The TUC has been openly critical of the UK government’s attachment to “nudge theory”, which it believes is part-and-parcel of David Cameron’s ineffective, ideologically driven ‘anything but rules’ agenda. As evidence, the TUC points to the Responsibility Deal on workplace health which the government quietly abandoned last year (Risks 744). “This attempted to promote a voluntary approach to health issues around food, alcohol and the workplace through getting pledges from manufacturers, retailers or employers,” notes TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson. The package, he says, was “viewed by most public health experts as being totally ineffective” (Risks 604). The TUC safety expert says: “The evidence is that regulation can be far more effective than behavioural interventions, as shown by a range of public safety or health issues, from seat belts use to workplace smoking.” But he says there are instances in which a nudge can have its uses “if used properly and in addition to regulation” – and the US government’s safety regulator, OSHA, is doing just that. Last week OSHA introduced a new rule requiring employers in high-hazard industries to send OSHA the injury and illness data they are already required to collect, to be posted on the agency’s website. OSHA believes that public disclosure of work injury data will encourage employers to increase their efforts to prevent work-related injuries and illnesses. David Michaels, who heads the regulator, said: “Our new reporting requirements will ‘nudge’ employers to prevent worker injuries and illnesses to demonstrate to investors, job seekers, customers and the public that they operate safe and well-managed facilities. Access to injury data will also help OSHA better target our compliance assistance and enforcement resources at establishments where workers are at greatest risk, and enable ‘big data’ researchers to apply their skills to making workplaces safer.” The information can be used in competitive tendering for contracts and to name and shame the worst employers. TUC says if the UK authorities want to nudge employers into safer and healthier behaviour, the US is showing it the way to go. According to Robertson: “There is no question that this is a really positive step forward and the TUC will be calling on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to do that here. We already have a prosecutions database. An injury one is just the next step forward.”
One million more employees are at high risk of being forced to work excessive hours if the UK votes to leave the EU, a TUC analysis of official figures has found. Working time protections have been targeted openly by Brexit campaigners who claim it is ‘red tape’ that should be scrapped. But the TUC say the EU Working Time Directive has protected UK workers since 1998. It says the directive’s rules have deterred many bosses from forcing UK workers into an average working week longer than 48 hours. The union body says the rules have delivered improvements in work-life balance and health and safety. Regularly working excessive hours is associated with an increased risk of health problems including heart disease, stress, depression and diabetes. The TUC adds public safety has benefited too, pointing out workers in health, transport and other sectors with public safety demands are more likely to make dangerous, perhaps fatal, mistakes if they are over-worked and too tired. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Working people’s rights are on the line in this referendum – and working time protections are particularly at risk. Brexit campaigners have made no secret of their wish to scrap working time protections. If they get their way, the 48 hour limit will be gone and your boss will be able to force you to work 60 or 70 hour weeks.” She added: “The only way working people can be sure of keeping their rights at work is to stay in the EU. Nobody knows exactly how bad things could get for workers’ rights outside of the EU, but the legal experts are all saying it will be worse.”
UNISON has informed the East of England Ambulance Service it is to ballot frontline ambulance staff over possible strike action concerning management’s failure to tackle the problem of excessive working hours and lack of sufficient breaks. The union says in December 2015, 2,995 shifts finished over an hour later than planned, and in January 2016 this rose to 3,639 shifts. Shifts are meant to be no longer than 12 hours in length but regularly over run, so staff can find themselves working 13-18 hour days or nights. Earlier this year one crew was forced to work a 20.5 hour shift. UNISON adds the staff regularly have their 45-minute break cut short. Branch secretary Fraer Stevenson said: “After a year of broken promises, our crews are still faced with unacceptable working conditions… Fifteen hour shifts with just a half hour unpaid break are now commonplace. Ambulance staff carry out life-saving work in their communities and deserve better treatment. Theirs is already a stressful job, being made almost unbearable by the excessive working hours staff regularly find themselves working. No wonder so many have already left the service, and that many more say they want to quit.” She added “it’s not too late for the trust to act. It’s vital that safeguarding measures are put in place to better protect staff from these overwhelming pressures.” UNISON now intends to carry out a ballot of frontline staff. It is seeking a 45-minute meal break, a 20-minute additional break later in the shift, and for crews to be able to return to base at the end of their shift and only be asked to attend the highest category of calls while en route.
Mental health problems linked to the job is blighting the construction sector, a UCATT survey has found. The union found 64 per cent of members responding to the survey said they are suffering from stress and a ‘huge’ 76 per cent said they had at some point suffered stress at work. Almost a third of respondents (30 per cent) have taken time off work due to stress, with almost all (93 per cent) keeping the cause of their absence to themselves. Brian Rye, UCATT acting general secretary, said: “Governments may not take too much notice of stress in the workplace but UCATT does. What this survey shows us is that we have a significant issue affecting thousands of us in our daily lives, and which degrades our lives to such an extent we take time off work.” He said the issue isn’t being addressed as workers are suffering in silence. The UCATT survey found of a third of respondents (35 per cent) said they were suffering from a mental illness or had suffered from a mental illness. Of these members, 44 per cent had time off due to mental health issues but 75 per cent had not raised their problems with management. In total 57 per cent of respondents said their workplace had no interest in their mental health. “UCATT’s aim is to bring the discussion of mental health in the construction industry into the foreground,” said Brian Rye. “Our members’ mental health is just as important to us as their physical wellbeing. The taboo of not talking about depression and anxiety needs to be addressed – for everyone’s health and safety. Let’s change our industry and our society for the better.”
A delivery driver who suffered a crush injury to her hand and arm when she was struck by a lorry had to give up her job as a result. Unite member Helen Waycott was in a busy depot in Hemel Hempstead when she was injured. She was closing the rear doors of her lorry when another lorry attempted to move past her, to make room for a third vehicle that was using a nearby space in the depot. The 48-year-old warned the driver that she would need to close her doors before the vehicle could safely pass, but the driver pulled forward and her right hand and arm was crushed between the moving lorry cab and the door she was trying to close. The depot was known for being overcrowded and vehicles would often be forced to stop in unsafe locations, making driving around the area difficult. Although no bones were broken, Helen developed complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a debilitating condition that causes pain in areas of the body damaged by injury. Helen made two attempts to return to work – the first after six weeks and again after 18 months - but she was in too much pain to do her job. She made the decision to leave her job and is yet to find alternative employment. She has now secured an undisclosed compensation payment in a Unite backed claim. Helen said: “Physiotherapy has helped to an extent with my physical recovery and the compensation has meant I could clear my debts and start looking for alternative work.” Unite regional secretary Peter Kavanagh said: “Delivery depots generally have a high volume of vehicles using them and that’s why it’s vital they should have adequate space for drivers to do their job safely. Unfortunately for Helen, this particular depot was a notorious hotspot for overcrowding and her accident is a result of the risks not being thought through, health and safety just wasn't taken seriously enough.”
The justice services trade union, Community, has called for more government action in response to a report by MPs that concluded prison safety is ‘deteriorating’. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) last month also revealed that prison violence has increased in the past 12 months and, in some cases, is close to double the rates from 2010 (Risks 749). Community, which represents the majority of private sector prison officers, is calling for contractors and the government to implement a ‘Safe Operating Solutions Charter’. But the union also criticised the report by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee for failing to acknowledge the different challenges between public and private prisons. Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of Community, said: “Much of the analysis in the report supports what we hear from prison officers on the frontline and we welcome the fact that MPs have added their voices to calls for urgent action to address the prison safety crisis. However, we are disappointed that the unique challenges faced in private sector prisons have not been recognised.” He added: “We are concerned that the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) are pursuing too much of a hands-off approach when it comes to safety in private prisons. That attitude needs to change and it needs to change soon before more prison officers suffer serious injury or worse. Community is open to dialogue with ministers, NOMS and the government’s contractors to find safe solutions in the best interests of private sector prison officers.”
Specialists’ union Prospect and TUC are among the organisations behind a new initiative to discover issues arising from provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) to women at work. The groups note: “Personal protective equipment is one of the last lines of defence for workers against injuries. However PPE cannot protect a worker from hazards if it does not fit - and one size does not fit all.” The survey explores “women’s experience of wearing PPE at work. We are keen to learn whether the provision of PPE for women has improved in recent years; to identify good practice and to highlight any continuing areas of concern. We will publish the survey returns on National Women in Engineering Day - 23 June - along with any recommendations for further action.” The survey takes around 20 minutes to complete and all responses are confidential. Encouraging people to respond, the organisation behind the survey note: “The more returns we receive, the stronger our evidence base and the more influential our voices will be.”
Women’s PPE survey: Does one size fit all? The closing date is 3 June.
For the first time since the advent of rail travel a year has passed without a railway worker losing his or her life. Announcing the figures, chief inspector of railways Ian Prosser said: “Our aim of continuing to strive for excellence in health and safety management is not about unnecessary ‘gold-plating’, but doing the right things right first time, and having a safety culture built on collective trust to deliver that goal.” The head of the Office of Rail and Road added: “In the summer, we will publish our full review of health and safety performance on our railway, reporting on the work done in 2015-16 to make Britain’s railway amongst the very safest in the world.” Mick Whelan, general secretary of train drivers’ union ASLEF, said the no fatalities precedent was “fantastic news,” adding “this safety record has been achieved with the active participation of trades unions following historic disasters on the railways. ASLEF has 277 health and safety reps looking out for the health and safety of our 20,000 members, other rail workers and the travelling public, and their work has played a big part in achieving the safer railway we have today.” He said: “It should also be recognised that this flies in the face of the negativity coming from government about the role of trades unions, especially the vicious anti-Trade Union Act. We have shown how trades unions help to save lives – and it’s about time that was recognised. This should also be a reminder to the government that if they want to truly avoid a return to the bad old days of major rail disasters they must keep up investment in rail and rail maintenance – and ensure a good working relationship with trades unions and our members.”
A firm’s decision to send home a London receptionist after she refused to wear high heels has attracted widespread criticism. Temp worker Nicola Thorp, 27, arrived at finance company PwC to be told she had to wear shoes with a “2in to 4in heel”. When she refused and complained male colleagues were not asked to do the same, she was sent home without pay. Ms Thorp said she would have struggled to work a full day in high heels. “I was expected to do a nine-hour shift on my feet escorting clients to meeting rooms. I said 'I just won't be able to do that in heels'.” Simon Pratt, managing director at outsourcing firm Portico, said it was “common practice within the service sector to have appearance guidelines”, which Ms Thorp had agreed to. “These policies ensure customer-facing staff are consistently well presented and positively represent a client's brand and image.” However, he said the firm had “taken on board the comments regarding footwear and will be reviewing our guidelines”. The heels stipulation prompted a petition to the government urging ministers to ‘make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work’, which quickly attracted well over 100,000 signatures. TUC women’s equality officer, Scarlet Harris, commented: “From a health and safety perspective, heels are bad for feet, joints and back,” adding: “Frances O’Grady [the head of the TUC] is quoted in the press saying that Thorp’s case “reeks of sexism” and she’s right. The TUC even has an excellent guide on footwear at work which states unequivocally that dress codes which require women to wear heels are sexist – it’s not often you find a health and safety guide for reps calling out sexism.”
TUC Touchstone blog. Working feet and footwear, TUC guide. More on the hazards of standing at work. Background: Linder M and Salzman CL. A history of medical scientists and high heels, International Journal of Health Services, volume 28, number 2, pages 201-225, 1998. BBC News Online and BBC News Magazine.
Sign the petition: Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work.
Victims of a construction industry blacklist who have been awarded a £75m out-of-court compensation settlement (Risks 750) are to demand a police investigation into evidence key executives tried to pervert the course of justice. The major construction companies agreed to the out-of-court settlements to avoid a trial, while accepting that “their secret vetting operation should never have happened”. However, evidence disclosed before the settlement has led many of the victims to claim that there was an illegal attempt by executives at Sir Robert McAlpine to destroy evidence and cover up the involvement of key individuals when the blacklisting was discovered in 2009. The targets of the victims’ intended criminal complaint include Cullum McAlpine, a director of Sir Robert McAlpine and a member of the founding family. He was chair of the illegal blacklisting organisation, known as the Consulting Association, when it was formed in 1993 and he also provided seed cash for its creation. Sir Robert McAlpine’s head of human resources, David Cochrane, who was a later chair of the association, is also at the centre of the complaint. Both deny involvement in destroying any relevant files and categorically deny attempting to pervert the course of justice. Documentation in the possession of the campaigners seems to indicate that after the raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in 2009 that led to the closure that year of the Consulting Association, Cochrane instructed the covert blacklister to destroy evidence and expunge all mentions of Cullum McAlpine from the documents. Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklisting Support Group, said victims would be visiting police to make their complaints.
A partially paralysed man with part of his head missing has been told he is fit for work by the government. Kenny Bailey is waiting to have a metal plate inserted to reshape his skull and protect his brain. The Mirror reports the father of two suffered a massive stroke, leaving him paralysed down one side of his body, and with severe memory problems. Despite this the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has assessed him as fit for work and cut his employment and support allowance. He has lost £156 per fortnight, and will now have to survive on £470 every four weeks, his Personal Independence Payment. Kenny, 50, a former carer from Barnsley, would 'love' to go back to work, but said his injuries have left him with severe mobility difficulties. Commenting after the outsourced ‘Work Capability Assessment’ medical for DWP ruled he could work, he said “to get this verdict that I'm fit to work is just another blow. I want to work, but I'm physically incapable. I'd love to live a normal life again - there's nothing that would make me happier.” He added: “Now I am worried I won't be able to survive and will lose my home.” A DWP spokesperson said: “The decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough independent assessment, and after consideration of all the supporting evidence from the claimant's GP or medical specialist. A claimant who disagrees with the outcome of their assessment can appeal.”
The contribution of exposures to dust and fumes at work to a major lung disease killer is higher than previously estimated, top occupational health researchers have warned. They add that the idea that some exposures at work are ‘nuisance dust’ (Risks 623) suggests widespread complacency about the occupational risks of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the bronchitis and emphysema linked to thousands of work-related deaths in the UK alone each year. Paul Blanc of the University of California San Francisco and Kjell Torén of the University of Gothenburg note that while it is commonly reported that 15 per cent of COPD is related work, many exposures and industries have never been adequately studied and among non-smokers “the occupational contribution to COPD is substantially greater even than the 15 per cent value seen overall.” Writing in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, they note “the central priority” must be prevention of the occupational exposures responsible for COPD. “We must rely on governmental regulation for appropriately protective standard setting and effective enforcement. Unfortunately, this process often comes up short.” They add: “In Europe, as elsewhere, the concept of ‘nuisance dust’ seems to persist, even though there is every reason to suspect that the effect of prolonged exposure at the levels allowed by current regulations is likely to be far worse than a mere annoyance to the worker inhaling such substances [Risks 522]. An ageing workforce as retirement is postponed also means that more years of exposure accumulate, adding to the burden of disease, with respiratory disability more likely to be manifested during working life.” They warn that across the industrialising world “the next generation of COPD is currently incubating, fed both by high rates of smoking and through abysmal employment conditions, including from the exportation of hazardous industrial processes. There is plenty of work ahead of us.”
Paul D Blanc and Kjell Torén, Editorial. COPD and occupation: resetting the agenda, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, volume 73, pages 357-358, June 2016 [abstract].
Resources: TUC dust in the workplace guide [pdf]. Dust up! If you want to breathe easy at work, be a nuisance on dust, Hazards magazine.
A plastics factory owner from Cambridgeshire has been fined and given a suspended jail term after a young worker died when she was crushed by printing machinery. Peterborough Crown Court heard how the 23-year-old agency worker from Lithuania was working in a print room for Gordon Leach, who trades as RGE Engineering Company. On 27 April 2012, Zydre Groblyte entered the printing machine to apply thinners to the ink when the machine started. Her head was crushed between the printing pads and the printing table of the machine, fatally injuring her. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that there was no effective system of guarding to the machine and the incident at the Godmanchester factory could have been prevented. Gordon Leach pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 and was given a 15 month sentence, suspended for 24 months. He was also fined £7,500 and ordered to pay full costs of £45,000. HSE inspector Stephen Faulkner, speaking to Hazards magazine, said: “This was a tragic case where a 23-year-old young woman needlessly lost her life. The issues with the machines guarding were obvious and easy to fix. The machine had been commissioned in 2004 and a perimeter fence had been installed. However, at the rear of the machine there was a large enough gap for someone to enter its ‘danger zone’ and the fence was low enough in places for someone to climb in.” He added: “Following the accident a more complete fence was installed and other safety measures to prevent the machine starting with a person in the restricted area. Had these well-known safeguards been put in place when the machine was installed the incident could not have happened.” Plastics factories are classified as low risk by HSE, so not subject to preventive inspections.
A businessman who ‘exploited’ an epileptic former soldier to work on unsafe scaffolding has been jailed for 40 months for manslaughter. Anthony Minehan, 63, refused to call an ambulance when Steven Weedon, 33, plunged from a ‘considerable distance’ and sustained serious injuries at the defendant’s home in Southport on 26 March 2014. Iraq veteran Mr Weedon, who was being paid £30 a day cash-in-hand by Minehan, managed to get up after the fall but later died at home from massive head injuries. Liverpool Crown Court heard that Minehan knew Mr Weedon “could have an epileptic fit at any time” and should not have been working at height. Minehan also told a ‘pack of lies’ to police to cover his tracks and convinced another man, Terence Van-Eysdon, to make a false statement. However he later pleaded guilty to gross negligence manslaughter and perverting the course of justice. Nigel Lawrence, QC, prosecuting, said: “The breach of duty was not only a gross breach of duty but one that has to be seen against a background of a defendant who exploited a vulnerable man and used him, and others, as cheap labour.” After the fall, witnessed by a neighbour, Mr Weedon was taken back to his rental property, owned by Minehan, and put to bed. He was found dead the following morning by his flatmate, Mr Van-Eysdon. The court heard that the scaffolding, around Minehan’s large three storey detached Victorian House, was “inherently dangerous, defective and unsafe.” There were no proper guardrails in place and the scaffold had not been tied to the walls. Minehan was also ordered to pay £7,000 in prosecution costs. Scaffolding company Abacus has admitted criminal breaches of health and safety laws.
Plantation and farming unions in six African countries - Cameroon, Ethiopia, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria and Zambia - have lent their support to the campaign to halt glyphosate reauthorisation in the European Union (Risks 744). In communications to EU heads of state and the relevant EU authorities, the unions have pointed to the risks from agrochemicals their members confront on a daily basis, often in situations where there is no protective clothing, no proper chemical labelling, no training and no labour inspection. The unions, affiliates of the global plough-to-plate union federation IUF, said their efforts over years to persuade employers and governments to reduce pesticide use have had a “meagre” impact. According to IUF, “workers continue to suffer the effects of indiscriminate pesticide application, a situation rendered even more acute by the fact that many agricultural workers live where they work, surrounded by general pesticide contamination and an absence of potable water.” IUF notes: “Sugar workers are exposed to particularly heavy, indiscriminate glyphosate application since the herbicide is used to accelerate ripening of the cane. The unions believe that re-authorisation would set back their own longstanding efforts to ban or restrict the application of glyphosate and other pesticides, and have urged the Commission to implement a ban on glyphosate use or, failing that, to respect at a minimum the 13 April resolution of the European Parliament, which called for limited reauthorisation for seven years, with important restrictions.”
Former gold miners in South Africa can go ahead with a class action against mining companies over health damage they believe was caused by exposure to silica at work, a court in Johannesburg has ruled. The high court decision paves the way for what would become the largest class action in South African history. The ex-miners say they contracted silicosis, an incurable lung disease, after years of working in the mines. The court said that a class action was “the only realistic option.” The case could last up to 10 years. Among the defendants in the case are Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, Sibanye Gold and African Rainbow Minerals. Most of the miners who contracted silicosis while working underground have been unable to work for many years, dependent on government grants for a living. National union federation COSATU welcomed the decision to allow the cases to proceed. A statement noted: “So many lives have been destroyed by the reckless failure of mine bosses to ensure that mineworkers are not exposed to the silica dust. The mine bosses through greed, mismanagement, short-sightedness and narrow focus on their profits have destroyed the industry and people’s lives.” It added it was “disconcerting that mining companies are failing to prioritise health and safety of workers over profits. We have seen mine managers and bosses using all the tricks available to avoid provision of a safe and healthy working environment. All of these things need to change and they need to change soon. Mineworkers are the ones who did the back-breaking work to build this economy and this country and they deserve justice.” As well as silicosis, workplace silica exposure is known to cause conditions including lung cancer, kidney damage and autoimmune diseases.
Workers in America’s poultry plants are being routinely denied bathroom breaks, research by Oxfam America has found. Its report, ‘No relief’, is based on months of research and exposes how poultry workers struggle to cope. The study found workers are forced “to urinate and defecate while standing on the line; they wear diapers [nappies] to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security.” Oxfam concludes “they are in danger of serious health problems,” with women hit particularly hard. “I was stunned when poultry workers in Arkansas told me that people regularly wear diapers to work in the plants,” said Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam America’s US programme. “They feel they have to put up with this, to keep their jobs. The supervisors do whatever they can to keep the line running at breakneck speed, and the companies turn a blind eye, as they’re racking up record profits. It feels like something out of ‘The Jungle,’ from a hundred years ago, but it’s happening right now. It just isn’t right.” Even though major producer Tyson says it guarantees as-needed bathroom breaks in its “Bill of Rights,” supervisors impose restrictions that make it nearly impossible to use the facilities, Oxfam says. When supervisors do grant a break, they time it to the minute. Jean, a worker at a Tyson plant in Virginia, commented: “You go to the bathroom one minute late, they have you disciplined. The supervisor will have you sign a discipline paper. They have taken me [to the office] several times.” Oxfam says the top four companies -Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue and Sanderson Farms - should lead the way in ensuring that workers have the bathroom breaks necessary to stay healthy, safe, and dignified at work. In the UK, the TUC has called for legal changes to guarantee workers the right to use the loo when necessary (Risks 447).
Oxfam America news release and report, No relief: Denial of bathroom breaks in the poultry industry, May 2015. Washington Post. Bloomberg. Fox News.
Any decline in union power is a threat to public health, according to a paper in the latest edition of the American Journal of Public Health. Mike Wright, director of health and safety with the steelworkers’ union USW, notes unions can improve health and safety by negotiating better working conditions and access to health care, improving pay rates and benefits, and protecting workers from discrimination and unfair treatment. “All are important determinants of health,” he notes, with occupational health and safety and environment protection also key areas of union influence. Wright concludes: “Promoting the health and prosperity of American workers and their families will take a much closer relationship between unions and public health practitioners. It will take a sustained effort to increase the size and strength of unions, and to build a powerful movement aimed at reversing economic inequality and providing safe, secure jobs with adequate compensation and benefits for all.” Addressing public health practitioners – AJPH is the journal of the American Public Health Association (APHA) – he notes: “The APHA can play a key role in that movement, as can other progressive organisations. The unions are central to the struggle. But they cannot do it alone.”
Michael J Wright. The decline of American unions is a threat to public health, American Journal of Public Health, volume 106, number 6, pages 968-969, June 2016.
Courses for 2016
Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/
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Issued: 19 May, 2016