Risks 522 - 10 September 2011

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards magazine
Hazards at Work

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

Union News

Unite says 'no' to workplace dust

The official limit for workplace dust must be lowered to protect workers from one of the work's biggest killers, the union Unite has said. Unite has joined the TUC in calling for a review of dust exposure levels, in line with recommendations from the trade union side of the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) Advisory Committee on Toxic Substances (ACTS) (Risks 521). HSE has so far refused to move to a safer standard, despite acknowledging the current standard is far from safe (Risks 506). TUC's new guidance, backed by Unite, presents evidence that dust is one of the biggest workplace killers and several thousands of workers are dying as a result of dust exposure. The unions say that although much of toll is because of inadequate enforcement of existing standards, a considerable number of deaths are a result of the inadequate maximum exposure levels - workers are developing sometimes fatal diseases at exposures at or below the current workplace limit. While it waits for HSE to act, unions are promoting their own interim voluntary standard, set at a quarter the current official limit. Bud Hudspith, Unite national health and safety adviser, commented: 'Too many Unite members are being exposed to dangerous levels of dust at work. The current dust standards are not good enough and there is strong scientific evidence to prove it. Unite is calling on the Health and Safety Executive to launch a general campaign to reduce dust exposure in all workplaces and to improve the inadequate dust standards that currently exist.'

Don't make slaves of migrant domestic workers

Government plans to dramatically curtail the rights of migrant domestic workers 'will return us to slavery', campaigners have warned. Workers' rights groups and unions backed a 4 September rally in London to protest at legal changes outlined in a Home Office consultation document. The government wants to change the domestic workers' visa, a move the protesters say could leave them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and human trafficking. Presently, migrant domestic workers are allowed to change their employer without losing their immigration status, meaning if they are mistreated, they can leave and find new work to support their families. They can also seek justice through the police or the employment courts without fearing they will be removed from the UK. But migrants' rights campaigners say if these rights are removed, unscrupulous employers will know they can abuse and exploit with impunity. TUC's Owen Tudor said the government should heed the lesson of diplomats' domestic workers, who don't have the right to change jobs. 'One in 25 of these workers have been found to be little more than slaves,' he said. 'If the change goes through, all migrant domestic workers will face the same predicament.' Marissa Begonia, the chair of Justice 4 Domestic Workers, the union-backed domestic worker-led group that organised the rally, said: 'Where are we heading if the minimal protection we have is about to be removed, back to the century of slavery? The domestic worker visa has been our escape route from abusive employers and enabled us to rebuild our lives from this exploitative situation.' Diana Holland, Unite assistant general secretary, said: 'It is horrifying to contemplate a return to the slavery and bonded labour before the visa.' She added: 'The only way to ensure migrant domestic workers are treated with dignity and respect is by keeping the domestic worker visa as it is.'

Health staff urged to get the seasonal flu jab

Health staff should take the opportunity to get the flu jab at work, health service union UNISON has said - and it says health service employers should ensure staff are allowed the time to get vaccinated. The union is supporting a new NHS staff vaccination campaign to be launched across England. Gail Adams, UNISON head of nursing, said: 'More and more nurses, midwives and healthcare workers recognise the need to have the vaccine, because flu can kill, which is why. Having the flu jab will help to protect staff, their patients and families.' She added: 'We know how hard it is for staff to get away from busy wards, so this year, the vaccine is coming to staff, rather than the other way round. It is vital that Trusts do all they can to make sure that staff have the time to get vaccinated, and that means making an extra effort to cover those on different shifts. And something as simple as offering a cup of tea and a biscuit may help too.' Dean Royles, director of the NHS Employers organisation, said: 'All groups of frontline NHS workers, including nurses and doctors, increased their seasonal flu vaccinations last winter and we aim to increase it again this year. For the first time NHS staff will be supported by a National NHS Staff Seasonal Flu Vaccination Campaign, which launches later this month and will deliver comprehensive support to employers and staff throughout England.' He added: 'Currently a third of frontline NHS workers are vaccinated against seasonal flu. These need to become far more widespread to almost eliminate the risk of flu spreading from staff to colleagues, their families and patients.'

Usdaw reps take on violence

A new union reps' survey tool aims to address the violence risk to retail staff. The initiative, the latest part of the 'Freedom From Fear Campaign' run by shopworkers' union Usdaw 'has been designed to help local Usdaw reps check that the policies and procedures that are meant to protect staff from violence and abuse are in place and are working effectively in their own store.' The union says there are three steps to the tool. Firstly, unions reps should make a note of the policies and procedures in their store. Then reps should give these a reality check, using the survey tool to find out what actually happens in the store. Finally, union reps should report back the results of the survey to management and to staff. Usdaw adds: 'If the survey finds gaps in protection or if the intended policies are not working as well as they should, follow these issues up with management.' It says the survey can help union reps to identify members who have been subject to violence or abuse and engage with members and non-members in the store. Union reps will also be in a better position to find out if workers feel protected and to identify problem areas where they do not. They will also be able to check whether workers know about the safety precautions and procedures designed to protect them.

Other news

HSE moves to improve weak asbestos law

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is to change the law on asbestos at work, after accepting the current law fails to meet Europe's minimum requirements. HSE's admission it had under-implemented the European Commission's 2003 directive on control of asbestos at work was first revealed by the trade union journal Hazards in April this year (Risks 504). It followed a 'reasoned opinion' from the EC critical of the UK Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006. This concluded the UK had misinterpreted requirements on 'sporadic and low intensity exposure to asbestos' to justify the exclusion of considerable amounts of asbestos work from asbestos licensing, health assessments and exposure recording requirements. An HSE consultation, to run until 4 November and which proposes revoking the current regulations and issuing a single set of revised regulations, aims to bring the UK law up to standard. This will require reducing some of the 'low risk' opt outs on the notification of work to the authorities and on medical examinations for workers and the recording of the type and duration of work undertaken by each worker. In an online note accompanying the consultation document, HSE declares: 'The required changes mean in future fewer types of lower risk work will be exempt from the three requirements. Views are sought on: the proposals; the guidance to be produced to explain how the changes will work in practice; and the impact on business.' TUC said the official admission the law was under-implemented 'nails the myth' promoted by the government that the UK 'gold-plates' Euro laws (Risks 487). HSE, which was forced by the government to shelve its award-winning £1 million 'Hidden Killer' asbestos awareness campaign, this week announced an effort to get training providers to donate 4,000 face-to-face asbestos awareness training hours and an additional 4,000 hours of online training. It is the latest in a series of attempts by HSE to offset the impact of dramatically reduced resources after the government cut its budget by 35 per cent over four years.

Widow calls for action on asbestos in schools

The widow of a teacher who died after working in asbestos-contaminated schools for more than 20 years is to urge the government to save other families from suffering the same fate. Marilyn Butterfield said losing her husband Graham to the asbestos cancer malignant mesothelioma was 'devastating.' Mr Butterfield died in January this year at the Bradford's Marie Curie Hospice. At an inquest this week, Acting Bradford Coroner Professor Paul Marks ruled the 64-year-old had died of an industrial disease contracted while he worked at various schools in Bradford. He was a geography teacher at Hutton Middle School and Tong Comprehensive School between 1967 and 1996, and while at Hutton had helped with the cabling of computers which involved being in the basement and service tunnels, exposing him to asbestos lagging dust. After the hearing, Mrs Butterfield said: 'I cannot believe that he was exposed to this dust in a teaching environment which should be a safe place for our children to learn.' She added: 'I call upon politicians of all parties to look seriously at the problem of asbestos in schools and plan properly how to ensure the safety of teachers and pupils in the future. Nothing can bring Graham back and we miss him every day, but I desperately want something positive to come from his death so that nobody else goes through what we have been through.' Solicitor Ian Bailey of law firm Irwin Mitchell, who is acting for Mrs Butterworth, said: 'With the scrapping of plans by the government to build new schools to replace older ones, we are losing a tremendous opportunity to ensure the safety of teachers and pupils for the future. Without a serious commitment to tackle the problem of asbestos in our schools, it is inevitable that further lives will be lost unnecessarily.'

Council fined over school asbestos exposures

Birmingham City Council and a Solihull refurbishment company have been fined for exposing three workers to asbestos during work on a school. Solihull Supplies Ltd was contracted by the council to refurbish the reception area at William Cowper Community Primary School, Birmingham. The firm then sub-contracted another firm to remove ceiling tiles at the school, but failed to carry out a proper risk assessment. Birmingham Magistrates' Court heard that on 24 July 2009 two workers from the firm, which cannot be named as legal proceedings are still ongoing, were tasked with stripping out tiles from seven rooms being refurbished. However, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found the tiles contained brown asbestos and the work lasted several hours, exposing both workers and the school caretaker to asbestos. And rather than use a cleaner with a specialised filter, an ordinary vacuum cleaner was used which would have spread fibres into the air. HSE told the court the subcontracted firm did not have a licence to undertake work with asbestos, had no knowledge of how to deal with asbestos and had given its employees no training in dealing with this dangerous substance. Birmingham City Council pleaded guilty to criminal breaches of safety law and was fined £5,000 plus £1,091 costs. Solihull Supplies Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 and was fined £1,750 plus £1,091 costs. Commenting after the hearing, HSE principal inspector Jo Anderson said: 'Because of the failing of the council and the firms involved, three people now have to live with the knowledge they may become ill from lung disease in the future.'

Law Society slams 'self-serving' insurers

Claims the country is in the grip of a 'compensation culture' are a myth, the Law Society has said. Responding to a report from the Association of British Insurers (ABI) that said Britain has a 'have a go' compensation culture, the society said the report 'is entirely self-serving to the insurance industry.' The ABI report is the insurance lobby group's response to proposals in the Legal Aid and Punishment of Offenders Bill, measures the TUC has warned will be bad news for many of the hundreds of thousands of people harmed by their work each year (Risks 515). Many of the TUC's concerns are shared by the Law Society, whose chief executive Desmond Hudson said: 'The claim that there are 'ambulance chasing lawyers' manipulating the system is utterly unpersuasive. If this is happening why are the insurers not acting and challenging these cases in the courts? It is nonsense and the ABI should know better.' He added: 'The law in this country sees to it that those who are harmed by the negligence of others are entitled to fair compensation. They are not entitled to make a profit from their loss. This is just and it is fair. It is how reasonable insurers seek to settle claims.' The head of the lawyers' body said: 'While we agree with the ABI's report that there can always be improvements to the system - and we believe in particular that claims management companies have no useful role to play in the system - the current government proposals in the Legal Aid and Punishment of Offenders Bill will mean that many victims will lose their opportunity to gain the compensation they deserve. As a result many will end up on state benefits, causing a drain on the public purse rather than claims against insurers.'

Injury claim referral fees to be banned

The government has confirmed it is to ban referral fees in personal injury claims in an attempt to curb what it says is a 'compensation culture'. It argues the current system in which personal injury details are sold on by insurance companies to lawyers has led to rising insurance costs. Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said honest motorists were seeing their premiums hiked as insurers covered the costs of ever more compensation claims - road traffic accident claims have been increasing, while other personal injury claims, including workplace injury and disease payouts, are decreasing. Mr Djanogly said: 'Many of the claims are spurious and only happen because the current system allows too many people to profit from minor accidents and incidents.' However, he added that the fees are 'are one symptom of the compensation culture problem and too much money sloshing through the system.' The government's Young report and a series of studies have established that, particularly when it comes to workplace claims, 'compensation culture' is a myth. The ban on referral fees comes alongside the civil litigation reforms put forward earlier this year by Lord Justice Jackson, which were included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO). Many of these changes will deny justice to many people with work-related health problems and injuries, the TUC has warned (Risks 515). It says some of the intended reforms will have a major impact on the viability of some work-related claims, with solicitors less likely to take on cases. The government wants, for example, to stop losing defendants having to pay a 'success fee'. The proposals currently before parliament mean people making the claim will have to pay the success fee, rather than the defendant, which unions say means the victims of poor workplace conditions will in effect be paying from their settlement for their employer's neglect.

Man killed himself after jobs fall through

A telecoms worker took his own life after a temporary job failed to turn into long-term work, an inquest has heard. Paul Danson, 43, was given a temporary job thanks to the help of former colleague David Brandon, who had been impressed by his work. In a statement read out during the inquest in Carlisle, Mr Brandon told how he had hoped that Mr Danson's job would be made permanent, but in August last year bosses instead told him he was being given four weeks' notice. Mr Danson was interviewed for another job on 13 October, but days later he was told he'd not been selected. On 22 October, Mr Danson's body was found hanging in woodland near Wreay, the village near Carlisle where he had lived with his family. David Roberts, the coroner for north and west Cumbria, recorded a verdict that Mr Danson killed himself. Research this year concluded the financial crisis 'almost certainly' led to an increase in suicides (Risks 514). The Lancet paper said the UK saw a rise between 2007 and 2009 of 10 per cent to 6.75 suicides per 100,000 people. Insecure or 'precarious' work has been linked in other studies to higher rates of suicide, sickness, heart disease and injuries (Risks 415).

Firms in the dark on road safety action

Firms should do more to reduce the 'worrying number' of work-related road traffic accidents (RTA), the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has said. IOSH made the call after research it commissioned with the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) revealed that many companies have little idea whether their road safety strategies actually work. One in three company drivers has an RTA each year, and IOSH says as many as a third of all road crashes in the UK could be work-related. TRL principal road safety researcher Shaun Helman said: 'Disappointingly, our review has shown that we actually have very little evidence to suggest which of the strategies companies are using to reduce work-related RTAs are actually working, and by how much. Although there are some promising approaches, companies may be spending a lot of money stabbing in the dark, using a range of interventions that are as-yet unproven.' He added: 'We think that some companies are achieving results, but we want to encourage businesses across the UK to take a long, hard evaluative look at whether what they're doing is simply ticking boxes, or actually yielding results. We need well controlled evaluation to show us what works, by how much, and why.' Some of the reasons why work-related RTAs happen are distraction, fatigue and time pressure, the research found, for example where employees are required to meet deadlines for meetings and appointments, or have to drive long distances in a day.

Power firm fined £300k after worker electrocuted

A national power company has been fined £300,000 for failings which led to the electrocution and death of a poorly trained worker. Father-of-four Jonathan Crosby, 45, was working as an electrical overhead linesman at UK Power Networks, formerly known as EDF Energy Networks Limited, in Diss when the incident happened on 9 November 2007. He was in a cherry-picker five metres above ground, removing an electrical transformer from the top of a pole connected to overhead power lines. As it was being removed, the transformer made contact with live power resulting in Mr Crosby receiving a fatal electrical shock. The Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) investigation found that fuses supplying the transformer had not been removed to cut the electricity supply while it was lifted by a crane and also being held by Mr Crosby. HSE told Norwich Crown Court that UK Power Networks had fallen markedly short in ensuring high risk work on its electricity distribution network, much of it at height, was carried out safely. It had failed to devise and prescribe rigorous and up to date procedures for this work, failed to train its staff adequately and failed to take steps to check these procedures were effective and employees were following them. UK Power Networks pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £300,000 plus £219,352.09 costs. Judge Peter Jacobs said: 'They fell significantly short of the reasonable practicability standards and they must take responsibility for their organisational and operational failures. It is obvious that the work being done is very dangerous and the merest contact could result in electrocution or a fall from height.'

Boss pays for teen's lost fingers

A partner in a Somerset firm has been fined after an 18-year-old employee lost four fingers while working on a milling machine. Nigel Ashley of precision engineering firm Ashley's of Yeovil, appeared at the town's Magistrates Court in a prosecution brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Kyle Bishop was injured on 1 March 2010 while working at the firm's premises, where machinery spares and engineering components for the tobacco industry are manufactured. He had been employed by the firm for six months. The court heard the apprentice machinist, who worked with lathes, grinding and milling machines, was changing a cutter on a milling machine when he inadvertently switched the machine on while the cutter was still in his hand. Half an index finger, most of his middle finger, and both his ring and little finger of his left hand were severed during the incident. HSE told the court the system of work for changing cutters was not safe and risks from operating the milling machine and changing cutters had not been adequately assessed. The HSE investigation also found there was insufficient guarding around the machine to protect body parts during its operation. There were no interlocks and the start buttons were not covered, which would have prevented inadvertent activation during setting up and maintenance. Nigel Ashley pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay costs of £7,376.40

Business owner fined over workers' facial burns

The owner of a Liverpool electrical firm has appeared in court after two of his employees suffered facial burns in a flash fire at the city's ferry terminal. One of the workers received severe burns to his face and hands, needed three months off work to recover, and required treatment to remove debris from his eyes. Terence Hayes, the owner of Hayes Electrical and Building Services, was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation found electrical work had been allowed to go ahead without the power being cut. Liverpool Magistrates' Court was told his company had been replacing a temporary generator for the landing stage at the ferry terminal with a supply from the mains. Two of his employees visited the site on 16 April 2009 to install a new fuse into the switchboard at the Pier Head ferry terminal. The court heard that that the work had gone ahead while electricity was still running through the switchboard. When one of the workers tried to install the new fuse, there was a bright flash and an intense heat caused by a fire, lasting just a few seconds. A 50-year-old worker's glasses were badly charred in the flash fire and he needed four days in hospital after suffering severe burns. Another worker, aged 57, also received burns to his face and required hospital treatment. Terence Hayes admitted a criminal breach of the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 after he allowed his employees to carry out work while the electricity supply was still live. He was fined £8,000 and ordered to pay £4,766 in prosecution costs.

International News

Australia: Work suicide 'epidemic' spurs union action

An 'epidemic' of work-related suicide affecting construction workers in Australia has prompted a union campaign to extend support to members under strain. 'We blokes need to forget about the bravado. If you sense there's a problem, tell your mate you love him, and ask him how he really is,' said Joe McDonald, assistant secretary of the construction union CFMEU in West Australia. He was speaking at the Perth launch of the union's pilot 'Mates in Construction' suicide prevention programme. Under the initiative, which is already operating in other parts of the country, mentors are trained to pick up warning signs in work colleagues and offer an understanding ear and professional help. 'A 'perfect storm' of risk factors in the industry, including a macho culture, drugs and alcohol and job insecurity, had created a suicide epidemic,' Joe McDonald said. Over 1,500 construction workers and staff will be trained under the pilot programme, said CFMEU organiser Mick Buchan. 'With positive outcomes, the programme will flow on to all new projects from there,' he said. Findings of the official Working Australia Census 2011 published this week show working hours have increased in Australian workplaces and new forms of stress have emerged. ACTU president Ged Kearney commented: 'Work is bleeding into the rest of a worker's life, and we do not have the means of recognising or dealing with this in a way that suits workers. Instead we have an increase in stress, and insecurity for workers.' She added: 'This is particularly the case for people in casual jobs, who fear they will lose shifts if they do not comply. Business is shifting more and more financial risk and responsibility onto the workforce.'

Cambodia: Workplace health tops factory failings

Problems with work-related ill-health, work security and overtime continue to plague the garment sector in Cambodia, according to a new study. The findings of a survey of 186 factories by the International Labor Organisation's 'Better Factories Cambodia' project led the labour standards body to conclude problems in the sector will be 'difficult' to resolve. Workers in Cambodia's garment sector, the country's biggest earner, have long complained of poor conditions and excessive overtime. In recent months a spate of factory faintings have added to the industry's worrying profile (Risks 516). 'The report shows that compliance is limited,' said Bun Ying, a spokesperson for the ILO. The survey found that seven of ten 'non-compliance' issues at factories were related to the health of workers and their overtime. Chea Mony, head of the Free Trade Union, said a lack of compliance with labour laws in Cambodian factories had led to at least 70 strikes since January, and to an estimated 1,000 workers passing out, either because of toxic fumes or overwork. In the latest fainting incident, workers at Heart Enterprise (Cambodia) Ltd were manufacturing winter coats for sale at stores run by Walmart, the world's largest retailer, in Canada.

USA: Higher cancer risk found in 9/11 firefighters

Firefighters who toiled in the wreckage of the World Trade Center in 2001 were 19 per cent more likely to develop cancer than those who were not there, a new study has found. The findings, published last week in the medical journal The Lancet, came from a study of almost 10,000 New York City firefighters, most of whom were exposed to the dust and smoke created by the fall of the twin towers. The findings indicate an 'increased likelihood for the development of any type of cancer,' said Dr David J Prezant, the chief medical officer for the New York Fire Department, who led the study. The report studied cancer occurrence in male Fire Department personnel in the seven years after 11 September 2001 - the authors said there were too few women to create a meaningful sample size. Firefighters were eligible to participate if they were active on 1 January 1996, and if their exposure to substances at the World Trade Center site was known. Of those in the study, 8,927 were classified as exposed, meaning they spent at least one day at the site in the 10 months after the tragedy. Almost all of those were exposed in the first two weeks after the attack. There were 263 cancer cases in the exposed population, reflecting a cancer rate 19 per cent higher than that of the group not exposed. The research team said the findings should be interpreted cautiously because many cancers caused by exposure to substances found at the site, including asbestos and jet fuel, can take decades to manifest. 'Is it a definitive study? No,' said Dr James Melius, the administrator of the New York State Laborers' Health and Safety Trust Fund and one of the peer reviewers of the study. 'But it provides information that there may be a significant cancer risk for these people.'

USA: Walkout exposes chocolate maker's abuses

Over 300 foreign students sat in and then walked off the job at a distribution plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania in August, bringing into the spotlight a sordid trail of exploitation and abuse leading to premier US chocolate manufacturer Hershey. The students, from countries as diverse as China, Moldova, Nigeria, Turkey and Ukraine, had come to the US on J-1 visas - a programme ostensibly established to enable foreign students to learn about the US through a two-month work and travel programme. According to global union federation IUF, they had paid between 3,000 and 6,000 US dollars each for the privilege of working round-the-clock shifts lifting heavy packages on fast-moving lines packing Hershey-branded chocolates. The workers were paid 8 dollars per hour to perform what were formerly union jobs. Extortionate rent for substandard, crowded housing and compulsory fees for company transportation to and from the plant, personal protective equipment, mandatory drug tests and even time cards were automatically deducted from their pay, leaving many workers with less than $100 for a 40-hour work week. Their once union jobs had been triply outsourced, firstly to Exel, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Deutsche Post/DHL, then to SHS Staffing Solutions who in turn subcontracted recruitment to the Council for Educational Travel, USA (CETUSA). CETUSA supplies a continuous influx of young workers on a year round basis to SHS-Exel-Hershey at the Palmyra operation. IUF has written Hershey executives insisting the fees and deductions from the J-1 visa workers' wages - taken in violation of national and international law - must be fully returned. The workers are also demanding that the BCTGM union, 'whose members' jobs were stolen, must be recognised in the Palmyra facility, and positions staffed by laid-off Hershey workers - past, present and future - and the local unemployed,' IUF said.


New US report shows 'Prevention Pays'

A new report from a US safety group pulls together arguments demonstrating that good safety standards aren't just in the interests of workers, there's a big pay off for employers too. 'Prevention pays: Solutions to help workers and businesses thrive,' published by San Francisco-based Worksafe, tallies the costs - human, financial, and social - of failures to protect workers' health and safety on the job. The report notes: 'It's time to shift from a focus on 'the problem' and how bad it is, to a prevention framework that emphasises solutions and 'fixing' problems. It's time to make the goal clearer by using the word 'prevention' instead of 'controls'. It's time to use the word 'health' along with 'safety.' It's time to make the rewards of prevention more consistent, wide-ranging, and initiated by more employers and workers.' One company health director cited in the report noted: 'It is better to put a fence at the top of a cliff than an ambulance at the bottom. Companies are so bottom-line driven, prevention can be a hard sell, but it is always a better solution.'

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