Risks 525 - 1 October 2011

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

Union News

New rights for agency workers

Hundreds of thousands of agency workers across the UK will benefit from improved working conditions as a result of new equal treatment rights for temps. Although general health and safety laws apply to all workers regardless of their employment status, the new law will deliver some new rights on working hours and facilities that do fall in part under a workplace safety heading. From the first day of an assignment, agency temps working in the private, public or voluntary sector will have a right to use any facilities provided by the hirer - such as toilet and shower facilities, rest rooms, canteens, transport services, accommodation for workers who are required to sleep on site or mother and baby rooms. After 12 weeks in the same role with the same hirer, agency workers will be entitled to the same pay, holiday entitlement and working hours as permanent staff, and they will also receive improved maternity rights. Working hours, shiftwork, facilities for working mothers and other welfare facilities are all issues on the union safety rep agenda. The Agency Workers Regulations 2010 became law on 1 October this year. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Some rogue employers have used temps to undermine the terms and conditions of existing workforces, replacing permanent staff with agency workers on lower pay, with no security, no training, no sick pay, minimum holidays and no pension provision. But thanks to hard campaigning by unions this is all about to change.' Insecure or 'precarious' work has been linked in studies to higher rates of suicide, sickness, heart disease and injuries (Risks 415).

Many offshore firms still fail to consult workers

Offshore workers' union RMT has criticised oil companies for 'fundamentally failing' to involve workers in health and safety matters on rigs and has demanded improvements. The union was commenting after the publication last week of a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) review of the effectiveness of the offshore safety representatives and safety committees regulations. Forty one installations were checked by last year by the safety watchdog. A total of 18 inspections resulted in formal letters because 'only partial compliance was evident and action was required to bring about improvements.' The report says 'satisfactory evidence of compliance was observed on 23 of the installations', although verbal advice was given at 16 of these sites. The report notes that one area where oil firms 'often failed to involve SRs (safety reps) was in consultation.' It recommended firms 'should review their own practice on consultation to make sure they maximise the opportunities for SR involvement in decisions that affect health and safety.' RMT regional organiser Jake Molloy commented: 'We've had these regulations for 22 years now and for each and every one of those 22 years industry stakeholders have been speaking about ways of improving 'workforce involvement' in health and safety. What this report shows is, the industry is fundamentally failing to involve workers in health and safety matters, as the most basic element in that process - consultation - is not occurring.' He added: 'It's clear the duty holders are either reluctant or unwilling to properly consult, after all they've had 22 years to get in the way of it! It's therefore time the safety reps were adequately equipped to fully engage with duty holders and compel them to consult with the workforce. To do this the scope of training for safety reps must be improved.' The report found there was a problem with 'limited use of powers' by safety reps.

Courts put journalists in danger

Journalists' union NUJ has condemned the courts for forcing media organisations to supply riot footage and photographs to the police, a move it says could leave journalists at a heightened risk of attack. NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: 'Journalists played a critical role in informing the public about the riots in August and our members were attacked whilst doing their jobs during the civil unrest. Covering protests is already difficult and the danger increases if the footage gathered whilst reporting events is seized and used by the police.' NUJ London photographers' branch secretary Jason N Parkinson said: 'By handing over footage, these media organisations have turned every photographer, videographer and journalist into potential targets and this will only lead to an increase in the number of assaults on the press while covering events.' The union expressed 'disappointment' that leading broadcasters and at least one national newspaper had handed over material. It said the move was opposed by the union, which will continue to press media organisations to challenge the court orders.

Union to demand respect for shopworkers

Retail union Usdaw is to undertake nationwide activities to press for an end to violence, threats and abuse directed at shopworkers. The union's Respect for Shopworkers Week will run from 7-11 November this year. The initiative is part of Usdaw's long-running Freedom From Fear Campaign. 'Our campaign highlights the problems in the run-up to Christmas,' the union's guidance says. 'Lots of members have reported incidents of verbal abuse increase dramatically during the festive period. Customers are stressed, stores are really busy and sometimes things can boil over.' In response, Usdaw's campaign message to shoppers is 'Keep Your Cool at Christmas - Respect Shopworkers.' It adds the union's Freedom From Fear Campaign 'has so far delivered many gains for our members. These achievements were only possible because of the tremendous support the campaign has received from reps, activists and members across the country.' During the week of activities, the union is calling on activists to run campaigns in the workplace and to take the message into the high street, organising stalls and distributing campaign materials. It suggests campaigners could involve the local media and MPs.

Back injury ended carer's career

A care worker from Leicestershire was forced was to give up her career after she damaged her back at work. Julie Bowler, 35, from Coalville, has been left unable to lift and suffering from back pain and sciatica after she was injured whilst working for Southern Cross-owned Rowans Nursing Home in 2010. Despite eventually being able to return to work on light duties, the GMB member felt her injury stopped her from doing her job as a carer properly. She now works as a classroom assistant. When she suffered the injury Mrs Bowler, who had worked as a carer for 12 years, was turning a patient onto her side with the help of a colleague. They hadn't been provided with specialist 'turn sheets' to lift the heavy patient who suffered from dementia. The patient was also on a normal divan bed, not a profile bed which would allow carers to raise it to allow for lifting. As the patient was laid on her side she fell towards Mrs Bowler who caught her with both hands to prevent her from falling off the bed onto the floor. The weight of the patient caused her to suffer a bulging disc. Mrs Bowler and colleagues had asked bosses to provide 'turn sheets' for the patient but they never materialised. In a GMB backed compensation case, Southern Cross Health Care Group plc admitted liability and settled the claim out of court for an undisclosed sum. Mrs Bowler said: 'I had always wanted to become a carer and was qualified to the highest level, I enjoyed the job. When I attempted to return to work my injury meant I was unable to do a lot of the job and that wasn't fair to me or the clients.'

Unite gears up for asbestos showdown

The union Unite is gearing up for a Supreme Court challenge that could deliver justice for asbestos victims. The union is bidding to overturn a Court of Appeal decision, known as the trigger test case. This ruled in October 2010 that in some asbestos cases employers' liability insurance is triggered not at the time of the exposure to asbestos in the workplace, but when symptoms of asbestos related disease emerge (Risks 478). But asbestos cancers like mesothelioma can take decades to develop, says Unite, by which time there may be no insurer to pay up. Ian McFall, head of asbestos policy at Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm brought in by Unite to act in the case, said: 'We are particularly focussed at present on preparing for the Supreme Court appeal hearing in December in the 'trigger issue test case' when Unite will resist a challenge by insurers who are attempting to avoid paying compensation to mesothelioma sufferers and their families. The outcome of this case could be one of the most important decisions in the history of asbestos litigation.' Unite regional secretary Karen Reay commented: 'We will continue to fight on behalf of these members and their families for fair compensation and justice.'

Union secures asbestos cancer payout

An electrician diagnosed with the asbestos related cancer mesothelioma has received £140,000 compensation from his former employer. The 71-year-old Unite member from Birmingham was diagnosed in 2009 with mesothelioma, an aggressive and deadly cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. The father of two daughters and grandfather of six was exposed to asbestos whilst working as an electrician's mate and then a storeman carrying out electrical maintenance for van manufacturers in Ward, Birmingham. He worked for the company for 30 years. He was exposed to asbestos working in the boiler house and when installing new electrical cables. He was never warned about the dangers or given adequate protection from the dust. The electrician, whose name has not been released, said: 'At the moment I am fortunately feeling well but I know what the future holds. I claimed compensation because I wanted to make sure my wife and family are taken care off.' Gerard Coyne, regional secretary at Unite commented: 'Sadly many of our members are exposed to asbestos in the workplace and were never warned of the damage to their health it could cause in the future. Unite will support our members who develop mesothelioma to help them claim compensation from those who negligently exposed them to asbestos.'

Other news

MP calls for an inquiry into pit safety

A Labour MP is calling for an independent inquiry into safety at Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire following the death of a miner. Gerry Gibson was killed on 27 September and a colleague was injured when a roof collapsed. The 49-year-old father-of-two is the third miner to be killed at the UK Coal-owned colliery in the last four years. Ian Cameron died after equipment fell on him on 18 October 2009 (Risks 430) and in September 2008, Don Cook died in a rock fall. UK Coal also had to evacuate 218 workers from the mine last year after methane gas seeped into the area and ignited. Jon Trickett, Labour MP for neighbouring Hemsworth, West Yorkshire, said: 'We want an inquiry and it has to be independent, and not just an inquiry into this single incident because the context was the previous incidents. I want to know they're not linked in some way with some sort of problem with the culture, with the investment or because of geological problems.' NUM north-east general secretary David Hopper said that there needed to be a 'serious reappraisal' of mines in terms of safety. He said the safety record in the mining industry had declined considerably since privatisation of coal mining in 1993. Andrew McIntosh, communications director with UK Coal, commented: 'Those who work here know how hard we push health and safety. Everyone understands this is a hazardous place to work, in the mines, which is why it is down to all of us to ensure we work as safely as possible.' Kellingley isn't the only UK Coal mine to suffer a spate of deaths. Three workers died in separate incidents at the company's Daw Mill mine in Warwickshire in the eight months up to January 2007 (Risks 290) and a further miner died at UK Coal's Welbeck colliery in Nottinghamshire in November 2007. The company has pleaded guilty to criminal safety breaches related to these deaths, and will be sentenced later this month. UK Coal also appeared in court this week on criminal charges relating to the 2009 death of Ian Cameron.

HSE safety alert after Gleision mine deaths

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has issued a safety alert warning mine companies of the danger of an inrush of water at underground mines. The move came as inquests opened on the four miners who died after being trapped in a flooded Swansea Valley mine. Charles Breslin, Phillip Hill, Garry Jenkins and David Powell died in the incident at Gleision Colliery on 15 September (Risks 524). Coroner Phillip Rogers spoke of the effects the men's deaths had had on their families and the local community. The miners' families did not attend the hearing at the Guildhall in Swansea, which lasted just a few minutes and was adjourned until a later date. The inquest heard the cause of the miners' deaths was exposure to flooded pit contents under pressure. South Wales Police said they were continuing to work with HSE to investigate the incident, adding the inquiries could last up to three months. HSE said its safety alert was 'to remind owners and managers of producing mines of the precautions to be taken against inrushes and to request owners confirm that such measures are being taken at the mines that they operate.' The last inrush which resulted in a loss of life in a British mine was in 1973 at Lofthouse, Yorkshire, where seven coal miners were killed. After that incident and a high profile campaign by mining unions, the Mines (Precautions Against Inrushes) Regulations 1979 were introduced requiring owners and managers of all mines to take precautions against inrushes of gas, water and material, which flows or is likely to flow when wet.

Lib Dems talk tough on work well-being

Large employers should be required to report on 'employee satisfaction' levels, with directors struck off where there is a 'serious failure to protect employees' wellbeing', the Liberal Democrats have said. The policy recommendations, included in a Quality of Life Policy Paper presented to the party's September conference, also call for a new National Institute for Wellbeing. This would have 'a particular role in relation to making wellbeing information about workplaces accessible and available', the policy paper notes. Presenting the paper, MP Simon Hughes said 'a new attitude to work could make the biggest change.' Calling for a 'redistribution of work,' he said many people were victims of overwork, while others had a lack of work. 'In the UK we have one of the most unequal distributions of work in the developed world,' he said. 'Almost four out of every ten men and nearly one out of every eight women work more than 45 hours a week - more than twice as many as our western European neighbours... At the same time we also have one of the highest rates of people who work less than 20 hours a week.' The policy paper says by 2014, the country's 9,000 largest employers, which together employ half of the UK workforce, should be required to report on employee satisfaction and the extent of flexible working. It adds: 'The existing power to disqualify someone from being a company director for financial impropriety should be extended to serious failure to protect employees' wellbeing.' However, these are aspirations some critics believe to be at odds with Lib Dem-supported Coalition policy on workplace health and safety. Director disqualifications for health and safety breaches are already possible under the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986. However, the government has slashed resources for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors who would seek out and bring failing directors to book. It has also required a dramatic reduction in these inspections and has demanded a move away from regulation, with a concentration instead on 'easing unnecessary burdens on business' (Risks 504).

Pub landlords failed to insure safety

The former landlords of a Chorley pub have been convicted after they failed to buy insurance to protect their employees. Stephen and Karen Martin were prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after they employed staff at the Hinds Head pub in Charnock Richard without purchasing the legally required Employers' Liability Compulsory Insurance. South Ribble Magistrates' Court in Leyland heard the couple, who no longer run the pub, employed several people including a manager, a cleaner, a chef and waiting staff. As the pair did not buy any insurance, they had no means of paying their employees any compensation they could be awarded in the event of them falling ill or suffering an injury at work. Despite being warned by HSE inspectors on several occasions between September 2010 and February 2011, the couple failed to address the issue. Speaking after the hearing, HSE investigating inspector Shellie Bee said: 'Employers' Liability Compulsory Insurance is a legal requirement and not an optional extra. Because Stephen and Karen Martin cut corners to save money, they were putting their employees in a position where they could have potentially suffered a life changing illness or injury at work and had no recourse to any kind of compensation. Despite being given ample opportunity to correct this problem over a period of months, they chose to ignore the advice they were given by HSE so we had no choice but to prosecute.' Stephen and Karen Martin were each found guilty of three breaches of the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 by not insuring their employees against injury or disease sustained at work. The couple, who failed to attend the hearing, were each fined £1,200 and each ordered to pay prosecution costs of £2,620.

Unapologetic M&S fined £1m for asbestos crimes

Marks and Spencer plc and three of its contractors have been fined after putting members of the public, staff and construction workers at risk of exposure to asbestos-containing materials. The offences occurred during the refurbishment of M&S stores in Reading and Bournemouth in 2006 and 2007. At this week's sentencing hearing at Bournemouth Crown Court, Marks and Spencer plc was fined £1 million and ordered to pay costs of £600,000 and PA Realisations Ltd was fined £200 and Styles & Wood Limited £100,000 plus £40,000 costs, for criminal breaches that took place at the Marks and Spencer plc store in Broad Street, Reading. The retail giant had failed to allow sufficient time for the job to be done safely and did not adequately oversee the work. Judge Christopher Harvey Clark QC told the court: 'The response from Marks & Spencer was, in effect, to turn a blind eye to what was happening,' adding: It was already costing the company too much money.' The judge observed: 'There was systemic failure on behalf of M&S management, and there has been no hint of a proper full apology for what happened.' Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd was fined £50,000 and ordered to pay costs of £75,000, for criminal breaches that took place at a store in Commercial Road, Bournemouth, where it failed to plan, manage and monitor removal of asbestos-containing materials. Marks and Spencer plc, Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd and PA Realisations Ltd (formerly Pectel Ltd) were found guilty in July 2011, at the conclusion of a three month hearing at Winchester Crown Court (Risks 515). Styles & Wood Limited pleaded guilty at a hearing in January 2010. After the sentencing, HSE's Richard Boland commented: 'This outcome should act as a wake up call that any refurbishment programmes involving asbestos-containing materials must be properly resourced, both in terms of time and money - no matter what.' An M&S statement said the company was 'disappointed' with the outcome of the case. Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd is applying for permission to appeal against its conviction.

Firm fined over cooling tower drowning

Scottish maintenance contractor Epsco has been fined £35,000 after a man drowned in a water filled sump at a North Wales power station. Employee Michael Benn, 37, was one of a team of three working to remove sludge and debris from part of a cooling tower at Connah's Quay Power Station on 27 August 2007. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found he was working in poorly lit conditions inside the cooling tower, and had entered an enclosed culvert to check the depth of water in the sump. Colleagues working nearby heard Mr Benn's distressed shouts, but when they got to the sump he had disappeared from view. His body was subsequently recovered from the bottom of the sump. Epsco Ltd pleaded guilty at Mold Crown Court to a criminal breach of safety law and was fined £35,000 plus costs of £120,000. HSE principal inspector Colin Mew commented: 'This incident was entirely foreseeable and yet it was still allowed to happen. Epsco Ltd would have known Mr Benn or one of his colleagues would need to approach the sump in the course of their work. The inherent risk of working in this manner should have been obvious to any diligent employer.' He added: 'The cost of providing barriers or other measures to prevent this incident and the time and effort involved would have been minimal. The real tragedy here is the human cost that has resulted from the death of Michael Benn and the ease with which his death could have been prevented - I hope that other employers take heed of this message.'

Head blow changed worker's personality

A 56-year-old self-employed construction worker suffered permanent personality changes after a 10kg stone fell nearly three metres and hit him on the head. North Somerset Magistrates' Court heard that Paul Hinton had been hired by Elegance Building Contractors Ltd to work at a domestic property in Abbots Leigh, near Bristol, on 6 September 2010. The work included raising the roof level of the building and cladding part of the property with feature stonework. The company used subcontractors for the work but failed to ensure brick guards were installed on the scaffolding to stop materials falling below. Mr Hinton, who had not been wearing a hard hat, was airlifted to hospital by air ambulance and was off work until early May 2011. Speaking after the case, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Mark Renouf said: 'This tragic incident could easily have been avoided if the brick guards or similar had been fitted to the scaffold. Mr Hinton has suffered major injuries and the incident could very well have led to a fatality. The use of hard hats was not common on this site however the greater failing is not stopping materials from falling in the first place.' Elegance Building Contractors Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and was fined £6,000 and ordered to pay costs of £4,733.

Builder thrown from telehandler bucket

A construction worker was severely injured when he was thrown from a telehandler bucket while dismantling a redundant aerial mast. David Thomson, 22, was working as part of a Ness Engineering team removing the mast at the former RAF remote radar installation at Unst, Shetland, on 23 August 2010. Thomson and his colleagues were working from inside the mast and were unbolting pieces of metal and wood and loading them into a telehandler with a bucket attachment, so that they could be safely lowered to the ground. But one piece of metal was proving tricky to shift so the men decided to stand in the bucket attachment so that they could be lifted up and unbolt the metal from the outside. They then balanced the piece of metal, which was about four metres long, on the bucket as it was lowered to the ground. But when they were still nine feet off the ground the metal slipped, and a smaller piece of metal caught on the back of Thomson's boiler suit, catapulting him out of the bucket to the ground. He fractured a vertebrae in his back, broke his left arm in two places, broke his thumbs and received multiple abrasions to his face and neck. He was off work for nine weeks and still has some residual pain in his back. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the incident found that although Ness Engineering Ltd had carried out a risk assessment for the dismantling operation, it was not part of the planned system of work to use the bucket attachment on the telehandler, nor to access the mast from the outside. At Lerwick Sheriff Court, Ness Engineering Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was fined £26,700.

International News

Cambodia: Union members 'dismissed' over safety fears

A garment factory hit by two mass fainting incidents in August has been accused of trying to get rid of workers who subsequently joined the Free Trade Union to push for better working conditions. FTU president Chea Mony has written to the Ministry of Labour alleging that 20 employees who had joined the union at the M&V factory in Kampong Chhnang province had been told their contracts were expiring at the end of September. They had joined the union after managers failed to improve working conditions following the fainting incidents, he said. 'The company is firing the workers by claiming they had reached the end of their contracts, but they have actually worked at the company for more than three years so they cannot be considered fixed-contract employees,' Chea Mony said. 'The company had no right to fire the workers. According to labour laws, they completed their fixed contracts and have become staff with unfixed contracts,' he added. Som Sinat, deputy director of Kampong Chhnang's department of labour, said he was unaware of the case. 'I will investigate to find out if any workers were fired illegally,' he told the Phnom Pehn Post. In September, global brand H&M, which buys apparel from the supplier, said it was investigating working conditions at the factory.

China: Watchdog threatens to close dusty gold mines

China's top work safety watchdog has threatened to close down dangerously dusty gold mines after discovering that 95 per cent of mines surveyed violated national safety standards. The State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) has ordered state-owned gold mines to take concrete measures to improve safety and curb emissions by August 2012 or face closure. Inspections of 41 gold mines by SAWS found 'very severe' levels of harmful dust capable of causing pneumoconiosis, potentially fatal lung diseases. Silica dust in mines is also linked to lung cancer. SAWS noted that mine owners' blatant disregard for government safety regulations had led to an upsurge in the number of dust-related disease cases in China, which in turn had fuelled discontent among the country's miners. China Labour Bulletin reports that the 'key problem for workers at risk of occupational disease in China is the failure of local governments to enforce national safety standards in high dust industries such as mining, quarrying and construction. A lack of resources and collusion with business owners means that local governments are unwilling or unable to effectively police dangerous and polluting enterprises.' It adds 'the majority of workers suffering from pneumoconiosis find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to claim compensation because they no longer work at the enterprise where they contracted the disease and cannot prove that they were previously employed at that enterprise.'

Thailand: Union leaders fired for safety stand

Thailand's state railway has dismissed seven union leaders who demanded urgent safety improvements. It follows an earlier ruling by the Thai Labour Court that the sackings could proceed, a decision condemned by union bodies worldwide (Risks 517). Global transport union federation ITF said the union officials were being punished by the management of State Railways of Thailand (SRT) for their part in an October 2009 industrial action 'to publicise the deplorable safety failings on the network which led to two derailments and one fatal accident [in which seven people died] in four days that month.' Labour and human right advocates said SRT's decision to go through with the dismissals is a gross human rights violation. Tim De Meyer, a specialist with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), told a seminar at the National Human Rights Commission that SRT employees had the right to stop work when faced with unsafe conditions. Commission member Niran Pithakwatchara said the union's strike was aimed at prompting SRT to improve railway safety, not disrupting train services. SRT's dismissal of those labour leaders was a grave abuse of their human rights, he said. Sawit Kaewwan, one of the seven union leaders dismissed by SRT, said the railway authority must put its first priority on safety, not profits. SRT had ignored repeated calls by the union to address problems. Train engines were mostly in poor condition and many train drivers were overworked, he said.

USA: Refinery union gives safety strikes warning

The union representing employees at 69 US oil refineries is prepared to strike if companies don't agree to stricter safety procedures. Under the union's National Oil Bargaining Policy, agreed at a sector conference last week in Dallas and now going forward for ratification by members, USW international vice president Gary Beevers, who heads the union's oil sector, would be authorised to call for a strike nationally or at specific locations. The union says process safety 'the main issue' during this bargaining round. USW international president Leo W Gerard said: 'The oil industry continues to be a highly hazardous place to work. Voluntary efforts to improve process safety are not enough. The number of refinery fires continues to concern us.' Official figures show refinery fires are occurring at a frequency greater than one a week, causing 18 recorded worker deaths since February 2009. 'We must have meaningful and enforceable safety provisions if we are going to save lives, and we are prepared to strike, if necessary, to get that,' said Gary Beevers. 'We think a fight is senseless, extremely unnecessary and it'll hurt everybody involved. All it would take to avoid a strike would be for the industry to say, 'Yes, we agree with you about the seriousness of this situation. We want to partner with you to make these facilities safer',' Beevers said. 'I've been to a lot of memorial services in my career, but I've never been to one for a CEO,' he added.

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