Risks 527 - 15 October 2011

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards magazine
Hazards at Work

Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 18,000 subscribers and 1,500 on the TUC website. To receive this bulletin every week, click here. Past issues are available. This edition contains Useful links TUC courses for safety reps Disclaimer and Privacy

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

Union News

Insurance Industry slammed

The TUC has attacked the insurance industry for trying to stop workers or their dependants from claiming compensation after they are injured or made ill as a result of their employer's negligence. Speaking to the 'Independent on Sunday' Hugh Robertson, the head of health and safety at the Trades Union Congress claimed that the insurance industry were increasingly seeking to get the courts to rule against victims being able to win compensation, especially in mesothelioma cases. In follows a number of court cases in both Scotland and England aimed at restricting compensation. He said: "The insurance industry has spent the last decade trying to avoid their moral responsibility in respect to people with asbestos diseases. The real injustice is that the insurers.....had no qualms in taking the insurance policies from employers who believed their workers were insured, and now they're doing everything to wriggle out of their commitments. The TUC says that insurers are using many different methods to cut down the cost of claims. "This is only one of a series of challenges and attacks that people have had to face when trying to get compensation for employers' negligence," said Mr Robertson. "In addition to the court case, the insurance companies have been lobbying hard to make sure the courts can't be used in the future." These concerns were echoed in an article in the Guardian which claimed that the insurance industry were given special access to the government to lobby for changes to compensation regulations.

Bid to cut asbestos compensation fails

The Supreme Court has rejected an attempt by the insurance industry to overturn the right of people in Scotland to claim compensation for pleural plaques. This is an asbestos-related condition which results from previous exposure to asbestos. The House of Lords backed a previous attempt by the insurance industry to prevent damages being claimed by victims of pleural plaques but, unlike in England and Wales, the Scottish Government introduced legislation to restore this right on the grounds that pleural plaques could give rise to more serious conditions, like lung cancer, mesothelioma or asbestosis. Ironically the insurance industry used the European Convention on Human Rights to claim that their human rights (to property) had been breached by the Scottish legislation. This argument had already been rejected by the Scottish Courts. Commenting on the decision, Scottish TUC Deputy General Secretary Dave Moxham said "This is a vindication of the heroic battle by the victims of pleural plaques for fair compensation as well as the work undertaken by MSPs of more than one political party to legislate for justice. The skill and expertise of Thompsons Solicitors has also been central to this victory. The insurance companies involved have now stretched and abused the boundaries of due diligence in throwing their resources at an increasingly desperate fight to deny responsibility and it is now time for them to shut up and pay up." George Guy, Acting General Secretary of construction union UCATT, said: 'This is excellent news as its shows that despite their huge financial resources the insurance industry do not have a free hand in the courts. It also underlines just how outrageous their actions have been as for over two years they have deliberately blocked pleural plaques victims in Scotland from receiving compensation.' Trade unions will be using the Supreme Court decision to increase pressure on the Westminster government to restore the right to compensation throughout the UK.

STUC names and shames insurance giants

The Scottish TUC has named and shamed the five insurance giants who went to the Supreme Court to try to overturn Scottish legislation giving pleural plaques sufferers a right to compensation. The five culprits have been named as AXA General Insurance Limited, AXA Insurance UK plc, which operates companies like Swiftcover.com, Norwich Union Insurance Limited (Aviva), Royal and Sun Alliance Insurance plc and Zurich Insurance plc. These are five of the largest insurers in the UK who tried to use human rights legislation to deny workers who had been negligently exposed to asbestos, and who now live in fear of developing a fatal disease, the right to justice. STUC Deputy General Secretary, Dave Moxham, said: 'These insurance companies have behaved disgracefully in all of this. Yesterday was a resounding victory for justice over corporate greed, but these companies deserve to be named and shamed for the way they've behaved. 'People have the right to know how disgracefully their insurance companies have behaved. I'm sure it will surprise many to learn that they're giving their money to companies which are dragging those exposed to asbestos through the courts simply for corporate greed. Phyllis Craig, Senior Welfare Rights Officer at Clydeside Action on Asbestos, said: 'The Insurers are household names, and many people with Pleural Plaque will have policies with them. It is for them to decide whether they should consider seeking alternative insurance cover.' Bob Dickie, Chair of Clydebank Asbestos Group who represents around 200 pleural plaques victims said: 'When it comes to asbestos victims and insurance companies it is just one long battle. The insurers are happy to take the premiums and then they fight through the courts to avoid paying out. And the longer they can tie things up in the courts the longer they are not paying out on claims. Their behaviour is unacceptable and everyone should know what they're up to.'

  • STUC press release

Union mulls action on piracy

The Nautilus International trade union are considering calling for a boycott of those areas where seafarers are most at risk. At their annual conference, former Council chairman John Epsom said 'If you were to start stopping the world's oil supply there would soon be some action, the power is in your hands and it would make a lot of difference very quickly.' Speakers also suggested the union should campaign for a change in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea so that naval forces could be allowed to operate in the territorial waters of countries that are officially deemed to be 'failed states', although there was concern that cuts in defence budgets may reduce the effectiveness of existing anti-piracy naval patrols. Royal Fleet Auxiliary Liaison Officer David Gatenby pointed out:

'The assets are already so thinly spread that it is like a needle in a haystack. We urge governments to stop making more cuts and give the organisations out there the resources they need to do their job.' Nautilus International General Secretary Mark Dickinson added 'There are plenty of shipowners who will be prepared to put their vessels into harm's way if there is money to be made,' he pointed out. 'But I call upon the good shipowners to join with the ITF and Nautilus in considering how we can deliver a very firm message to governments that we have had enough and that the problems need to be resolved quickly and in a decisive way.' The debate at the annual conference followed the recent setting up of a UK based charity to help seafarers caught up in acts of piracy (Risks 526).

Cuts hit mental health services

The TUC has warned that the government's spending cuts risk reversing vital progress made in the recognition and treatment of mental health issues in the UK. Work-related mental health issues are responsible for around a third of all work-related sickness absence and many victims of stress or bullying need support to help them recover. Earlier this month a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) survey found stress is now the number one cause of long-term absence in both manual and non-manual workers and confirmed a link between job insecurity and a marked increase in mental health problems (Risks 526). The website False Economy found that 17 NHS mental health trusts were facing significant staff redundancies, and many people who are off sick with mental health related issues are finding it more difficult to access support. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'The TUC fears that the government's spending cuts are undermining the increasing recognition of the extent of mental ill health problems we have seen in the workplace and beyond in recent years, and the measures that have been taken in response. Across the UK, local authority and NHS mental health services are falling victim to budget cuts, and people are losing vital support mechanisms which were helping them stay in or get back into work. On top of this, the stress arising for many workers from the massive job cuts in the public sector, and the uncertainty hanging over those who remain, is not conducive to healthy workplaces.'

New fire engines unsafe says union

The Fire Brigades Union in South Yorkshire have claimed that four fire engines costing £2m are unsafe and unreliable, and may lead to a loss of life. A wide range of problems have been reported with the Combined Aerial Rescue Pumps (CARP) vehicles, including being too heavy for UK roads, frequent mechanical problems, incidents of the vehicles catching fire and needing their own crews to deal with the flames and the platform on the vehicles becoming jammed both on exercise and at incidents. Official John Gilliver said the vehicles had suffered mechanical breakdowns, fires and were sometimes "unstable" in use. He added that he had "never seen problems to this level". Mr Gilliver, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Secretary for South Yorkshire, said of the CARP vehicles "They're appalling, they're an absolute joke'. He added "They're constantly being repaired and a fire on an appliance had to be extinguished by crews. We're concerned for the safety of the crews going out on these vehicles. Management are saying these are teething problems, that's simply not true. I'm an appliance driver with years of experience and yes, we've had teething problems before, but never to this level. One day I'm sure someone will be killed. They should come off the road, enough is enough, we need to get to the bottom of what's going on with these vehicles." South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service said it was aware of problems and hoped to resolve them. In a statement the fire service said there had been "issues" with the vehicles and solutions were being sought.

Fire cuts could hinder responses to major incidents

The ability of the fire services to respond to major incidents such as industrial explosions or rail crashes could be put at risk by moves to axe fire control centres. The FBU has this week called for a rethink of moves to close the Cumbria fire control centre and merge it with one in Cheshire. This follows the collapse of plans to create a central north west Regional Fire patrol which was recently axed at a loss of almost £500 million. The current Cumbria centre is to close and move to Cheshire. However this is also earmarked for closure and will move to Warrington in the future. In addition consideration is being given to a further merger with the Northumberland service. Ade Kevern, FBU brigade secretary said: 'Our controls are at the heart of Cumbria Fire and Rescue service's response, they are the front line of the front line. Cumbria's control operators and fire crews are intrinsically linked, working closely to ensure the best possible response is made to operational incidents. They are the 1st point of contact for those in distress and their value has been clearly evident during a number of major multi agency incidents, including the 2005 and 2009 floods and the Greyrigg rail crash'. 'When the chips are down and the people of Cumbria need us, the control centre has never failed. This is ill-thought out, a bad deal for council tax payers and could increase the risk to the public and fire crews.'

Rail union calls for reinstatement of sick worker

The transport union RMT has called for the reinstatement of a tube driver who was sacked after being sent back to driving duties against medical advice. The dismissal happened after James Masango returned to work after a period of sick leave. London Underground's occupational health department had said that he should not be returned to driving duties, or be taking safety critical decisions, in light of blood pressure problems directly connected to the earlier incident. Despite this Mr Masango was returned to driving duties and an incident happened whereby the wrong side doors of the train he was driving were opened when the train was in a platform. He was dismissed and took his case to an employment tribunal with the full support of his union. The tribunal found 100% in his favour with not a single shred of evidence that there was any contributory fault on his part. In a damning judgment the Employment Tribunal claimed that the incident was a result of management negligence and that: 'No reasonable employer could have concluded from the evidence that the claimant should have been driving at the time of the wrong-side door incident.' Despite this London Underground have refused to reinstate Mr Masango. RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said: 'It is extremely rare for the Employment Tribunal to find 100% for the claimant and that means that the employer, London Underground, is 100% guilty of unfair dismissal and that reinstatement should be automatic. The fact that we are still fighting for justice for James Masango in light of all the evidence is a shocking indictment on LUL. 'We hoped that we would be able to negotiate reinstatement through the normal channels but LUL have dragged their feet and we now have no option but to launch a public campaign and to begin preparations for a ballot for action of all our train grade members to put right this gross injustice.'

Other news

Behavioural safety theories challenged

Criticism by the TUC of the use of behavioural safety methods to control workplace hazards were given a boost by a report by the influential US National Safety Council (NSC). Behavioural safety is based on the theories of Herbert Heinrich whose work forms the basis for behaviour-based safety, an approach that focuses on identifying and changing unsafe worker behaviours. In 1931 he claimed 88 per cent of accidents are caused by 'unsafe acts of persons' and said that in a group of 330 accidents, 300 will result in no injuries, 29 will result in minor injuries and one will result in a major injury. This has been disputed by the many sources including the HSE who say that 70% of workplace deaths and injuries are caused by management failures. Earlier this year the TUC published guidance for unions criticising the behavioural safety approach as being unscientific and based on a 'blame the workers' approach. Now an article in the magazine of the NSC has finally acknowledged that what Heinrich did as 'research' is questionable.' James Howe former assistant director of health and safety for the United Auto Workers, also takes issue with approach. 'The pyramid theory has really done a disservice to the safety profession,' he said, 'because it has misled people running safety programs into thinking that if they work on minor incidents, major incidents will go away. And many, many companies are aware that that is not the case.' In fact, he said, certain companies with award-winning low injury rates have suffered some of the worst catastrophic incidents during the past 10 years. At the same time a survey by the NSC magazine 'Safety + Health' showed that 86% of safety professionals believed Heinrich's theories either completely or somewhat with only 5% not believing them at all. Although behavioural safety programmes are far less common in the UK than in the US, a number of large companies do use them, especially in the energy sectors. One company that has relied heavily on behavioural safety is BP. Following the Texas City explosion, which killed 15 people, their first response was to blame 'human error'. Subsequent investigations have indicated that the disaster was a result of management failings.

Fine for company that risks workers lives

A building contractor from South East London has been fined £19,300 and ordered to pay costs of £7,654 for running a construction site which led to workers being exposed to asbestos-containing materials. Fadil Adil of Bromley was in charge of a construction site on which a building was demolished using sledgehammers and hand-operated breakers. However the building contained asbestos insulating boards. This would have been known if an asbestos survey had been carried out. The contractor did not have a licence to work with asbestos and was not even trained in construction management. HSE Inspector Ian Seabrook said:"Sadly, this kind of incident is all too familiar because the defendant's actions meant that his colleagues were more than likely exposed to asbestos fibres. The dangers of asbestos are well known; it is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK with around 1,000 tradesmen dying each year from asbestos-related diseases. Anyone working with these sorts of materials has to commission an asbestos survey to ascertain the level of work needed and then have asbestos removed in a controlled manner by a licensed contractor."

£5,000 fine for loss of arm

A Northern Ireland composting firm has been fined just £5,000 after a 20 year old worker lost an arm. The worker got trapped by an unguarded rotating conveyor drum on a screening machine that sorts waste. The investigation revealed that the original guard had been made smaller so that maintenance staff could have access to the internal working of the machine whilst it was still running. The waste and recycling industry has one of the highest injury and fatality rates and this was only one of a series of injuries and deaths that have happened in waste sites in recent years. After the hearing Mr Kevin Campbell, an inspector with the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland's Major Investigation Team said 'It is essential that companies identify and address hazards within the workplace. Measures must be taken to control and limit access to dangerous moving parts of machines. Companies must ensure that maintenance teams are trained in identifying missing or defective guards and the importance of replacing guards that are removed during maintenance operations.'

Head injury worker gets compensation

A member of Unite the union has received compensation with the support of his union after he ended up with a 15 centimetre scar on his scalp because he wasn't provided with suitable head protection by his employer, a beer can manufacturer. The 46-year-old from Carlisle was checking if a can coating machine was working correctly while wearing only a baseball-style cap for protection as he had not been provided with a hard hat. He needed 11 staples in the top of his head after he struck the supporting angle iron of a metal gantry. He hadn't been able to see the sharp iron bar over the peak of the hat's rim. Since the accident he has been left with a large visible scar on his head, which is still sore. His union's lawyers, Thompsons, argued that the sharp edge of the gantry should have been spotted in a risk assessment and either covered or suitable protective hard hats should have been provided for those carrying out inspections. The beer can manufacturer admitted liability and settled the claim out of court for £5,000. Paul Finegan, from Unite said: "Good safety practice dictates that when staff are working in an area where sharp objects are at head height that hard hats should be provided. A flimsy baseball-style cap is no protection against a sharp edge and the additional blind spots this type of hat can cause makes it a hazard in itself.'

International News

Canadian authorities use health and safety to stop strike

The Canadian Government has asked the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to halt a proposed strike by Air Canada cabin crew on the grounds of health and safety. The CIRB has temporarily suspended the strike while they review the dispute. CIRB Executive Director Ginette Brazeau said the federal government has asked it to look at two issues related to the dispute between Air Canada and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) that represents its 6,800 flight attendants, including determining if the airline is an essential service that must continue operating to ensure the health and safety of the population. The union had been planning to strike after workers, angry at the airline's plans to set up a discount branch, rejected a contract. Labour relations experts said the government's decision to try to block a strike using the CIRB was unprecedented. "The CIRB has never been used to suspend a strike," said George Smith, a research fellow in the school of policy studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. There has never been a question of an airline strike having something to do with the health and safety of Canadians," he said. CUPE have claimed that the government are using health and safety as a cover for an anti-union agenda. CUPE president, Paul Moist, said 'The first excuse from the federal government for its unnecessary intervention was a supposed fear of harm to the Canadian economy. Now, out of the blue, Minister Raitt suspects a strike will endanger the health and safety of Canadians. These excuses strain the credibility of the Harper Conservatives, and are a transparent attack on flight attendants and every other worker in Canada.'

South African workers strike for safety

Thousands of South African miners took strike action on 4th October to protest against the conditions in South African mines. South African mines have a very poor safety record and there are around 100 deaths from injuries every year. Many thousands more die from lung diseases. The strike was led by the National Union of Miners who have long campaigned for major improvements in the safety on the countries mines. They also organised a march to the Chamber of Mines in Johannesburg, the state energy company and the Government department for labour. Mine safety received considerable publicity in 2007 after 3,200 workers were temporarily trapped underground in a mine after a compressed air pipe ruptured due to internal corrosion. Following that the National Union of Mineworkers called a strike to protest at unsafe working conditions. Around 240,000 miners took part. The incident led to the South African President ordering full safety audits for all operating mines.

US Union backs working time restrictions

The Teamsters Union have joined a campaign to support the proposed Hours of Service (HOS) rule proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that will limit consecutive driving hours and prevent abuse of the current regulations. Unions and safety organisations claim that the proposed rule will save the American public more than $2 billion and create nearly 40,000 jobs in the trucking industry. Large truck crashes resulted in 3,380 deaths in 2009, at a cost to the nation of nearly $20 billion. The groups said the proposed rule would also restore many of the nearly 50,000 truck driving jobs that were eliminated from the industry when the current HOS rule was implemented in 2004. However the changes are opposed by the trucking employers and several Republican members of Congress who have claimed that it is a burden on business. The union and other supporters claim, in a letter to President Obama, that the restrictions on drivers hours will produce $2.2 billion in crash, injury and health cost savings including $1 billion dollars in associated injury and crash costs, and $1.2 billion in health and related medical costs to truck drivers and taxpayers by reducing the number of tired truckers who are involved in truck crashes. This is on top of the many lives that will be saved and the improved health and welfare of truck drivers brought about by reducing driving hours and increasing off-duty rest time.

Australian tribunal backs compulsory drug testing

Unions and drug support organisations in the Australian state of Victoria have reacted angrily to a ruling by Fair Work Australia, the national workplace relations tribunal, that found that requiring drug and alcohol tests was a 'reasonable request from an employer'. It decided that 'compulsory drug and alcohol testing is, of itself, not so extraordinary that it could not be argued to be a unreasonable employer instruction'. This decision came after building contractors Thiess and Wagstaff Piling were appealing an earlier verdict that found mandatory testing was not required, as this was not part of any workplace agreement with the with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union in Victoria (CFMEU). Both Harm Reduction Victoria and the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League said they were ''extremely concerned'' by the tribunal decision, warning of privacy issues, that users could shift to harder drugs to avoid detection and the high costs of testing. ''It is very likely to just drive people underground, away from information and support and towards high-risk practices as they try to avoid the punitive impact of a positive drug screen at work,'' said Jenny Kelsall from Harm Reduction Victoria, a support and advocacy group. The CFMEU union has said that it believes the Fair Work decision is wrong at law and lacking in common sense and have sent advice to its members.

Events and Courses

European Week for Safety and Health at Work, 24 -28 October

European Week for Safety and Health at Work, 24 -28 October, is edging closer. For a second consecutive year, the theme is maintenance work. 'National inspection day', which has been strongly promoted by the TUC and has in recent years spurred a mass outbreak of workplace inspections by union safety reps countrywide, is on 26 October.

TUC courses for safety reps


Useful Links

  • Visit the TUC www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s website pages on health and safety. See what's on offer from TUC Publications and What's On in health and safety.
  • 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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