Risks 484 - 27 November 2010

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
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Hazards at Work

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Union News

Safety Advisor goes - but TUC urges caution

Lord Young of Graffham, the Prime Minister's special advisor on both health and safety and enterprise, has resigned after claiming most voters had 'never had it so good'. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Lord Young dismissed the 100,000 job cuts expected each year in the public sector as being 'within the margin of error' in the context of a 30 million-strong workforce and said that complaints about spending cuts came from 'people who think they have a right for the state to support them'. The former trade and industry secretary in Margaret Thatcher's government also said people would look back on the recession and 'wonder what all the fuss was about'. Tony Woodley, Unite's joint general secretary, said: 'Lord Young has let the mask slip. His Thatcherite claptrap shows this country has passed into the hands of an out-of-touch elite.' Lord Young had published a report last month which was widely criticised by the TUC and trade unions when it was published (Risks 478) TUC general secretary Brendan Barber had said: 'The review's recommendations are predictable but a grave disappointment all the same. The report contains not a single proposal that will reduce the high levels of workplace death, injuries and illness. In addition concern was expressed over some recommendations including proposed changes to reporting regulations. The report also called for ministers to 'go back to the European Commission and negotiate a reduction of burdens for low hazard environments'. Following Lord Young resignation, Hugh Robertson, Head of Health and Safety at the TUC warned. 'Lord Young may be gone but his spectre continues to loom over us. His report is still government policy and the government has already started work on reducing the way that offices, shops, schools and SMEs have to deal with health and safety. We should never forget that this report was written by a man who said about health and safety ''People occasionally get killed, it's unfortunate but it's part of life.' The fact that the government asked a man like this to be a special adviser on health and safety speaks volumes in itself.'

Happiness index ridiculed by unions

Trade unions have rounded on government plans for a 'happiness' index. This week the prime minister announced that the Government would measure people's quality of life as well as economic growth. From April, the Office for National Statistics will seek to establish the key areas that matter most to people's wellbeing - such as health, levels of education, inequalities in income and the environment. Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary-elect, said: "The so called happiness index will just be another attempt by the coalition to pull the wool over people's eyes. No doubt Cameron will use the index to claim that despite rising unemployment, home repossessions, longer NHS waiting lists and unaffordable education, the people of this country are happier under Tory rule. The reality is a gathering gloom. "All the essential elements which make people happy and secure are fair game for the chop by this coalition government. People need a secure job, a healthy family, a good and affordable education and a roof over their heads. The coalition government's cuts are targeting these fundamental rights for millions of people." Meanwhile TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber commented 'In reality this is little more than a gimmick. What we want is a government that is actually going to do something about improving our health and well-being by reducing inequality, injustice and poverty. Instead, under the current government, working people face growing job insecurity, rising prices, less protection in the workplace and far greater uncertainty.'

Council cuts begin to hit

Evidence of the effect of the cuts has been highlighted after one of the country's biggest councils stated that it cannot afford to recruit enough EHOs. Liverpool City Council has admitted that hundreds of unrated food businesses are not being inspected because it has less than half the staff it needs to do the work. Auditors from the Food Standards Agency criticised the authority for not meeting inspection targets and in 2009-10 only managed 46 per cent of their planned inspections ? 925 out of 1,992. According to the report, just 5.8 full-time equivalent posts were filled out of a total of 12.5 posts during that year. A council spokesperson said 'In the light of the recent comprehensive spending review and its implications for Liverpool City Council, it is unlikely that the city will be able to recruit additional staff to enforce the statutory food plan. Liverpool will be hit particularly hard by the government's overall cuts in both mainstream and grant funding.' EHOs do not only enforce food safety, they also inspect a range of other premises for health and safety breaches and it is claimed that this function will be hit even harder as funding cuts hit. TUC Head of Health and Safety, Hugh Robertson stated 'local councils are meant to visit every food premises once a year. However there is no requirement on them to make regular health and safety inspections on premises. This means that many premises are never visited. Last month Lord Young actually suggested that more time should be spend on inspecting food premises which will mean even less resources available for the remaining workplaces. This will mean that more people will be killed, injured or develop an occupational disease simply because no-one is going round employers checking that employers are obeying the law. '

Leaked memo reveals safety risks on tube

A leaked internal London Underground document, passed to the RMT transport union, contradicted management claims that they have no plans for unstaffed stations as a result of the cuts. The leaked document states 'There are a number of stations across the network which is [sic] left unstaffed from time to time. Where this is the case without LLPA (long line PA) there is no audible means of providing service disruption information to customers on platforms. With the OSP (station staff job cuts programme) and future station staffing changes it may become more of an issue at more locations more frequently.' This flies in the face of assurances given to the public earlier this year when London Underground stated categorically that "London Underground's future staffing proposals will continue to mean safe stations staffed at all times and all stations with a ticket office will continue to have one.' RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said, 'Once again TfL have been caught out lying about the service and safety impact of their station staff jobs cuts plans. They have repeatedly told the public that they have no plans to run unstaffed stations and yet this communications report shows that that is exactly what they are planning for. There is no way that on an unstaffed station they will be able to communicate with the public in the event of an emergency or pass on service information. This report shows that the cuts are a disaster in the making. Unstaffed stations are also a muggers and vandals paradise. The mayor has promised that there will be no unstaffed stations but his officials say not only that there will but that there already are. It's about time they told the public the truth about their cuts plans.' The RMT later rejected an offer from London Underground for a safety review while, at the same time, saying that they will continue with their station staffing cuts regardless of the outcome. Bob Crow said 'The proposal to conduct a station by station safety review is one that we have been calling for but to carry it out while maintaining that you will implement the planned station staffing cuts regardless renders the whole exercise meaningless and RMT will not participate in such a farce and LU are well aware of that. The idea that the safety review could be completed in 21 days in the run up to Christmas, and with the tube lurching from crisis to crisis on a daily basis, just shows us that LU management are not taking the safety issue seriously.'

Mariners kept in appalling conditions

A Panamanian flagged vessel has been detained by the UK maritime authorities after an inspection revealed that the crew had to put up with dreadful conditions. The Most Sky, owned by Er-Em Shipping and Trading of Istanbul, Turkey, was held in Birkenhead by the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency after the alarm was raised by the pilot. The International Transport Federation (ITF) had also been alerted to the condition of the ship through ITF colleagues in Turkey; they also reported that the company had a history of non-payment of wages. ITF inspector Tommy Molloy is currently representing the interests of the Azerbaijani, Georgian and Turkish crew of the vessel after it was revealed that the crew had no heating or access to fresh food. They also had to put up with appalling shower and toilet facilities. Crewmembers pooled their limited resources to buy bread from a local shop and put together makeshift heating, for example, by rigging a security light and using an old kebab grill. A maritime solicitor has helped the crew to secure the arrest of the vessel in a bid to win back wages owed to them as well as repatriation costs. Molloy commented: 'The conditions on board this vessel are among the worst we have seen. The crew has to continue living in these appalling conditions while they wait for their wages to be paid and to be repatriated. The vessel is only four years old but it looks about 20. It appears that nothing has been spent on maintenance. It is difficult to guess how long the vessel might remain here, but it won't leave until all deficiencies have been put right and all claims satisfied.'

Other news

TUC slams fine

An employer has been fined just £2000 after a 14-year-old boy was injured when he overturned a dumper truck on a construction site while driving down a slope while not wearing a seatbelt. He suffered serious leg and foot injuries. Kevin Banks, a building contractor from Stroud, employed the boy to work for him on a site on Rodborough Common. It is illegal for children who are still of compulsory school age to work on construction sites. An HSE investigation found other untrained employees had also driven the dumper truck, often without wearing seatbelts, on some steep slopes. After the hearing, Sue Adsett, HSE inspector, said "Children and construction work do not mix. As this incident shows, construction sites can be very dangerous, and children tend to have less experience and less awareness of what could go wrong. Furthermore, anyone operating site dumpers should prove their competence to do so by holding an industry-recognised CPCS driver's card." After the contractor was fined £2,000 and ordered to pay costs of £4,052, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said 'The courts really have to wake up to the reality of life and start coming down hard on rouge employers like this. Here we have a contractor who knowingly flouted the law and who risked the life of a child getting what is little more than a slap on the wrist.'

Local council prosecutes over temperature

Carlisle Council have prosecuted a clothing company for forcing their staff to work in ridiculously cold conditions. An inspector visited the Internacionale women's clothing store in Scotch Street, Carlisle after receiving a complaint about cold conditions in the store. He found that staff had to work with the main doors open during trading hours and that the heating system was not working. He recorded a temperature of 7.6°C - well below the legal minimum of 16°C. The first floor and storeroom were warmer but still below 16°C. On that occasion the shop was served with an enforcement notice but they decided to ignore it and on two further occasions the Council recorded temperatures below the legal minimum were recorded again in February and March in one area of the shop. According to magistrates the company put seeking profit ahead of the legal requirement to keep staff warm. Internacionale admitted breaching workplace temperature regulations and was fined £2,000 plus costs by Carlisle magistrates.

Derisory fine after death

A Midlands firm described has been fined just £1,500 after a man was crushed to death. David Hunt, 49, died from injuries when hooks holding up a metal beam disengaged while he was working at Ark Install Galvanising in Tividale. Judge Michael Dudley, speaking at Wolverhampton Crown Court, ruled he could not a higher fine as the company had gone into liquidation after the death. He stated "I am driven to award a nominal penalty but, had this been a thriving company, the position would have been very different." He also claimed that the firm had failed to learn from earlier incidents which showed the seriousness of their failure to put into operation a safer working system. James Puzey prosecuting said "The failure to provide a safe working environment and a breach of duty resulted in the death of Mr Hunt." He stressed: "It is important the message goes out that this level of culpability will be punished by the courts with financial sanctions." The firm whose registered office is in Birmingham admitted breaching their duty towards an employee at work and also contravening Health and Safety regulations.

Rail company ordered to improve safety

A report from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch has criticised Eurotunnel's safety procedures and called for major changes in how the firm deals with emergencies. This follows an incident 2 years ago when a freight train went on fire in the tunnel 7 miles from Calais. It took over 100 firefighters over 15 hours to deal with the fire. The train had left Folkestone and was 18 minutes into its journey when the fire started. There were 27 vehicles on board and a fire on one spread to other lorries. Passengers were taken off the train and led to safety in France. Trains were disrupted for several days. The report highlighted a large number of problems on the shuttle. These included: the amenity coach door normally used for evacuation was not opposite a cross-passage; the amenity coach door normally used for evacuation was locked and out of use; communication difficulties between the chef de train and the passengers; delay in opening the cross-passage door; excessive delays in attacking the fire, connected with electrical safety procedures, and numerous faults in technical systems. The RAIB report made 39 recommendations to the rail firm, including the evacuation of freight trains, firefighting facilities, changes to rolling stock, modifications to equipment and changes to the telecommunications network. The French authorities are still carrying out a judicial investigation into the cause of the fire.

Waste company fined after worker's legs crushed

A London-based waste management firm has been fined after an employee's legs were crushed between two steel frames while unloading a truck. This reinforces earlier warnings that the waste industry is one of the most dangerous in the country. At City of London Magistrates' Court, McGrath (Waste Control) Ltd pleaded guilty to breaching section 2 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The company was fined £14,000 and ordered to pay £7,447 in costs. This followed an incident where a driver was unloading steel frames from a delivery lorry with two colleagues at a site at in Barking. The frames were resting on top of building rubble inside the truck and the men attempted to lift one frame using a crane and chains. While it was being unloaded, one of the chains slipped causing the hoisted frame to slip and fall back into the truck, crushing the victim's legs as he became trapped between the two 700 kg steel-fabricated frames. The victim suffered nine fractures in his legs and he had to spend six months in hospital and nursing homes and was off work for 14 months. HSE Inspector Kevin Smith said 'This was a very distressing incident which could and should have been avoided. Instead, a man was left with terrible injuries as a result of a badly planned lifting operation. The company failed in its most basic duty to protect this worker. This case should serve as a timely reminder to firms that all aspects of work need risk assessments which examine all of the relevant risks and are communicated to everyone involved. It can ruin lives when these simple precautions are not taken.'

International News

Safety is not just for Christmas

At this time of year it becomes traditional to see a flurry of statements and advice about the risks of Christmas and end-of-year work parties. But in Australia, companies are being warned that if they wait until now to introduce control measures and policies for the risks of occupational violence, sexual harassment and reputational damage they will have missed the opportunity to effectively manage these risks. Safetyatworkblog states that the need to enforce safe behaviours at work functions is not a seasonal process but one that is integral to the establishment of a safe workplace culture the year round. There warning comes on the same week that Workplace Health & Safety Queensland issue their simple advice on how to ensure that the festive season remains festive, and not a nightmare. They say that employers should:'remind staff about workplace policies in particular bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination; serve alcohol responsibly; provide food and non-alcoholic drinks; ensure underage staff are not served alcohol; choose a safe venue with access to public transport, provide cab vouchers and encourage nominated 'non-drinking' drivers; ensure wait staff are briefed on limiting or denying alcohol to intoxicated staff; make it clear to staff that the employer's responsibility ceases at the end of the function and if staff choose to continue the evening, that they are responsible for their own safety.' It also recommends that managers should set the example by drinking responsibly. According to the blog, 'A major benefit from such a process is that employers feel valued and the belief that the company is so concerned about their safety that it is willing to invest money. To a large extent such a message is worth far more than any safety-themed gift that the employees may otherwise receive.' It adds 'What should not be projected is that these safety guidelines are implemented to reduce legal or risk exposure as this can 'suck the fun out' of the event. The control measures must be implemented with a positive attitude to reinforce employee safety. In this way, the function is already half-way to being a success.'

Hotel chain accused

US Trade Union, UNITE-HERE, have accused the Hyatt Corporation of having the worst safety record in the hotel industry. It cites a peer-reviewed academic study published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine that places Hyatt dead last among the 50 hotels studied. The abysmal record prompted Hyatt housekeepers at twelve hotels in eight different cities to simultaneously file injury complaints a few weeks ago with the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). The union cites public records submitted by the hotels that indicate a 50 percent higher injury rate than the rest of industry. The union reports that OSHA logs recorded 750 injuries at 12 Hyatt properties between 2007-2009. According to the union: 'At some Hyatt hotels, room attendants clean as many as 30 rooms a day, nearly double what is commonly required in the industry. This workload leaves room attendants as little as 15 minutes to clean a room?that's 15 minutes to make beds, scrub and clean the toilet bowl, bathtub and all bathroom surfaces, dust, vacuum, empty the trash, change linens?among other things.' The union stresses that most of the injuries are caused by the dull, boring and routine repetitive motion performed each day of each week and of each month. All this work is made worse when you are required to do it quickly. The OSHA complaint suggested remedies recommended by leading health and safety experts and based on the latest ergonomic studies. According to the union, these recommendations included: fitted sheets to reduce the number of times that women must lift 100-plus pound mattresses to tuck sheets; long-handled mops and dusters, so workers do not have to get down on their hands and knees to clean the floors or climb bathtubs to reach high surfaces; and reasonable room quotas, so women no longer have to rush to finish rooms, risking slips and falls. 'There are common sense changes like fitted sheets, mops, or caps on daily room quotas that can make the difference between healthy bodies and hurt housekeepers,' says occupational health expert Gary Orr. 'It is critical that we explore ways of making hotel work safe to reduce the high rates of injury that we see among housekeepers. Corporate-wide solutions are not only needed but are the most effective and less costly as they can be applied to multiple worksites.'

Asbestos victims finally get compensation

97 Indian citizens poisoned by asbestos have finally secured compensation for injuries sustained at the hands of a British company - Turner & Newall Ltd. (T&N) T&N. For more than 60 years T&N operated asbestos factories in India. The company processed asbestos and sold a range of asbestos products. According to campaigners, conditions were appalling and employees were routinely exposed to massive levels of cancer-causing asbestos fibre. When workers got sick or died, they were quickly replaced by others; no fuss, no mess and - what's more - no compensation. Traditionally, the company denied any responsibility or liability for occupational illnesses and in 1994 the company stopped operating in India. Unions and activists did however pursue the company and finally managed to win money for a small number of the victims. This is a rare victory in India where claims can take decades to get to court and are rarely successful. The successful asbestos claimants were paid by a British Trust set up when T&N went into administration. Ravindra Ganpat Mohite, a trade union leader from former T&N company Hindustan Ferodo and an asbestosis sufferer himself, said: 'The receipt of this money marks an important step in workers' rights in India. To our knowledge, this is the first time that Indian workers have obtained compensation for occupational disease sustained at the hands of a foreign employer. Negotiating the bureaucratic process, identifying injured workers, accumulating evidence of employment and obtaining medical diagnoses has been a massive logistical effort. I would like to pay tribute to all those involved in this process including health and safety campaigners in India and the UK, trade unionists, doctors and legal professionals. The receipt of this compensation is an acknowledgment of the wrong which has been done to the workforce and as such is a warning to current employers that they will be held to account for the harm they do to their employees.' Madhumita Dutta, from the Chennai-based non-governmental organization Corporate Accountability Desk, commented on the successful outcome of this process: 'For a hundred years, foreign corporations have been able to do whatever they liked in India and not incur any penalties. The consequences of their short-term profit-driven actions have been borne by workers and local people. While the amounts paid by the T&N trust are modest, nevertheless an important principle has been established.'

Fight goes on for silicosis victims

Jodhpur mine workers, supported by the Rajasthan State Mine Labour Union, have given a district magistrate 10 days to agree a claim for the compensation before they embark on a programme of action. In January the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) directed the state government to look into the issue and provide silicosis victims a suitable compensation. This followed a study of the mine workers of Jodhpur sandstone mines many of whom are suffering from silicosis. Ten months later the Government had failed to take action on the report. As a result NHRC directed the state governments to pay a compensation of Rs 3 lakh to each victim. It recommended Rs. 3 lakh be given to the next of kin to 238 victims who had already died and a suitable rehabilitation package was also urged for 304 people suffering from the disease. A spokesperson for the Mine Labour Protection Campaign (MLPC), Rana Sengupta, said, "We believe that the state government will have to make the compliance of Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923, mandatory for the mine owners, so that the workers can be put under the ESI Act. Had it been done long ago, the state government would not have come under pressure to pay this compensation from the state exchequer'. In Rajasthan, mining is second only to agriculture as an economic activity with around 2 million miners in the state. Surveys conducted by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) have reported silicosis rates between 16-57 percent.


How to complain

With visits by inspectors few and far between, the only way that dangerous situations can be dealt with before someone in injured or made ill is either if there is a good union presence or if the problem is reported to the enforcing authority. The HSE has just published guidance on how to complain about a problem in your workplace, but recommends that first of all you should raise it with the employer and union. The advice also gives a list of other enforcement bodies in the workplace.

Events and Courses

No to Quebec Jeffrey Asbestos Mine!

A protest will be held outside Canada House at Trafalgar Square, London, on the 9th December, to coincide with an Asian delegation to Quebec to protest at the planned expansion of the Quebec Jeffrey asbestos mine. The Quebec government are considering giving a loan guarantee of $58 million to expand the Jeffrey asbestos mine. This could mean the export of 5 million tonnes tons of asbestos over 25 years to developing countries. It is supported by a wide range of unions, support groups and the TUC. Assemble 11 am.

Dangerous dogs campaign goes on

There is a parliamentary reception to highlight the increasing problem of dangerous dogs to be held in Portcullis House, next to the House of Commons on Wednesday 15th December between 3:45 and 5:00 pm. Speakers will include the CWU, RSPCA, the Metropolitan Police and a victim of a dog attack. If you want to attend please contact [email protected] for details.

TUC courses for safety reps


Useful Links

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  • What's new in the HSC/E and the European Agency.
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