Risks 518 - 13 August 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

UNISON calls for safety action now

Union members must 'act now' to protect workplace health and safety rights and standards from an unprecedented attack, public sector union UNISON has said. Its short guide on 'The threat to health and safety' says the system protecting workers 'is under greater threat now than at any other time.' In addition to cuts to the Health and Safety Executive's funding and a significant reduction in official workplace safety inspections, it warns 'hard-won health and safety legislation is on the chopping block and people are becoming more vulnerable to issues such as stress, bullying and violence.' With an estimated 500,000 public sector workers set to lose their jobs, UNISON adds, insecure workers will be less likely to raise safety concerns and will be reluctant to take sick leave. 'The impact of this is that workplaces become both more dangerous and unhealthier,' the guides notes. With many UNISON workplaces now classified as 'low risk' and exempt from preventive, 'proactive' HSE inspections, workers are losing essential protection. 'Studies show that over 90 per cent of employers improve their health and safety policies either immediately before or after an inspection,' the union points out. It says UNISON reps should encourage members to keep on reporting and recording health and safety incidents. It adds they should raise concerns about the cuts to health and safety with their local MP and should tell their story through the local media, highlighting how the cuts are affecting people in particular workplaces.

Journalists targeted in civil unrest

Journalists covering civil unrest in the UK need to plan accordingly and take appropriate precautions, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has warned. Issuing guidance on 9 August, after reports of a number of journalists having been targeted as riots affected several cities, the union's alert noted: 'Should the civil unrest continue it is likely that similar behaviour will be repeated if participants are being filmed or photographed and journalists may also be injured as a result of the violence aimed at the police and/or their proximity to premises being attacked.' The union's detailed checklist advises journalists to carry a map, check routes and know alternative exit routes. Freelances or those working on commissions should check that they are insured, it adds. Strong boots and strong, tight fighting clothing is recommended, and other protective gear including shin guards, kneepads, body armour and helmet 'may be worth thinking about.' The union advises journalists to 'let someone know that you are covering the unrest and tell them what time you are leaving and at what time to expect you back' and to 'keep an eye on fellow journalists in case they need help.'

FBU calls for an end to attacks on fire crews

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is warning that attacks on fire crews are creating 'a very real risk' of deaths. It adds that any delay in carrying out rescues hugely increases the risk to anyone trapped in a fire. FBU assistant general secretary Andy Dark said: 'Fire crews have been subjected to attacks and threatened as they try to protect the communities they live and work in. It is predominantly poorer working class communities that are bearing the brunt of arson attacks.' Commenting on 9 August, after three days of riots in a number of cities, he said: 'Fire crews are doing their best in the face of great risk to themselves. They've been attacked on the way to incidents, at the scene and there have been attempts to steal lifesaving equipment. Those who are torching homes, shops and workplaces need to understand they are seriously risking lives. There is a very real risk that this will result in a significant loss of life if it goes on.' The union leader added: 'Fire crews are frustrated and angry that they cannot get to burning buildings, especially where people may be trapped. Fire crews have to be able to get through without fear of attack or serious injury or people will die.' He added: 'All we have is kit to protect from the danger of fires, not from bricks, bottles or metal bars. We do not arrest people and we only use water on fires, we do not use it on those involved in these disturbances. In recent days the fire service has been overwhelmed in London. There is a clear risk this will also be the case in other cities if these disturbances spread further.'

Dedicated workers deserve calm, says Unite

Rioting is achieving nothing other than ruining lives and putting workers at risk, the leader of the union Unite has said. Appealing for calm, general secretary Len McCluskey said: 'Rioting solves nothing - all it does is bring ruin to people's lives and fear to working class communities.' He added: 'Workers also need to know that they can go about their business in the community in safety, particularly in the transport sector where bus drivers have been placed in the most dreadful and dangerous of situations in recent days.' He added transport workers had shown their dedication by continuing to turn out for work, but said: 'Workers cannot be asked to drive people into battlefields. Equally, we offer our admiration and support for the public servants up and down the country who are now repairing the damage done to our communities. Their fortitude illustrates once again why our public services are to be prized.' He warned that 'unemployment and the dismantling of the social infrastructure' was undermining social cohesion, concluding: 'Addressing these deep-rooted problems takes time, dedication and political will but what is clear is that super-charged tough talk about law and order will not on its own work. Our communities need now to be given the resources and the support they need to get back on their feet.'

TUC microsite will help vulnerable workers

A new online resource aims to help 'vulnerable' workers obtain details on their employment and safety rights at work. The TUC says it Basic Rights @ Work microsite will introduce these vulnerable workers - people who have little knowledge of their employment rights, who find it hard to access advice and who do not have the ability to protect themselves against abuses - to information about employment rights in the UK and how to enforce these rights through statutory enforcement bodies. Health and safety is listed as no.1 in the site's eight categories of pay and employment rights. The microsite contains five videos created by the TUC and enforcement bodies which explain how the different agencies, including the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), operate. TUC deputy general secretary Frances O'Grady said: 'Thousands of people around the UK are exploited at work every day because the law is not strong enough to prevent mistreatment and rogue bosses use gaps in employment protection to treat their staff badly. Vulnerable workers - especially in low-paid sectors, such as care, cleaning, hospitality, security and construction - can find themselves working excessively long hours, sometimes with no contract of employment. Their work can be insecure and they are regularly paid below the minimum wage.' She added: 'Unions have a proven track record in stopping unscrupulous employers from exploiting vulnerable workers. This website will be a vital tool to help workers and their union reps secure a fair deal at work.'

Ladder fall had devastating consequences

An electrician suffered a devastating back injury after falling from a ladder at work. Anthony Smallwood, 66, a Unite member from Erith, must now use a wheelchair because the fall exacerbated an old back injury. The Technique Projects Ltd employee fell four metres from a stepladder in September 2007 after he over-balanced while unscrewing an air conditioning unit in Tower Bridge House in London. Scaffolding show have been used. Mr Smallwood had only just returned to work a few months earlier after undergoing extensive back surgery on a damaged vertebrae caused by a fall down some stairs at home. Additional surgery on his back was already on the cards but he planned to have it after he retired. The fall from the ladder meant the pain became unbearable and he needed the surgery earlier. Mr Smallwood initially took a week off work following the incident, but it soon became clear he was no longer able to cope with the job. He was signed off sick and he went in for surgery in March 2008. The operation left him with severe sciatica and needing a wheelchair, forcing him to retire from the firm in 2009. Faced with a union backed compensation case, Technique Projects did not admit liability but settled the claim out of court for an undisclosed sum. Peter Kavanagh, acting regional secretary at Unite, said: 'Just because people have used ladders before in a job doesn't mean they are using them safely. Falls from heights are the number one cause of workplace deaths and a little planning from employers is needed to make sure staff are up to date on working at height rules. In this case the member should have been provided with scaffolding to allow him better access to the air conditioning unit.'

Other news

Third worker dies at Sonae chipboard factory

The third worker to die at the Sonae chipboard factory since December 2010 has been named as James Dennis Kay. It is understood the 62-year-old died after being crushed by industrial machinery at the Merseyside plant. The contractor was part of the Andrew Connolly Demolition team working on areas destroyed in June by a major fire. Local press reported he brushed the controls of the cherry picker crane he was using as he leaned over the cage, sending it up into a rolled steel girder, crushing his head and body. He is then thought to have fallen up to 70ft into an abandoned building. Bosses at Sonae have been under increasing pressure since the death of two workers in December 2010, killed after being dragged into silo machinery (Risks 486), and the huge fire that raged there for eight days in June 2011.The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports it has been called to 22 serious incidents at the factory in 10 years, including fires and an explosion. Local Labour MP George Howarth, an outspoken critic of the factory, expressed sympathy for the family of Mr Kay. In a message on his website, he added: 'There is still little, if any, evidence that Sonae has resolved the underlying problems with safety and stability at the plant. When the recent fire broke out in June, Sonae's management expressed concern that its safety record had been misunderstood. In the interests of openness and transparency, now would be a good time to publish Sonae's health and safety record in full.' A joint investigation by Merseyside Police and HSE has been launched.

Quarry job caused disabling lung disease

A former stone mason who contracted a debilitating occupational lung disease caused by breathing stone dust has received a payout from the Bradford quarry where he worked for a decade. The 61-year-old was forced to give up work in 2009. He suffers severe breathing difficulties and struggles to walk or climb stairs after contracting silicosis, caused by inhaling silica dust made airborne when working the sandstone quarried by Fagley Quarries Ltd. Ian Bailey of solicitors Irwin Mitchell said the man, who does not want to be named, had worked at the quarry for ten years and 'was not provided with suitable protecting breathing equipment.' The firm negotiated 'a substantial settlement' to cover his lost earnings and to provide for his care as his health deteriorates, he said. The solicitor said silicosis 'can be severely disabling and carries with it the risk of lung cancer in the future.' Fagley Quarries initially denied it was responsible for the employee contracting silicosis, despite the fact that he had worked at the company for more than 10 years without being provided with a face mask. It was only as court proceedings progressed, and after a number of experts had given evidence on the condition, that Fagley Quarries agreed to pay damages. Ian Bailey said the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issues clear guidelines in relation to working with harmful levels of stone dust and 'there are companies such as Fagley Quarries which have clearly disregarded these.' Quarries are one of the industries exempted from proactive inspections under the Health and Safety Executive's government-ordered cutback inspection programme.

Brewery in court twice in a day

An international brewery giant has appeared twice in a day before Cannock magistrates for criminal health and safety breaches. Molson Coors Brewing Company (UK) Ltd was fined on 4 August 2011 after three men suffered serious chemical burns when 6,000 litres of caustic soda erupted from a faulty valve at its Burton on Trent brewery. The same day, it was sentenced after a delivery driver was hit by a forklift truck and seriously injured while at the same site. In the first incident, three sub-contractors from a specialist engineering company were undertaking maintenance work. They were drenched in a liquid jet of caustic soda when repairing a valve on a line running from a detergent tank on 30 June 2008. Up to 6,000 litres of the chemical spilled out from the container. Martin Soanes, 53, was temporarily blinded and one of his colleagues, who has asked not to be identified, suffered 25 per cent burns, which have left him with scars and continuing sensitivity, making it difficult for him to tolerate heat. The third man suffered minor skin burns and irritation to his eyes. Molson Coors was fined £14,000 at Cannock Magistrates' Court and ordered to pay £43,674 costs. In the second incident, delivery driver Peter Jackson, 64, was walking along the lines in the canning hall to find a space to deliver his load, when he was struck by a forklift truck, which trapped his left leg beneath the forks. His foot and left wrist were both fractured in the May 2008 incident and he has not been able to return to work. The firm was fined £31,000 and ordered to pay £33,042 costs. A spokesperson for the company said the incidents were 'a matter of great regret', and added: 'In the last two years - 2009 and 2010 - Molson Coors has invested in excess of £1 million in improving safety across our breweries in the UK.'

Unguarded print machine mangled hand

The hand of a print worker was mutilated by an unguarded machine, a court has heard. Print Manager John Stagg, 40, was working the night shift at Ancient House Press in Ipswich when the incident happened on 10 September 2010. Ipswich Magistrates' Court heard Mr Stagg, who had worked at the firm for more than 20 years, was attempting to clear a blockage from underneath a conveyor belt on a stacking machine when his right hand got caught in its toothed cogs. He sustained a fracture to his index finger, his middle finger was severed to its first joint and he lost the nail and a section of his ring finger. Mr Stagg required plastic surgery and was off work for seven months. The Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) investigation found a fixed guard that would have prevented access to the underside of the machine had been removed. Around 20 other guards and safety devices on machines around the factory were also found to be missing or disabled. The firm admitted breaching the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations and was fined £7,500 with £8,272 costs. Following the hearing HSE inspector Paul Unwin said: 'The fixed guard would have prevented access to the dangerous moving parts of the machine while it was running, and looked as if it had been missing for several weeks, if not months. An interlock device that should have turned off the conveyor when the fixed guard was opened had been overridden, which left the machine running with no guard in place. Had the interlock been working, opening the fixed guard would have turned the belt off and prevented the injury.'

Unguarded bandsaw removed three fingers

A County Durham manufacturing firm has been fined after a contract worker had three fingers severed while using a bandsaw. John Houston, 39, was working as a contractor for Derek Parnaby Cyclones International Ltd, which manufactures and installs mineral processing and effluent treatment systems and equipment. He was working at the company's head office in Chilton, where he was using a horizontal metal cutting bandsaw to cut down pieces of steel to make a frame. There was no safety guard in place and his left hand came into contact with the moving blade, severing three of his fingers. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) brought the prosecution after investigating the 22 April 2010 incident. Darlington Magistrates' Court heard that Mr Houston had to undergo ten hours of surgery as doctors attempted, unsuccessfully, to re-attach one of his fingers. He was in hospital for a week. Mr Houston's own firm, AJL Safenet Ltd, has now ceased trading as he has been unable to return to work. The court was told that Derek Parnaby Cyclones International Ltd had also allowed its employees to operate another horizontal metal cutting bandsaw without the required adjustable blade guard, despite having been given advice from HSE inspectors in 2008 on the safeguards required. The firm pleaded guilty to criminal safety offences and was fined a total of £10,500 and £3,266.60 costs.

Worker stung by scorpion at 'low risk' grocer

A Scottish shop worker is recovering at home after being stung by a scorpion while opening a box of bananas at a Farmfoods store. It is at least the third time in three years grocery workers in the UK have been confronted by a scorpion at work. In the latest incident, Billy Clark, 48, a worker at Farmfoods in Stonehaven, was opening the box of bananas imported from Colombia. He felt a sharp sting in his right little finger, commenting: 'My boss thought I was joking when I said it was a scorpion.' Mr Clark captured the three inch creature before being taken by ambulance to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. 'An hour after being admitted to hospital I was feeling tired and feeling sick but they did blood tests and a heart trace and kept an eye on me every hour.' Shopworkers' union Usdaw has warned that a government decision to axe proactive health and safety inspections in 'low risk' workplaces like shops, fails to recognise a wide range of risks that can leave shopworkers in mortal danger. In May 2011, the union said the government's requirement that local authorities undertake 65,000 fewer safety inspections each year is 'seriously flawed' and will mean 'many employers will think they don't need to bother' with safety (Risks 507). The union was responding to guidance from the Health and Safety Executive and the Local Government Group, which spelled out how local authorities will meet a government demand to cut preventive 'proactive' inspections by a third. Usdaw says retail workers are at a high risks of assaults and abuse at work.

Wrist crushed in defective machine

A metal roofing company has been prosecuted after a Cardiff worker suffered a serious wrist injury while operating defective production line machinery. Darren Gillard, 46, was employed by Euro Clad Ltd to make metal roof panels. On 19 April 2010 he was operating a machine that positions wooden blocks beneath packs of roof panels on the production line, when some of the blocks became jammed in the machinery. Walking into the enclosure with the machine still in 'automatic' mode, he reached under the machine to free the jammed bearers. However, once the blockage was removed, the machinery started up again and crushed his wrist between the bearer and the base frame. He underwent three operations to insert a metal plate into his wrist, and skin graft treatment to serious skin abrasions sustained in the incident. He was only able to return to work four months later. Cardiff Crown Court heard that he was able to gain access to the production line through a defective interlocked gate in the two-metre high perimeter fence that surrounded it. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed the gate had been interfered with and tied open. This was common practice due to a high number of jams, with workers regularly passing the gate without correctly stopping and isolating the machine. At Cardiff Crown Court, Euro Clad Ltd was fined £20,000 and £6,000 costs.

Lorry cab fell on worker

A Suffolk truck dealership has been fined after a technician was trapped when the cab of a lorry fell on him, causing him to be off work for six weeks. Trevor Muffett, 60, was carrying out a routine vehicle check when a metal prop holding up the cab gave way. He suffered two broken ribs and was trapped underneath the lorry for ten minutes. Orwell Trucks, trading as Orwell Truck and Van, pleaded guilty at Ipswich Magistrates' Court to a criminal safety breach and was fined £4,500 and ordered to pay costs of £2,726. After the hearing, HSE inspector Ivan Brooke said: 'Orwell Trucks did identify the risks facing their employees and how to prevent things going wrong. But it did not make sure that they had the necessary information or that they were properly trained. Nor were the measures needed to avoid injury monitored or enforced by supervisors.' He added: 'Trevor Muffett's injury could have been foreseen and prevented. And it all could have been much worse: there are cases of people having been killed by falling vehicle cabs.'

Prosecutions over asbestos exposure

A Norfolk company and a contractor from Manchester have been fined after failing to manage asbestos removal work at a renovation site in Great Yarmouth. Mohammed Zahid was employed in May 2009 by Azam Bros Ltd to clear damage caused by a fire at two commercial units. Complaints were received by Great Yarmouth Borough Council that a skip outside the premises had no cover to prevent dust contaminating surrounding work units or exposing the general public. The council issued a prohibition notice to stop work and asbestos was later found to be present. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authority launched a joint investigation which resulted in prosecution. HSE inspectors told Norwich Magistrates' Court that Mr Zahid failed to order an asbestos survey, as required by law, before starting renovation work, was not trained in asbestos removal and did not possess the required licence. Mohammed Zahid, 33, was fined £1,000 plus £500 costs after admitting criminal breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006. Azam Bros Ltd was fined £2,500 plus costs of £2,500 for a single criminal breach. After the hearing, HSE inspector Peter Nickerson said: 'Azam Bros Ltd obtained three estimates to renovate the units before employing Mr Zahid. One of the quotes highlighted what work may be needed if asbestos was identified but this did not prompt the company to take any action.'

International News

Australia: Home improvement shows overlook risks

TV home improvement programmes should include an on-air warning in each show about the dangers of asbestos, a top Australian union body has said. Unions NSW was responding to an appeal from the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia. Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon said the major TV networks had an obligation to act responsibly. 'The tragedy of asbestos related illness has touched far too many families and these DIY home renovation shows need to ensure they're not unwittingly adding to the problem,' he said. 'These programmes are wildly popular and present a tremendous opportunity to outline the potential danger of asbestos as part of any home renovation.' He said any house built before 1984 could contain asbestos and advised DIY renovators inspired by the programmes to be mindful of the dangers. He said unions will consider taking their concerns to the Australian Communications and Media Authority if programme makers do not respond positively.

Global: Unions target 'most dangerous' fishing sector

A 'From Catcher to Counter' programme to build worker representation and improve conditions in the fishing industry worldwide has been launched by global union federations ITF and IUF. The new initiative is designed to cover the whole industry from 'catcher to counter' with the aim to increase union membership and power. It will also seek to standardise conditions across multinational companies while improving terms and conditions. The global union federations also wish to 'establish process to assure that fishing is not illegal, unregulated and unreported.' Ron Oswald, IUF general secretary, explained: 'The fishing industry is vast, vital, but often unregulated. Fishing is one of the world's most dangerous occupations, something that has been vividly underlined by the recent release of casualty figures from the IMO (International Maritime Organisation), which estimates the annual death toll among fishers as a chilling 24,000 per year.' Liz Blackshaw, the ITF/IUF fisheries programme leader, added: 'The starting point for this important new joint effort is to gauge the depth of union coverage across this whole industry. That information is essential for us to develop an organising plan for the industry, and we're asking ITF and IUF-affiliated unions to help us find it.' She continued: 'The need for representation and protection for fishers is being shown right now in New Zealand, where ITF unions have pushed the government into declaring a ministerial inquiry into the often scandalous conditions in which many foreign fishers have been made to work' (Risks 515).

USA: Bad jobs and brain disease in the slaughterhouse

Immigrant workers on poverty wages have been recruited for the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in the industrial production of Spam - and some developed a deadly work-related brain disease as a result. 'The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret,' a feature in the US magazine Mother Jones, relates the recent troubled history of the Hormel Foods plant in Austin, Minnesota. After an ill-fated strike, the company subcontracted out the most gruelling and dangerous operations - known as the 'hot side' involving killing and dismembering pigs as opposed to the packaging 'cold side' - to a shell company called Quality Pork Producers. The firm paid lower wages and was not obligated to hire back the former strikers. The firm's predominantly immigrant workforce began reporting a litany of strange symptoms that started with numbness and tingling and built up to temporary paralysis and widespread nerve death (Risks 335). The workers were suffering a devastating auto-immune response to inhaling aerosolised pork brains?a pink mist that coated workers at the 'head table' where they were tasked with literally blowing out a pig's brains so the mush could be shipped to China for sale as a thickener for stir fries. It is thought the workers are suffering from Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP), a serious and disabling nerve disorder. The worst affected workers, meanwhile, were fired for using fake identification - a common practice among the frequently undocumented migrant workforce. Despite indications that the constantly increasing line speed played a key role in the disease outbreak - more brains blasted each hour meant more exposure, and skulls piling up cracked a protective shield - the company reportedly did nothing to reduce the workload.

USA: Green jobs can be just as deadly

A surge in alternative energy projects and employment in the US is seeing inexperienced workers recruited to jobs they do not have the skills, training or supervision to do safely, US reports suggest. The US experience echoes that in Australia, where an energy efficiency home insulation programme saw a spate of injuries and deaths in workers employed by get rich quick non-union contractors. In the UK, concerns have been raised about fatalities in wind farm construction and the notoriously deadly recycling industry. In the US, online news agency FairWarning reported in October 2010 that authorities in California alone investigated three workplace deaths in the solar panel industry in slightly over two years. Installing solar panels combines three of the most hazardous jobs - roofing, carpentry and electrical work - with work at height, making it particularly risky. Wind power, too, has its risks. 'The dark side of solar and wind power projects', a 3 August 2011 report from the Los Angeles Times, points out that many technicians on wind power projects work in bathroom-size spaces, high above the ground, surrounded by high-voltage electrical equipment. Workers also sometimes inspect turbine blades while suspended alongside them, on sites whipped by strong winds. The result: technicians have fallen hundreds of feet, and others have been crushed by, or trapped in, moving machinery. It is a situation that is registering concern with the US federal health and safety regulator, OSHA. But OSHA is facing its own battle for survival. As budget cuts to federal agencies become inevitable as part of the debt deal agreed by Congress, safety enforcement in any workplace, green or otherwise, could itself be in danger. Green jobs may never get to make a blip on OSHA's enforcement radar.

Events and Courses

Work stress network conference, Birmingham, 26-27 November 2011

The National Work Stress Network annual conference is to take place in Birmingham on the weekend of 26-27 November. The network says increasing economic and job insecurity is leading to more stress at work. The theme of the conference is 'From recession to depression?'. The network says its conference is aimed at union health and safety representatives and shop stewards, company safety and human resources specialists, stress management consultants and others with an interest in the topic.

  • From recession to depression?, UK Stress Network national conference, Hillscourt Conference Centre, Rednal, near Birmingham, 26-27 November 2011.
  • UK Work Stress Network website and conference flyer and booking form [pdf].

TUC courses for safety reps


Useful Links

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  • Subscribe to Hazards magazine, supported by the TUC as a key source of information for union safety reps.
  • What's new in the HSC/E and the European Agency.
  • HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2WA. Tel: 01787 881165; fax: 01787 313995
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