Crown Court heard that the 45-year-old from Liverpool and a colleague had started work at the farm three days earlier. They had been constructing brick manhole chambers above the circular tank, approximately 7.5 metres in diameter, which had been installed to collect flood water. Peter Halligan was discovered by his colleague, who had gone to collect a saw, at the bottom of the tank. An HSE investigation found the workers had not been given sufficient information or a risk assessment for the job, and were not given any advice about working above the storage tank by their employer. Peter Stuart, 54, who was the director with day-to-day responsibility for running the company, visited the site the day before the incident and saw both men working over the exposed openings in the tank. However, he took no action to put safety measures in place. Galt Civil Engineering Ltd, which is in administration, and Peter Stuart pleaded guilty to criminal safety failings. Galt Civil Engineering Ltd received a nominal fine of £50 and was ordered to pay prosecution costs of £24,974. Peter Stuart was fined £30,000 with no costs.

Worker loses leg after falling wall starts excavator

A director of a Wimborne building firm has been fined after a self-employed worker was seriously injured when a falling wall activated an excavator. Dorchester Crown Court heard that David Mitchell, a director of Ferndown Developments Ltd, had hired James O'Connor to work at the cottage when the incident happened on 29 April 2009. Mr O'Connor, 42, was in the process of lowering the ground level when the gable wall collapsed, knocking him to the ground. At the same time, part of the wall fell through the windscreen of an excavator and activated the reverse lever. Mr O'Connor's leg, which was on the track of the excavator, was pulled in and became trapped between the track and body of the excavator. He suffered shoulder, back and leg injuries and had to have his right leg amputated above the knee. An HSE investigation found that Mr Mitchell, who had been contracted to carry out the job, had failed to identify the need to support the building during the excavation and foundation stages of the project. He pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 and was fined £2,000 and ordered to pay costs of £18,000.

Foundry worker hit by 1.6 tonne bar

A Derbyshire foundry has been fined after an employee suffered multiple injuries when he was hit by a steel bar weighing 1.6 tonnes. The 61-year-old, who has asked not to be named, was working at Padley & Venables Ltd in Dronfield when the nine-metre long bar, and the steel barrow it was travelling on, fell as it was being pushed from one part of the site to another by a tow truck. He broke both legs and his pelvis, crushed his right foot and also damaged his left knee in the incident on 12 April 2011. He had to have three operations and was in hospital for ten weeks. He only recently returned to work at the company on a part-time basis. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the steel bar was not secured to the barrow, the barrow had no brakes and it was just being shunted by the truck rather than having a physical connection. Padley & Venables Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £60,000 at Derby Crown Court and ordered to pay £16,419 in costs. After the hearing HSE inspector Fiona Coffey said the firm's failings meant 'a man has suffered serious injuries that have had, and will continue to have, a significant impact on his quality of life.'

International News

Hong Kong: Dockworkers treated like 'caged animals'

Dockworkers in Hong Kong are being treated no better than caged animals, the global transport workers' union federation ITF has said. Members of the Union of Hong Kong dockworkers (UHKD) employed by Hong Kong International Terminals (HIT), a subsidiary of global network terminal (GNT) operator Hutchison Port Holding Trust (HPH), went out on strike on 28 March. ITF says the action was taken as a last ditch attempt to bring management to the table to discuss health and safety, working conditions, pay parity and the exploitation of outsourced workers. ITF president Paddy Crumlin said: 'Hutchinson should be ashamed that workers under their contract are being treated little better than caged animals. The abuses must stop and the employers need to show that they are committed to ending the exploitation of outsourced dockworkers.' An interim injunction which prevents UHKD workers from staging full scale strike action was extended last week by the Hong Kong High Court. According to ITF, the union and hundreds of thousands of dockers worldwide are calling on HIT and HPH to take responsibility for the welfare of their workers whether they are directly employed or subcontracted and enter into open and transparent dialogue.

India: Nothing like a nice cup of tea

Tea workers in Assam are suffering labour abuses and threats to their health and safety, a complaint to the World Bank's International Financial Corporation (IFC) has claimed. Global union federation IUF is supporting the complaint by tea workers at the Amalgamated Plantations Private Ltd (APPL) tea gardens in Assam, an associate company of Tata Global Beverages. The complaint, which documents abusive living and working conditions, child labour, interference with trade union rights and poor health and safety, has been made to the Compliance Officer of the IFC, the lending arm of the World Bank. IFC has a 20 per cent share in APPL. IUF says a major part of the problem facing tea workers in Assam is the denial of the right to join a genuine trade union. They are compelled to join Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha which, the complaint says, is 'in league with management'. IUF general secretary, Ron Oswald commented: 'We have already confronted APPL in defence of Nowera Nuddy workers and over a death from pesticide poisoning. Assam tea workers have our support. The IFC must investigate fully the complaint.'

Japan: Firm raided over bile duct cancers

Labour ministry investigators searched the Osaka head office of printing firm Sanyo-CYP Co on 2 April amid long-running concerns about workplace cancers. So far, 17 employees have developed bile duct cancer, eight of whom died. The investigators from the Osaka Labor Bureau of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said it plans to file with prosecutors a report on the printing company and its senior officials. The workers at Sanyo-CYP were exposed to chemicals used to wash printing machines. Labour minister Norihisa Tamura said his ministry was preparing a criminal case and an investigative report for prosecutors. Last May, a local labour standards inspection office of the ministry urged the printing firm to take measures to reduce chemical exposures. A ministry study panel, which looked into the Sanyo-CYP case, released a report on 14 March this year suggesting an organic compound called 1,2-dichloropropane, which was in the machine-cleaning agent, might have caused the bile duct cancer. In the report, the panel concluded 16 of the 17 workers should qualify for work-related compensation payouts from the state. The local labour standards and inspection office in Osaka last month recognised the 16 cases as work-related. The cancer concerns came to light early in 2012 when relatives of the deceased cancer victims at Sanyo-CYP filed for workers' compensation. In June 2012, the health ministry began looking into about 560 printing firms across the nation. So far, printing firm workers in Osaka, Miyagi, Tokyo, Shizuoka and Ishikawa prefectures have been confirmed to have contracted bile duct cancer. A total of 64 people have so far filed for workers' compensation.

USA: 'Ag-Gag' bills threatens safety

A bill that would prevent workers from documenting unsafe working conditions and animal cruelty on farms or any industrial workplace using cameras is being pushed through the Indiana Legislature. The "ag-gag" bill, versions of which have been introduced or are under discussion in a dozen other states, has an amendment that would make it a 'Class A misdemeanour to photograph at a farm or business without written permission from the owner.' Indiana State AFL-CIO president Nancy Guyott has warned the bill could silence lifesaving whistleblowers. She said: 'Documentation of working conditions in Indiana has been instrumental in improving the nation's workplace safety laws since Lewis Hine photographed children working the midnight shift in Indiana's glass factories in the early 1900s. And that's exactly what this bill seeks to prevent. The big businesses pushing for this bill seek to ensure that the public discussion of what ought to be cannot be informed by the truth of what is.' Indiana University law professor Seth Lahn told the Public News Service he believes the bill violates the First Amendment. 'Whether you come at it from a position of food safety or working conditions or animal cruelty - it gets into a number of areas that, I think, the courts have always recognised?and common sense tells you, is an issue the public has an interest in hearing about.' Nine other US states are considering bills that would make it hard, if not impossible, for whistleblowers, workers and journalists to expose unsafe, cruel and inhumane working conditions. Three states passed gagging laws last year.

USA: Saving money, ignoring regulators, poisoning workers

Cost-cutting companies, timid regulators and weak laws are proving to be a toxic package that is letting firms poison workers with impunity, an investigation by the New York Times has concluded. The probe focused on furniture firm Royale Comfort Seating in Taylorsville, North Carolina. It found workers who spray-glued pieces of polyurethane foam into cushion shapes were exposed to n-propyl bromide, or nPB, a potent neurotoxin. It made workers dizzy in the short-term, and caused debilitating long-term health problems. One worker can no longer stand or sit for more than 20 minutes without feeling excruciating pain in her spine and legs. Another lost control of his hands and could not put on clothes without help. An editorial in the New York Times said the story illustrated failings in enforcement, with the company neglecting to make the changes required by inspectors and being allowed to get away with it. It added: 'The federal government was also complicit. OSHA [the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration] preferred to focus on immediate safety issues rather than the silent, slow health threats that ultimately take more lives. And it never set a standard limiting exposures to nPB, despite longstanding scientific warnings.' The editorial noted: 'Ineffective laws and regulations played a role as well. The fines OSHA can levy are small: a maximum of $7,000 for a wilful violation that causes a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm, and violations are misdemeanours, not felonies with longer jail terms.'

Events and Courses

Workers' Memorial Day, 28 April 2013

Workers' Memorial Day is fast approaching, so make sure your preparations are underway. TUC has added a Workers' Memorial Day facebook events page to its resources for health and safety's big day, when unions and safety campaigners pledge to 'Remember the dead and fight for the living'. Unions around the world are also planning 28 April events on what is the biggest single workplace safety activity on the calendar.

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