Risks 503 - 30 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

Remembering those killed at work

Unions and campaigners have marked Workers' Memorial Day this year in record numbers in over 70 countries worldwide. The TUC said the annual 28 April international event is a reminder that around the world more people are killed at work than in wars and conflict. The union body said the annual reminder is necessary as most of the workers killed in the UK die because employers have not made safety and well-being at work enough of a priority. The day was marked by services, rallies and wreath-laying in most major towns and cities up and down the country, with TUC saying the most common activity was the holding of a simple minute's silence in the workplace. TUC general secretary Brendan Barbersaid: 'Workers' Memorial Day, when we commemorate the dead and focus on protecting the living, has become a major day in the calendar of many workplaces.' He added: 'This year the TUC is aware of more events than ever before, due partly to increasing awareness of the day - which was officially recognised by the government for the first time last year - but also due to growing concern of the impact that cuts in inspection and enforcement activity will have on the number of deaths caused through work.' It was a sentiment echoed by Hilda Palmer of the grassroots Hazards Campaign. She said the government's 'absolute failure to take into account the burden on the families and friends as well as the state, who pick up the bill of billions when workers are killed or injured... exposes their lack of concern for workers' health.' The TUC encouraged unions to use 28 April to campaign against the cuts in Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authority funding and enforcement activity.

Global union attacks anti-regulation business

International trade unions are warning of the potentially devastating effect of business lobbying to weaken legal health and safety protection at work. 'Business groups and companies in a succession of countries, including some of the world's largest economies, are pushing to reduce protection from hazards at work,' said Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Speaking on 28 April, International Workers' Memorial Day, she warned: 'If they succeed, more lives will be lost and the toll of work-related injury and illness will increase. Trade unions are challenging the rigged statistics and bogus arguments that are being put forward by business interests that care more about profit than the lives of the people who work for them.' The union leader added: 'Consider the devastation wrought a year ago by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Eleven lives lost, environmental devastation and costs to the economy in the billions - all down to an appalling disregard for safety aided and abetted by an absence of effective regulation and official oversight. Lessons from this and other disasters like the Fukushima complex in Japan show how critically important regulation and enforcement is. Added to this, 'slow burn' disasters like asbestos mean today's failures to regulate can have a deadly legacy spanning two generations and killing millions.' The ITUC focus for 28 April this year was the crucial role played by trade unions, strong regulation and effective enforcement in securing safer workplaces.

Tube drivers vote to protect union reps

Members of the Tube union RMT have voted by almost two-to-one for strike action in defence of two union reps. The union says safety rep Eamon Lynch and fellow union rep Arwyn Thomas were targeted for their trade union activities, after challenging cuts that could turn the underground system into a 'death trap.' Eamon, the RMT Bakerloo Line drivers' health and safety rep, was sacked by London Underground, but remains on full pay following the union's victory on his behalf at an 'interim relief' Employment Tribunal. RMT says interim relief is only ever granted where there is 'the clearest possible evidence' that an employee has been dismissed on the grounds of their trade union activities. Arwyn, a long-standing RMT activist and driver at Morden, also won interim relief at a tribunal. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'This massive vote for action by Tube drivers shows that they are well aware of the consequences of allowing our activists and safety reps to be picked off while we hear daily reports of breakdowns and failures on the network as a direct result of the very cuts that our members have been fighting.' He added: 'The attack on Eamon Lynch and Arwyn Thomas is the clearest cut case of victimisation on the grounds of trade union activities that you will ever see and it's no wonder that the Employment Tribunal was swift to see through the management lies and grant both these members Interim Relief - an award which requires the strongest possible proof that their sackings were down to their union activities. Eamon and Arwyn have been victimised for fighting cuts to jobs and services that would turn the Tube into a death trap. This vote for action sends out the clearest signal that workers who stand up for Tube safety will get the full support of RMT members.'

Paper mill reps win top award

A team of union safety reps have won a top award after shaking up safety at a Scottish paper mill. The eight Unite reps from Tullis Russell (TR) received the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) Safety Rep of Year award after negotiated a new approach to health, safety and environmental issues at the paper maker. The new strategy centred on a recognition that trade union involvement is crucial to effective health and safety management. Among other breakthroughs, the company agreed to strive for higher health and safety standards and not just settle for the minimum set by law. Unite says under the new system, the safety reps have maintained an independence from management. The approach has not just been good for safety, it has been good for the union, which has 'attracted many new members' as a result. Unite's Debbie Hutchings commented: 'We have seen that where safety reps are involved in an organisation's safety management, this benefits all.' She added: 'We have been given assurances that this partnership approach for health and safety has the full backing of the TR board of directors and its health and safety department.' STUC general secretary Grahame Smith congratulated the Unite reps and added: 'In a comparatively short space of time the representatives have organised themselves, achieved professional health and safety qualifications and taken substantial steps towards improving health and safety management in the paper mill.' The union-driven changes came in the wake of the death in 2008 of sub-contracted worker Thomas Sturrock, 32, in a fall from the company's roof. Tullis Russell was prosecuted and fined this year for related criminal safety breaches (Risks 495).

Cuts and bonuses could cost lives

Government safety cutbacks and a bonus culture in business will lead to more deaths at work, a top union official in Scotland has warned. Grahame Smith, general secretary of Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), said: 'We fear that additional lives will be lost through the combination of coalition government attacks on health and safety enforcement, and the drive towards deregulation, and the growing bonus culture.' He added: 'We strongly believe that commercial pressures and threats to bonus payments actively discourage individuals to report accidents. Far worse we believe workers are often pressurised not to report incidents or near misses. As a result opportunities are missed for management and workers to learn from health and safety failures.' Calling the dramatic cuts in the official safety enforcement budget 'wrong and misguided', he warned they 'will dilute the effectiveness of our safety regulator, as a result there will be less proactive inspections and less investigation of workplace injuries and a greater risk of work related injury and ill health.'

Survey reveals schools asbestos peril

Fears about asbestos exposures in schools have been raised after a survey uncovered 'worrying shortcomings' in the management of the substance. The nationwide survey of more than 600 union safety representatives in schools 'has flatly contradicted' Health and Safety Executive (HSE) claims that the government is meeting its legal obligations to address the issue of asbestos in schools, a trade union campaign group warned. The unions decided to carry out their own research after an HSE survey and follow-up inspection initiative in September last year revealed that 72 per cent of 152 English councils surveyed were managing asbestos in their 'system-build' schools in line with the appropriate procedures (Risks 475). However the unions found 'disparities' between official reports on how asbestos is monitored and dealt with, and the experience of health and safety reps. Julie Winn, chair of the Joint Union Asbestos Campaign (JUAC), a coalition of ten unions within the education sector, said: 'JUAC was unable to accept the HSE's summary findings as these did not align with the experience of our members on the ground.' She added: 'JUAC's grassroots survey shows the importance of supporting the Asbestos in Schools campaign's aims to improve the management of asbestos in all UK schools, and its ultimate removal.' JUAC's survey found that 80 per cent of safety representatives had either not had asbestos awareness training, or did not know if they had, and that only 28 per cent of respondents said the presence of asbestos containing materials (ACM) was clearly marked in the workplace. Commenting on the findings, NUT general secretary Christine Blower said:'Lack of consultation with safety reps and lack of training for staff are two major areas of concern. There is no room for complacency. We are ready to work with schools and local authorities in any way we can to improve standards of asbestos management in schools.'

Teaching jobs blighted by bullying

Bullying is widespread in teaching and little is being done to tackle this 'appalling' treatment, teaching unions have warned. Research commissioned by NASUWT, and released last week at its annual conference, revealed a third of teachers have suffered prejudice related bullying within the last year. But because of fear about the negative impact on their career and possible reprisals, only 15 per cent of victims reported every incident that occurred. Separate research by the union ATL found a quarter of teachers had been bulled at work, with threequarters targeted by people in a position of authority. Commenting on the NASUWT findings, Chris Keates, the union's general secretary, said: 'These are disturbing findings revealing the appalling and unacceptable treatment of teachers in the workplace.' She added: 'In order to put in place effective strategies at national, local and school level to combat bullying in all its forms, a comprehensive database of incidents is needed to show the full nature and extent of the problems.' ATL general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, said: 'It is unacceptable for any staff to be bullied by colleagues, and schools and colleges need robust policies in place to pick up any problems and deal with them promptly. It is not good enough to just tackle the symptoms; schools and colleges also need to tackle the cause of the bullying. In the case of many education staff, they are under too much pressure in their roles and this need to be addressed. Without robust policies on bullying and adequate measures to resolve the problem, staff will become demoralised and this can only have a negative impact on pupils.'

Heads not ready to tackle teacher stress

Many headteachers have no idea how to tackle the high level of occupational stress afflicting teachers, the union NUT has warned. Christine Blower, the union's general secretary, said despite recognition that teaching is 'one of the most stressful professions to work in' and 'stress is the predominant cause of work-related illness in the education sector,' too little is being done. 'Employers ought to be as keen as the NUT to address this problem, to protect the health of their staff but also to ensure that their schools are safe and productive environments for teaching and learning. It is their duty to ensure that stress risk assessments are carried out,' she said. But she warned: 'Often head teachers have no proper guidance on how to carry out a risk assessment of any kind, let alone one on stress, which is far harder to assess than a straightforward accident hazard.' The union leader added: 'This is not a question of apportioning blame. Training is essential and employers should provide it...We know teaching is stressful, we know some of the causes; now we need to concentrate on what can be done to eliminate them.'

Corus welder gets shin injury payout

A welder left with a large scar on his shin after a workplace incident has received an undisclosed sum in compensation after help from his trade union. GMB member Richard Parry, 45, from Newport has a two inch by one inch scar in the shape of a tick on his shin after lacerating it against the sharp metal framework of a train base whilst working for Corus. Corus had failed to provide steps to help workers move within the 20ft by 40ft train base they were building. Workers had no choice but navigate the dimly lit area by stepping over parts of the razor sharp base to get to the area they were working on. Mr Parry needed 12 stitches and has been left with a large and obvious scar. He also suffered a shoulder injury which needed surgery. He said: 'It was horrifically painful when it happened. Fortunately it has healed well but I've still been left with this scar.' He was forced to take six weeks off work following the injury. He was later, unrelated to his injury, made redundant and is now retraining to be a teacher. Following the incident, Corus provided steps to make it safer for workers to access their working areas. Lighting in the area was also improved. Faced with a GMB-backed compensation claim, Corus admitted 80 per cent liability and settled the claim out of court. GMB regional legal officer Nick Hughes said: 'After Mr Parry's accident Corus provided steps to make the area safer but it was like shutting the gate after the horse had bolted - the damage had already been done.' He added: 'This was an accident waiting to happen. The train base was extremely sharp and I am surprised that an injury like this didn't occur sooner because of the unsafe working practices which were in place.'

Other news

Proposals could hurt accident reporting

Government proposals to reduce injury reporting requirements on firms could make workplaces less safe and could increase the burdens on business, a safety body has warned. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), in its response to a consultation on the future of the RIDDOR accident reporting regulations, is calling for a different, more radical approach to encourage improved reporting. It says a consultation proposal on moving the trigger for reporting injuries from those leading to absences of more than three consecutive days to absences of seven days plus would be counterproductive. Roger Bibbings, RoSPA's occupational safety adviser, calculated that if the scheme was relaxed in line with the government proposals some firms would be required to scarcely ever report any injuries or dangerous occurrence. They would, 'in all probability' be so ignorant of the requirements that incidents 'would go unreported altogether.' He said 'a much more radical approach' was required, adding: 'While always mindful of the need to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy, RoSPA would suggest that efforts to reduce burdens on business in this area should focus on helping organisations to improve their management of health and safety and thus avoid the heavy costs to which accidents and incidents usually give rise.'

Firm fined after fitter is crushed to death

A Staffordshire engineering firm has been fined £40,000 after it 'took safety risks for granted' and a fitter was crushed to death. Father-of-two Mark Palmer, 46, was crushed by the digger he was working on at a farm near Penkridge on 7 March 2008. Mr Palmer was working under the vehicle's arms when the hydraulic system lost pressure. This caused the loading arm to fall, fatally crushing him against the vehicle frame. Stafford Crown Court heard how his employer, Hydraline Engineering Ltd, had failed to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment, meaning there were insufficient control measures in place to stop the arm falling in the event of a loss of hydraulic pressure. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation also found Hydraline had given Palmer insufficient training on the risks of working with hydraulic machinery. Instead he had picked up knowledge while on the job. The firm was fined £40,000 and ordered to pay £20,000 costs by the court after it pleaded guilty to criminal health and safety breaches. Mr Palmer's widow, Toni Palmer, said: 'Mark was a fantastic man and we will always miss having him in our lives. Nothing can ever bring him back and we take no comfort from the prosecution of the company he was working for or their guilty plea.' The family-owned firm has 10 employees and a turnover of £1 million.

Horrific burns after firm's safety bypass

A Tamworth firm has been fined £20,000 after a worker suffered horrific burns from a flash fire after opening an oven door with a bypassed safety system. The 24-year-old, who has asked not to be identified, was working Enviro-Strip (UK) Ltd, a firm that strips paint and coatings from metal parts for the automotive industry. During the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecution, Burton-on-Trent Magistrates' Court heard that on 19 March 2010 he was supervising the opening of the specialised oven, used to remove paint from metal in a low-oxygen environment. He suffered acute burns on his face, arm, neck and left hand when the resulting flash fire from the 400 degree oven caught his upper body. He was airlifted to hospital and put into an induced coma and kept on a high dependency ward for four days. He is back at work but cannot stay out in sunlight as his skin is now too sensitive. The HSE investigation found a safety device designed to prevent the door from being opened at temperatures above 260 degrees had been deliberately bypassed. Enviro-Strip pleaded guilty to criminal breaches of safety law and of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002. It was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £6,491 costs. Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Gail Pannell said: 'This was a very serious, entirely preventable incident that could easily have been fatal and left a man on a life support machine. He is extremely lucky to have recovered from his injuries.'

Petfood giant fined £50,000 after mass scalding

Petcare giant Nestle Purina has been fined after five workers suffered severe burns when a steam pressure system malfunctioned. The five men were all working on the maintenance of a hydrostat, a high-pressure food-processing machine, when they were hit by an uncontrolled release of steam and boiling water at Nestle Purina's plant in Wisbech. Cambridge Crown Court heard Gary Coe, David Garner, Mark Mawby, Christopher Newell and David Naylor suffered severe burns to their faces, arms and hands as a result of the incident on the 4 August 2006. The workers were treated in hospital, with one man needing cosmetic surgery to his arm. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found the hydrostat control systems had been replaced prior to the maintenance work but no proper assessment of the risks associated with these modifications was undertaken. Nestle Purina Petcare (UK) Limited admitted criminal safety offences and was fined £50,000 with £22,634.15 costs. After the hearing HSE inspector Peter Burns said: 'This incident highlights the need for companies to plan and implement all projects with a clear health and safety oversight. In particular, there are strict rules and regulations around the modifications and repairs of high pressure systems that are in place to protect workers operating or maintaining these machines. Had Nestle Purina followed these regulations properly, this incident may have been avoided and these five men may not have suffered the injuries they did.' In February, parent company Nestlé reported annual profits of $35.8 billion (£21.7bn).

International News

Global: Dismay at Canada's asbestos shame

A major expansion of asbestos production in Canada is to go ahead, after the industry secured official support for a new mine. Global union federation BWI, which represents building workers in the asbestos disease frontline, condemned the decision by the Quebec provincial government to support the Jeffrey asbestos mine. Government minister Clement Gignac said subject to some limited provisos, it would provide a multi- million loan guarantee to allow the mine expansion to go ahead. A statement from BWI said in making the 'shameful' decision, the Quebec government had 'decided to ignore the advice of its own medical institutes and of the international agencies such as ILO, WHO and ISSA.' The BWI statement added: 'It is beyond comprehension that for the sake of 425 jobs in the town of Asbestos, the government is willing to export a deadly substance on a massive scale to unprotected populations in developing countries. The whole world, including the public in Canada and Quebec, is witness to this indefensible decision. Canada's international reputation as a defender of human rights is thoroughly discredited by this cynical and heartless move, motivated by political gamesmanship and outright greed.' The statement concluded: 'The Building and Woodworkers International is committed to work with its affiliates and other like-minded organisations to step up the ban asbestos campaign globally in order to prevent more pain, suffering and loss caused by asbestos diseases.' The consortium behind the mine has admitted its asbestos exports will be destined for Asia, with India a prime target.

Global: ThyssenKrupp execs jailed for deaths

An Italian court has sentenced ThyssenKrupp's top boss in the country, Harald Espenhahn, to 16.5 years in prison for the murder of seven workers who died in a fire at the multinational's steel factory in Turin on 6 December 2007. The incident prompted a strike and demonstrations on the city's streets, and a nationwide campaign for workplace safety improvements (Risks 336). In addition to the jailing of Espenhahn, the company's chief executive officer (CEO) for Italy, five other company officials were convicted on manslaughter charges and sentenced to up to 13.5 years in prison. The German company received a 1 million euro (£885,000) fine. The company was also told by the Turin court it would not be allowed to benefit from Italian state subsidies for six months. During the same period, ThyssenKrupp will also be banned from advertising its products in Italy. At the time of the incident the company was gradually dissolving the factory, with only 200 of the former 400 employees remaining. Unions accused the firm of losing interest in the plant and a failure to maintain health and safety standards. The prosecution's investigation into the incident proved that the CEO was fully aware of the risks and decided not to take the minimum measures required by law at the plant. The court's ruling, which the company say will be appealed, sets an important precedent in recognising the CEO as responsible for voluntary homicide, a first in Italy for a workplace incident. One worker died immediately in the horrific blaze at the plant in Turin, while the other six died later in hospital. The verdict was welcomed by prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello, who said it would 'mean a lot for health and safety at the workplace.' Giorgio Airaudo, of the metalworkers' union Fiom, also welcomed the ruling, saying: 'When workers are injured or killed at the workplace it's never by chance, it's always somebody's responsibility.' Labour minister Maurizio Sacconi said the verdict sets a 'relevant precedent'.

USA: Transocean 'contributed' to Gulf disaster

A lax safety culture and poorly working kit aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig contributed to last year's explosion, the US Coast Guard has concluded. In a report on the incident, which killed 11 rig workers and caused a massive spill, the agency criticised the practices and training of rig owner Transocean. It said equipment was poorly maintained and alarms and automatic shutdown systems did not work properly. The 288-page report, released just over a year after the incident, noted: 'Deepwater Horizon and its owner, Transocean, had serious safety management system failures and a poor safety culture.' It added: 'Collectively, this record raises serious questions whether Transocean's safety culture was a factor that contributed to the disaster.' The Coast Guard report said evidence indicated the explosion occurred when electrical equipment ignited a cloud of flammable gas that had flowed up from the well. It said electrical equipment may have been incapable of preventing ignition, and cited a 2010 inspection audit that found some equipment on board was in 'bad condition' and was 'seriously corroded.' The report noted: 'Because of these deficiencies, there is no assurance that the electrical equipment was safe and could not have caused the explosions.' On the first anniversary of the explosion, BP sued Transocean for $40bn (£24.37bn) in damages in an attempt to defray the oil firm's tens of billions of dollars in liabilities associated with clean-up and compensation. In federal court in New Orleans, BP said safety systems on Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig had failed. BP also sued the maker of the rig's blowout preventer, alleging the device failed to stop the huge oil spill that followed the explosion. Transocean has also demanded court judgments against BP and other companies.

USA: Safety laws are good for jobs and workers

Regulations designed to protect workers, consumers and the environment do not have a negative impact on the job market and, in some cases, actually spur job creation, according to new research. The paper from the US Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows that recent criticism surrounding regulations' impact on jobs is misguided and not reflective of economic data. 'Regulation, employment, and the economy: Fears of job loss are overblown' concludes economic studies provide no evidence that regulation impedes job creation or leads to significant unemployment. Overall, 'the preponderance of studies of various industries suggests that regulations have had a close to neutral effect or a moderately positive effect on employment levels,' according to the EPI paper. The report says since 2007, US government data on 'extended mass job layoffs' indicate that 'only a very tiny fraction of such job layoffs (about 0.3 per cent of the 1.5 million such layoffs each year) were attributed by employers to government regulations/ intervention.' By comparison, 'extreme weather-related events have caused more extended mass job layoffs than government regulation, according to the data.' Authors John Irons and Isaac Shapiro also found 'under-regulation' played a role in the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster and its aftermath, which, in addition to its environmental and human toll, continues to have a significant negative impact on the Gulf region's economy and job market. The paper notes 'regulations have generally and consistently struck a reasonable balance, with their benefits to health, safety, and well-being far exceeding their costs.' It found 'debates over regulations have often relied on exaggerated estimates of the compliance costs they will produce.' The paper concludes: 'Overall, the picture that emerges from this review is a positive one. For decades, regulations have generally and consistently struck a reasonable balance, with their benefits to health, safety, and well-being far exceeding their costs.'

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