Risks 483 - 20 November 2010

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards Magazine
Hazards at work

Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 18,000 subscribers and 1,500 on the TUC website. To receive this bulletin every week, click here. Past issues are available. This edition contains Useful links TUC courses for safety reps Disclaimer and Privacy

Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at [email protected]

Union News

Construction firm guilty of blacklisting

A major construction contractor has been found guilty by an employment tribunal of blacklisting a prominent trade unionist. Ashford Employment Tribunal ruled that Unite member Phil Willis, 61, had been unlawfully refused employment by CB&I because he was a member of a trade union and a prominent activist. He was awarded £18,375 in damages, a sum that includes £2,000 in 'aggravated damages' because CB&I made use of a blacklisting service. The case is linked directly to the seizure in 2009 by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) of a blacklist run by The Consulting Association (TCA). CB&I subscribed to the now defunct TCA and used its services extensively (Risks 416). Mr Willis submitted an application to CB&I for work as a steel erector on the Isle of Grain project in 2007. Although his application was acknowledged, he was not contacted again. Following the raid by the ICO, Mr Willis obtained a copy of his blacklist file which contained information about his trade union activity. He brought his case under section 137 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Speaking after the verdictm Mr Willis said: 'We are beside ourselves with delight. The judgment was absolutely damning against CB&I, so much so that it reduced us to tears. It was such a great victory for us and for all those who will eventually follow in our footsteps.' Unite's national officer for construction Tom Hardacre said: 'It is the first successful case against a major construction company but it will not be the last. The union is currently providing legal support to a number of workers who believe they have been blacklisted.' He added: 'Unite intends to use the full force of the law to hold firms to account for systematically ruining people's livelihoods just because a few brave men were prepared to stand up for the rights of their fellow work colleagues.' Unite assistant general secretary Les Bayliss said: 'Unite will be campaigning to strengthen the law on blacklisting to ensure employers do not even contemplate blacklisting trade union members.'

Tube safety team cut in half

Management plans to axe more than half of London Underground's (LU) health and safety team have been condemned by rail unions. The unions say they have been informed of plans to cut LU's health, safety and environment directorate from 127 staff to just 62. Commenting on the loss of 65 Tube safety jobs, the union TSSA said the LU plans 'beggared belief'. RMT said they were 'a recipe for disaster.' Berating London mayor Boris Johnson, TSSA general secretary Gerry Doherty said: 'This news comes during the inquest into the July bombings five years ago in which the heroism of LU staff has been widely recognised and praised. This is the thanks they get from a Mayor who is more interested in scoring cheap political points than entering into serious negotiations with the trade unions on maintaining and improving the Tube in the run up to the Olympics in 2012.' Bob Crow, general secretary of RMT said: 'TfL's repeated claims that they would do nothing to compromise safety on the Tube have once again been exposed as totally bogus.' The unions say LU managers have refused to say which safety critical jobs will go in the safety department, which monitors passenger and staff safety on all Tube lines in the capital. 'They seem only interested in the economic arguments, not the crucial safety issues,' said TSSA's Gerry Doherty. The cuts are part of an overall plan by the Mayor to slash staff numbers across the network by 2,200. The fourth in a series of 24-hour strikes related to the cutbacks is scheduled for 29 November.

Union warning on Scottish booze checks

A new law that will require age checks on anyone in Scotland who appears to be under 25 and attempts to purchase alcohol could lead to more problems for retail staff, the union Usdaw has warned. The union is calling on the Scottish government to launch a major publicity campaign to ensure Scotland's shoppers are made aware of the 'Think 25' policy that will shortly become mandatory for all licensed premises in the country. Usdaw says last year over a million shopworkers were assaulted, threatened or abused while at work - and nearly a half of all incidents of abuse resulted from shopworkers asking customers for proof of age ID or refusing a sale of an age-restricted product such as alcohol. John Hannett, Usdaw general secretary, said: 'Usdaw supports the policy, but most shoppers over 18 simply don't understand why they are asked for proof of age ID and many will certainly object when a sale is refused because they cannot produce any. We have been calling for a UK-wide campaign to make shoppers aware of the policy to help reduce incidents, but now 'Think 25' is to be made a legal requirement in Scotland, a major publicity campaign is absolutely essential to help protect shopworkers.' The Usdaw leader added: 'Scotland's shoppers need to understand that shopworkers asking for proof of age ID are only doing their job and protecting themselves from a possible fine, criminal prosecution or disciplinary action from their employer.'

Commute times down to 10 year low

The growth of home working has helped to cut average commute times to a 10 year low of 47 minutes and 48 seconds per day, a TUC analysis of official figures has shown. Using figures from the Labour Force Survey (LFS), the TUC has calculated that £339 million worth of working time is spent travelling to and from work every day. The TUC analysis found the average time spent commuting to and from work increased each year from 1998 to 2006, reaching a record 52 minutes and 36 seconds in 2006. Since 2006, average commute times have decreased every year by 4 minutes and 48 seconds, falling to 47 minutes and 48 seconds per day in 2008 - the latest year that times are available - which is the lowest level since records began in 1998. The TUC believes that the growth in home working has been one of the reasons for the fall in commute times. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'UK employees already work some of the longest hours in Europe so it's doubly annoying to lose even more precious spare time stuck in traffic and packed on trains on the way to and from work. Our analysis shows that flexible and home working doesn't just benefit individuals and their employers. If more people are allowed to work from home we can make the daily commute shorter and more pleasant for everyone.'

Health service staff 'struggling'

Staff shortages, recruitment freezes and redundancies are set to exacerbate a health service resource crisis that has left frontline stressed and under severe pressure, public sector union UNISON has warned. The union's survey, which questioned a cross section of more than 8,000 NHS staff, found hospitals are responding to financial difficulties by freezing recruitment, cutting posts and services, outsourcing and restructuring. Almost a third of staff say this has led to a decrease in the quality of patient care, 80 per cent reported an increase in workload, while half were struggling with staff shortages. Over threequarters of NHS staff (77 per cent) reported 'increased stress' over the last year. Factors contributing the most to increased workload include vacancy freezes and redundancies, the survey found. UNISON head of health Karen Jennings said the survey 'reveals that 80 per cent of staff have seen their workload increase and that means fewer staff treating more patients.' She added: 'Our survey explodes the myth that the NHS is protected from spending cuts.'

Other news

Compensation a victim of legal aid cuts

Major government reforms intended to cut the legal aid bill by £350m a year by 2015 will deny many workers injured or made ill by their work access to justice, unions have warned. The proposals announced by justice secretary Kenneth Clarke will dramatically reduce access to legal support, with employment and personal injury costs on the government hit list. Mr Clarke said: 'I believe that the taxpayer should continue to provide legal aid to those who need it most and for serious issues.' Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly was left to spell out changes to make life easier for defendants. 'One of our key proposals is reforming the current 'no win no fee' regime,' he said, adding the 'proposals are designed to prevent the situation in which, regardless of the merits of their case, defendants are forced to settle for fear of prohibitive costs.' TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said the personal injury system already worked in favour of defendants, pointing out claims had fallen dramatically in recent years and only a minority of those with a genuine case actually pursue compensation. He added: 'Workers rights to compensation are being attacked on all fronts. When 'no win no fee' arrangements for personal injury claims were introduced the government slashed access to legal aid, saying that it was no longer needed. Now, however, they are both reducing workers ability to access no win no fee arrangements and at the same time cutting legal aid even further.' Rachael Maskell, Unite national officer for the not for profit sector, said what Kenneth Clarke had done was 'silence the voices of the weak in British society in a brutal bid to reduce his department's budget by 23 per cent over the next four years.' She added Unite would redouble the efforts of its Justice for All campaign.

The problem is not enough jobs

Government plans to make the unemployed work for their benefits are addressing the wrong problem, too few jobs, unions have said. Commenting on the government's welfare reform white paper, which will also introduce a single universal credit to replace a wide range of work-related benefits, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'With five people already chasing every job, the problem is not workshy scroungers but a shortage of jobs. Of course we should be tough with the small minority that play the system, but there are already strong sanctions in place.' He added: 'It looks very much as if the government is trying to blame the victims, while covering up the spending cuts that have already ended the Future Jobs Fund and that will throw up to a million extra people on the dole.' Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS, the union representing benefits staff, said: 'This is part of an orchestrated campaign by ministers to portray some of the most vulnerable members of our society as the new 'undeserving poor' to persuade the public that some cuts are fair. Not only is this cruel, it is directly at odds with the fact the government has admitted half a million public sector workers are set to lose their jobs, with even more expected in the private sector.' Physios' union CSP said the government had 'missed a golden opportunity' to reduce sickness absence and said work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith should have 'used his white paper to compel employers and the NHS to invest in early intervention services.' The government is proposing consolidating the existing 30 or more work-related benefits - including jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit, working tax credit, income support and employment support allowance - into a single universal payment. Industrial injuries and diseases benefit will remain separate.

Unions welcome Sellafield body parts report

The government has apologised to the families of dead nuclear workers whose body parts were taken for testing without their knowledge. The Redfern Inquiry was ordered when it emerged in 2007 that organs were taken from 65 workers at Sellafield in Cumbria between 1962 and 1992. Michael Redfern QC concluded that the relationship between pathologists, coroners and Sellafield medical officers 'became too close' with failures to adhere to professional standards. He said: 'The blame lies mainly at the door of pathologists who performed the post-mortem examinations. Ignorant of the law, they removed organs for analysis without satisfying themselves that the relatives' consent had been obtained.' Mr Redfern said it was the view of the families that the bodies were treated as a 'commodity'. Bones were even replaced with broomstick handles so no-one would become suspicious at the funerals. Nuclear industry unions Prospect and GMB, who were among the organisations who called for the inquiry, welcomed the report. Mike Clancy, deputy general secretary of Prospect, said: 'Nobody would question the value of medical research into potential health risks to the industry's employees and close neighbours. Such research is clearly in the public interest but that does not in any way justify the removal of tissue without appropriate consent. Our thoughts are with the affected families, for whom this is difficult and upsetting.' Steve Gibbons, regional officer responsible for GMB members at Sellafield, said: 'This has been an extremely distressing period for the families involved in this ordeal and this union shares their concerns. GMB believe that we have played our part in trying to eradicate, completely, levels of radiation exposure in order that workers are protected from industrial disease.'

Time to fight back on safety cutbacks

Unions and safety campaigners must escalate their efforts to combat a government assault on workplace safety regulation and enforcement, a new report has warned. The rallying call comes in 'Dangerous li(v)es', published online and in the new issue of the workers' health and safety magazine Hazards, and condemns a 'savage funding cut' to the Health and Safety Executive (Risks 479) combined with a dilution of safety rules as 'a political project driven by the business lobby and built around dangerous lies' (Risks 482). The report refutes a series of myths about workplace safety. The claim that firms will 'do the right thing' is dismissed, with the report saying: 'Some do, but enough don't - enough to damage the health of millions of UK workers every year.' It adds that modern workplaces, small workplaces and offices are not immune from problems, and in fact contribute to record numbers of people being made ill as a result of their work (Risks 480). The report also dismantles systematically arguments about health and safety regulations and enforcement being a burden on business. It says: 'The business lobby's top bugbear is risk assessments, which it complains are petty bureaucracy and a burden. But if you are too dumb to easily and quickly complete a risk assessment on your own business activities, you are too dumb to run that business.' A 'Want to know about burdens?' poster accompanying the report features the case of Laurie Swift, whose partner Alan Winters died at work just six weeks before she gave birth to Alan Jr. It says: 'Grieving for a dead partner who never got to meet his son. Bringing up two children on your own. Working in a cafe but struggling to put food on the table. They're burdens.' The poster and report form part of a 'We didn't vote to die at work' campaign kit, complementing TUC resources and created to help union reps argue the case for life-saving safety rules and enforcement.

Work chemicals linked to male breast cancer

Common workplace chemicals have been linked to an increased risk of male breast cancer. The research, published this week in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, investigated occupational risk factors for male breast cancer, using a case control study conducted in eight European countries. The researchers found male breast cancer incidence was particularly increased in motor vehicle mechanics, who were twice as likely to develop the disease. There was a clear 'dose-effect' relationship, with the risk of developing the cancer increasing with duration of employment. The male breast cancer risk was also increased in paper makers and painters, forestry and logging workers, health and social workers, and furniture manufacture workers. The authors note: 'These findings suggest that some environmental chemicals are possible mammary carcinogens. Petrol, organic petroleum solvents or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are suspect because of the consistent elevated risk of male breast cancer observed in motor vehicle mechanics.' They add: 'Endocrine disruptors such as alkylphenolic compounds may play a role in breast cancer.' The paper concludes: 'The elevated risk of male breast cancer among motor vehicle mechanics points to a role of PAH and petrol or petroleum solvents in breast carcinogenesis, which needs to be investigated further in studies of male or female breast cancer. For the first time in male breast cancer, we have shown that endocrine disrupting chemicals could affect breast cancer risk. These results support growing evidence that breast cancer may be linked to exposure to environmental pollutants, and should encourage further studies on this issue.'

  • Sara Villeneuve, Diane Cyr, Elsebeth Lynge and others. Occupation and occupational exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in male breast cancer: a case-control study in Europe, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, volume 67, pages 837-844, 2010 [abstract]. Green jobs, safe jobs blog.

Job strain heart risk for women

Women with high job strain have a greatly increased risk of cardiovascular disease compared with those in less demanding posts, a new study suggests. They have an 88 per cent raised risk of a heart attack, and more chance of strokes and damage requiring coronary artery bypass surgery, US researchers said. The study found overall women who report having high job strain have a 40 per cent increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and the need for procedures to open blocked arteries, compared to those with low job strain. Job strain is defined as having a demanding job that provides limited opportunity for decision making or to use creative or individual skills. The study also found job insecurity was associated with risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and obesity - but not directly with poor cardiovascular health. Researchers from Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, whose findings were presented last week to the American Heart Association, followed 17,415 healthy women for more than 10 years. Lead researcher Natalie Slopen said: 'Women in jobs characterised by high demands and low control, as well as jobs with high demands but a high sense of control are at higher risk for heart disease long term.' Study co-author Dr Michelle Albert said the study suggested job stress had both a short and long-term effect on cardiovascular health. She added: 'From a public health perspective, it's crucial for employers, potential patients, as well as government and hospital entities to monitor perceived employee job strain and initiate programmes to alleviate job strain and perhaps positively impact prevention of heart disease.'

Fears on planned pupil restraint powers

Government plans to give teachers powers to restrain and search unruly pupils without proper training could lead to chaos in the classroom, teaching organisations have warned. Four out of five teachers surveyed by the Teacher Support Network said extra training is essential if teachers are to get a grip on misbehaviour during lessons and avoid injury and false accusations of abuse when breaking up fights. The National Union for Teachers (NUT) is demanding an 'unequivocal statement' from ministers that if teachers use their powers to search pupils or their rights regarding physical restraint, 'there will be no unforeseen consequences arising from their actions.' The union adds: 'Teachers have a duty of care to pupils which may at times cause them to intervene to protect pupils from harming themselves or other pupils. Many are currently not confident that if they take such action they will be supported by senior leadership teams, parents or the local authority.' Some teaching unions believe trained security staff should be employed by schools to carry out searches and impose discipline.

Waste and recycling four times as dangerous

The combined fatal and major injury rate in waste and recycling is still more than four times the average across all industries, latest official figures have confirmed. A total of 416 out of every 100,000 employees suffered a major injury or were killed at work compared with the all industry average rate of 102 per 100,000, according to the latest statistics released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The new figures show 530 major injuries to employees in waste and recycling were reported in 2009/10 ? a fall of 10 per cent on the previous year when 590 major injuries were reported. Major injuries, such as amputations and broken limbs account for around one in four injuries in the sector. Provisional fatality figures for 2009/10 also show that four employees were killed as a result of working in waste and recycling between April 2009 and March 2010 ? three fewer than in 2008/09. Three members of the public also died in relation to work activities in the waste and recycling sector during 2009/10. HSE says 'there was little discernable improvement in injuries that kept people away from work for three days or more, with 2,151 reported in 2009/10 compared with 2,225 in 2008/09 ? a fall of only one per cent.'

DIY asbestos removal leads to fine

A Norwich construction company has been fined £30,000 after endangering employees' lives when it opted to cut costs by undertaking an asbestos removal job at its own HQ. Magistrates heard that members of staff at East Anglian Construction Ltd, a subsidiary of Peter Colby Commercials, had been asked to remove the hazardous building material from the company's headquarters. The company had obtained estimates from specialist companies to remove the asbestos but, after being quoted sums between £24,000 and £30,000, bosses decided to carry out the work themselves. They checked online to find out what precautions to take - but followed instructions for removing asbestos cement rather than the far more friable asbestos insulation board. The company pleaded guilty to three criminal breaches of health and safety regulations. Prosecutor Matthew Edwards said: 'This procedure presented a serious danger to the health of employees and that will be hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives.' Magistrate Charles Nevick fined the company £30,000 and ordered that it pay £10,000 in legal costs. Susan Thomas, a Norwich council health and safety officer, said: 'The magistrates clearly viewed this as a serious breach of the regulations. Six charges in total were laid and the maximum fine available to the court was made in each case.' She added: 'These were not trivial health and safety matters and I hope that others who may be thinking of acting in the same way think again. The dangers of working with asbestos are well known and have been for many years and those in control of premises should know what they are dealing with.'

Chemical firm fined after fireball horror

An offshoot of a global chemical company that posted £100 million profits in 2009 has been fined £20,000 after a welder suffered serious burns in a dust explosion. David Lightfoot was carrying out welding on a large container at Indorama Polymers (Workington) Ltd's site in Siddick, Cumbria. The container housed 380 tonnes of the explosive powder terephthalic acid. Following an investigation, the company was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Workington Magistrates' Court heard that, on 29 October 2008, Mr Lightfoot was welding a metal component around a two and a half inch diameter hole that had been sealed with a temporary bung, when he was suddenly engulfed by a fireball. The 58-year-old had been welding for around 20 seconds before finding himself surrounded by flames that forced him down to his hands and knees. He and another worker jumped 10 feet to the ground to escape the flames but Mr Lightfoot was left with severe burns to his head, face, arms and hands. The HSE investigation concluded the bung had fallen out, allowing around 15 grams of the explosive powder to escape, which was then ignited by the welding flame. The grandfather spent three days in intensive care with breathing difficulties, caused by swelling and blistering to his tongue and throat. He is still being treated for the scarring to his face more than two years after the incident. Mr Lightfoot, who lives with his son, daughter-in-law, and three grandsons, said: 'I think my family were quite shocked when they first saw me but I'm just thankful it wasn't a lot worse, and no one else was injured. I had to take a year off work to recover, and I still have injections in my forehead and face to try to reduce the scarring. I'll probably be scarred for the rest of my life though.' He added: 'I was told that it would be safe to carry out welding work on the vessel but it wasn't.' The firm's parent company, Thailand-based plastics giant Indorama Ventures Public Company Limited, posted after tax profits of £100.7 million in 2009.

Site firm fined for electric burns

A Solihull groundworks specialist has been fined £13,000 after one of its workers suffered severe burns when his drill hit a power cable. The worker, who asked not to be identified, was using a pneumatic drill to dig a trench at the Taylor Wimpey housing development in Walsall, when he struck an 11kv cable under the pavement on 13 August 2009. He suffered severe burns from the resulting flash and was airlifted to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham for emergency treatment. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that Pacestone Construction Ltd had failed to take sufficient steps to protect its employees from the risk presented by underground cables. The worker was unaware of where the cables were located on the site. The firm pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007. It was fined £13,000 and ordered to pay £3,870 costs at Walsall Magistrates' Court. HSE inspector David Price said: 'This incident was entirely preventable had the company taken sensible precautions. Using a cable detector, marking the location of cables and only allowing workers to use hand tools when digging in the proximity of live services would have avoided the risk of hitting cables.' Around 1,000 electrical accidents at work are reported to HSE each year and about 25 people die of their injuries.

International News

Global: More bad news for the asbestos pushers

A study in China has confirmed workers exposed to the only remaining form of asbestos in production are at a greatly increased risk of lung cancer. The news comes as a high profile campaign for a global asbestos ban is attracting worldwide support. Chrysotile, or white, asbestos is accepted by international authorities as a potent cause of cancer. However, the industry has defended the product and is involved in a well-resourced promotional campaign to push asbestos exports in developing nations (Risks 474). The latest study, undertaken by researchers from public health and medical schools in China and Japan and published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found asbestos workers in the 'high exposure' group were 3.66 times more likely to develop lung cancer. The authors conclude 'results confirm the strong association between exposure to chrysotile asbestos and lung cancer risk, and support an interactive effect of asbestos exposure and smoking which is more than additive.' The study is likely to be of considerable annoyance to the global asbestos lobby, which may already fear China is breaking ranks. It comes after the country, a producer nation, introduced a succession of controls on asbestos use, including effectively outlawing asbestos use in public projects from June 2011, with state architects no longer specifying asbestos cement products in buildings. Campaigners pressing for a global ban on asbestos will have further aggravated asbestos lobbyists this week, with the publication of a full page advert in two major Canadian newspapers condemning asbestos exports and use. The ad, which is signed by prominent experts and campaigners and national and international trade union, safety and medical organisations, has subsequently appeared on websites and social networking sites worldwide. The asbestos industry's most prolific lobbying organisation, the Quebec-based Chrysotile Institute, is currently attempting to negotiate a rescue and expansion package for a failed asbestos mine in the province.

China: Dust diseases blight coal mines

Lung diseases caused by coal dust in China's notoriously hazardous mines are killing far more miners than accidents. Official estimates say there are nearly 2.7 million dust exposed workers in the coal mines. More than 6,000 coal miners die each year as a result of 'black lung', a lung scarring caused by dust inhalation, with almost 10 times this number diagnosed with the disease each year. A research report conducted by the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety and the All-China Federation of Labor and China Occupational Safety and Health Association found in the years 1983 to 2008 dust concentrations in most coal mines seriously exceeded the official limit, with dust concentrations between 49.5 times and 855 times the national standard. By the end of 2007, official records showed a total of 312,000 cases of pneumoconiosis - dust disease - in China's major coal mines. The figure does not include cases occurring in many smaller village mines. An official from the All-China Federation of Labour said that pneumoconiosis and occupational hazards in China's coal industry have not been effectively controlled.

USA: Who cares about black lung deaths?

It's a statistic that shames a rich nation. Three coal miners in the US die daily - and needlessly - from black lung disease; over 1,000 coal miners perish every year. It has something that has caught the eye of the authorities, with President Obama's Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) placing a new emphasis on enforcement and attempting to push through improved legislation. Jeff Biggers, an author and prominent commentator on mine safety issues, says MHSA will be sponsoring six public hearings in the coming months on new rules proposed by the Obama administration 'that should stop this scandalous workplace tragedy.' Biggers is concerned, though, that the traditional Republican antipathy to workers and worker safety measures will stymie proposed improvements. He writes: 'Two questions beg to be asked: Will the Republican-led Congress support these new rules - or will they strip mine safety laws again and allow the scandal of black lung to continue in the name of increasing production? And why on earth do we still have black lung disease problems?' He adds: 'The truth is, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, black lung prevalence has only increased in recent years. In fact, over the past decade, black lung has taken the lives and devastated the families of more than 10,000 coal miners. It's not just affecting our older workers, either - more and more, we're seeing this disease appear in our younger miners as well' (Risks 314). Biggers says the mine companies have got away with this carnage for too long. 'The miners gave their lives; the taxpayers, not the coal companies, picked up the bill.' He cites a report by the Environmental Affairs Board at the University of California in Santa Barbara that found the multibillion dollar cost of a government black lung compensation scheme 'does not show up on the utility bill, but is paid for by consumers nonetheless.'

USA: Killed someone? Have an award

US health and safety authorities are handing out awards to major companies guilty of serious and sometimes deadly safety infractions. According to worker safety advocates, the commendations illustrate the dangers of federal agencies becoming too chummy with the industries they regulate. Both Massey Energy Co, owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia where 29 men perished in an April blast, and Transocean, owner of the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 and spewing about 200 million gallons of oil, have been honoured with 'Sentinels of Safety' awards from the federal government. Experts say the safety awards, based on self-reported accident figures, are open to abuse. 'These numbers are easily manipulated. Workers are under enormous pressure to not report when they are hurt,' Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the national union federation AFL-CIO, told the Washington Post. 'One of the problems is hazardous conditions are not identified and reported to authorities.' Celeste Monforton, a former senior official at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and assistant research professor in occupational health at George Washington University, said the awards 'can potentially be used as a shield against criticism when problems arise.' She called for a new approach. 'How about a three- or five-year moratorium when there's a fatality?' she said. She points out that one Massey mine was given an award in 2008 while the government was still quarrelling with the firm over fines relating to the death of two workers in a fire at the mine two years earlier. Similar concerns have been raised about award schemes backed by the UK's Health and Safety Executive (Risks 472).

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