Risks 524 - 24 September 2011

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

Union News

Unions will fight safety cuts

Unions have reaffirmed their commitment to fight cuts in the Health and Safety Executive and attacks on safety laws. Delegates to TUC's Congress last week supported unanimously a motion moved by construction union UCATT critical of the government's decision to lop 35 per cent off HSE's budget by 2015. The annual TUC conference was told longstanding financial pressures mean HSE's enforcement activities have already fallen to an all-time low. The unions are also concerned that dramatic cuts in inspections, which will see many sectors including the notoriously hazardous agriculture and quarrying industries, no longer receiving any unannounced inspections. The decision to axe HSE's telephone Infoline also concerned unions (Risks 523). The TUC's official policy making conference agreed to oppose any 'watering-down of health and safety.' Dennis Doody, a member of UCATT's executive council, told delegates: 'It is a fundamental right to be safe at work. This government is destroying that right. The vast majority of workplace accidents are easily preventable. Government policies will increase accidents.' Doody added: 'Now more than ever the trade union movement needs to defeat these policies. And show how this Tory-led government has blood on its hands. If we don't take action, more and more workers will be killed and maimed at work.' The motion says the TUC must 'continue to be actively involved in campaigning with all affiliates affected by any watering down of health and safety imposed through the government's health and safety reform.' It also calls for the legal groundwork to be done on a legal challenge to 'prevent harm' prior to any damaging policies being implemented.

Union calls for tighter regulations after mine deaths

The National Union of Miners (NUM) has called for tighter health and safety regulations in the mining industry following the death of four workers at a South Wales mine. South Wales Police and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have launched an investigation, with oversight from the Wales Office, into the flooding at Gleision drift mine at Cilybebyll in the Swansea valley. HSE has promised lessons will be learned following the incident on 15 September, where it is believed water broke through from old adjacent workings, leading to the deaths of Garry Jenkins, 39, David Powell, 50, Phillip Hill, 45 and Charles Breslin, 62. Local ex-miner Dai Thomas told journalists: 'There was no such thing as health and safety for these boys. It is not viable to take coal out of these small mines without cutting corners.' National Union of Miners north-east general secretary David Hopper called for a thorough investigation and for anyone found responsible for the deaths to be taken to task. He told the Morning Star: 'Safety costs money and a small-scale private operation such as this one is geared towards cutting corners to enhance profits. These mines are no longer under the strictest of regulations, as they used to be when the industry was in public hands. Any investigation should recommend a tightening up of regulations across the industry.' The Gleision Colliery employed eight people and is thought to have produced a few hundred tonnes of coal a week. First Minister Carwyn Jones said the colliery had been well-regulated. 'As far as this mine is concerned it was inspected last year and the plans were up to date in June,' he said. Commenting on 19 September, an HSE spokesperson told Hazards magazine: 'HSE specialist mine inspectors are working closely with South Wales Police, who are leading the investigation at his time.' He said while it was 'not appropriate to discuss the scope and focus of the investigation at this stage... Clearly something went wrong and the investigation will focus on establishing what this was."

Rail cuts heighten terror 'threat'

Rail union RMT has called on the government to 'wholly reject' the McNulty Rail Review proposals to axe station-based staff and guards on trains in the light of a stark warning that the railway system faces a 'substantial' terrorist threat. The government commissioned rail review, whose findings were published earlier this year (Risks 507), recommended widespread staffing cuts as part of a move to slash costs (Risks 512). But RMT says a 'stark intelligence report' from Southeastern Railways setting out a strategy for dealing with a Mumbai or Norway style 'Active Shooter' attack on the railways includes a warning that such an attack is a 'strong possibility.' The SouthEastern warning is echoed in British Transport Police guidance, to be rolled out to all Train Operating Companies, that warns: 'The railway infrastructure has previously been and is still regarded as an attractive target for terrorist groups.' It rates the current threat as 'substantial'. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'Staff on the trains, stations, tracks and across the Tube network are the eyes and ears of the alert system and absolutely critical to implementing emergency and evacuation procedures of the kind we are discussing in light of the threat of an 'active shooter' attack.' He added: 'To be considering axing literally thousands of these staff from the trains and the stations, which is the main thrust of the McNulty Rail Review, is an act of pure negligence on the part of the government and its advisers in light of the discussions we are having around emergency safety and security plans... It is now time to face up to the realities of the current terrorist, crime and safety threats and call a halt to the jobs cull on our transport services.'

Unions condemn axing of marine safety units

The government's decision to axe two key maritime safety services has been condemned as 'short-sighted' and 'dangerous' by unions. Responding to the announcement last week by shipping minister Mike Penning that the government will stop funding the Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG) and the Emergency Towing Vessel Service (ETV), which were set up to ensure an effective response to serious incidents at sea, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'The government has greatly undervalued the importance of these services. The MIRG was established in response to two major oil spills on the UK coastline, whilst the ETV is called out to respond to about 180 incidents at sea each year. These systems have since become a model for disaster prevention in many other countries.' He added: 'We call on the minister to think again in order to ensure that people working at sea and our precious marine environment continue to be protected.' Seafarers' union Nautilus said the government was gambling with the safety of crews, passengers and the marine environment. Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson said: 'Nothing has changed since the disasters that resulted in the establishment of the ETV and MIRG services and the government is turning the clock back in a deeply damaging way.' He added: 'Scrapping these vital safety services is like cancelling your home insurance because you haven't been burgled in the past year and it is essential that we retain the ability to cope with maritime emergencies not if, but when they do occur. These cuts seriously threaten the safety of all those who use the sea, and as an island nation, this could seriously impact on every single one of us.'

Journalists must be protected from attacks

Journalists must be protected from violent attacks from groups like the English Defence League (EDL), unions have said. Delegates to TUC's annual congress, held this month in London, supported an emergency motion presented by National Union of Journalists (NUJ) executive member Anita Halpin, who explained how journalists going about their jobs had been abused and assaulted by members of the far-right organisation. One journalist was sexually assaulted while covering a 3 September EDL event in London, and another had lighter fuel poured over him and was set alight, suffering minor injuries. 'We don't want to have to add a British journalist's death to the already too long list of colleagues abroad,' she said. She added that NUJ activists had been targeted by fascist website Redwatch and called for pressure on the police 'to prosecute those who attacked our members.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said transport workers had refused to carry EDL members across the city on the day of the planned rally. 'Our members felt threatened and we warned that members would walk out without a ballot if instructed to carry EDL members on public transport. We won't go to work if these people are there. And we won't even use a ballot and we ask you to support us,' he said.

FBU criticises dangerous riot report

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has criticised a report by the London Fire Brigade (LFB) which claims it had enough resources to cope during last month's riots (Risks 520). The report, drawn up by top LFB managers, notes that firefighters attended over 800 fires between 6-10 August, and concludes sufficient staff and fire engines were available to deal with the disturbances. But union leaders said the report attempted to hide the real story. The union's regional secretary, Joe MacVeigh, said: 'There is no doubt that our members performed admirably during the riots, and everyone will be grateful for their heroic efforts. They are men and women of extraordinary dedication and courage. But as a whole, the brigade was beyond breaking point, and it serves no-one for reports to be published which give a false representation of the situation.' He added: 'There is no shame in admitting that resources were stretched. We know that these events were unprecedented, and it would be unreasonable to expect there not to be pressure on the service. So the brigade should be honest with people about the true picture, if only to ensure that lessons can be learned to ensure a better response in the future. Publishing one-sided, self-congratulating and disingenuous reports is neither in the interests of Londoners nor firefighters who too often during the riots were exposed to real dangers because of a lack of resources.'

Other news

Lack of resources not safety hampers schools

Students are missing out on science practicals and schools trips because of a lack of resources and appropriately trained staff and not because of safety concerns, the Commons Science and Technology Committee has concluded. The committee found there 'was no credible evidence' that safety concerns were contributing to a decline in practicals and school trips. Andrew Miller MP, the chair of the committee, said: 'We heard evidence that the pressures of managing a busy curriculum, challenges in finding time for specialist continuing professional development, or time to get out of the classroom, are all factors contributing to a decline in the quality of practical science.' He added: 'This is worrying. If the UK is to be confident of producing the next generation of scientists, then schools - encouraged by the government - must overcome the perceived and real barriers to providing high quality practicals, fieldwork and fieldtrips.' The report dismissed the 'misconceived' perception that health and safety concerns had a negative impact, as 'MPs found no credible evidence to support this frequently cited explanation for a decline in practicals and trips.' Instead, the committee said it was 'vital' there was a greater focus on the provision of necessary training and suitable facilities and qualified and experienced technical support. The MPs said they are 'convinced that good training and guidance should not only provide teachers with the information and skills to carry out the work but also work toward dispelling any myths about health and safety'.

  • Commons Science and Technology Committee news release and full report [pdf].

Worker exposed to high levels of blue asbestos

A company in Bath has been fined £600 with £6,013.45 costs after a builder was exposed to high levels of deadly blue asbestos. Jonathan Arnold, 49, was fitting pipework for a new central heating system at Oxford House, in Combe Down, Bath when he was exposed to high levels of blue asbestos, also known as crocidolite. In a prosecution brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) against the building's owners, Formac Electronics Ltd, Bath Magistrates' Court heard the substance was disturbed and spread within the building during refurbishment. The court was told that, for a five-hour period on 4 August 2010, Mr Arnold was estimated to have been exposed to a concentration of airborne asbestos fibres many times over the control limit. HSE investigated the incident and found Formac Electronics Ltd had failed to carry out a refurbishment and demolition survey, to establish the presence and condition of asbestos in the building. It also failed to provide suitable information to contractors prior to the start of the refurbishment works, which resulted in uncontrolled disturbance of the loose fill blue asbestos located within the fabric of the building. When an HSE specialist inspector visited Oxford House under controlled conditions, loose fill blue asbestos insulation material could be clearly seen in the area where Mr Arnold had spent a long time on his hands and knees fitting pipework on 3-4 August 2010. HSE inspector Helena Tinton commented: 'The damage to Mr Arnold's health after being exposed to such a high concentration of this potent carcinogen could be very serious and he now has to wait to find out what the long-term effects of this exposure will be.'

Tory MPs rebuked for asbestos 'contempt'

A support group for sufferers of asbestos related diseases has condemned the behaviour of two Tory MPs during a committee debate on the impact of legal aid cuts. The group, which attended a hearing of the public bill committee on 13 September to hear the debate on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Prosecution of Offenders Bill, said that Conservative MPs Ben Wallace and Ben Gummer had behaved like 'rowdy public schoolboy' and displayed 'contempt' for working people. The Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum said it was shocked at the behaviour of the two MPs when Kate Green MP was speaking about the impact of the Bill on asbestos victims dying from mesothelioma, citing the suffering of her own constituents. Under the proposed legislation those who have suffered work-related illness or injury would be required to pay success fees from any compensation payout, saving the insurance industry millions. The asbestos forum said its research suggests that many mesothelioma sufferers would not make claims because of the additional stress and the financial risk they would face. Jim Sheridan MP, chair of the public bill committee, rebuked Mr Wallace and Mr Gummer for disrupting the proceedings. Mr Sheridan said the conversations between the two Tory MPs were 'becoming longer and louder' and that they were 'showing great discourtesy to the rest of the committee.' Asbestos forum chair Tony Whitston said: 'These Conservative MPs from privileged backgrounds, behaving like rowdy public schoolboys, showed contempt for hard-working men who helped build industry in this country and who now face a death sentence as a result of their labour.' He added: 'Their disregard for the debate on important issues on the committee they serve shows that they would see this Bill driven through despite the many compelling arguments for change. If this is their party's position then working class victims of the worst occupational disease can forget justice'.

DWP jumps the gun in move to rob the dying

Thousands of terminally-ill people have begun receiving letters warning them their benefits could be cut in next year even though parliament has yet to approve the changes. Under Welfare Reform Bill proposals being scrutinised in the Lords, Contributory Employment Support Allowance (CESA) will be time-limited to 12 months from April 2012. The changes will be retrospective, so people on CESA for 12 months or more when the rule comes into force will have their benefit cut immediately. Neil Coyle, of the Disability Alliance, said that as the rule change has not been agreed by parliament, it is premature for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to warn recipients of the changes. 'The government has time to change plans before terminally-ill people and their families have this avoidable and quite nasty cut imposed,' he said. DWP admits it is conceivable the legislation may not be approved but says it is better to warn people early. It believes 700,000 people will be affected by 2015/16. Some terminally ill people may qualify for alternative help but the Disability Alliance calculates over 400,000 people must lose all support if the government's targeted cut of £2 billion is to be met. Tens of thousands of these could be victims of work-related diseases. The Health and Safety Executive's 'conservative' estimate puts the occupational cancer toll alone at approaching 8,000 deaths a year, while others say it is considerably higher.

Betting shop fined for armed raid dangers

A betting shop that was raided by an armed gang has been fined £10,000 for failing to increase security before the attack - despite being advised by officials to do so. Two female workers were opening a betting shop owned by national chain William Hill in Netherton, Merseyside, on the morning of 17 April last year when a man armed with a knife burst in and ordered the terrified staff to hand over cash. One of the women suffered whiplash injuries in the attack as a result of being dragged to the floor. Months before the raid, Sefton council health and safety officers inspected the premises and reported a number of safety concerns - but a court heard some were not acted upon. On 20 September 2009, the officials highlighted issues with poor outside lighting and CCTV, as well as an insecure alley running between the bookies and the pub next door. Following the council's recommendations, William Hill installed a gate, restricting access to the alley, but did not improve lighting or the CCTV. The firm did not report the armed robbery or the injuries to its employee to the council, breaching the RIDDOR reporting legislation. Magistrate Janet Dawkins imposed a £6,000 fine for a breach of the management of health and safety at work regulations and a £4,000 fine for a failure to report the injury within the required time. William Hill was also ordered to pay £2,882 costs. Shops are considered 'low risk' under new official guidelines for local authority and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors, and so are exempted from preventive inspections.

Site manager ignoring safety notices

A Cardiff construction site manager has been fined after ignoring two legally binding safety orders issued to protect workers from injury. Haider Zaman, 53, trading as Pride Builders, was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for ignoring two improvement notices served while he was refurbishing two residential properties. During an unannounced inspection of the two sites on 1 March 2011, HSE inspectors found a string of problems relating to working at height, asbestos safety and structural stability. HSE issued three prohibition notices ordering Mr Zaman to cease work immediately. Two improvement notices relating to asbestos safety training and health and safety competence training were subsequently served to Zaman. Cardiff Magistrates' Court heard the improvement notices had a 10 May 2011 deadline for action to be taken. However, on returning to the site a week after the deadline, HSE inspectors found the notices had not been complied with and identified further sub-standard control measures for working at height. Haider Zaman pleaded guilty to two criminal safety offences and was fined a £1,280 plus costs of £1,500. Ignoring HSE notices can attract a custodial sentence.

Contractor convicted over dangerous scaffold

A Hastings scaffolding contractor and erector have both been fined after handing over unsecured scaffolding to a client, putting builders at risk. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector visited a site in the town on 20 April 2010, where building repairs and external work were being carried out. The inspector noted that scaffolding erected by Totalscaff (GB) Ltd, trading as Total Service Group (TSG), around the building had not been adequately tied, meaning it was unstable. By law, all scaffolding must be inspected by a competent person before it can be used. Hastings Magistrates' Court was told the worker who undertook safety checks, Christian Ball, had been previously been advised of the need to adequately tie scaffolding but had overlooked this advice. He was also fined. Totalscaff (GB) Ltd was found guilty and Christian Ball, 35, pleaded guilty to a breach of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007. Totalscaff (GB) Ltd was fined £20,000 plus £10,000 costs, and Mr Ball was fined £2,500 and £2,274 costs. Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Melvyn Stancliffe said: 'HSE will take firm action against individuals and contractors who ignore their health and safety obligations. It is essential that contractors and contract managers equip themselves with the necessary information and guidance material and apply it each and every time a scaffold is built.'

Foodie Farm fined over potato harvester horror

A farming partnership has been fined £112,500 after a worker was crushed to death in a potato harvesting machine in Scotland. Keith Wannan died en route to hospital after he was pulled from the machine, where he had been stuck for up to 30 minutes, at Foodie Farm near Cupar, Fife. The 34-year-old father-of-two had been carrying out an annual maintenance check on 6 September 2009. Farm operator GJ Orr of Foodieash, which supplies Tesco, admitted failings in its health and safety regime had contributed to the incident. Fiscal depute Sally Clark told Cupar Sheriff Court Mr Wannan was employed to carry out general farm duties, along with most of the repair and maintenance work on the farm. He had been testing the harvester machinery when he became entangled within rollers, sustaining multiple injuries. He was discovered by George Orr, one of the partners in the farm. An air ambulance was called out, but Mr Wannan was pronounced dead during the flight to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. Miss Clark said the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had found that maintenance work should only have been carried out while power to the harvester was isolated, and that the work should not have been done by a lone worker. The HSE investigation found GJ Orr had not conducted a proper assessment of the risks involved in carrying out maintenance and testing work on the potato harvester. HSE inspector Peter Dodd said: 'Mr Wannan went to work that day fully expecting to come home safe. But now his partner and his family have to come to terms with their loss.' GJ Orr pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £112,000.

Worker catches on fire on London site

A construction worker sustained serious burns when the top half of his body was set ablaze in an electrical explosion at a poorly managed London building refurbishment. The 35-year-old victim, whose name has not been released, was injured on 30 April 2010 after cutting through the main 415 volt electrical cable to the construction job with a hammer and chisel. His colleagues put out the flames when they discovered him with the top half of his body on fire. City of London Magistrates' Court heard the injured man was working as a subcontractor for Pineview Interiors Ltd on a large construction project which involved the refurbishment of three adjacent buildings. On the morning of the incident, the worker approached his supervisor to explain that the electrical cable would need to be removed so that plaster board could be installed. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation revealed that Pineview Interiors Ltd undertook very limited enquiries as to whether this cable was in fact still live. Pineview workers, who HSE said had no electrical training or relevant experience, then proceeded with its removal on the false assumption that the cable must have been one of the old, redundant cables from the pre-existing installation. The worker climbed a step ladder with a hammer and chisel to attempt to remove the cable. After a couple of hits, the court heard that the worker recalled waking up on the floor with another employee putting flames out from the top half of his body. He suffered burns to between 30 to 35 per cent of his body. He has had to have a skin graft from his legs to his body and arms. It is expected to take up to two years for his skin to recover. Pineview Interiors Limited pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay costs of £4,183.

International News

Australia: Union goes to court after being barred

Australian construction union CFMEU is taking building materials giant Boral to court after union safety specialists were barred from entering a company facility to investigate a complaint. The union claims its officials were locked out of Boral's plasterboard distribution centre in Fyshwick twice in recent months after they tried to investigate worker complaints about the presence of asbestos. Union safety specialists in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have a legal right to enter workplaces to investigate complaints raised by members. The site has since been shut down by official enforcement agency WorkSafe ACT after independent tests found asbestos on the factory floor. CFMEU branch secretary Dean Hall said when his officers approached the company, Boral had argued that the union had no members on the site and had no right to be there. The union disputes this. 'They are not treating the issue of asbestos seriously enough and we cannot afford for them to be standing over us in an area of important workforce safety,' CFMEU's Dean Hall added.

Colombia: Seven killed in gold mine disaster

Seven miners were killed in a cave-in last week at a gold mine in a remote area of western Colombia, officials have confirmed. The disaster occurred near the town of Atrato, in the western province of Choco. 'The bodies of seven people have already been recovered,' said Carlos Ivan Marquez, head of the national risk management office. Early reports suggested a landslide has caused the mine's walls to collapse. Ingeominas, Colombia's national mining institute, said five of the victims of the 14 September incident were women. There were conflicting reports on the total number working in the mine. It was the second mining tragedy in Colombia in a little more than a month, following the deaths of three miners on 8 August in an illegal gold mine in the town of El Bagre, in Antioquia province. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has sought to boost mining, and particularly gold mining, as a pillar of its economic development policy. Reports say the 84 mining incidents recorded in Colombia in 2010 resulted in 173 deaths. Most took place at coal mines.

USA: Food giant pays for PPE time robbery

More than 17,000 Tyson poultry workers in 41 US plants have won a $32 million (£20.7m) lawsuit after a 12-year struggle to get paid for the time they spent donning essential protective clothing. Foodworkers' union UFCW initiated the suit, which was approved this week by the United States District Court in Georgia. The lawsuit charged Tyson with violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Meatpacking and food processing workers wear specialised protective gear while they work to protect both themselves and the food they process. Before these UFCW-initiated lawsuits began, meatpacking companies didn't pay workers for time spent taking the gear on and off, adding up to thousands of dollars of lost pay over years of work. But this changed when the union started its legal challenge. UFCW international president Joe Hansen said: 'We've already made a change in the way meatpackers pay their workers. While this settlement is long overdue, our efforts have ensured that thousands of workers have been paid correctly for years now.' The lawsuit will result in payments, averaging around $1,000 (£650) per worker, to current and former Tyson workers across the country. UFCW said this lawsuit and the new pay practices in the meatpacking industry are just one way union workers raise standards for every worker in their industry, regardless of their union status. 'Every American deserves to get paid for the work they do,' said Joe Hansen. 'We're changing the way meatpackers do business and making them pay thousands of workers correctly.'

USA: Cutting regulations shortens lives

US conservatives have stoked their war against 'big government', bidding to freeze federal actions to protect the public by introducing an anti-regulation regulation. According to award-winning journalist Michelle Chen: 'The proposed 'Regulatory Time-Out Act,' which would impose a one-year moratorium on 'significant' new regulations, takes aim at regulations that keep industry from dumping poison in rivers or accidentally blowing up factory workers?in other words, policies that capitalists call 'job killers'.' Reporting in 'In These Times', she adds: 'The guiding principle of this proposed regulatory kill-switch is a cold cost-benefit analysis that weighs profitability against people's health and safety.' Chen adds that while the bill may not make it into law, 'it reflects the anti-regulatory mentality' afflicting Washington. But far from killing jobs, Chen cites evidence of regulations protecting health and saving money. 'But these aren't the numbers anti-government ideologues like to cite in cost projections. Nor do they consider the potential jobs generated by regulations, and especially not the priceless benefit of a child spending more days learning in class. Nor the value of her parent living long enough to see her graduate from college.' Chen concludes: 'In anti-government politics, there's no room on the bottom line for real people - just as long as they vote the right way.' The UK government has claimed repeatedly that regulations, including safety rules, are 'job killers'. But evidence collated by unions and the 'We didn't vote to die at work' campaign show this is not just untrue, but the cost and job benefits can in fact dramatically out-weigh any costs.

Events and Courses

Scottish Hazards, Conference, Glasgow, 17 November 2011

The 2011 Scottish Hazards Conference will take place in Glasgow on 17 November. This year's theme is 'Health and safety - a better way for Scotland'. The conference, which is organised by the Scottish Hazards Campaign and hosted by STUC, 'will bring together trade union activists, occupational health and safety professionals and others involved in workplace health to learn, share experience and expertise and debate the way forward for improved health and safety throughout Scotland.'

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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