Risks 612 - 6 July 2013

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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

No room for complacency as work fatalities fall

New statistics showing a sharp fall in worker fatalities are welcome, but only reflect a tiny proportion of the deadly harm caused by work, the TUC has said. The union body was commenting after provisional Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures revealed the number of worker deaths in Great Britain had dropped from 172 in 2011/12 to a provisional figure of 148 in 2012/13. This is just above the 2009/10 record low, when 147 workers died. TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said it was 'worth remembering that the number of immediate fatalities is less than one per cent of the total number of people who are killed as a result of their jobs - mainly as a result of diseases such as mesothelioma and other cancers. Many occupational diseases are still on the increase and much more needs to be done to protect workers from the long-term effects of their work.' She added: 'More worryingly, cuts to inspection budgets mean that fewer workplaces will receive a visit from the safety inspector this year. This risks creating an environment where some employers will pay less attention to workplace safety, content in the knowledge that any safety corners cut are unlikely ever to come to light.' Announcing the new figures, HSE chair Judith Hackitt said: 'These figures are being published in the same week as the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, and are a reminder to us all of why health and safety is so important. Although the number of people killed at work has dropped significantly, last year 148 people failed to return home to their loved ones.' She added: 'We all have a part to play to ensure people come home safe at the end of the working day and good leadership, employee engagement and effective risk management are key to achieving this.' The figures also showed a third of all fatalities were in self-employed workers, who were nearly three times as likely to die at work.

Concern at high fatality rate in Scotland

The Scottish parliament should look at why the country has a higher workplace fatality rate than the rest of the UK, the Scottish Trades Union Congress has said. STUC's call came after new Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures showed workplace deaths in Scotland rose from 19 in 2011/12 to 22 in 2012/13. The Scottish fatality rate of 0.9 deaths per 100,000 compares to 0.5 for both England and Great Britain as a whole. Grahame Smith, STUC general secretary said: 'Once again we have seen a rise in the number of workers killed in Scotland, 22 workers left for work never to return home and this is unacceptable and does not compare to an overall reduction in the UK wide figure of 148, which is 24 fewer than last year.' He added that the Westminster government 'is launching an attack on our health and safety legislation and our enforcement agency. We believe, in the long term, this can only result in more people made ill or suffering injury as a result of work.' The union leader acknowledged that workplace health and safety across the UK is a 'reserved' issue handled by the Westminster government, but added 'we believe that the Scottish parliament should question how our fatal injury rate is nearly twice that of England and why families who lose loved ones have to wait so long for answers.' The elevated fatality rate in Scotland has persisted long-term, with the 0.8/100,000 fatality rate averaged out over the last five years comparing to 0.6 across the Great Britain.

Deregulation Bill will cost workers dear

A draft Deregulation Bill published on 1 July will leave workers at greater risk of injury, ill-health and abuse at work, the TUC has warned. The Cabinet Office says the planned law 'frees businesses from red tape' by 'scrapping health and safety rules for self-employed workers in low risk occupations, formally exempting 800,000 people from health and safety'. Other clauses restrict the powers of employment tribunals, which could affect health and safety-related unfair dismissal claims, and limit the enforcement powers of the gangmasters' watchdog GLA. The Cabinet Office also notes the Bill will put 'a deregulatory 'growth duty' on non-economic regulators, bringing the huge resource of 50 regulators with a budget of £4 billion to bear on the crucial task of promoting growth and stopping pointless red tape.' This measure, which will affect the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), was trailed by ministers in March when it was criticised by the TUC for pandering to the business lobby at the expense of workplace safety (Risks 597). TUC had also criticised the government's 'stupid and dangerous' plan to exempt many self-employed workers from safety law (Risks 604). Commenting this week after the draft law was published, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said: 'This draft bill, which claims to simplify the law does the exact opposite. It will create confusion and uncertainty and will certainly lead to an increase in injury both to the self-employed and others.' This concern was put in sharp relief this week when new HSE fatality figures revealed that while there were 99 deaths in employees, the death count of 49 for self-employed workers showed they were at a much higher risk. TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said it was 'a concern that a third of immediate workplace deaths are among the self-employed. These workers have a fatality rate almost three times higher - 1.1 deaths per 100,000, compared to 0.4 - than other workers.' She added: 'This shows the importance of ensuring that everyone at work is properly protected - something that will become much harder if the government gets its way and exempts many of the self-employed from health and safety laws.'

Unite tells MPs about the Crossrail 'blacklist'

THE blacklisting of workers on Europe's largest construction project is on-going, 'organised and systematic,' MPs have been told. Appearing before the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into blacklisting, Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said the evidence it was happening on London's Crossrail scheme was circumstantial but people could 'join up the dots.' Crossrail denies workers have been blacklisted for raising safety concerns on the £150 billion project and has pledged to act on any substantive evidence. However, Ms Cartmail branded the Crossrail consortium and contractor BFK as 'congenitally uncurious' about claims of blacklisting. Despite the closure of covert blacklisting group The Consulting Association after a 2009 raid by the Information Commissioner, Unite believes a 'pattern of unethical behaviour in the construction industry' has continued. Ian Davidson MP, chair of the Commons committee, said 'the big question that remains is, is this egregious practice actually still going on? Are people still being systematically, unfairly discriminated against in this way?' He added: 'We have heard disturbing suggestions that it is still going on, and possibly in the context of a massive public infrastructure project, Crossrail. It is crucial to get to the truth of this, and we are very grateful to the assistant general secretary of Unite for coming to discuss their findings and position with us.'

Home Office ignored job switch advice

A Home Office worker put in a job for which he was poorly suited and who occupational health advisers said should be transferred to another post has won an unfair dismissal claim. Prospect member Vaithilingam Mohanarajan was dismissed from the Home Office in December 2011. He had worked as a senior scientific officer in the government department for four years. He was dismissed for poor performance, despite an occupational health report stating he had been moved to the wrong job a couple of years earlier and was 'a fish out of water.' The employer had initiated dismissal procedures for poor performance when doctors recommended a change of duties. His line manager accepted the recommendation and Mr Mohanarajan was moved to a more suitable job. But the employer refused to review or disregard the earlier performance assessments. He was called to a final dismissal meeting just a few weeks after starting in the new role. The Watford Tribunal found the dismissal was unfair, largely because the employer had not given him a chance to be properly assessed in the new role. Marion Scovell, Prospect's legal officer, said: 'This is an important case demonstrating that employers must fully consider alternatives to dismissal and are under a duty to give employees every chance to succeed.' Prospect branch secretary Paul Farr gave evidence at the tribunal.

Deadly fires unite firefighters

The death of 19 firefighters battling a US wildfire and a giant blaze in the West Midlands that saw a number of UK firefighters injured illustrate the terrible dangers they can face every day, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has said. The US firefighters were killed on Sunday 30 June battling a fast-moving wildfire menacing the small central Arizona town of Yarnell. They were all members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a specialist team of wildfire fighters based in Prescott, Arizona. Only one team member survived. The same day, 200 UK firefighters were called to a blaze involving 100,000 tonnes of plastic recycling material at the Jayplas factory unit in Smethwick in the West Midlands. Nine firefighters were treated for injuries including heat exhaustion. FBU general secretary Matt Wrack commented: 'The Fire Brigades Union and its members are very sad to hear about the deaths of at least 19 firefighters in Arizona. This appears to be the worst incident for firefighters' loss of life since 9/11. There is a strong sense of solidarity between firefighters across the world. Our thoughts are with the families and colleagues of those who were willing to risk their lives to save others.' He added: 'Wildfires in the US southwest and the largest ever blaze in the UK's West Midlands highlight the hazards firefighters face every day, here and across the world.' The FBU leader visited the site of the Smethwick fire on 2 July to meet officials.

ASLEF welcomes rail crossings inquiry

Train drivers' union ASLEF has welcomed a decision by MPs to investigate safety on level crossings. The union was commenting last week after the House of Commons Transport Select Committee said it would hold an inquiry into the safety of 8,000 level crossings in Britain. ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said: 'Level crossings represent the single most dangerous point in Britain's rail network; this is where the risk of a train accident is at its greatest.' Calling for level crossings to be phased out, he said: 'Instead of taking money out of the railways in the form of profits for the privatised rail companies, which are then passed on to shareholders in the form of dividends, many of them shipped offshore, we need to invest in the railway infrastructure of this country. Utilising existing and available technology to make level crossings safer would be a good start. And replacing level crossings with bridges and tunnels would bring Britain's railway system into the 21st century.' The day after the union's comments, Network Rail was fined £500,000 and ordered to pay costs of £23,421 for the criminal breaches of workplace safety law that led to a 10 year old boy suffering serious injuries at a level crossing in Suffolk in 2010. The Office of Rail Regulation's director of railway safety, Ian Prosser, said: 'Our investigation found evidence that Network Rail knew the level crossing on a private road near Beccles was unsafe for ten years, and yet took no action.' He added: 'This is unacceptable from a company responsible for protecting the safety of millions of people on trains and at level crossings.'

Other news

Concern at 'shocking' rise in zero hours contracts

The government should look at regulating zero hours contracts, the TUC has said. The union was commenting after figures published this week by shadow health secretary Andy Burnham MP revealed over 300,000 workers in the care sector alone are employed on zero hours contracts, TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: 'These shocking figures confirm what we have suspected all along - the rise in zero hours working is far greater than official reports suggest. The fact that over 300,000 workers in the care sector alone are employed on these contracts reveals the true extent of this worrying trend. Social care is not the only sector to be experiencing high levels of zero hours contracts - higher education, legal services and journalism all have large numbers of people working on these insecure terms and conditions.' She added: 'Secure employment would allow staff to concentrate more on their jobs instead of having to worry from one to day to the next whether they will have any work or money to pay for food and bills. The TUC welcomes the government's current review of zero hours contracts. We will be asking ministers to consider introducing regulation to prevent their continued misuse.' Shadow minister Andy Burnham told the Local Government Association conference this week that in 2011 there were 307,000 social care workers employed on zero hours contracts - equivalent to 20 per cent of the workforce. 'How can people who don't themselves have the security of knowing what they will bring into the family home pass on a sense of security to the people they are caring for,' he said. 'How much longer are we going to let this carry on?' In April, he said Labour should pledge to ban zero hours contracts at the next election. A report published on 25 June by the Resolution Foundation thinktank found that many people on these contracts live with 'almost permanent uncertainty' and are paid significantly lower wages than those on conventional deals. Insecure work has been linked to higher rates of occupational injuries and diseases.

Night work linked to double breast cancer risk

Working night shifts for more than 30 years could dramatically increase women's risk of developing breast cancer, a new study has concluded. Nurses, cleaners, care workers, some shop workers, call centre workers and others who work night shifts for long periods can have double the risk of developing the disease than those who don't, the new study indicates. Canadian researchers examined 1,134 women with breast cancer and 1,179 women without the disease, but of the same age. Women were questioned about their work and shift patterns and researchers also assessed the hospital records for the women who suffered from the disease. The study, published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that those who had worked nights for 30 or more years were twice as likely to have developed the disease, after taking account of other potential risk factors, although the numbers in this group were comparatively small. The association was not found for those doing night shifts for less than 30 years. 'An association between more than 30 years of night shiftwork in diverse occupations and breast cancer is supported here, consistent with other studies among nurses,' the authors said. 'As shiftwork is necessary for many occupations, understanding of which specific shift patterns increase breast cancer risk, and how night shiftwork influences the pathway to breast cancer is needed for the development of healthy workplace policy.' Studies have also linked work with chemicals in a wide range of sectors to greatly elevated levels of breast cancer (Risks 583).

  • Anne Grundy and others. Increased risk of breast cancer associated with long-term shift work in Canada, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Online first, 1 July 2013. doi:10.1136/oemed-2013-101482 [abstract]. Medical Daily. Huffington Post.

Father and son jailed for work manslaughter

A father and son have been jailed after being found guilty of the manslaughter of a fatigued driver employed at their haulage firm. Adrian John McMurray, 54, and his son Adrian Paul McMurray, 36, were convicted on 10 May 2013 for the manslaughter of Stephen Kenyon and jailed for seven and four years respectively (Risks 608). The lorry driver died in February 2010 in a motorway collision while working for the McMurrays' firm, AJ Haulage. St Albans Crown Court heard that he was almost certainly asleep at the time of the collision. The jury was told the death was 'an accident waiting to happen' as Mr Kenyon, a father-of-four from Milton Keynes, had been working for more than 19 hours and had been driving for more than 13 of them. The McMurrays also pleaded guilty to a number of revenue offences, having failed to pay tax on income totalling more than £5 million. Speaking after sentencing on 28 June, Andrew Biker, a specialist lawyer for the Crown Prosecution Service, said: 'Adrian John and Adrian Paul McMurray failed abjectly in their duty of care to their employees, and it was this gross negligence that resulted in the tragic death of one of their haulage drivers, Stephen Kenyon. Through the utterly reckless management of their haulage firm, the McMurrays showed consistent disregard for the health and safety of their employees and the wider public.' He added: 'This negligent approach to the running of their business was further demonstrated when they failed to pay tax on more than £5 million worth of income over a four year period. Everything about this case indicates that the McMurrays prioritised making personal profits for themselves over the safety of their drivers or other road users.'

Crane lift errors caused platform collapse

A Hertfordshire construction company has been fined for criminal safety failings after a worker was seriously injured when a temporary platform collapsed. Noel Doyle, 32, suffered a shattered right elbow, broken vertebrae, fractured pelvis and ribs, and damage to internal organs in the incident on 10 February 2009. He fell almost ten metres from a platform when it gave way, landing on a concrete staircase. As a result of his injuries, he is no longer able to work in construction. Southwark Crown Court heard that on the day of the fall Mr Doyle was helping two other J Reddington Ltd (JRL) employees, one of whom was a foreman, to raise a temporary work platform inside a concrete shaft to house a stairwell. The platform was lifted from one floor to another by a crane using four lifting chains before being locked in place in the shaft to enable the next level to be constructed. It had been raised from the fourth to the fifth floor level when the crane operator was instructed by the foreman to take the chains away while one of them was still attached. Because the platform was lifted by only one corner it disintegrated. Two of the three workers standing on the platform managed to jump to safety, but Mr Doyle was unable to do so. He fell into the shaft beneath with parts of the platform and equipment that had been stored on top raining down on him. An HSE investigation found JRL had failed to plan, manage and monitor construction work effectively. It was fined £70,000 and ordered to pay £22,193 in costs after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence.

Vending machine firm fined after roof fall

An employee at a vending machine supplier in Skelmersdale was lucky to escape with minor injuries after he fell through a fragile roof, a court has heard. The 40-year-old from Runcorn, who has asked not to be named, had been clearing out the gutters at Paragon International Ltd on 4 September last year when he fell approximately six metres through a roof light. The company, which trades as Eurocup and supplies snacks and drinks for vending machines across the UK, was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation found it had failed to ensure he could work safely on the roof. Ormskirk Magistrates' Court heard the employee had been sent onto the roof to clean the guttering between two connected buildings. He was told he should try to stay away from the roof lights, but no practical steps were taken by the company protect workers from the risk. The employee and another worker had to carry bags of debris to the top of the roof, walking on the metal sheets between the roof lights, so that it could be collected by a forklift truck. One of the men accidentally stepped onto a roof light and fell into the accounts office below. He suffered bruising to his right side and leg, and injuries to his right hand and back. Paragon International Ltd pleaded guilty to criminal breaches of safety law and was fined £10,500 and ordered to pay £3,067 in prosecution costs. HSE inspector Bradley Wigglesworth said: 'The company should have carried out a proper assessment of the risks and then controlled them so that the work could be out safely. They could have used a cherry-picker, harnesses or safety netting, but none of these were chosen. An employee's life was put at risk as a result.'

Want to be an HSE inspector? Apply now!

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is recruiting inspectors in Aberdeen/Inverness, Sheffield, Nottingham/Northampton, London, Bedford, Basingstoke and Chelmsford. The TUC is encouraging union health and safety representatives to apply where they feel they have the relevant skills. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said: 'Union health and safety representatives can bring to the job both experience and a knowledge of the workplace and I hope that some will consider applying and sharing the talents that they have developed during their time representing and protecting members.' If you are interesting, you better get your skates on - the deadline for applications is 10 July.

International News

Australia: Safety agency guilty of 'institutional bullying'

An official workplace safety agency in Australia hounded a worker out of his job in a display of 'scurrilous' and 'malicious' behaviour, a court has found. WorkCover produced a six-volume report as part of its proceedings to dismiss Wayne Butler, but the court found this was 'fundamentally flawed' and 'arrived at conclusions that were not supported by facts.' In a 35-page verdict, deputy president Rod Harrison of the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission said WorkCover's conduct was 'shabby and disgraceful' and had all 'the characterisation of institutional bullying.' The court ordered the reinstatement the 12-year veteran, who was supported by his union the Public Services Association, and payment of lost income. Mr Butler said the ordeal had taken an enormous toll on him and his family, but he would be going back to work and seeking changes to the way WorkCover operated to ensure ''this can never happen again to any other member of staff''. He is also seeking a formal apology from WorkCover. Among eight allegations dismissed by the court as having 'no substance', WorkCover accused him of 'having an improper relationship with a sex worker' when 'a simple inquiry... would have revealed' the truth. Mr Butler was a spokesperson for the Shared Parenting Council of Australia and the woman, who worked in a brothel, had phoned him for advice about child custody. The Public Service Association now wants a parliamentary inquiry into bullying in WorkCover.

Global: Asbestos trade up by 20 per cent

Global asbestos exports increased from 1,081,885 tons in 2011 to 1,327,592 tons in 2012, latest figures show. Canadian human rights campaigner Kathleen Ruff, writing on the Prevent Cancer Now website, puts the continuing trade in asbestos down to an industry public relations strategy that saw large sums of cash handed to researchers. These industry stooges then reported asbestos could be used safely and argued stories of it causing harm were untrue or exaggerated. Frequently these scientific hired guns hid their financial links to the industry. 'The asbestos industry thus succeeded in halting the precipitous drop in its sales and, for the past twenty years, has maintained production at around two million tons a year. The world production figure for 2012 is estimated at 1,987,800 metric tons. The figure for 2011 was 2,034,700 metric tons,' writes Ruff. 'Of the 2,034,700 tons mined in 2011, the industry exported 1,081,885 tons to other countries. Shockingly, the figures for 2012 show that global export of asbestos has increased to 1,327,592 tons - an increase of more than 20 per cent.' The industry campaign was marshalled by top marketing experts, she adds. 'The asbestos industry hired the same public relations company and copied the tactics that the tobacco companies successfully employed for decades: deny the scientific evidence, create doubt, fight government controls aimed at protecting health, and threaten scientists who expose the truth. As well, like the tobacco companies, the industry targeted the developing world as a rich opportunity for profits for a deadly product.'

Global: US suspends Bangladesh trade concessions

Pressure is mounting on Bangladesh to reform its labour laws with the decision of the US government to impose trade sanctions for repeated failure to respect workers' rights. A complaint from the US union federation AFL-CIO first called in 2007 on the US to suspend trade preferences to Bangladesh under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). Since then conditions have deteriorated, the plight of the country's workers exposed globally when over 1,000 in the Rana Plaza disaster earlier this year. This tragedy prompted the US government to act. 'This long-awaited decision is an important step for workers' rights,' said ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow. 'It sends a strong statement to all governments and employers that violation of the fundamental rights of workers will not be tolerated if a country expects to participate in the global economy.' The ITUC is backing calls by the AFL-CIO and the Bangladesh union movement for the government of Bangladesh to act urgently and deliberately to ensure that the rights of its workers are respected in law and in practice. The ITUC says it also wants international brands sourcing from Bangladesh to step up their efforts to ensure that the rights of workers in their supply chains are fully respected. It says the demands placed on companies in Bangladesh by international buyers are partly responsible for perpetuating the gruelling sweatshop conditions prevailing in the country.

USA: Waistline policing is bad for you

Company health initiatives targeting staff are increasingly being accompanied by threats and punishments for those who don't measure up, recent US evidence suggests. US publication Truthout reports that CVS Caremark, which employs over 100,000 individuals in the country, recently announced that employees who do not submit to body mass index (BMI), blood glucose, and cholesterol testing and report their results to the company's benefit firm will face a fine that amounts to $600 annually. A programme at tyre giant Michelin North America, meanwhile, penalises men with waist sizes above 40 inches and women with waist sizes above 35 inches. In the US, this can prove very costly for employees. The Departments of Labor, Treasury and Health and Human Services have just ruled that from next year companies can charge workers up to 30 per cent of their insurance premiums for failing to meet certain health goals. Critics say these cuts-offs are arbitrary and do not anyway relate necessarily to fitness. Ruth Linden, a San Francisco-based bioethicist and health policy expert, notes that a major problem with these programmes is that they overwhelmingly suggest health and weight are interchangeable, which is simply not the case. Further, 'most popular weight-loss diets promote unhealthy eating and can be harmful to one's overall health,' she said. 'For some people, in some cases, it is much safer and healthier to keep a higher body mass.' Linden believes these 'employee surveillance policies' represent 'an escalation of the dismantling of workers' benefits and more backlash against the climate of health care reform.' She added: 'There is no difference between my employer telling me how I am supposed to be accountable for my health metrics and telling me what food I should eat or about other aspects of my personal life.'


The road to asbestos free workplaces

'The long and winding road to an asbestos free workplace' maps out the tortuous route towards a worldwide asbestos ban. The book, authored by some of the most prominent union and grassroots campaigners on asbestos, says in Europe the ban on asbestos needs to be complemented by pro-active inspection, identification and mapping of contamination. It adds that outside of Europe, the safety in use 'fairy tale' used to justify exports has to be exposed and the trade in the deadly fibre finally stopped. The book is particularly timely, given last year's increase in asbestos exports. The industry hasn't yet gone away - in fact, exports have remained stable for years.

UNISON resources on asbestos in schools

Public sector union UNISON says it is ready to ratchet up its campaign against asbestos in schools and has prepared a series of documents to help activists, reps and parents who are concerned about the issue.

Events and Courses

Stress Network conference, 23-24 November, Birmingham

The national Stress Network's annual conference is to take place from 23-24 November. This year's event has the theme: 'Are health and safety cuts the right medicine?' Keynote speaker Professor Phil Taylor of Strathclyde University will make a presentation on 'Performance management, the new workplace tyranny'. Also contributing is GMB national safety officer John McClean. The organisers say workshops 'will provide a good opportunity to learn about the impact of adverse treatment of workers and the effects of the dismantling of essential health and safety legislation.'

TUC courses for safety reps


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