Risks 502 - 16 April 2011

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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

Union wins protective equipment precedent

A union has won a landmark ruling on the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) at work. The High Court in London upheld a compensation payout to Unite member John Spalding, who was injured when he tripped on bin bags used as a makeshift waterproof mat. Judges ruled the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 should apply even where there is no expert or other evidence to confirm a risk of injury. The court upheld a Norwich County Court compensation award. Mr Spalding, a plumber employed by the University of East Anglia, had been repairing a leaking radiator in the university's library. He had to lie under a desk to get to it. He was not supplied with an anti-slip mat or waterproof protective clothing by his employer. Instead, he obtained a couple of plastic bin bags to avoid lying on the sodden area surrounding the radiator. After completing the repair, as he got to his feet, he slipped on the bin bags and fell, striking his face on the nearby desk. He suffered serious facial injuries and lost three teeth. He and colleagues had requested mats on several occasions, but they never materialised. Unite's lawyers argued the PPE regulations required that Mr Spalding should have been provided with waterproof clothing and a mat in order to work in damp and wet conditions which could have exposed him to injury or illness. The county court agreed and awarded damages. But the university appealed, arguing it had been, in effect, found liable for failing to prevent a plumber getting wet. Mr Justice Spencer dismissed the university's appeal. Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: 'The PPE regulations are intended to provide protection to workers' health and safety. Too many employers fail to carry out proper risk assessments and to provide employees with the necessary equipment to prevent them being injured.' Sukhdev Gill of Thompsons Solicitors, who represented Mr Spalding for Unite, said: 'The High Court has provided important clarification in the application of the PPE regulations, bearing in mind that PPE should always be a last resort if the risk to health and safety cannot be removed.'

Warning on government DIY repair scheme

Construction union UCATT has warned that government plans to give social housing tenants responsibility for repairs to their homes could lead to their being exposed to asbestos and other serious risks. Last week housing minister Grant Shapps said maintenance and repairs cost social landlords £4bn a year, but often work was something tenants could do themselves. Commenting on the 'tenant cashback' scheme, UCATT acting general secretary George Guy said: 'Of course tenants want to take pride in and improve their homes but this needs to be conducted in a safe environment. Currently, many tenants do not know whether their homes contain asbestos and until these dangers are resolved it would be entirely inappropriate to force them to conduct their own repairs.' UCATT said it is also 'highly concerned' that a parallel 'community cashback' scheme to encourage local builders to undertake work currently done by highly skilled, directly employed social housing maintenance workers, could be a recipe for 'cowboy practices.' He added: 'Local builders often do not have the same skills and abilities as dedicated social housing maintenance workers. Too often in the past construction companies have viewed local government contracts as an easy way to make a quick profit; this scheme would reinforce those attitudes.' The DIY scheme will be tested by two housing associations - Home Group and Hastoe Housing Association, which manage properties in various areas - and the government plans to change the regulations to spread the scheme across England later this year.

Duncan Smith should apologise for sick 'spin'

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith should apologise for his 'outrageous spin' after it was revealed some jobcentre staff had been being forced to stop people's benefits to meet targets, civil service union PCS has said. The union's general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said: 'When this story broke Mr Duncan Smith described it as 'claptrap' and a 'conspiracy', but faced with the overwhelming evidence that these targets are still in place, his department has been forced to backtrack.' Commenting on the cabinet minister's claims to Sky News on Sunday 3 April, the union leader said: 'The secretary of state should issue a full and public apology for what was a piece of outrageous spin when he must have known what was happening. When MPs return from their Easter break, he should also be asked to explain to parliament why he tried to mislead the public in his TV interview. We fundamentally oppose the use of targets for welfare sanctions and we call on the Department for Work and Pensions to put an immediate stop to this abuse of the system.' Following an investigation by the Guardian newspaper, DWP last week backtracked and released a statement confirming the practice had been going on in some offices. It said this was due to a misunderstanding between the department and some jobcentre managers and insisted the practice had now stopped. 'A few weeks ago ministers discovered that their message to be clearer about conditionality had been misinterpreted by a small number of Jobcentre Plus offices who had imposed targets for the number of sanction referrals. These targets were immediately removed,' the statement said. 'We are clear that there is no wrong or right level of how many sanctions an office should make and they should only be made where people have not adhered to their jobseeker obligations. We have already taken rapid steps to reinforce this message to our staff. Ministers would not countenance any target for sanctioning customers.'

Olympic site blockaded in blacklist protest

Union protesters blocked the entrance to London's Olympic site last week in support of victimised construction worker Frank Morris (Risks 496). The Enfield-based electrician was shifted from his job at the prestigious media centre at the Olympic site after blowing the whistle on the use of an illegal blacklist on the construction project. The Consulting Association's list was used particularly to target construction safety activists. In an ongoing campaign, 30 trade unionists on 7 April stood at the main gates of the Olympic site and prevented vehicles and trade passing through. RMT London regional organiser Steve Hedley, who addressed the protesters, said the show of strength had been 'good natured and very lively,' insisting that trade unionists would 'not take the blacklisting lying down.' He added: 'We will continue to fight the illegal blacklist. This is an issue of human rights as well as trade union rights and the RMT will be in the forefront of the campaign.' A Blacklist Support Group spokesperson said union members were being blacklisted across Britain. He told the Morning Star newspaper: 'The Olympics is the most high-profile construction project in the world... Let's show the construction firms that we got some self-respect.'

Tube flooding prompts safety action call

Rail union leaders have called for a safety review after warning an investigation had found a flood at London's Charing Cross Tube station almost ended in 'tragedy.' Two fountains overflowed in Trafalgar Square last month, leading to an eight-hour closure of the station beneath. RMT said an internal report had revealed the power was almost turned back on when staff were still on the tracks. RMT is demanding an urgent review of safety procedures and an assurance 'crucial lessons' have been learnt. It says the related London Underground incident log shows 'there was pressure to get the service back on as soon as possible.' The union says the company 'was just about' to action a decision to turn the current back on, when it realised staff were still on the track. RMT adds the lack of 'command and control', something acknowledged in the internal report, could have led to a disaster. Commenting on London Underground's (LU) 'shambolic management' of the incident, RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'We were just seconds away from a potential tragedy and the LU internal report says clearly that those failures were down to poor communication, lack of appropriate training and an absence of proper command and control. A year away from the Olympics Londoners will be rightly shocked at these findings.' He added: 'Our fear is that the combined pressure to keep services moving at all costs, tied in with the Mayor's £7.6 billion of cuts, will make matters even worse and rather than their usual barrage of misinformation we want Boris Johnson and his officials to start taking this crisis management of the tube seriously before we have a disaster on our hands. We are already in the process of balloting for action on the Victoria Line over major safety concerns and we will have no hesitation in taking similar action to protect safety on the Tube network.'

Foot injury cost two jobs

A retained firefighter whose foot was crushed on duty had to give up two jobs as a result of his injuries. Andrew Murray, 45, was forced to give up not only part-time firefighting but his full-time job as a financial adviser after the incident in Spilsby market place, Lincolnshire, in December 2006. He was helping to secure a demolished chimney during high winds when his left foot was crushed by the hydraulic platform he was using. The severe tissue damage means that five years on Mr Murray still suffers from permanent pain and restricted movement and is no longer fit to continue as a firefighter. Flashbacks and loss of concentration have also forced him to quit working as a financial adviser. Following the incident, Mr Murray contacted his union, FBU, which started a compensation case. An investigation found Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service should have made sure the colleague operating the platform had the necessary training. The fire service admitted liability and agree a 'substantial' settlement out of court. Mr Murray said: 'I can no longer work. This compensation helps me financially but it also means a lot that the fire service have accepted responsibility for the accident's impact on my life.' Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: 'Andrew just wanted to serve his community as a retained firefighter. Unfortunately he was let down by his employer and injured as a result of the inadequate training at the time. Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service have at least faced up financially to the profound effect their failings have had on his quality of life.'

Family speaks out after work death

The family of Unite member Allan Sanderson, who died after being crushed under workplace machinery, has welcomed crown court sentences for the firms responsible but has said the punishment can never make up for the loss of life. Lorraine Sanderson from Rishton in Blackburn said the fines levied on Brookhouse Tooling Ltd and Brookhouse Composites Ltd by Preston Crown Court meant justice had been done (Risks 500). But she said she hoped the firm had learnt its lesson and would take health and safety seriously in the future. 'Allan was cheated out of the life he wanted to live because his employers failed to make sure he and his workmates were safe,' she said. 'It is difficult coming to terms with the fact that one day he went to work as normal but he never came home.' In a union backed compensation case, the firm admitted liability and settled out of court. Paul Finegan, regional secretary of Unite in the North West, said: 'Mr Sanderson's family were devastated by this tragic accident and their loss is immeasurable. The fine in no way reflects this. Harsh lessons need to be taken from this accident. Too many people die each year from accidents at work. Employers need to take their health and safety obligations seriously otherwise more innocent workers will face an untimely end.' Samantha Hemsley of Thompsons Solicitors, who dealt with the family's civil claim for Unite, said: 'Brookhouse Tooling's lack of proper interest in even basic health and safety led to the death of a much loved family man. Sadly, however much this sentence and compensation already received give the family some sense of justice, they can never make up for their huge personal loss.'

Other news

Court upholds Scots pleural plaques payouts

Insurers have lost a legal bid to overturn a law in Scotland giving victims of an asbestos-related condition the right to claim damages. Unions welcomed the Court of Session decision to uphold the Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions)(Scotland) Act in 2009. It allows sufferers of pleural plaques, a usually benign scarring of the lungs, to make compensation claims. Insurers argued the law was "flawed" but the Court of Session upheld the Scottish parliament's decision to allow payouts. Some of the biggest names in the insurance industry opposed the Damages Act, passed in March 2009. The law had already overturned in Scotland a landmark House of Lords ruling that people with pleural plaques cannot claim compensation. During scrutiny of the legislation, the Scottish government estimated that costs were likely to peak between £7m and £19m in the next decade. The insurance industry had claimed the costs over the next 20 years would average between £76m and £607m. STUC general secretary Grahame Smith said: 'We welcome this judgment and would sincerely hope that the insurance industry will now accept that the introduction of this legislation was entirely within the competence of the Scottish parliament and now begin to pay compensation to those suffering from pleural plaques.' George Guy, acting general secretary of construction union UCATT, said the UK government should follow Scotland's lead. 'It is morally unjustifiable that the vast majority of pleural plaques victims in England and Wales continue to be denied compensation,' he said. 'Employers who knew the dangers needlessly exposed workers to asbestos. All victims deserve compensation regardless of where they live.'

HSE chair needs a 'reality check', warns union

Construction union UCATT has said the chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 'needs to take a reality check' after she revealed the watchdog intention to stray from its exclusive focus on health and safety (Risks 501). The union call came after the publication of the HSE's Delivery Plan for 2011/12, where HSE chair Judith Hackitt states: 'Our role is to enable innovation that brings economic growth while ensuring that risks are managed properly and proportionately.' George Guy, acting general secretary of UCATT, said: 'Judith Hackitt needs to take a reality check if she believes that this is what the HSE should be doing. The HSE's role is simple, it protects workers from being killed and injured. It is not the HSE's role to be promoting economic growth, the government has an entire department to undertake that task.' UCATT said just days after HSE published its latest delivery plan, the first construction fatality of the 2011/12 reporting year occurred in Whitstable, Kent. A 24-year-old man was killed on 7 April following a trench collapse on a housing development. A 36-year-old man was arrested and has been bailed on suspicion of corporate manslaughter. 'The HSE has been under sustained political attack by the government and the cuts and policy changes forced on it will make all workplaces, especially industries with high accident rates such as construction, more dangerous,' said Mr Guy. 'If the HSE moves away from its core functions it will make an already bad situation worse.'

When the inspector never calls

A government minister has struggled to defend a new official safety strategy which will see most firms entirely off the Health and Safety Executive's radar. The issue came to light in a 4 April House of Lords debate, where former Labour safety minister Lord McKenzie raised concern at 'the central message being promulgated, which is that much action on health and safety is burdensome to business and unnecessary.' He added: 'We have considerable concerns over this blanket approach to designating great swathes of business as low hazard - effectively no-go areas until something goes wrong.' Lord McKenzie said the government's safety strategy (Risks 499) 'makes it clear that HSE will continue to undertake inspections for enforcement purposes and to follow up on complaints, but seemingly only for those areas of high risk or those of concern. This suggests - perhaps the minister will confirm it - that there will be no such inspections for those lower risk areas.' Under secretary of state for work and pensions Lord Freud, replying for the government, ducked the issue of exclusions of 'low risk' firms from both proactive and reactive inspections, but promised to clarify the situation in 'a full letter'. The minister added: 'I have said before that we will not make the UK a safer place by wrapping everyone in cotton wool and avoiding all risk; we will do it by delivering a health and safety system that is fair, balanced and proportionate.' Lord McKenzie said the government was also ignoring the 'significant contribution' to workplace health and safety made by unions, a point reinforced in the debate by Labour's Baroness Turner, leading Lord Freud say: 'I apologise. That was an inadvertent miss-out'. Last week, the government announced a new 'Red Tape Challenge', inviting 'members of the public, businesses and community organisations... to give a real boost to growth and personal freedoms by ripping up some of the 21,000 rules that are getting in their way.' In the list are 131 pieces of regulation relating to health and safety, including the Health and Safety at Work Act.

HSE partnerships undermined by cuts

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) plan to replace inspections with 'partnerships' and other informal alternatives to enforcement has been thrown into doubt as the impact of swingeing cuts to its budget become apparent. It has been reported the number of HSE's local authority health and safety partnership managers has been cut by nearly 90 per cent following the four-year 35 per cent reduction in the safety watchdog's funding. Environmental Health News, published by the Chartered Institution of Environmental Health, reports that seven out of eight partnership managers have already left HSE. Earlier this year, 201 staff were made redundant by HSE, in a bid to meet the unprecedented haemorrhage of funds. Neil Hope-Collins, chair of the union Prospect's HSE branch, told EHN that staff morale was low. 'Overwhelmed and demoralised are probably the two words that would most closely sum up the mood of HSE staff,' he said. 'Staff can see they are part of a shrinking organisation.' HSE staff, he told the paper, believe the government's plans to reduce proactive inspections by one-third ? about 11,000 a year - will leave workers at risk. 'We would rather get to workplaces before someone dies,' he said.

Family's low fines fury after crane death

The daughter of a man who was killed when a crane overturned in Liverpool has said the family has received 'no justice whatsoever' after the firm responsible received a £4,500 fine. Mark Thornton, 46, was killed instantly after being struck by a six-ton metal beam which fell after the crane tipped over at Wavertree Technology Park in 2007. Bryn Thomas Crane Hire Ltd and crane driver Frederick Scott were fined at Liverpool Crown Court. Judge Nigel Gilmour QC said Mr Thornton's death was 'wholly avoidable' if all the appropriate steps were taken. But he added he was unable to impose an appropriate fine of £300,000 on the crane company because it had now gone into administration with massive debts. He fined the firm just £4,500 and the crane driver £2,500. Mr Thornton's daughter, Cheryl, 28, said: 'No justice was brought whatsoever. It could have been prevented and that is what makes it all the worse - it did not have to happen.' She added: 'These companies get a minimal fine and it is all over. It is not over for us. We have to live with this forever.' Nigel Lawrence, prosecuting, told the court how Mr Thornton was one of four employees rebuilding a warehouse. The project was run by his employer, Siteweld Construction Ltd, which hired Bryn Thomas's mobile crane. The team was assembling some metal columns when a huge beam brushed some trees, causing the front wheels of the overloaded crane to rise off the ground. The steel column dropped 20ft, hitting Mr Thornton. Sentencing on Siteweld was adjourned until 10 June to allow time for enquiries about its financial situation.

Asbestos workers poisoned in carbon monoxide

Three asbestos workers were almost overcome by fumes when a decontamination unit began to fill with deadly carbon monoxide. The men, all from Sheffield, were part of a five-strong team working in an asbestos enclosure on a demolition site in Huddersfield in November 2009. After working for 90 minutes, each left the enclosure to go one at a time through a three-stage decontamination unit (DCU). Huddersfield Magistrates' Court heard the workers would begin at the 'dirty end' of the DCU and dispose of overalls, enter a second stage including showers and washing of their respiratory equipment, before the final 'clean' section to finish and change into normal clothes. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), prosecuting, told the court the first two workers passed through each of the stages successfully but the next three men were nearly overcome by dizziness and nausea. All three were sent to hospital where tests showed they had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. Richard McKearnen, 59, Tony Deakin, 50, and Paul Wainwright, 49, were treated with high-flow oxygen therapy at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and released later the same day. The court heard the DCU used a gas boiler to provide hot water for the shower. HSE tests on the boiler showed poor maintenance meant it was pumping out high levels of carbon monoxide. In addition, a door seal and lock between the boiler compartment and 'clean' sections of the unit were damaged, leading to poisonous gases being drawn into the clean end. The contractor and owner of the DCU, Newlincs Services Ltd, pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of safety law and was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay £3,580 in costs.

Builder jailed for putting profit before safety

A Bradford builder has been jailed for trying to cut costs by doing his own gas and electric installation in a granny flat. John Howe was taking so long finishing the job, the home owner called in another builder who advised him power connections in the flat may be dangerous. Bradford Magistrates' Court heard Mr Howe, trading as J Howe Plumbing and Construction, was paid around £28,000 to build a granny flat at the back of a house belonging to Khalid Rehman. The defendant started work in May 2009 but by June 2010 Mr Rehman called in another builder after Mr Howe failed to turn up several times on site and finish the work. Mr Howe had installed a gas boiler in the loft and gas hob in the kitchen and left them connected to the mains supply, despite not being a Gas Safe registered engineer. He also undertook electrical work and left it in an unsafe state. Mr Rehman then asked Bradford Council's Building Control to investigate and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was notified. Tests by HSE and a Gas Safe registered engineer showed gas work was unsafe and the boiler could have been a danger to life or property if operated. An electrical test concluded Mr Howe's work posed an unacceptable risk of injury or death. Bradford Magistrates jailed Mr Howe for four months after he pleaded guilty to five breaches of health and safety legislation and Gas Safety Regulations. HSE inspector Andy Denison commented: 'We uncovered a classic example of a builder trying to cut corners on a project and putting profit before safety. Mr Howe should have called in the registered professionals to ensure the necessary work was done safely.'

Six figure fines after labourer's fatal fall

Two companies have been fined a total of £400,000 for breaches of health and safety legislation that resulted in the death of a stonemason's labourer at a Glasgow construction site. James Kelly, a labourer employed by specialist subcontractor Stirling Stone Ltd, was working on the third level of a loading tower of scaffolding that had been erected as part of construction work taking place at Glasgow Academy. The firm had been contracted by Robertson Construction Central Ltd. On 26 April 2007, Mr Kelly fell to the ground. He died later from his injuries. A single guard rail was found on the ground close to where Mr Kelly was discovered. Following the incident, inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) discovered that there was no safe system of work in place for loading materials onto the loading tower, nor had suitable assessment of the risks involved been made. The investigation also revealed that the loading tower did not have sufficient guard rails and toe boards and that neither company had ensured that the tower and access scaffolding was properly inspected on a regular basis. Both companies were found guilty of criminal health and safety breaches at an earlier trial. This week at Glasgow Sheriff Court, both firms were fined £200,000. HSE construction inspector John Shelton commented: 'There is no excuse for the contractors not to have agreed procedures as to how this work was to be done and ensured that this routine work was carried out safely. Where vital edge protection is removed temporarily to allow loading up to take place steps must be taken to ensure persons cannot fall during that work.' Earlier this month, HSE's head of construction Philip White told a conference provisional workplace fatality figures indicated there had been an increase of about 15 per cent in construction deaths last year.

Fabrication firm severed casual worker's hand

A West Yorkshire metal fabrication firm has been fined after a 22-year-old casual worker's hand was severed by a machine. Jamie Raynor's left hand was amputated when the top pressing tool of a hydraulic press brake he was operating came down on his wrist. He worked on a casual basis for RDB Fabrication and Engineering Ltd and was asked to come in on a Saturday because the company was busy. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found the press brake, used to bend sheet metal, was fitted with an electronic motion guard to stop the machine moving if a part of a person entered the danger zone. However, when Mr Raynor reached into the machine to reposition a part, it failed to operate and stop the movement of the tool. Halifax Magistrates' Court heard this was the first time he had worked on the machine and had been given less than ten minutes' instruction on its operation. RDB Fabrication and Engineering Ltd admitted a criminal breach of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 by failing to ensure the machine was adequately guarded. It was fined £12,000 and ordered to pay £2,000 costs. HSE inspector Paul Newton commented: 'A young man has had his life changed forever by a terrible, avoidable accident.' He added 'the company's failure to ensure these guards were effective had tragic consequences.'

Injury victims face 'ever tightening screw'

Injured people face an 'ever tightening screw', the head of a top legal body has warned. David Bott, the new president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), told the organisation's annual conference this week that it is 'plain wrong' for injury victims to take a cut of up to 25 per cent of their compensation to meet some legal costs. Commenting on legal reforms introduced by justice secretary Ken Clarke (Risks 500), he told delegates: 'Claimants have not chosen to litigate. They did not arrive at the decision after a cost-benefit analysis. They were injured and rightly expect redress. All that they want, and all that the law can give them, is to get back to where they were before the injury.' He added the government reforms are 'literally adding insult to injury. APIL will work with as many claimant bodies as possible to try to get the voice of injured people, the voice of ordinary people, the voice of the voting public, heard.' When the reforms were announced earlier this month, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'This review has nothing to do with justice, it is simply lining the pockets of insurers at the expense of claimants seeking compensation for injuries caused by the negligence of others. This is yet another attempt to reduce the rights of those at work to secure justice when employers break the law.'

  • APIL news release [pdf].

International News

China: Work disease risk for 200 million

An estimated 200 million workers in China are under threat from occupational diseases, a senior trade union official has warned. Tang Chun, an occupational disease expert with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, said the country had some 16 million business where workers were exposed to hazardous environments. 'The number of new cases concerning occupational disease has been rising in recent years and the 2010 figure, due to be released by the Ministry of Health in April, will undoubtedly pass the 2009 figure of 18,128,' he told China Daily. A total of 722,730 cases were reported from 1949 to 2009, and 146,500 lives had been lost to occupational disease, he said. About 90 per cent of the cases were related to pneumoconiosis, caused by inhalation of dust. The Law on Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases stipulates that employers should provide free health checks for those working in hazardous conditions and should inform them of the results. 'But a majority of small- and medium-sized private enterprises, which account for almost 90 per cent of the country's corporate units, fail to provide such services,' Tang said. 'The number of cases revealed would have been shocking if the service had been available for all labourers in those enterprises.' Migrant workers account for a large number of cases as they work in the most hazardous industries, especially mining, processing of construction materials and electronic manufacturing, he said.

Global: Finding expected and unexpected cancers

The trade union movement has argued consistently the number of occupational cancers has been systematically under-estimated in studies (Risks 460). Unions maintain modern exposure patterns, the predominance of studies paid for and controlled by industry and systematic failures to evaluate risks to women, temporary workers and other potentially high risk groups, have suppressed the numbers and stymied effective preventive efforts (Risks 382). Occasionally, though, a study is thorough and independent enough to find the usual suspects and several types of cancer not normally associated with work. Unions point to a 2009 Nordic Occupational Cancer project (NOCCA) analysis, published in Acta Oncologica, which looked at 2.8 million cancers among 15 million people, aged 30-64, in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Occupational information was obtained from the national censuses over four decades from the 1960s to 1990s. The authors say the large number of cancers available for analysis provided the opportunity to evaluate possible occupational associations with rare cancers - and it turned out many of these affected women. In an accompanying commentary, Aaron Blair of the US National Cancer Institute noted: 'A number of expected associations were observed, eg. mesothelioma among plumbers, seamen and mechanics with asbestos exposures; lip cancer among fishermen, gardeners and farmers engaged in outdoor work; nasal cancer among woodworkers; and lung cancer among miners exposed to radon and silica.' He added, though, that the real value of the study is the new associations it unearthed. 'Finding established associations is reassuring, but uncovering new leads for future investigation is the main objective of a project such as this. This was also accomplished,' he observed. 'For example, some of the interesting new findings that deserve further attention include cancer of the tongue and vagina among women chemical process workers; melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer (among men and women), and ovarian cancer among printers; fallopian tube cancer among packers and hairdressers; penis cancer among drivers; and thyroid cancer among female farmers.'

Japan: Temp workers suffer nuclear fall out

Unions have long contended that precarious workers have higher rates of injuries and illness on the job. Now global union federation IUF is warning precarious work is also the hidden underside of the Japanese nuclear power industry, where contract workers have an average level of radiation exposure 16 times that of the small layer of permanent workers. It cites a New York Times article that reported 88 per cent of all those employed in the industry are contract workers, the level rising to 89 per cent at the stricken Fukishima Daiichi plant. Contract workers described permanent anxiety over losing their jobs and feeing forced to conceal injuries from the employers who organise the chains of contract work. Yuko Fujita, a former physics professor and campaigner for improved working conditions in the nuclear industry, told the paper: 'Wherever there are hazardous conditions, these labourers are told to go. It is dangerous for them, and it is dangerous for nuclear safety.' Japanese paper Asahi Shimbun quotes both officials of the company operating the plant and government sources acknowledging workers are facing a high risk. 'Under circumstances where there is no end to new problems faced, we cannot deny that the company is depending on the spirit of the workers,' an executive of Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the plant operator, said. The workers continue to face a risk of exposure to high levels of radiation in their efforts to restore cooling mechanisms for the reactor cores. 'It is never good to have any kind of work that requires putting one's life on the line,' a high-ranking official of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said. 'However, the importance of settling the situation at the nuclear plant goes beyond the range of labour policy. I cannot be confident about whether that or the safety of the workers should have priority.'

USA: Top earners get the sick leave

Workers at the top of the wage scale in the US are more than four times as likely to have paid sick days than workers toiling near the bottom wage scale, according to a new Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report. The Economic Snapshot found just 19 per cent of low wage workers have paid sick days in the US, compared with 86 per cent of high-wage workers. These low income workers are the ones who can least afford to lose pay when they are sick. Overall one in four workers have no paid sick days and when they become ill, are forced to go to work sick, or stay home without pay and risk losing their job. National union federation AFL-CLO reports recent surveys show threequarters of Americans say paid sick leave should be a 'basic workers' right' and Congress should pass legislation that guarantees workers paid sick leave. More than 160 countries provide paid sick leave, but not the United States. San Francisco, Washington DC and Milwaukee have passed laws requiring that employers provide paid sick days to workers. Similar laws are being considered in states and cities around the country. EPI says a law giving all American workers that same benefit could increase productivity in the workforce through heightened worker loyalty, reduced turnover and reduced workplace illness.

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