Number 668 - 23 August 2014
London Underground union RMT has exposed the ‘shocking’ working conditions facing cleaners in filthy, rat-infested cupboards used to store the stinking waste collected from the Tube network. The cleaners working for contractor ISS, who have been told to ‘clock in’ on for shifts by using fingerprint machines in the waste rooms, have been in a long-running dispute over the use of the system. RMT says it has led “to staff being intimidated, bullied and locked out of the workplace as they refuse to comply with a move that is threatening, degrading and carries all the overtones of a Police State.” According to the union, its photographic and video evidence shows that “the only facilities available to staff, doing some of the dirtiest jobs on the underground, are filthy and disgusting cupboards overflowing with waste with a fingerprinting machine fixed to the wall.” RMT acting general secretary Mick Cash said the evidence confirms “the working conditions of the ISS Tube cleaners are a disgrace to this City and should shame the mayor Boris Johnson who is allowing these Dickensian practices to exist on transport services under his direct control.” He added: “RMT members across ISS have been brave enough to stand up and fight this greedy, anti-union company on London Underground against the backdrop of a barrage of intimidation and bullying. The travelling public and the entire trade union movement should be standing alongside these brave workers, doing some of the dirtiest jobs on the London transport network, in their battle for workplace justice.”
A combination of spending cuts, staff shortages, overwork, and worries over job and financial insecurity mean the role of active union safety reps has never been more necessary, UNISON has said. The public sector union says “most workplaces and many injuries are no longer inspected or investigated by those responsible for policing health and safety”, the union safety effect is workers best protection. Unions can provide a workplace’s “own internal experts” to identify risks and solutions, UNISON says. The union is calling on its safety reps to highlight this safety rep role during European Health and Safety Week, which takes place in the third week in October, running this year from Monday 20 October. It says on the Wednesday of the week, designated by the TUC ‘National Inspection Day’, UNISON wants “all its safety reps to be involved in this Day, and to organise an inspection at their workplace.” As well as identifying problems and highlighting the union’s roles in improving safety, on 22 October reps should “meet members, hear their concerns, and ask if they would like to get more involved, maybe by becoming a safety rep.” Acknowledging that health and safety is a great recruiting issue, it adds that safety reps should “meet non-members, as issues they raise may present opportunities for successes or recruitment.”
Construction union UCATT has said workers must never be expected to live on a construction site because of the “massive safety and welfare implications”. The union was speaking out after The Manchester Evening News revealed six Latvian workers had been living in portakabins on a Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) owned multi-million pound development site in the city. UCATT’s Ren Davies said: “Workers should never be asked to live on a construction site, it is likely to be both dangerous and with poor welfare facilities. Even in exceptional cases where accommodation is provided it must be entirely separate from the site where work is being undertaken.” The union said concerns about the sub-standard accommodation underline the need for the Gangmasters Licensing Act to be extended to the construction industry. Ren Davies said: “UCATT believes that expanding the Gangmasters Act to cover the construction industry would be a massive step in stamping out these types of abuses.” The principal contractor on the site is Northern Group. The company told the Manchester Evening News it would find new accommodation for the workers.
The union GMB is calling for all firms behind a construction blacklisting scandal to be excluded from tendering for any further public sector contracts in Scotland until they compensate the 582 workers in the country they blacklisted. The union is stepping up its campaign in the wake of a Scottish government letter to construction firms publicising official guidelines on blacklisting and public sector contracts. The letter states that the “guidance makes it clear that firms which have engaged in blacklisting have committed an act of grave professional misconduct and should be excluded from public procurement, unless they can demonstrate appropriate remedial action.” The Consulting Association, a covert construction industry financed and controlled blacklisting agency, targeted workers for raising health and safety concerns on site. It was closed in 2009 after a raid by The Information Commissioner. GMB Scottish secretary Harry Donaldson said: “Public money should not go to companies like Carillion that have engaged in blacklisting till they have purged their guilt. The Scottish government has taken a strong lead in showing that companies who blacklist don't deserve the opportunity to bid for public contracts.” He added: “The Scottish government's stance adds serious weight to the fact that blacklisting counts as ‘grave misconduct’ in procurement law. Anything other than removing these companies from tender lists in Scotland is unthinkable until they make a decent offer to compensate those they blacklisted.”
The UK government must take a ‘safety first’ approach to the risks posed to flights over conflict zones, the pilots’ union BALPA has said. It added that pilots should have the final say on whether a flight proceeds. The union was responding to an announcement from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), indicating it will establish a new taskforce to look into airspace safety over conflict zones. BALPA welcomed the move by the UN body, but said taskforces of this kind tend to be “slow and ponderous”. While the taskforce deliberates, the union said it was “calling on the UK government to show leadership in ensuring the safety of UK passengers whichever airline they are flying with and wherever in the world.” The union said it is seeking an urgent meeting with ministers to progress a proposal of a joint Department for Transport and BALPA summit, involving all parts of the British aviation industry including pilots, the Civil Aviation Authority, airlines, air traffic management, the Health and Safety Executive and the national aviation security committee. BALPA general secretary Jim McAuslan said: “It is reassuring that the UN aviation body and airlines accept that there is a problem with the lack of clear, uniform rules and information guiding pilots on when they should not fly over conflict areas.” He added: “We will be asking the British government to lead the way and urgently push for a safety first approach that would protect British passengers whatever airline they are flying with and wherever they are travelling.”
A senior prison officer who suffered serious physical and mental injuries in a horrific violent assault by an inmate has had to give up his job as a result. Iain Fleming, a member of the prison officers’ union POA, was employed in the segregation unit at HMP Swaleside in Eastchurch, Kent. He was working in the canteen area when an inmate, armed with two sharpened plastic knives, launched himself at one of Iain’s colleagues and attempted to stab him in the head. Iain attempted to restrain the inmate but, in the struggle that followed, he was stabbed five times. The inmate attempted to gouge out his right eye, before other colleagues arrived on the scene and intervened. He suffered stab wounds to the head and eye, both of his arms, his right shoulder and to his chest. He also developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the months following the incident. Iain has since recovered from his psychological injuries but the damage done to his shoulder has ended his career as a prison officer. HMP Swaleside denied all liability for Iain’s injuries after the assault. However an investigation by lawyers brought in by the union found that the inmate’s previous behaviour had aroused concern from other members of staff – something which should have led to the prison taking out extra security measures – concerns to which management failed to respond. Iain Fleming said: “The attack appeared to come completely out of nowhere but I now know that the prison ignored obvious signs that this inmate was a danger to others. Because they made the choice to ignore that, I was attacked and I can no longer enjoy my life the way I used to.” With the backing of legal assistance provided by POA, he secured a £35,000 compensation payout.
Widespread abuse of workers in the cleaning industry are to come under the spotlight with the creation of a new taskforce by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The move follows a project launched by the commission in September 2013 to examine employment practices in the cleaning sector in England, Scotland and Wales. The project’s just launched report highlights the need to improve working conditions for cleaning operatives, raise awareness of employment rights and establish more responsible procurement practices. The report notes: “A small number of workers did not receive appropriate health and safety training, particularly on the use of chemicals. Language barriers for migrant workers may prevent understanding of training. A small number of pregnant workers were not risk assessed or given lighter duties.” UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis commented: “UNISON is looking forward to the opportunity of working with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to tackle some of the widespread abuses in the cleaning industry.” He added: “The evidence from cleaners shows that this taskforce will have its work cut out. Low pay, heavy work and poor treatment are the shameful hallmarks of this important sector. Cleaners have suffered hugely from the worst aspects of outsourcing and the race to the bottom to find cheap labour to do some of the most vital jobs in our community.”
A retired school cleaner diagnosed with a terminal asbestos-related cancer is appealing to her former work colleagues to help with an investigation into how and when she was exposed to the deadly dust. Hannah Scott, from Newton Abbot in Devon, received the devastating diagnosis in February this year that she is suffering from mesothelioma, a cancer in the lining of the lungs caused by exposure to asbestos decades ago. The 69-year-old worked as a cleaner at Teign School in Kingsteignton, Newton Abbot, from 1975 to 1980. Mrs Scott, who is a great-grandmother to nine children, recalls significant building works taking place to construct the “A Block” during which time she was required to deep clean the area before pupils went in. She remembers that the A Block extension had asbestos fascias and soffits and there was a coloured block underneath each window which was made of asbestos board, along with asbestos stud work panelling throughout the corridors. She said: “When I was asked to deep clean the school after all the building works had been completed there was a lot of dust left behind from the construction work which I swept up. I was never warned of the dangers of asbestos or given any protective clothing to wear.” Her lawyer, Phoebe Osborne of law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: “We would ask anyone who worked at Teign School in the 1970s and 1980s to come forward as any information they have may prove vital. Employers knew about the dangers caused by asbestos long before Mrs Scott was believed to have been exposed to the deadly dust but, despite this, she was not warned or given the appropriate clothing or equipment to protect herself.”
Ÿ Irwin Mitchell Solicitors news release. Anyone who has any information about the working conditions and construction of the “A Block” at Teign School, Kingsteignton, between 1975 and 1980 should contact Phoebe Osborne on 0117 926 1549 or by email.
An investigation has been launched after a worker at the Faslane naval base in Scotland was exposed to radiation. The incident happened in June, but was only revealed in a report this month by the UK government's Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). “The incident in question occurred during a standard procedure and involved a radiographer approaching the source while it was still exposed,” an ONR spokesperson told the Sunday Herald. “On realising this, the radiographer returned to the control device and ensured the source was retracted. The dose accrued was below any notifiable limit.” The Ministry of Defence stressed that the safety of workers was its priority. “During a radiographic procedure similar to an x-ray, a trained member of staff was briefly exposed to 0.037 milliSieverts of radioactive materials,” said a spokesperson. “This is well below the safety limit of 0.3 milliSieverts. The worker was in no way harmed.” But John Ainslie of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, told the Sunday Herald: “If Faslane is not able to properly handle the radiography sources that are used for routine work, what confidence can we have in its ability to keep the public safe from an accident involving a nuclear weapon or a nuclear reactor?”
A new emergency breathing system is being introduced in a bid to give offshore workers a better chance of survival if their helicopter ditches. The system, which combines a life jacket with a small aqualung, is replacing the current hybrid re-breather, which is a life jacket with an air-filled rubber bag. In the past three weeks, 26,000 workers have been trained in how to use it. The BBC reports it is hoped the old breathing system can be withdrawn in September. The changes to the emergency breathing system were brought in after a Super Puma helicopter crashed on approach to Sumburgh Airport in August last year. Three of the four people who were killed in the crash died through drowning. Offshore union Unite, which is running a Back Home Safe campaign, has called for a public inquiry into offshore helicopter safety (Risks 651).
A Scottish animal feed company has been fined £240,000 after a lorry driver was crushed to death when a two-tonne, fully-loaded grain bin fell onto him from a forklift truck. David Leslie, 49, worked for a feed services firm and was picking up a load from East Coast Viners Grain LLP’s site in Drumlithie, Stonehaven, when the incident happened on 18 March 2013. Aberdeen Sheriff Court heard that Mr Leslie was helping with the loading operation. He was standing near the base of the grain elevator, which carries the animal feed up and drops it into a bulk transporter, and was ready to pull the lever in the grain bin to release the feed once it was in position. The forklift driver picked up the grain bin, which weighed around 600kg and held 1.5 tonnes of feed, and raised the forks to about five and a half feet to allow better visibility as he moved forward. However, the bin started to move on the forks and he shouted a warning, but Mr Leslie was in front of the forklift when the bin fell off the forks and struck him. Mr Leslie died after suffering crush injuries to his head, neck and chest. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed East Coast Viners Grain LLP did not have a safe system of work for the task and operators were left to carry it out in any way they saw fit. The company had assumed the forklift training they had received from an external provider would cover safe working. East Coast Viners Grain LLP was fined £240,000 after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence. HSE principal inspector Niall Miller said: “It was entirely foreseeable that there was a risk of death or serious injury if the grain bin fell from the forklift truck, particularly as the company was aware of previous incidents of loads falling.”
A Stourbridge drycleaning company has been fined after its failure to properly manage and monitor Legionella bacteria put workers and members of the public at risk. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Pride Cleaners (2000) Limited following a management audit and visit to the company’s Cotteridge site on 6 September 2013. Birmingham Magistrates’ Court heard that HSE inspectors found the company was unable to provide information or evidence as to how they were managing and monitoring a cooling tower, which was in operation and was an integral part of the company’s dry cleaning process. HSE found the company had previously employed a water consultant to manage and control the tower on its behalf. However, when this arrangement was ended, the company did not put alternative management measures in place to maintain the same level of control. Pride Cleaners (2000) Limited, of Dudley Road, Stourbridge, which has ceased trading, pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined £100 and ordered to pay £50 costs. HSE inspector Karl Raw said: “Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia, which can affect anyone coming into contact with it. It is vital that companies who use water cooling towers as part of their processes have plans in place to make sure the level of Legionella bacteria in their systems does not become unsafe.”
A West Yorkshire company has been fined after a worker was severely burned in a flashover during hot-cutting work at the Fox’s Biscuits factory in Batley. The 61-year-old Ossett man was one of a team working for steel fabricators Hartwell Manufacturing Ltd, which had been hired to remove three disused oil tanks at the Fox’s site in February 2012. The worker was using an angle grinder to cut a hole in one of the tanks, which had only recently been drained of fuel, when sparks ignited flammable vapours causing flames to erupt. In a panic, the worker inserted a high pressure water lance into a pipe opening to try to put out the fire but instead caused a blow-back of flames through the opening, engulfing his lower body in flames and causing extensive burns. Huddersfield Magistrates heard that another worker at the scene rushed to the injured man’s aid, putting out his burning clothes with a fire extinguisher. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigated and prosecuted Hartwell Manufacturing Ltd for criminal safety breaches after discovering the firm had deviated from a safe system of work it had earlier agreed with Fox’s Biscuits and their site managing firm. Instead of using cold-cutting equipment, the company had used a high-speed angle grinder, which produces heat and sparks. The court was told the company’s managing director had failed to liaise with Fox’s Biscuits when problems with access to the tanks emerged or when the company wanted to diverge from the agreed plan by using the hot-cutting, and so dangerous, angle grinder. Hartwell Manufacturing Ltd was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £7,885 costs. HSE inspector John Micklethwaite said: “At several key points Hartwell’s failed to take the opportunity to stop the job, take stock and liaise with the occupier to ensure work could go ahead safely.”
An Ellesmere arable farmer has received a conditional discharge after a worker suffered serious arm, head and back injuries while unblocking a grain drying machine. The 27-year-old worker from Shropshire, who asked not to be named, was attempting to remove a blockage of wet grain inside the machine at GH and DP Jones’ Red Hall Farm in Hordley on 17 September 2013. Telford Magistrates’ Court heard the blockage was close to an auger screw, a large powered metal component used for distributing grain through the machine. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said the worker and his boss, farm owner George Jones, accessed the top of the grain dryer by ducking between the wooden bars of a second floor fence. Power to the auger screw was switched off and an unsuccessful attempt to unblock it using wooden poles was made. Sometime later, the farm worker knelt down and started to unblock the machine using his hand. However, another employee turned the power to the auger screw back on and the worker was drawn into the machine. His arm was pulled under the auger screw and his torso and head were wedged between the screw and the trough it sits in. George Jones shouted for the machine to be switched off, but the entanglement had caused the mechanism to fail and the auger screw stopped turning, and colleagues freed him from the machine with an angle grinder. The man suffered severe lacerations to his arm, head and back. He required 44 stitches and 73 staples and needed a blood transfusion. He also suffered a fractured shoulder blade and damaged tendons in his right hand. Farm owner George Edward Jones, 66, pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was sentenced to a two-year conditional discharge with £1,091 costs.
A County Durham dairy has been prosecuted for its criminal safety failings after a worker suffered life-changing injuries following a fall. Simon Atkinson, 41, had been unloading empty milk bottles from a vehicle at Lanchester Dairies Ltd’s site in Lanchester when the incident happened on 6 September 2013. He fractured an eye socket, sustained bleeding in his skull, multiple collar bone fractures and a broken rib and had to be put into an induced coma until surgery was carried out to remove a blood clot from inside his skull. Mr Atkinson was in hospital for nine days, has been unable to return to work since the fall and is awaiting further surgery to repair damage to his spine. His employer, Lanchester Dairies Ltd, was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation found that despite a risk assessment identifying a “likely” risk of fall, there were no measures in place to prevent one. Peterlee Magistrates’ Court was told Mr Atkinson was alone at the time of the incident but because of his head injury had no recollection of the fall. He had been unloading the bottles into a storage area set 1.6m below ground level. His fall was either from ground level or from the rear of the delivery vehicle, which would have been 2.6m above the concrete floor of the storage area. The court heard a barrier had previously been in place across the doorway to the storage area to prevent falls, but this had been removed two years earlier and never replaced. A risk assessment carried out nine months before the incident, had stated that a safe system of work and training was needed for the unloading task, but this was not carried out until after Mr Atkinson’s fall. Lanchester Dairies Ltd was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £1,690 in costs after pleading guilty to a criminal safety offence.
A combination of overwork, poor working conditions and poverty wages has seen another spike in Cambodian garment workers collapsing at work - with workers even dropping dead on the job. In a single week in July, over two hundred workers were admitted to the Prek Anhchanh Health Centre clinic on the outskirts of Phnom Penh after passing out while working in garment factories. Two workers employed at factories located outside Phnom Penh died at the end of July. Seamstress Nov Pas, who spent nearly four years making clothes for brands like Gap and Old Navy, passed out at her post in the Sangwoo factory at 8am on 24 July 2014 and was pronounced dead in hospital an hour later. Garment worker Vorn Tha, 44, collapsed and died at the New Archid factory, which makes clothes for H&M, after he had worked a succession of long days from 7am to 10pm. A third garment worker, employed at the Cambo Kotop Ltd factory in Phnom Penh, died in March. Sokny Say from the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) said: “2014 is remarkable because while we have had many cases of mass faintings in the past, this is the first year that people have died. We must not become immune to the fact that so many garment workers are collapsing in the factories. It can be a precursor to death.” Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the garment workers’ global union IndustriALL, stated: “This sinister development of workers collapsing at work and then dying cannot go unchallenged. Poverty wages mean that garment workers cannot afford to eat properly and a lack of food, long hours and intolerable factory conditions are proving a lethal combination.”
Five months after labour and environmental campaigners called on Apple to remove highly toxic chemicals including benzene and n-hexane from its supplier factories in China, the hi-tech multinational has announced it will “explicitly prohibit the use of benzene and n-hexane” at 22 of its final assembly supplier factories employing nearly 500,000 workers. Elizabeth O’Connell, Green America’s campaigns director and the coordinator of a global 23,000-plus signature petition to Apple, said it proved public pressure can work. She said “we’ve been able to push one of the biggest companies in the world to change its practices.” Benzene, one of the best known and long-recognised occupational carcinogens, can cause leukaemia and other blood disorders. The chemical n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin that can cause nerve damage and paralysis. Workers in electronics supplier factories - including those making Apple products - use both chemicals to clean touch screens. Undercover activists from China Labour Watch found the workers doing the job had little to no protective equipment and inadequate safety training. Hong Kong-based group, SACOM, which also backed the campaign, said: “Regrettably, it is a too-late commitment and there are still miles to achieve a healthy and safe environment to all workers in the Apple supply chain, when the ban is only effective in final assembly factories.” It added: “SACOM urges Apple to deepen the ban to the entire supply chain and release a full list of chemical used in production. Apple should ensure all workers are well informed with chemical details and be equipped with related work safety knowledge and adequate protective gear, and support all necessary medical expenditure for workers who are harmed due to the production of its products.”
A worldwide campaign for safe pay rates for transport workers has been launched by the sector’s global union federation ITF. The ‘Safe rates and a safe industry- we're in, are you?’ campaign is modelled on a highly successful initiative by Australian truck drivers. In 2012, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) won an Australia-wide safe rates law, intended to protect drivers from pressure to work long hours, speed or take drugs just to keep going (Risks 548). TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon, the newly elected road transport chair of the ITF, said: “Transport work in Australia is dangerous work. Transport workers are 15 times more likely to die at work than workers in any other industry.”
India’s quarry industry is leaving workers poverty stricken and consigned to a slow, choking death. Thousands of quarry workers in Rajasthan are battling silicosis caused by inhaling dust containing crystalline silica. Many have their health condition go undiagnosed. Their breathing problems are scarcely ever linked to the jobs they do; most are reduced to penury by their disability and medical costs. Vikas Bhardwaj, secretary at the non-government organisation Dang Vikas Sansthan, said large numbers who had worked hewing sandstone from the quarries “have died mistakenly thinking they had TB.” The two conditions are linked anyway – silicotuberculosis is a recognised condition related to breathing silica dust. Officially sanctioned quarrying of sandstone in the area dates back to 1920, Bhardwaj said, but the first officially recognised case of silicosis only came in 2011. “It was only as late as November 2011 that we realised that the people were in the grip of silicosis,” he said. According to locals, Balram, 60, is the oldest surviving male in Karauli, a village of 3,000 people. They claim the disease has sapped away the lives of several men, mostly in middle age, leaving behind their widows. “No one survives here till 60,” remarked Prabhu Dayal, a silicosis patient himself. Rajasthan has no accurate data on silicosis rates, as a consequence of a lack of resources to diagnose the disease and unchecked mining and quarrying in the state. Over two million labourers are believed to be exposed to the dust, but there are only seven Pneumoconiosis Board centres to diagnose silicosis. The teams of three doctors at each centre only run diagnosis sessions on weekends.
COURSES FOR 2014
The person responsible for the Risks e-bulletin is Hugh Robertson
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Issued: 20 August, 2014