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A government attack on basic trade union rights could not only make workplaces more dangerous, it is at odds with the legal rights of trade union safety reps, the TUC has warned. Criticising the ‘nasty’ Trade Union Bill, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said clauses in the proposed law to curtail ‘facility time’ for union representatives in the public sector would have a ‘cynical’ knock-on effect on the lifesaving work of union safety reps. Writing in the TUC’s Stronger Unions blog, Robertson noted “the time off given to union health and safety representatives to perform their functions is not, and never has been, facility time. It is a separate legal requirement of the Health and Safety at Work Act and the European Framework Directive. However, the Trade Union Bill specifically includes the time taken by union health and safety representatives in the Bill as facility time.” Restricting or capping the time available for safety reps to perform their role would break European law, he noted. The government says it has no intention of setting limits on the time available to safety reps to perform their role. But the TUC safety specialist said in reality this is exactly what will happen, adding: “A more careful reading shows that what they are proposing is one of the most dangerous and divisive moves against health and safety representatives we have ever seen.” He noted that while the government is maintaining safety reps can take all the time they need, “the total amount of time that the union in a workplace can have for time off will be capped at a certain level. Therefore, every hour that a health and safety representative takes to perform their functions, comes off the total which is allowed for the other representatives, such as stewards, equality, and green representatives.” Robertson condemned the “cynical attack”, adding: “Trying to force public sector unions to decide who is given what slice of the allocated time off will mean that the union would have to decide what it thinks is most important. This is an impossible task… My experience has always been that employers who have a bad health and safety culture in respect of health and safety, are usually pretty bad at other employment issues.”
One in eight people has experienced violence at work, according to new research published by the TUC. The poll over of over 1,600 adults carried out by YouGov for the union body, reveals that 12 per cent of people have experienced work-related violence such as being pushed or spat on, punched or stabbed. With more than 31 million people in employment, the TUC is concerned that this could mean nearly 4 million people have experienced violence at work at some point in their career. Of those who have experienced violence in their workplace, one in five (20 per cent) report it happening more than 10 times. Medical and health workers were the biggest group to say they have faced work-related violence (22 per cent), followed by workers in education (12 per cent), hospitality and leisure (11 per cent), retail (9 per cent) and manufacturing (6 per cent). TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “These disturbing findings show that millions of people are likely to experience violence and intimidation at some point in their working life - with A&E staff, nurses, teachers, hotel receptionists and shopworkers particularly at risk. There is no excuse for physically assaulting someone. Workplaces must be safe for everyone.” Announcing a new TUC workplace violence guide and reporting form, she added: “All over the country, union reps play a key role in stopping violence at work and supporting union members who are victims of abuse. We need strong unions working with employers to combat unacceptable behaviour and protect workers – and anyone worried about violence in their workplace should join a union today.”
Unions representing health and retail workers have backed a TUC call for action to stem the widespread violence directed at workers. UNISON head of health Christina McAnea said the figures, which suggested health workers were almost twice as like to be victims of violence than other workers, confirmed “the level of violence against medical and health care workers is unacceptably high.” She added: “The levels of violence have barely changed in years. There needs to be serious action from the government and employers to tackle this. We have long been calling on ministers to set up a special taskforce to investigate how to make workplaces safer for dedicated NHS staff.” John Hannett, general secretary of the shopworkers’ union Usdaw, said: “All too often criminals who assault staff are not even sent to court, and those who are can receive derisory sentences. In other cases, where the offender often isn’t charged at all victims are left feeling that no one cares that they were assaulted.” He added: “Retail crime remains too high and there needs to be action to protect shopworkers. It is time for the government to act by providing stiffer penalties for those who assault shopworkers. Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected.”
Victims of a construction industry blacklist which targeted union safety activists have been awarded up to £200,000 compensation. So far 71 former site workers have received “full and final settlements” worth £5.6m from major construction companies. Payouts averaged £80,000 each, but some were as high as £200,000 to compensate workers for years when they were denied employment because they were illegally on a secret blacklist. Many were denied work on construction sites for raising health and safety issues. The construction union UCATT said the deal was a “first significant milestone” for blacklisted workers. Other cases involving hundreds of blacklisted workers are pending with the backing of the Blacklist Support Group and the unions Unite and GMB, as well as UCATT. The defendants – Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O’Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska UK and Vinci plc – are due in court in May. Brian Rye, UCATT’s acting general secretary, said: “This initial tranche of compensation is the first significant milestone in the battle to win justice for blacklisted workers.” Dave Smith of the Blacklist Support Group said many workers were still determined to see the guilty firms face the courts. He said the industry giants “know they are guilty as sin and are desperate to protect their corporate brand. But the millions they will be ordered to pay by the High Court will be dwarfed by the potential billions they could lose out on if banned from government and local authority contracts across Europe.” He added: “By covertly targeting union safety reps, these companies appear to have given themselves a competitive advantage, as implementing proper health and safety measures on major projects has obvious financial consequences.” He said: “I’m looking forward to the trial in May.”
Firms guilty of blacklisting safety and union activists should face an official public grilling, the union Unite has said. Unite head of legal Howard Beckett said not only did the construction companies’ blacklist amount to an illegal conspiracy, but it also involved defamation and misuse of private and confidential personal data — in breach of the Data Protection Act. Calling in the Morning Star for a public inquiry, he noted: “Unite has claimed that putting a worker’s name on the blacklist meant that they were not suitable for employment, and that this was defamatory. Each supply of information is a defamatory act and violates the worker’s right to privacy and confidentiality — as claimed by the victims of phone hacking — and rights under the Data Protection Act.” He said the union had rejected a ‘miserly’ industry compensation scheme, and had instead pursued the companies and their top directors. “This strategy was vindicated when several companies admitted to defamation and issued an apology in October,” he wrote. “They admitted that a name on a reference card was defamatory. They admitted breaches of rights to privacy and confidence. They admitted that they had breached the Data Protection Act. They admitted that the consequence was lost work opportunities or refusals of work. They said that they ‘offer their unreserved apologies’. But they haven’t admitted that their misconduct amounts to a conspiracy.” He concluded: “The state has shown no willingness so far to give blacklisted workers the public inquiry they deserve. But that is what Unite will continue to demand for the victims of blacklisting.”
Ÿ Morning Star.
Maintenance workers on London Underground (LU) are planning a series of 12-hour and 24-hour strikes in a dispute over safety. Rail union RMT said the programme of industrial action will involve 1,500 of its members. Seven separate strikes are planned up to June over what the RMT calls “lethal changes to track access.” The union said ‘casualisation’ of the access process meant staff were “undertaking safety related actions from memory with little to no training, no safety critical licence and compromising the entire track safety regime.” RMT said there had been ‘numerous’ incidents where people had been left at risk from moving trains, but said the union’s concerns had been ignored and “disregarded by an agenda more driven by cost cutting than by a desire to make sure workers are safe on the track.” RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “From a situation where everyone knew how to access the track, we now have anarchy and uncertainty. Into this mix we have engineering train movements that we believe will lead to someone being killed and this union will not sit back and wait for a disaster to happen.” He warned: “These ill-conceived and lethal changes to track access must be reversed.”
Unions have joined forces in a new move to protect workers in the offshore oil and gas industry. The Offshore Co-ordinating Group (OCG) comprises Unite, RMT, GMB, BALPA and Nautilus. Speaking at the launch in Aberdeen of the Offshore Co-ordinating Group (OCG), Grahame Smith, STUC general secretary, said: “The collapse in the oil price since summer 2014 has had profound consequences for the oil and gas workforce. There have been thousands of job losses, unprecedented attacks on terms and conditions and growing fears over the safety regime.” He added: “Through coordinating campaigns and policy development, the OCG will support the fightback on jobs, safety and terms and conditions and ensure that trade unions make a positive contribution to achieving the UK and Scottish governments’ objective of maximising economic recovery.” Smith said: “It is essential that government, employers, regulators and agencies listen to the united voice of the offshore workforce.”
Gruelling working hours across the public sector are leaving workers sleep deprived, with many only managing six hours sleep per night, a study has found. Research led by the University of Leeds and commissioned and funded by bed firm Silentnight found nearly a third of Britons suffered from sleepless nights as a result of long work hours and job-related pressure and stress. People employed in the public sector – including workers in education, health, and local government – slept for six hours a night on average, below the NHS recommendation of seven to eight hours per night. A quarter of those working in social care suffered from “dangerously low” averages of five hours or less per night. One in five people reported serious issues related to tiredness - including problems staying awake, socialising, feeling enthusiastic about day-to-day tasks, driving and maintaining concentration. About 21 per cent reported that they worked over 40 hours a week and 30 per cent reported that their work negatively affected their sleep. Those who considered their jobs to be stressful were significantly more likely to take longer to fall asleep, to be unhappy with their sleep and to sleep less. The researchers warned both lack of sleep and stress at work are associated with reduced health-related quality of life. Dr Anna Weighall, of the School of Psychology at the University of Leeds, who led the study, said: “The extent to which our work is stressful and working long hours seem to be important factors associated with poor sleep. And in many cases British people are sleeping below the recommended amount.” She added: “Given that good sleep health has been shown to be crucial for our health and well-being this is a real public health issue. Many respondents reported work and job-related stress impacted on their sleep, with 42 per cent of the people we spoke to branding their job stressful, it is unsurprising sleep patterns are affected.”
Asbestos financed scientists cited non-existent evidence to support claims made in a paper that downplayed the risks posed by chrysotile (white) asbestos, the only form of asbestos currently in commercial use. Stefania Boccia and Carlo La Vecchia, the editors-in-chief of the journal Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Public Health (EBPH), published an erratum in their current issue regarding the false information in a 2015 paper, ‘Critical reappraisal of Balangero chrysotile and mesothelioma risk’. Two of the four authors of this paper - Fred Pooley and John Hoskins – are UK-based scientists, while a third, Edward Ilgren, is listed as formerly of the faculty of biological sciences at Oxford University. Their paper claims that cases of mesothelioma contracted by workers and nearby residents of the Balangero chrysotile asbestos mine in northern Italy were not caused by chrysotile asbestos and that the workers and residents must have been exposed to other forms of asbestos, adding there was “good evidence” this caused the harm. The article states that “Crocidolite and amosite (asbestos) were also transferred to Balangero in jute bags.” But the source cited in the paper to support this claim provides no such evidence, with the erratum admitting it was an “erroneous claim”. This is the second erratum the article has attracted. An earlier correction came because of undisclosed conflicts of interest, and required the authors to disclose their extensive financial ties the asbestos lobby. Human rights campaigner Kathleen Ruff, who exposed the errors and undeclared ties, noted: “Asbestos interests spend tens of millions of dollars for scientists to write articles that deny harm caused by chrysotile asbestos and claim that ‘anything but chrysotile (ABC)’ has caused harm. Workers and populations who are exposed to harm from chrysotile asbestos do not have tens of millions of dollars to spend to defend their right to health. Instead, they depend on scientists and scientific organisations to show integrity and uphold scientific and ethical standards.” She said that the EBPH editors had been reluctant to publish either erratum. Joint editor Carlo La Vecchia had earlier been forced to publish an erratum to an article he co-authored with Paulo Boffetta in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, admitting their undeclared links to the asbestos industry (Risks 639).
Ÿ RightOnCancer blog. Edward B Ilgren, Frederick D Pooley, Yumi M Kumiya, John A Hoskins, Critical reappraisal of Balangero chrysotile and mesothelioma risk, Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Public Health, volume 12, number 1, 2015. Erratum.
One of the world’s largest oil and gas exploration and production companies has been fined £3 million after gas leaks on a platform off the Lincolnshire coast put workers’ lives in danger. ConocoPhillips (UK) Limited admitted serious criminal safety failings in Lincoln Crown Court after two uncontrolled and one controlled but unexpected gas release, which occurred on the Lincolnshire Offshore Gas Gathering System (LOGGS) between 30 November and 1 December 2012. The LOGGS Complex is situated 70 miles off the coast and is made up of five interlinked platforms. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found breakdowns in communications across the five platforms meant some workers incorrectly believed the platform was gas-free, putting the lives of up to 66 workers on board in danger if an ignition occurred. A loss of electrical power made management of the emergency more difficult. Workers sent to investigate were put at “extreme risk” of death or serious injury, said HSE, as ignition of the gas would have resulted in an explosion. HSE served ConocoPhillips (UK) Ltd with a prohibition notice on 13 December 2012, for failing to control the gas releases. The company confirmed on 21 December that modifications to LOGGS incident command system had been made to prevent a repeat of these incidents. ConocoPhillips (UK) Limited pleaded guilty to three criminal breaches of the Offshore Installations (Prevention of Fire and Explosion, and Emergency Response) Regulations 1995. It was fined £3 million and ordered to pay costs of £159,459. HSE inspector John Hawkins said: “It is only a matter of good fortune these incidents didn’t result in a serious, tragic incident.”
A scrap metal recycling company based in Sheffield has been fined for criminal safety failings after a worker was killed when he was hit in the head by an exploding gas cylinder. Sheffield Crown Court heard how Tony Johnson, aged 55, was working at the Walter Heselwood Ltd recycling site on 16 June 2009 when a pressurised gas cylinder was put through a shearing machine, causing it to explode. A large section of the cylinder hit Mr Johnson in the head, resulting in fatal injuries. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found Walter Heselwood Limited had no effective health and safety management system in place and failed to adequately assess the risks involved with processing different types of scrap material. The company also failed to put in place measures to reduce the risks, for example by providing a blast wall. The firm pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined £120,000 with £40,000 costs. HSE inspector Kirsty Storer commented: “Companies processing different materials should have good, documented systems to ensure materials such as pressurised cylinders are sorted and dealt with correctly. Workers also need to be properly trained and supervised. In addition where safeguards are provided they need to be well maintained, and an assessment should be carried out to determine any additional precautions that might be required, such as a pit or blast wall.”
A company that manufactures and installs windows has been fined after carrying out work in the West End of London with no measures to prevent workers falling eight metres. The lack of safety measures allowed part of a window to drop onto the pavement below. Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard Ideal Glazing (Euro) Ltd carried out window installation work at Aldford House, Park Street, London, between 19 and 20 January 2015. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) carried out an investigation into the work after a member of the public provided photos of workers leaning out of window openings eight metres above the ground. They also provided a video showing the workers dropping part of a window that fell to the ground and missed a nearby pedestrian. The company had failed to provide equipment such as scaffolding which would have prevented the workers and window falling. None of the workers had received any formal training and no one was appointed to supervise the work. The court heard the company had failed to invest in equipment for working at height and had a health and management system which relied entirely on the company’s managing director, Rashinda Joshi, despite his lack of relevant training and experience. The work was halted when HSE served a prohibition notice. The court heard the company had previously been given advice by HSE in connection with work at height and that an audit by Ideal Glazing’s bank had identified a range of relevant health and safety failings. The court heard that neither written warning was heeded by the firm. Ideal Glazing (Euro) Ltd pleaded guilty to two criminal breaches and was fined £36,000 and ordered to pay £1,386 in costs.
Engineering company Babcock Rail Limited has been fined £400,000 for a criminal safety breach which led to a rail worker suffering serious injuries while renewing rail track in Flintshire, north-east Wales. Lee Woolly was helping to replace a line at Hope Railway Station when the incident happened in March 2013. He was “fortunate” not to have been killed and was on crutches and off work for six weeks, Mold Crown Court heard. The Babcock Rail employee was struck by a digger-type Road-Rail Vehicle (RRV), and trapped against the platform edge of Hope Railway Station, suffering leg, abdomen and back injuries. An Office of Rail and Road (ORR) investigation found Babcock Rail was aware that there was a risk of collision between maintenance vehicles and workers renewing the track at Hope Station. However, the company failed to take appropriate steps to prevent its employees coming to harm because of inadequate planning, coordination and communication between managers. A 3mph speed limit for vehicles was not being monitored or enforced, and no attempts were made to set up exclusion zones or positions of safety for those working near moving vehicles. ORR head Ian Prosser said: “This was an avoidable incident which left a rail worker with serious injuries. Babcock Rail’s safety management fell below the standards required, as inadequate planning and coordination of track renewals placed workers in unnecessary danger. Safety of rail workers is one of the regulator’s key priorities and we will take appropriate action against companies or individuals wherever failings are found.” As well as the £400,000 fine, Babcock Rail was ordered to pay £33,400 costs.
Multinational chemical producer, Solvay Solutions UK Limited, has been fined after a dangerous gas was released to the atmosphere causing disruption to the M5 and thousands of homes nearby. Warley Magistrates’ Court heard how the uncontrolled release put both employees and members of the public at risk. During the incident the police set up road closures in the vicinity of the site. Sections of the M5 were closed by the Highways Agency and an estimated 4,500 people were asked to stay indoors for more than two hours. The dangerous gas was phosphorus and phosphine which, on contact with air, spontaneously ignited to produce phosphorus pentoxide. This reacted with the moisture in the air to produce a mist of phosphoric acid which drifted to a densely populated area. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation into the incident on 2 January 2009, found that a welded steel bar (a ‘rodder’) failed at the weld and broke in two. One piece fell back and the other piece pulled clear, leaving an opening through which the dangerous substance escaped. The incident was reported to the European Commission. Solvay Solutions UK Limited, formerly Rhodia UK Limited, was fined £333,000 and ordered to pay costs of £110,000 after pleading guilty to criminal safety failures.
A company that grows and packages salad has been fined after an employee lost the tips of two fingers in a dangerously modified bagging machine. Basingstoke Magistrates’ Court heard how the operator had reached under the guard to pull film through the machine. The heat sealing and cutting jaws of the machine then closed on his fingers. His left middle and ring fingers had the tips amputated. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the 21 April 2015 incident found that the bagging machine had a hole cut in the interlocked guards to allow larger bags of salad out of the machine on a conveyor. This also meant that access to the heat sealing and cutting jaws was possible. Vitacress Salads Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) and was fined £60,000 and ordered to pay costs of £1,088. HSE inspector Kate Clark said: “Cutting a hole in the guards led to access to dangerous parts being possible. The company had not properly considered the risks from making this alteration.”
The Zika virus began ringing public health alarm bells in May 2015 in Brazil and is now spreading rapidly – and may pose a risk to those working in or visiting affected countries. An advisory from the London-based International News Safety Institute (INSI) says so far there are confirmed cases in at least 23 countries – almost all of them in tropical South America, extending into Central America and the Caribbean. However, a case has also been reported in Spain and in tourists from Europe returning from affected countries. Up to 80 per cent of infected individuals experience no symptoms, but concern has been heightened after a spate of birth defects linked to the Zika virus. INSI notes: “Journalists should take careful anti-mosquito precautions as an absolute minimum.” It advises: “All travellers to affected areas, including journalists, should be provided with up to date advice, including careful instruction on anti-mosquito measures together with appropriate supplies. Journalists should ensure that vaccines are up to date against the full range of likely risks including flu so as to avoid fevers from other causes that might give rise to confusion or alarm.” INSI adds: “Public health authorities are advising pregnant women to defer travel to countries where Zika is present… For occupational travel, this raises obvious issues around privacy, confidentiality and equal treatment of employees.” It argues that male exposure may potentially pose an as yet unquantified risk, so all workers should be properly advised and protected.
Ÿ INSI advisory on Zika and related guidance from the National Travel Health Network and Centre, US Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organisation Zika factsheet. Public Health England guidance for pregnant women.
A detailed roadmap for local agencies to address bonded labour and unsafe working conditions in Pakistan’s brick kilns has been created with the assistance of the US union organisation the Solidarity Center. The proposed programme includes incentives for employers to ensure their facilities meet decent work standards. The Solidarity Center says the Decent Work Brick Kiln–Framework provides an inspection checklist to monitor work standards at a kiln along with other comprehensive tools and resources for district labour departments, which have not until now had the mechanisms to effectively monitor conditions. The framework also proposes an incentive-based model in which brick kiln employers receive 5 per cent above the market price for government-procured bricks. It says this will enable employers, who currently have no incentive to change long-held practices, to absorb the cost of social protection and enable them to earn extra profits for ensuring a decent work environment. “The Solidarity Center’s proposed decent work brick kiln framework offers a win-win solution for all three social partners,” said Solidarity Center Asia region director Tim Ryan. “Workers will have decent working and living conditions; employers will get guaranteed business, and may receive a higher price for their products.”
‘Rented white coats’ – scientists in the pay of vested interests – are defending toxic chemicals with horrific consequences for the workers these substances make ill. A ‘Science for sale’ investigation by the Washington DC based Center for Public Integrity (CPI) found industry-backed research has exploded “as government-funded science dwindles. Its effects are felt not only in courtrooms but also in regulatory agencies that issue rules to try to prevent disease.” CPI found substances like asbestos, arsenic and lead, whose deadly properties seem incontrovertible, have become subjects of ceaseless debate. It discovered corporations intent on obscuring damning evidence are steering millions of dollars to scientific consulting firms including Gradient, Chemrisk and Environ, group often employing scientists with links to prestigious institutions like Harvard. It concludes this ‘tainted science’ is “used to fend off, or lessen the sting of, lawsuits filed on behalf of sick people.” It also stalls regulatory processes “and made it harder for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to protect workers. It creates doubt where little or none existed.” The CPI investigation cautions that science on everything from air pollution, to asbestos risks to toxic chemicals like BPA, styrene and n-propyl bromide has been influenced by often ‘ridiculous’ industry-financed studies. But in casting doubt over the impartial science, people dying of related diseases are denied compensation and efforts to better control chemicals at work and in the wider environment are stalled or blocked entirely.
In 2009, when Anthony Harrell accepted a $10-an-hour job at an electronics scrap recycling facility in Cincinnati, he was happy to have found work that he liked and that would let him provide for his wife and two children. After his eight-hour shift, clad in the same hat and street clothes he typically wore throughout each day, he would greet his family, waiting in a car outside. His infant daughter Jeriyah was especially eager to be held and hugged. Harrell didn’t know that those cuddles were poisoning his baby. His kids would inadvertently come in contact with the lead contaminating his hair, skin and clothes, which is difficult to wash off with normal soap. Jeriyah, now 6, takes medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and has a hard time learning and staying focused. Her doctors say her difficulties stem from lead exposure. Her older brother was exposed, too, and both children are now being evaluated for behavioural and attention problems at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. They were found to have greatly elevated blood lead levels. Harrell’s children are the nation’s first reported victims of take-home lead exposure from an e-scrap facility, according to Nick Newman, who is the director of the centre’s lead clinic. But occupational hazard experts who have evaluated e-recycling plants in several states are convinced that many more children have been exposed to lead, and are consequently at risk. The cases are “the tip of the iceberg”, said one.
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/
E: [email protected]
Issued: 10 February, 2016