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Health and safety reps are unions’ secret weapon against the government’s assault on workers’ rights, the TUC’s top safety official has said. Addressing the South West TUC’s May 2016 ‘health and safety and organising’ event in Bristol, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson gave a stark assessment of the current situation. “The Tory government has ended a 40-year social partnership with the TUC and the unions over health and safety. Ministers now decide who represents workers on the HSE board, joint committees have been wound down and there’s less consultation with the HSE.” He said HSE and local authority funding cuts had brought an end to most all unannounced safety inspections. “High risk events such as Buncefield are prioritised at the expense of ‘low-risk’ issues affecting many more people. The fact we have 5,000 people being killed each year by asbestos doesn’t make the headlines – we are seeing tens of thousands of workers being exposed to dangerous chemicals because they are deemed ‘low risk’.” But he said union organisation on safety could protect workers. “Health and safety reps cannot replace inspectors but we can be the eyes and ears of the workforce. Health and safety is a good organising issue because it is winnable, empowers workers and sends a strong message to the employer. Our best weapon is you – strong membership and active health and safety reps.”
Ÿ TUC news report. Health and safety and organising - A guide for reps, TUC, March 2016, pdf and e-book versions.
The public and workers will be put at risk by planned government ‘reforms’ to fire and rescue services in England, UNISON has warned. MPs are currently considering a Police and Crime Bill, which would allow police and crime commissioners to take responsibility for fire and rescue services, among other measures. Home secretary Theresa May spelled out the changes in the Police and Crime Bill in a 24 May speech to the Reform think tank. She said the government’s plans also include a 1.6 per cent cut in funds for fire and rescue services this year, with more to come every year to 2020 and a new statutory duty on police, fire and ambulance services to “collaborate whenever it is in the interests of efficiency or effectiveness.” UNISON national secretary Heather Wakefield, commenting on the plan, said “fire and rescue services have already had six years of harsh spending cuts, which have led to job losses, fewer open fire stations and higher response times across the country, putting the public at risk.” She added that UNISON welcomes more collaboration between the emergency services, which already happens, “but not at the expense of fire and support staff, who will hit by these reforms and further cuts.”
The London Fire Brigade (LFB) is failing to meet response time targets to more than half of all emergencies in the areas where ten fire stations were closed in 2014, new research has revealed. Firefighters’ union FBU said the news comes as it emerged there have been two more fatal fires at incidents in the capital where fires crews missed their target attendance time, making a total of eight deaths since the fire stations closed. A Lancaster University analysis found around 50 per cent of all call outs in the areas where the London stations closed did not meet the six minute response time target for the first fire engine to arrive. FBU branded the performance figures “outrageous but foreseeable”. Paul Embery, regional secretary of the FBU in London, said: “These stats support what our firefighters are experiencing on the frontline. Firefighters are attending fatal emergencies knowing that if they could have got there in the time target, they may have been able to save lives. We warned at the time that the decision to close the ten fire stations would result in deaths. Sadly, those warnings were dismissed and as a result lives have been lost. These damning statistics show the need for urgent action by the new mayor Sadiq Khan and the LFB.” Statistician Benjamin Taylor analysed data from call outs to over 24,000 fires in the capital. He said: “Two years on, my analysis would suggest that the impact of the closures may be more substantial than the London Fire Brigade anticipated.” He added: “Following the closures, the London Fire Brigade is only able to respond to around 50 per cent of calls in these areas within its six minute target. Some calls take up to 10 minutes to respond to. Even one minute extra can make all the difference to a fire victim’s chances of survival.”
Ÿ Lancaster University news release. FBU news release. Morning Star. Benjamin Taylor. Spatial modelling of emergency service response times, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (Statistics in Society), published online ahead of print, 2016.
Job cuts in the oil sector are jeopardising safety and could mean there will be no viable North Sea oil industry within a decade, offshore unions have said. The warning came as Shell Oil cut another 475 jobs in a move Unite Scotland described as part of an industry-wide strategy to drive down terms and conditions under the cover of the oil price drop. Unite said Shell has announced 12,000 jobs losses in the last 18 months, leading to concerns over staffing levels, worker morale and health and safety. Unite’s John Boland said: “We have very real fears that Shell cannot continue to operate safely offshore if it keeps shedding the workers tasked with ensuring our oil industry is safe and sustainable.” He added: “Oil companies must drop the attrition strategy - stop cutting jobs and attacking workers’ terms and conditions. It is time to take stock because this industry is heading to a situation whereby it will have lost the very skilled and experienced workers it will need to deal with the upturn… We will not allow this attempt at smoke and mirrors to detract from what is, in actual fact, a race to the bottom on costs, but with the added risk of another health and safety catastrophe.” Tommy Campbell, chair of the joint-union Offshore Coordinating Group (OCG) said: “It isn't feasible to maintain an effective… safety regime while capacity is stripped from the basin.” He added: “The OCG once again calls on government at all levels to organise an industry summit with unions, employers and regulators to discuss a more enlightened response to the current crisis in the North Sea.”
Rail union RMT has demanded sight of the personal sickness, pay and perks records of the top bosses running the “basket-case, rip-off Southern Rail franchise into the ground.” The union demand came after the company admitted it had come close to releasing the personal medical records of its frontline staff, which it had claimed were partly responsible the poor performance of Southern/GTR routes. The union said Southern’s sickness absence claims are “pure fiction cooked up by the GTR dirty-tricks department that bear no relation to what our members are reporting on the ground.” RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “These top bosses at French-owned GTR should release their own personal sickness, pay and perks records so that the public can judge their performance in the glare of publicity rather than these jokers taking pot shots at their safety-critical workforce anonymously from the shadows.” He added: “Anyone who uses Southern/GTR services knows that daily cancellations were a way of life long before the current dispute. The company have now resorted to running services deliberately short staffed so that they can knock lumps out of the workforce when they are inevitably pulled. They are a disgrace and they have chosen to go to war with their staff and passengers instead of getting on with running a safe and reliable railway.”
Thomas Cook Airlines cabin crew have backed strike action by three-to-one in a dispute over health and safety concerns and ‘dangerous’ changes to rest breaks (Risks 750). Unite announced 74.4 per cent of those voting backed taking action. The union said it would be entering further talks with the company at the conciliation service Acas in a bid to resolve the dispute. Unite national officer Oliver Richardson said: “We hope that the company take note of this strong vote in favour of action and works with us constructively to resolve the dispute and avoid any potential industrial action.” He added: “We have already had exploratory talks with Thomas Cook at Acas. Over the coming days we will be approaching further Acas talks in a positive manner and trust that Thomas Cook adopts a similar approach to address our members’ legitimate concerns.” Unite members work on flights to major tourist destinations from 10 airports across the UK. Under the changes the company wants to impose, cabin crew would be allowed just a single 20 minute break during an 11 hour 59 minute duty period.
A union has called for tighter regulation of drones to avert a potential disaster. A position paper from Prospect, which has 5,000 members working in aviation safety, has highlighted the risks of the increasing use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones. The union says the risks are not fully understood, “but will become real when the commercial use of drones becomes widespread.” It wants the government and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to protect the public with comprehensive regulation of this emerging industry. The position paper prepared by Prospect’s Aviation Group details members’ concerns and calls for a review of drone regulation. The union says the government has said its Modern Transport Bill will encourage the economic development of the drone industry through ‘light touch’ regulation. “Prospect believes this will not be adequate and puts commercial interests before public safety,” the union said. Prospect’s Steve Jary said: “It is only a matter of time before a drone collides with an airliner or suffers a mechanical failure and crashes to the ground. Both scenarios have obvious potential consequences. The government and the aviation industry must act now to assess these risks and then act to minimise them.”
The quick response of a resident lock keeper at Abingdon has been critical to saving lives yet again, his union GMB has said. GMB member Richard Hawkins, the resident lock and weir keeper at Abingdon employed by the Environment Agency (EA), raced into action at 6.30pm on 29 April to rescue three city workers whose boat had capsized. After pulling the men from the Thames, one collapsed, his heart stopped and he was going into cardiac arrest. Mr Hawkins performed CPR until the ambulance arrived. The lock keeper’s position has only recently been made permanent. The role of resident lock keepers at other locations is under threat and with it the round-the-clock protection they provide, the union said. It added that a series of potential fatalities have been averted by resident lock keepers, including two previous rescues by Richard Hawkins. GMB national officer Justin Bowden said Richard Hawkins was “a hero in the true sense of the word. What Richard and other lock keepers have performed vindicates GMB’s view that resident lock keepers are essential to maintain safety on the Thames. There is a long history of resident lock keepers responding in minutes day and night to these sorts of incidents. Having a lock keeper on site has saved countless lives and has done so for many years.”
Birmingham City Council has confirmed that plans to cut back the sick pay rights of staff have been removed from proposed changes to their terms and conditions. The changes included a proposal to withdraw from a nationally agreed sickness scheme, a move that would have meant workers at the council and in schools would lose pay for the first three days of any period of sickness and would have their sick pay entitlement reduced by half. The union GMB had lodged a dispute and begun preparations to ballot members for action to defend the sickness scheme. GMB organiser Gill Whittaker said: “GMB has continued to talk to the council since we lodged the dispute. We’ve had some full and frank discussions.” She added: “There are still issues around the other proposed changes to terms and conditions. GMB aren’t in agreement with these, but we will continue talking to the council through the consultation period to try and achieve the best outcome for our members. In the meantime, the council’s decision resolves our dispute and is a victory for GMB and our members.”
A Unite member from Birmingham has received damages after suffering a crush injury to his hand and the partial amputation of his thumb because he didn’t have adequate safety training at work. At the time of the incident the 53-year-old worker, whose name has not been released, was working for Markem Haulage Limited delivering cement to locations across the West Midlands. He had unloaded cement from the mixer at one job and was cleaning the machine. He was meant to wash it out with a hose pipe but this was faulty, so he was told to clean mixer manually instead. His left hand came into contact with the power box as he steadied himself so he could lean into the machine, and he accidently knocked the handle that starts the machine. The mixer fired up and dragged his right hand into the machine, causing a crushing injury and several lacerations. He was taken to hospital where doctors informed him that the damage to his thumb was so severe that he would have to lose the tip. Two days later, he was dismissed and spent months looking for other employment. He has since received undisclosed damages in a union-backed compensation claim. Stef Blasczyk, Unite’s West Midlands legal officer, said the injured worker “has been able to regain the use of his hand but his injury and the experience of it will stay with him for the rest of his life. Employers need to understand that if they don’t provide reasonable protection for their staff, then they, as well and their employees, will suffer repercussions for their negligence.”
A Unite member who developed diffuse pleural thickening as a result of exposure to asbestos at work has received an undisclosed payout. The former steel rigger, whose name has not been released, was first exposed to asbestos in 1958, when he spent eight years working as a scaffolding contractor at power stations across the UK. He worked alongside contractors who were mixing and applying asbestos lagging, causing asbestos dust to settle on the scaffolding as well as on his clothes. After leaving this job, he worked as a rigger until 1972, including a contract at a gas works in Manchester where he removed pipework that was lagged with asbestos. He was also exposed to asbestos dust during further power station works in the 1980s and 1990s. He was never provided with protective equipment or told about the dangers of working with asbestos. He started to suffer from shortness of breath and panic attacks in 2011, at which point he visited his doctor who arranged for him to have a scan on his lungs. Doctors drained fluid from his lungs and carried out a biopsy, which revealed that he had developed pleural thickening. Pleural thickening is a hardening of lung lining as a result of inhaling asbestos, and it can cause breathlessness and fatigue. Unite regional secretary Karen Reay said: “Our member had been exposed to asbestos on and off for nearly 40 years, the effects of which only manifested years after his retirement. He had built a reputation in his town as someone who loved to help out whenever he could, but the onset of his condition rapidly put a stop to all of that.”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is recruiting a £100,000-a-year commercial director to greatly ‘accelerate’ its shift to more money-spinning private activities. In the job specification, the safety regulator says “our ambitions include capitalising on our considerable know-how and expertise on a commercial basis.” It adds HSE is “now looking to accelerate our growth with ambitious new major commercial opportunities.” HSE notes the move, which will also involve a push to secure overseas sales for its services, is a response “to pressures on government funding, to support our Chief Scientist and others in developing opportunities for investment in our science by others, and to develop our people in a way that enables a sustainable high performance for commercial clients.” According to HSE’s 2016-17 business plan (Risks 745), HSE will receive £140.9m from the government in 2016/17, down from £231m in 2009/10. The government’s contribution to HSE’s funding is set to fall to £128.4 million by 2018/19. The commercial director job spec notes: “The postholder will be expected to grow major commercial contracts from £4.5m pa to around £15m pa by 2020. This is in addition to HSE's standard services portfolio.” The commercial director will manage a team of 45 HSE employees, although HSE says “those working on major commercial projects can come from teams across HSE so at any given time the resource can be much higher.” The renewed focus on commercial activities will inevitably heighten concerns about HSE’s commitment to its inspection and regulatory functions, with an additional fear resources may be diverted from these already under-pressure activities. The substantial human resources to be marshalled by the incoming commercial director appear to be from HSE’s existing staff numbers.
Betting firm Ladbrokes has been accused of putting “profits before lives” after one lone worker was killed and a second was raped, the Mirror has reported. The paper notes that dad-of-three Andrew Iacovou was battered to death by a gambler who lost money on its fixed-odds betting terminals a day earlier (Risks 634). Another young worker was raped and left for dead by a customer who lost hundreds of pounds on the same machines. The Mirror investigation found Ladbrokes saved £200 million in wages in five years, partly by forcing staff to work alone. Former head of health and safety Bill Bennett, who the paper says has turned whistleblower, alleged: “Ladbrokes chose to prioritise profit over the health and safety of its employees.” Mr Bennett, who is taking the firm to an employment tribunal claiming he was sacked for whistleblowing, alleged Ladbrokes opens betting shops where staff work alone without risk assessment. Chief executive Jim Mullen admitted to the tribunal there were “serious systemic failures in the operation of Ladbrokes’ health and safety processes... particularly in respect of staff training, efficacy of shop premises and staff risk assessments”. But he insisted: “The suggestion I have put profits before lives is bunkum. Health and safety is a non-negotiable part of the business.” Responding to the rape case, Mr Mullen said: “I was shocked by the incident and the reaction to it has been an important part of my work over the last year.”
Ÿ The Mirror.
British Telecommunications plc has been fined after two of its employees were seriously injured in falls on the same job on the same day. Teesside Crown Court heard how the two BT Open Reach engineers had been given a job at BT’s Darlington Automatic Telephone Exchange. One of the engineers was installing a cable through a hole on the first floor along a ceiling level cable tray to the main distribution frame (MDF) on the ground floor. In order to carry out this work he was working on a stepladder in amongst the lighting system. He felt a pain in his right arm and fell from the step ladder. He was taken to hospital with head and back injuries. The incident was not properly investigated and later that day the work was allowed to continue. The second engineer continued with the work himself, from a different ladder. However he too fell to the ground and was taken to hospital with serious skull and back injuries. A year later, the first engineer returned to work for BT. However he had lost his sense of smell and taste and required a lengthy course of physiotherapy. The second engineer received serious multiple fractures of the skull and spine, his sense of smell and taste had been affected, he was blinded in one eye, and has long term memory problems. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into both incidents, which occurred on 1 April 2010, found the work had not been properly assessed or planned, despite workers being exposed to serious risks from working at height close to an electrical system. British Telecommunications plc pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £600,000 and ordered to pay costs of £60,000. HSE inspector Laura Lyons said: “These life changing incidents could have been avoided if BT had provided safe systems of work and ensured that the electrical systems were properly constructed, maintained and tested.” Both injured workers were members of the communications union CWU, and received compensation in union-backed claims. CWU national safety officer Dave Joyce commented: “This is damning example of what can happen when managers fail to manage and monitor the health and safety of the workforce through careful attention to law and the company’s own health and safety standards and rules. It’s important to be proactive about health and safety and that didn't happen in this case. All accidents can be avoided if the risks are properly assessed and managed.”
Lives are being put at risk because HGV drivers are not following basic safety procedures when coupling and uncoupling vehicles, the Health and Safety Executive has warned. The workplace health and safety regulator urged drivers to apply parking brakes and use or retrofit warning alarms to avoid a repeat of an incident in January 2015 when a 20-year-old man died. Road worker Dale Pentney was crushed by an HGV tractor unit which unexpectedly rolled backwards as driver Anthony Steven Smith, 48, was in the process delivering materials for repairs to the A21 in Kent. A joint investigation by Kent Police and HSE found that Smith failed to apply the parking brake of the tractor unit before he left it. On 24 May, at Sevenoaks Magistrates’ Court, he was sentenced to 12 weeks’ imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, and disqualified from driving for 12 months. The experienced HGV driver was in the process of connecting his tractor unit to another parked trailer when it rolled backwards. Two men working with Mr Pentney were able to jump out of its way but Mr Pentney was trapped between the two vehicles. He sustained major head injuries and died at the scene. HSE inspector Melvyn Stancliffe, speaking after the prosecution brought by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said: “Many vehicles are fitted with visual and audible parking brake warning alarms, and if they are not fitted, hauliers should consider retrofitting them to their tractor units as HSE considers it reasonably practicable to do so. These alarms must never be ignored. Drivers must ensure they correctly apply the tractor unit parking brake before exiting the cab and then follow safe decoupling and coupling procedures.”
A promise by the Dutch government to take action on occupational cancer during its presidency of the European Council has resulted in a cancer covenant, committing signatories to prevent or reduce exposures to carcinogens. The covenant runs until the end of 2019, and is signed by the Dutch and Austrian governments, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Business Europe, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and the European Commission. The initiative was launched at the start of a three-day European conference in Amsterdam on work-related cancer. EC Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen said: “Cancer has an enormous impact on workers, their families, industry and society. With this proposal we will save 100,000 lives in the next 50 years. Protection of workers is at the core of the Commission’s commitment to a strong social Europe.” A ‘roadmap on carcinogens’ accompanying the covenant creates a voluntary action scheme promoting the exchange of good practices to “enhance knowledge among businesses about reducing exposure to carcinogens.” The action scheme will run until the end of the Austrian presidency in 2019.
Ÿ Dutch Focal Point for Safety and Health at Work news release. Commissioner Thyssen’s conference speech. Roadmap on Carcinogens. Introductory video to the Roadmap. ETUC news release. EU-OSHA news release.
The meat and poultry industry in the US remains exceptionally dangerous, despite a decline in reported injuries and illnesses over the past 10 years, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The report notes that working conditions in the industry have not improved substantially since the GAO examined the industry in 2005, with under-reporting of injuries a major problem. Workers in poultry and meat processing plants “continue to face the hazardous conditions the GAO cited in 2005, including tasks associated with musculoskeletal disorders, exposure to chemicals and pathogens and traumatic injuries from machines and tools,” it says. Line speed is a huge problem in these plants where poultry workers typically handle 30 or more turkeys and 100 or more chickens a minute. The GAO also reports that injuries included in official records cover only those for which workers took time off. This means they fail to account for many of the musculoskeletal disorders that are widespread throughout the industry. Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow with the National Employment Law Project, commented: “It is clear from the report that the meat and poultry industry cuts corners when it comes to worker safety. Workers continue to be exposed to dangerous conditions, are denied adequate medical treatment when they are injured on the job, and are pressured to not report injuries.” She added: “The GAO report underscores the importance of expanding [US safety regulator] OSHA’s current targeted inspections programmes in the meat and poultry industry, and urges the agency to investigate the hazards faced by all workers in the industry, including sanitation workers.” A report this year from Oxfam America found poultry plant workers’ are routinely denied bathroom breaks, and in some instances resort to wearing diapers (nappies) on the line (Risks 751).
For centuries, unions have been at the forefront of fighting for and winning safer protections for working people, US union federation AFL-CIO has said. In a posting on its AFL-CIO Now blog, it notes: “Horrific workplace tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the Hawks Nest Tunnel disasters are reminders of the need for unions. Unions fought for the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” It adds: “Over the past 45 years, unions have won national and state safety and health protections for all working people, including key standards such as asbestos, benzene, lead, confined spaces and fall protection; and now more than 532,000 working people can say their lives have been saved through this law.” The national union body added that unions also win strong collective bargaining contracts in their workplaces, “establishing key safety protections such as safety representatives and labour management committees, as well as other labour protections such as higher wages, retirement security, work autonomy, job security, paid time off and predictable scheduling. Unions are still winning important protections for all people by advocating for and defending safety and health standards.” The article concludes: “Unions are critical in the push for stronger safety and health protections and to keep the protections workers have - making sure that profits are not put ahead of working people’s right to provide for their families and return home alive, in one piece and not burdened with lifelong illness. Unions will keep winning for working people.”
Ÿ Course dates now appearing at www.tuceducation.org.uk/findacourse/
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Issued: 2 June, 2016