Risks 620 - 1 September 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 healthandsafety@tuc.org.uk

Union News

Government move will embolden rogue agencies

The TUC has slammed the announcement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that it is to reduce the role of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA). Under plans published on 27 August, the GLA will no longer have powers to regulate the forestry sector, land agents and cleaning contractors operating in the food processing industry. Agencies in these sectors will no longer have to get a GLA licence before they start operating or be subject to inspections by the GLA. In addition, the GLA will be stopped from carrying out automatic inspections on every company that applies for a new GLA licence. The TUC said the moves will put thousands of vulnerable workers at risk and encourage rogue employment agencies to flout basic rights at work. Instead of reducing the scope of the GLA, its remit should be extended to other high-risk sectors including construction, hospitality and social care, the union body said. TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: 'This government seems determined to weaken the role of the GLA regardless of the impact it has on vulnerable workers. Cutting back inspections and stripping the GLA of powers will significantly increase the risk of rogue employers being granted a licence, under-cutting law-abiding agencies and abusing their workforces.' She added: 'The GLA was created after the Morecambe Bay tragedy to ensure that people working in high risk industries are safe at work and properly paid. Ministers are not cutting back on 'red tape' they are getting rid of vital employment protections.'

Unions want offshore flight dangers sorted

Union leaders have called for all Super Puma helicopters to be grounded following the death of four people in a 23 August crash off Shetland. Operator CHC Helicopter suspended operations of other Super Puma AS332L2 helicopters until the cause of the crash is known. The same model was involved in a North Sea crash in April 2009, off the coast of Peterhead, which killed all 14 passengers and two crew on board (Risks 416). Its gearbox failed while carrying the workers to Aberdeen. The latest crash is the fifth major North Sea incident involving a Super Puma since 2009. The three others involved a different model, the E225, ditching with no loss of life. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'Workforce confidence in the Super Puma type aircraft was severely dented after the two ditching events of last year and the fatal accident in 2009. RMT and Unite have worked with all sectors of the industry to address the concerns of our members and rebuild that confidence.' He said the crash 'had undone all of that work and we anticipate an outpouring of anger.' Pat Rafferty, Scottish secretary of Unite, said: 'No-one should ever go to work and not come back safely to their family and friends,' adding: 'This is the fifth major incident in the last four years involving Super Puma helicopters in the UK offshore industry and the second resulting in fatalities. It's unacceptable and it can't go on.' The Helicopter Safety Steering Group (HSSG) also called for all Super Pumas to be grounded. HSSG said while there were 'significant technical differences' between the variants, a cautious approach was needed. It said the grounding should include four models: the AS332L, L1, L2 and EC225. The four oil workers died who died in the latest tragedy were Duncan Munro, 46, Sarah Darnley, 45, Gary McCrossan, 59, and George Allison, 57. The helicopter crashed near Sumburgh Airport in Shetland with 18 people on board, including two crew. It is believed a catastrophic loss of power led the Super Puma to plunge into the sea, forcing those on board to scramble out of side windows after the helicopter rolled over in the water. Oil?company Total, which runs the Borgsten Dolphin platform from which the four were returning home, said all the dead had been employed by contractors supporting the oil production process.

RMT pushes for offshore safety improvements

The union RMT has held a rally in Aberdeen to press for improved safety in the offshore oil and gas industry. The 28 April rally was announced after a protest by the union outside helicopter operator CHC's base was called off. RMT said it suspended the protest after reaching an agreement with oil industry employers on union access to offshore installations. The industry body Oil and Gas UK confirmed that a 'constructive discussion' had taken place. The union's concerns about offshore safety followed the 23 August helicopter crash off Shetland in which four contract workers died. A banner said: 'Stop putting profit before lives: make UK sector as safe as Norwegian sector.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said the talks with the employers had 'secured a massive breakthrough on our core demand of workplace access which will enable us to build an organisation that can fight for real collective improvements to offshore working conditions including on the central issue of safety.'

Unite calls for urgent fatal accident reform

The Scottish government should fast-track Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) reforms in the wake of the helicopter tragedy off Shetland last week, Unite has said. The union has also called and for an emergency Scottish parliamentary debate into offshore health and safety following the fatal crash. The union says that just hours before the 23 August catastrophe, bereaved families and trade union representatives had criticised a further delay into the launch of an FAI over the deaths of 16 people in the Super Puma crash off the Aberdeenshire coast in April 2009 (Risks 416). Unite believes that the aims of the member's bill put before the Scottish parliament by Patricia Ferguson MSP to radically overhaul the current FAI system (Risks 617) - proposing a swifter FAI launch and legal enforcement of the Judge's recommendations - should now be urgently introduced. It added that following the fifth Super Puma offshore helicopter ditching in four years and a number of incidents throughout 2012 on North Sea rigs, an emergency debate into offshore health and safety should take place when the Scottish parliament reconvenes next week. Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty said: 'Friday's horrific events should now compel the Scottish government.' He added: 'Unite is also clear that we need an urgent debate into the future of offshore health and safety. This is our growth industry for the next 30 years. It generates unimaginable wealth both locally and globally. Politicians across the spectrum are pinning their economic and energy hopes to it but at what price? As a country we need to forensically examine how we are protecting and serving the interests of the industry's most important resource - its people.'

Action at Hovis over zero hours contracts

Hovis staff started the first of a planned series of strikes on 28 August over the introduction of agency workers on zero hours contracts. The action is at the Wigan bakery, one of 10 Hovis sites in the UK. Hovis is part of the Premier Foods group. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) is campaigning against the introduction of agency staff on zero hour contracts that do not specify set working hours and give limited guarantees on conditions. BFAWU said agency workers were brought in almost immediately after about 30 permanent staff were made redundant in April. The union fears that Premier Foods plans to use agency workers to take on work that is likely to fall to the Wigan bakery after the closure of Hovis bakeries in Birmingham and London. The Work Foundation has criticised a review of the controversial employment terms ordered by business secretary Vince Cable. Ian Brinkley, director of the thinktank, said: 'The investigation announced by Vince Cable is inadequate. A fuller investigation would enable accurate analysis and such data would help devise effective policy measures and map out best employment practice to protect workers most vulnerable to potential abuse.'

Pilot fatigue is a major public concern

A new poll has revealed the overwhelming majority of the travelling public have concerns about European Union plans to make British pilots fly when they are dangerously tired. The ComRes poll found 89 per cent of the British public said they would be concerned about being in an aircraft flown by a pilot who has been awake for 22 hours, something new EU rules cutting British safety standards will allow. Only 1 per cent said they were not at all concerned about the proposed changes. Pilots' union BALPA is urging government ministers, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and British MEPs to reject 'the unsafe and unscientific new EU flying rules and go back to the drawing board.' BALPA says if the rules are passed by MEPs and government ministers in the coming weeks, British flight standards will fall from amongst the best to the lowest common denominator in Europe. Jim McAuslan, BALPA general secretary, said: 'The British public are understandably concerned about their pilots being awake for 22 hours before landing a plane under new EU rules. Evidence shows this is similar to being four times over the legal alcohol limit for flying.' He added: 'The time is running out for our ministers, MEPs, the UK regulator and MPs to take urgent action and reject these unsafe EU rules to ensure that the skies above Britain remain among the safest in the world.' BALPA says the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) 'has refused to provide a single medically-qualified or fatigue scientist to support the proposed rules or details of the relevant expertise of the people who put the rules together.'

Ambulance staff reject sick pay cuts

NHS Employers need to seriously consider the consequences of implementing cuts that could put the public at risk, unions have said. GMB, UNISON and Unite members working in England's ambulance services have voted to reject proposals to apply up to 25 per cent deductions to sick pay. The proposals were put forward in June, to bring sick pay for ambulance staff into line with changes introduced earlier this year for other health workers. Unions say ambulance staff should have a specially tailored scheme including an 'unsocial hours payment' (USH), noting these allowances make up between nine and 25 per cent of salaries for most 999 staff. Employers have proposed removing this USH payment when staff are absent through illness. The unions contend that ambulance staff are exposed to high levels of physical, mental and emotional risk, which makes them vulnerable to illness. With sickness levels consistently higher than the rest of the NHS, the unions say Ambulance Trusts could make more effective savings through addressing the causes of ill-health rather than looking to make staff pay for government cuts. GMB's Steve Rice said: 'No ambulance worker wants to take sickness leave. Job cuts in the service have required us all to do much more than previously and we don't want to let the public down or our ambulance colleagues. To then cut our sick pay and to penalise us because we take sick leave because of the work we do seems wrong and unfair.' UNISON's Christina McAnea, chair of the NHS Staff Council, said: 'The danger now is that employers impose these changes without agreement, which in our view would be unlawful and would force our members to act.' She added: 'The trade unions will hold an urgent meeting with employers to make sure that the dangers of imposing these changes are fully explored.'

Pallet truck crushes foot

A lorry loader from Oxfordshire was left with tendon and ligament damage when his foot was crushed at work. The Bidvest Logistics employee, whose name has not been released, was loading the back of a lorry when a colleague driving a powered pallet truck (PPT) crashed into him and trapped his left foot. The GMB member was left with damage to his foot and heel and was unable to work for four weeks. He secured an undisclosed compensation payment for his injuries, in a GMB-backed compensation case. He said: 'Everyone involved in the accident was very apologetic but when you're off work for so long, an apology doesn't get the bills paid and they soon mount up. My money worries combined with the pain I was in after the incident meant it was a very stressful time for me and my family.' Joe Morgan, regional secretary of GMB Birmingham and West Midlands, said: 'Employers have a duty, not just to set safety standards but to enforce them. Here the employer failed and they have taken responsibility. GMB membership ensures that employers whose safety standards fail are brought to account and members don't lose out.'

Other news

Students rooms contain asbestos

At least 17,000 students slept in university bedrooms that contained asbestos last year, official figures have revealed. Although universities have asbestos management procedures, campaigners have raised concerns that students may not report damaged asbestos because they do not know it is there. Several universities have admitted they do not tell students that there is asbestos in their bedrooms. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers says it is 'deeply concerned' widespread presence of asbestos in universities, revealed following Freedom of Information requests by the Guardian.

A spokesperson told the paper: 'ATL has campaigned hard for a national audit to check for the presence and state of asbestos in all education establishments and for its safe removal. This discovery shows how necessary and urgent this is. We call on the government to take immediate action to ensure these bedrooms are checked, made safe and have the asbestos removed.' Out of 88 universities that responded to questions about asbestos, 38 confirmed they are providing rooms for students that contain asbestos. Of these, the University of Warwick has the most, with 2,313 bedrooms. In 2011, the Department for Education estimated that asbestos was present in more than threequarters of schools.

Bank to review working conditions after death

Bank of America Merrill Lynch has launched a review of working conditions for junior staff after the death of an intern employed at its London offices (Risks 619). Moritz Erhardt, 21, was found dead at his home last week after reportedly working at the Merrill Lynch investment bank for 72 hours without sleep. A Merrill statement said a group of senior staff would review, listen and learn from the tragedy. The investment bank described Erhardt, a student from Germany, as 'as highly diligent intern at our company with a bright future.' It said its priority was to support his family, its interns and employees grieving over his death 'at this extremely difficult time.' Its statement added: 'We have also convened a formal senior working group to consider the facts as they become known, to review all aspects of this tragedy, to listen to employees at all levels and to help us learn from them.' A bank spokesperson said the panel would take in 'all aspects of working practices with a particular focus on our junior population.' He added: 'We're going to look at everything.' Poplar Mortuary coroner's office in East London said information on the cause of death would be released in four to five weeks. The police have said the death is not suspicious.

Making jobs better keeps you well

Cutting the mental and social strain caused by work can make workers healthier in the short and long term, new research has found. A Finnish study discovered the risk of an employee claiming a work disability pension due to musculoskeletal diseases can be decreased by up to 35 per cent by reducing the workplace strains. For mental health problems, improving the job can mean the chance of a disability claim drops by almost 20 per cent. 'These figures are from a Finnish follow-up study in which 30,000 men and women participated. The study investigated how the improvement of employees' potential to influence work time could reduce early exit from work,' said Professor Mika Kivimäki from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) and University College London. 'The prevention of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases is vital for extending working careers,' said Kivimäki. 'Controlling the psychosocial factors of work may help reduce early retirement due to illness. Currently, however, systematic research of concrete ways in which to decrease psychosocial workload at workplaces is largely lacking.' The professor was commenting ahead of a 'Work, Well-being and Wealth: Active Ageing at Work' conference (WWW) held this week in Helsinki.

Ecobuild convicted over building site 'shambles'

A Kent building company has been convicted of criminal offences after failing repeatedly to manage risks on a construction site and exposing workers to a risk of injury. Canterbury Magistrates were told last week that the development site in Ramsgate, run by Ecobuild Homes Ltd, had been visited by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors seven times between July and November 2012. The court heard that on one visit, inspectors had to stop some work immediately owing to the dangers faced by workers of falling from height and issues with electrical safety. Ecobuild Homes Ltd was served with three prohibition notices halting specified work activities, and two improvement notices setting out required improvements to safety standards. The site manager was also issued with a prohibition notice because the operation of the site was far below minimum legal safety standards. HSE found issues relating to fire safety, accumulation of rubble, debris and bricks falling into a neighbouring property, and site security. Ecobuild Homes Ltd was found guilty in their absence of a series of criminal safety offences. Magistrates fined the company, which had failed to appear at court for the second time, a total of £40,000 and ordered them to pay costs of £10,035. After the hearing, HSE inspector Caroline Penwill said: 'There were elements of this development that had evidently become a shambles - but a dangerous one.'

Construction tweeters can #askHSE

Got any tough questions you want to ask the Health and Safety Executive's construction chief about site safety? Well, as long as you can keep them down to 140 characters, then you'll get your chance. HSE's head of operations for construction, Mike Cross, will take part in a live Twitter-chat on Wednesday 4 September to answer questions on the safety watchdog's latest construction initiative. HSE says: 'Find out from Mike what our inspectors will be looking for and why, as a programme of one off 'spot checks' on Britain's building sites gets underway in September. Ask your questions during an hour-long session starting at 3pm under the hashtag #askHSE.'

Pirelli in the dock over tyre factory injuries

Tyre manufacturer Pirelli has appeared in court after an employee sustained major injuries to his left arm when it became trapped in a tyre-testing machine. The 57-year-old from Carlisle, who has asked not to be named, broke his arm in three places, was off work for four months and still has difficulty moving his shoulder following the incident on 3 January 2012. Carlisle Magistrates' Court heard the worker was trying to fix a fault on the machine, which lubricates, inflates and then measures tyres, which occurred when it was switched back on following the Christmas shutdown. He switched it to manual mode and removed one of the guards to repair the fault in the lubricating part of the machine. The employee then returned the machine to automatic mode and it processed two tyres successfully before becoming struck again. He reached back into the machine which then began operating, trapping his arm. An HSE investigation found that the fault had occurred several times in the past after the machine was restarted following previous Christmas shutdowns, but Pirelli had failed to carry out a specific risk assessment for this maintenance work. There was also limited supervision of the maintenance employees, general knowledge of the company's written health and safety procedures was poor, and there was no system in place to check that the company's Safe Working Procedures guidelines were being followed in practice. Pirelli Tyres Ltd was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £4,330 in prosecution costs after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence. Latest HSE figures show 20 people were killed while working in the manufacturing industry in Great Britain in 2012/13. Most manufacturing workplaces, including the rubber industry, are now exempt from unannounced HSE inspections.

Unguarded printing press mangles finger

A Norwich printing firm has been fined for criminal safety failings after a worker injured his finger in an unguarded machine. The 44-year-old employee was working for Swallowtail Print Ltd when the incident happened on 1 November 2012. Norwich Magistrates' Court was told the worker opened a service compartment at the side of a printing press to make some adjustments. As he leant in, he slipped and put his hand out, which became entangled in the machine's moving drive belts and pulleys, almost severing his right index finger. The man, who does not wish to be named, was treated in hospital and was off work for three months. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that that a fixed metal guard had been removed from the compartment five weeks earlier by other employees who were also making machine adjustments and had not been replaced. Swallowtail Print Ltd was fined £6,700 and ordered to pay £3,030.10 costs after pleading guilty to a criminal safety breach. After the case, HSE inspector Paul Unwin, said: 'This incident was entirely foreseeable and therefore preventable. The risks to employees from exposed machinery are well known. Had Swallowtail Print Ltd met its duties, it would not have been possible for the employee to have accessed moving parts of machinery in this way and an injury would not have occurred.'

International news

Australia: Firefighters in bid for cancer compo

Legislation to pay compensation to cancer-suffering firefighters is to be proposed in the parliament of Australia's Northern Territories (NT). This follows a lead taken by the government of South Australia, which last year approved a firefighter cancer compensation law (Risks 581). The NT government has indicated, however, that it will not support the Opposition-proposed Bill because it says it is already reviewing the Worker's Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. Senior station officer Jock McLeod, 68, is backing the bill. He said breathing apparatus from the first few decades of his 47 years of service was inadequate and caused his bladder and kidney cancer. The lifelong non-smoker said: 'We virtually put a bandana around our mouths to protect us like the Lone Ranger in the movies. Our engine rooms are full of diesel fumes which do us big mobs of harm.' Mr McLeod, who has been on sick leave since diagnosis, has written to all Territory firefighters and encouraged them to take annual checks. He said more than 20 of his friends had died because of exposure to chemicals and fumes in the course of duty. NT Labour fire services spokesperson Michael Gunner will propose the legislation to allow firefighters to be compensated for the types of cancer they could contract while on the job. Several US and Canadian jurisdictions have introduced 'presumptive' laws allowing compensation payouts to firefighters suffering up to 10 named cancers.

Malawi: Your cuppa is someone else's heartache

At the start of his eight-hour shift, tea picker Stephano James is already tired, but he is motivated by the prospect of meeting the day's 44 kg tea leaf target. With no protective clothing or equipment other than a wicker basket tied with rope to his back, 23-year-old Stephano works through the early morning drizzle, picking the tender green tea leaves with his bare hands and stuffing them into the basket. Equal Times reports the tea is then processed before it is packed off for export, mostly to the UK and South Africa where 90 per cent of Malawi's tea ends up. It's exhausting, high-intensity work which requires a steady hand to pick the leaves correctly and stamina to stay on your feet in the fields all day. Like many other tea pickers, Stephano still manages to hit his target before the end of his shift, giving him the opportunity to earn extra money for every additional kilo he produces. Workers like Stephano are seasonal, so not entitled to accommodation or medical assistance. With 84.5 per cent of Malawi's labour force employed in agriculture, the tea industry employs around 50,000 seasonal workers at the peak of the harvest season from October to April. At the end of the season, the pickers are made redundant. Equal Times reports many tea workers are infected with HIV as some women living in the plantations sell sex to supplement their meagre income. It is not just low pay that harms the workforce. Tea pickers are at risk of tea pickers' lung, skin conditions, infections and musculoskeletal disorders.

Tanzania: The hazardous lives of child gold miners

Children as young as eight years old are working in Tanzanian small-scale gold mines, with grave risks to their health and even their lives, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW). The group is calling on the Tanzanian government to curb child labour in small-scale mining, including at informal, unlicensed mines, and says the World Bank and donor countries should support these efforts. HRW's 96-page report, 'Toxic toil: Child labor and mercury exposure in Tanzania's small-scale gold mines,' describes how thousands of children work in licensed and unlicensed small-scale gold mines in Tanzania, Africa's fourth-largest gold producer. They dig and drill in deep, unstable pits, work underground for shifts of up to 24 hours, and transport and crush heavy bags of gold ore. Children risk injury from pit collapses and accidents with tools, as well as long-term health damage from exposure to mercury and dust, and carrying heavy loads. 'Tanzanian boys and girls are lured to the gold mines in the hopes of a better life, but find themselves stuck in a dead-end cycle of danger and despair,' said Janine Morna, children's rights research fellow at HRW. 'Tanzania and donors need to get these children out of the mines and into school or vocational training.' HRW says child labourers, as well as children living near mining sites, are at serious risk of mercury poisoning. Miners mix mercury with crushed ground ore and burn the resulting gold-mercury amalgam to release the gold, exposing them to poisonous mercury fumes. Even small children who are not working are often present during this process, which is sometimes carried out in the home. The gold industry has a responsibility to ensure it does not benefit directly or indirectly from unlawful child labour, HRW said. Yet most gold traders it interviewed in Tanzania had no procedures to keep gold mined by children out of their supply chains. 'As those with the buying power, gold traders have leverage over their suppliers,' Morna said. 'They should use it to protect children and to protect consumers from buying gold tainted by child labour.'

USA: Will the US get a lifesaving silica standard at last?

Sixteen years ago, US federal workplace safety officials began developing a rule to control and limit workers' exposure to silica dust, in a country where more than 7,000 workers develop silicosis and 200 die each year and others develop silica-related lung cancer and other conditions. This week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) finally issued a proposed rule. Richard Trumka, president of the national union federation AFL-CIO, said the new rule was welcome but called the proposed standard 'long overdue' and noted that the rule is still only a proposal. 'Workers exposed to silica dust will only be protected when a final rule is issued. Some industry groups are certain to attack the rule and try to stop it in its tracks,' he said. 'The AFL-CIO will do everything we can to see that this does not happen. We urge the Obama administration to continue moving forward with the public rule-making process without delay. The final silica rule should be issued as fast as humanly possible, to protect the health and lives of American workers.' He added that silica suffocates workers to death and causes lung cancer and other diseases. 'Silica dust is a killer.' According to AFL-CIO and dust disease experts, the current OSHA silica standard was adopted decades ago and fails to protect workers. It allows very high levels of exposure and has no requirements to train workers or monitor exposure levels. Simply enforcing the current rule, as some in industry have called for, won't protect workers. 'This action is long overdue - too many workers have died from exposure to silica,' said Leo W Gerard international president of the steelworkers' union USW. 'Regulations like these save lives.' He added: 'The best employers are already doing what OSHA has proposed. But everyone deserves protection from deadly workplace diseases.' A statement from the American Thoracic Society noted: 'The current OSHA standard for respirable crystalline silica of 0.10 mg/m3 8 hour-time weighted average has remained the same for 40 years and has been shown in numerous studies not to be protective... Silicosis and the other diseases caused by crystalline silica exposure are entirely preventable and this new lower standard [50 micrograms/m3] is an important step toward this goal.'


Preventing violence in retail

Retail union Usdaw has published a new guide for union reps on the prevention of violence in the sector. It says the guide provides pointers on how to look after affected members, raise awareness of the issue and raise the profile of Usdaw. The union says its reps are at the heart of its 'Freedom from Fear' campaign.

New union safety website for journalists

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has launched a website dedicated to the safety and protection of media. The global union says the website will provide a one stop portal for all IFJ activities to promote the safety of journalists and to combat the apparent impunity for violence targeting media. 'With the continued onslaught on journalists in trouble spots around the globe, hundreds of reporters, editors and their support staff face persecution, intimidation, torture and even death simply for doing their job,' said IFJ president Jim Boumelha. 'The International Federation of Journalists now plays a unique role in safeguarding the lives of journalists everywhere. The launch of the IFJ safety website marks a new chapter in our history, making it a vital tool for journalists and their unions to manage risk, raise awareness, provide safety training and advice, create a culture of safety and join the campaign to end impunity.' The website provides information on the strategies, programmes and activities related to the safety and human rights of journalists, including details on the IFJ International Safety Fund. IFJ says there will be regular updates on safety for journalists who need to work or travel to regions affected by conflicts, political instability and outbreak of diseases as well as natural disasters.

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