Risks 532 - 19 November 2011

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards magazine
Hazards ar Work

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

Union News

Travelling time adds to stress and fatigue

A TUC analysis of official statistics shows that employees spend nearly 200 hours a year travelling to and from work. London has the longest commute times for both male and female workers at 37.8 minutes per journey each way, while Northern Ireland has the shortest at 22.4 minutes. With increasing congestion on the roads and public transport problems significantly adding to people's commute times, the TUC is calling on employers to offer smarter flexible working options to help staff avoid unnecessary and costly commutes. Next year's London Olympics offers the perfect opportunity for workers in the capital to embrace smarter working such as home working and staggered start and finish times, says the TUC, whose General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Unnecessary long commutes are frustrating and expensive for staff, and bad for business too. Smarter working must be part of the modern economy. Staff want greater access to flexible and high quality home-working and employers need to do more to provide it.' Chief Executive of Work Wise UK Phil Flaxton said: 'In this day and age, old working practices dictating that employees must travel vast distances to sit at a desk every day are outdated. British workers are frustrated at the amount of wasted time caused by long, arduous journeys to and from work. Smart commuting, flexi-time and remote working can offer an ideal solution, giving a range of benefits for employees and employers alike. Not only is the amount of time commuting an issue, the 9 to 5 culture with its peak travel times generates congestion on the rail, underground and road networks and as a consequence, increases stress for commuters.'

Tired pilots risk lives

Pilots union BALPA are seeking to alert people to the dangers posed by proposed changes to the limits on pilots flying time. Flight Time Limitations (FTLs) were introduced to help ensure that pilots don't get fatigued. Under the rules airlines must arrange pilots' duties so that flight duty periods and minimum rest periods are within prescribed limits taking into consideration other factors such as daytime and night time duties, the positioning of crew, proper and sufficient breaks between flying duties and the availability of inflight rest. New rules are being proposed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) which would significantly weaken the current UK FTL rules. Under the new rules, the minimum amount of rest a pilot could get in some circumstances is down to just seven-and-a-half hours. The maximum number of hours a pilot could be made to fly is over 16 hours and, when flying four flights in a day, nearly 13 hours. This is a big increase in what is currently allowed and BALPA claim it will put lives at risk. It also runs counter to what is happening in the US where pilots' hours are being tightened following a crash which was blamed on pilot fatigue. To support their campaign BALPA have produced a short youtube video.

Union slams violence against NHS staff

Public sector union UNISON has claimed that there has been an increase in violence against nurses, paramedics and other NHS staff in the last year and has called for urgent action to stem the rising tide. Figures released last week by 'NHS Protect' show that the number of reported attacks in 2010-11 in England was 57,830, compared with 56,718 in 2009-10. Christina McAnea, UNISON Head of Health, said 'The increase in violence against nurses, paramedics and other NHS staff in England is a national disgrace. The number of staff who have reported being attacked at work has gone up by more than 1,000 - that is a staggering number and there is likely to be many more assaults that have gone unreported. Hospital managers must take urgent action to ensure that their staff are protected. It is no good saying that some of these assaults were the result of a patient's medical condition, staff have a right to a safe working environment. And it is up to the employer to provide it by assessing risks and managing them. It is clear that urgent action is needed to look after health staff better. Prevention is the key by ensuring adequate security, good staffing levels and safe ward design. We need closer working between employers, staff and security specialists to keep staff safe.'

Unite calls for housing association to release asbestos info

Unite the union are demanding that a Scottish housing association release reports into an incident of asbestos exposure which could have health implications for both workers and tenants. Scottish Borders Housing Association, the region's largest landlord, with more than 5,500 homes units, so far refused to disclose the contents of the documents, relating to works carried out in Hawick four years ago. Now the union Unite has submitted a request to SBHA under Freedom of Information legislation to make the details available. The exposure to white asbestos occurred in September 2007 when three SBHA workmen were instructed to carry out renovation work as part of a project to convert an empty ground-floor flat into SBHA offices. Employees have claimed that 'These guys [the SBHA employees] had no specialist equipment and were going home at night to their wives and kids, covered in asbestos dust, looking like snowmen.' The union claims that a report - later revised - on asbestos contamination at the site was compiled by the health and safety advisers to SBHA. In May 2011 a Unite shop steward made an official verbal request for the reports to be released, but this has not happened, according to Unite whose Borders branch secretary George Wilson submitted his FoI request to the association yesterday. In his letter to SBHA chief executive Julia Mulloy, Mr Wilson states: 'For some time now Unite has been trying to access copies of the reports relating to the asbestos incident at West Port. We are doing this purely to ascertain the full facts of the matter in the clear and definitive interest of our members, their future health, safety and medical welfare and that of their families who may have been inadvertently exposed ... and for the [undecanted] tenants of SBHA who lived above the building work whilst it was undertaken. To date, the current management has, in our opinion, unprofessionally and unreasonably refused to allow us access to this information, so we can have the matter independently assessed and verified.'

Union tells HSE - 'involve us'

The trade union Unite has asked the HSE to involve its safety officials in the investigation that follows two deaths at the Port of Tilbury last month. Two weeks ago a lorry driver was crushed to death after a trailer fell on him at the Docks. It is believed another trailer fell on the man while he was outside his lorry. Three days before a Unite member died after the crane he was operating toppled over. Unite claims that port managers and officials from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have failed to involve the union in the inquiry. Andy Green, from Unite said: 'We are deeply shocked that the HSE has not responded to calls from Unite representatives at the port and the company has chosen not to conduct a joint investigation alongside Unite safety representatives. We are at a loss why the HSE will not speak to us and believe their behaviour is nothing short of shameful.' He added that the union would 'leave no stone unturned' in its efforts to understand how their representative was killed at the Port of Tilbury. The HSE have refused to back down claiming 'As this is a criminal investigation, trade union safety representatives have no statutory role, but they will be interviewed by HSE's inspectors in the course of their enquiries.'

Union legal services come up trumps

The GMB union has managed to help a member get compensation after she was turned down by no-win no-fee lawyers. Union member Sheila Gilling, from Northamptonshire, had to take 9 months off work following a fall at Birmingham International Airport which badly dislocated her shoulder. The stairs were temporary as the umbilical usually used between the boarding gate and the plane was out of order. The stairs were faulty, with the top section not meeting up properly with the bottom section. The steps and handrail were also wet due to a leak in the roof. The couple never made their flight and instead Mrs Gilling ended up in hospital. She needed two operations on her shoulder and intensive physiotherapy. She is also receiving counselling after suffering from flashbacks and anxiety. She had initially approached a 'no win, no fee' solicitor for help pursuing a compensation claim but after initially pursuing the claim for six months they refused to progress the claim further saying she wouldn't win. However after speaking to her trade union, the GMB, they referred the case to their lawyers, Thompsons who pursued the claim and settled it out of court for £28,000. Mrs Gilling said: 'I was devastated when the first solicitor I approached turned down my claim. I knew the accident wasn't my fault but they said they couldn't win. In the end the GMB said their lawyers would take it on and I'm so glad I followed their advice and absolutely delighted with the result achieved. I am extremely grateful to my union and Martyn Gywther at Thompsons'. Joe Morgan regional secretary at the GMB said: 'We are delighted that our legal services have been able to support Mrs Gilling in her claim. The 'no win, no fee' lawyers she initially approached simply didn't have the specialist knowledge needed to progress this claim, which was complicated by the fact the accident occurred whilst boarding a plane. We'd advise all our members to consider using our legal services first if they are unfortunate enough to become involved in an accident like this.'

Other news

Call for dramatic changes in Scotland

Scotland needs a wholesale revision of its approach to workplace safety, according to a new paper. Writing in the Scottish Left Review, Professor Andrew Watterson of Stirling University and colleagues express concern about government cuts in regulation and enforcement and a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) failure 'to champion workplace health and safety'. But the paper adds 'it is politicians, governments and some employer bodies, driven by ideology and lacking in sound evidence, that explain the real crisis in workplace health and safety not HSE pusillanimity. HSE for example did show in the 1980s and 1990s that 'good health and safety' was good business and that each year the UK lost the equivalent of a year's economic growth through injuries and illnesses at work. The message has been received and understood by some large industries and companies that understand they get beneficial information and advice from the HSE. Small and medium sized employers too, research shows, also like the information, advice and support they get from HSE inspectors.' While research 'shows regulations work and that voluntary and self-regulated health and safety schemes do not, the UK government carries on its ideological way,' the paper notes. It also raises concerns about a marked drop in the number of cases fed to prosecutors by the HSE, which has halved in three years. 'There are clearly serious questions to be raised about to what extent the UK health and safety regulatory system protects and addresses the needs of Scottish workers,' the paper notes, adding 'it appears to have failed and perhaps should be more directly accountable to the Scottish government for its work.' The authors raise the possibility of the creation of 'a dedicated Scottish Occupational Health and Safety Agency' and 'a Scottish worker health and safety centre to advise employees, unionised or not, about prevention and detection of disease and injury and support for victims.' It says firms with good safety records should reap 'economic and other benefits from the Scottish ministries responsible for health, business and the environment and promotion of initiatives such as toxics use reduction so successfully pioneered in the USA.'

Falls lead to prosecutions

Two cases involving falls from heights on farms have been heard by courts in the past week. Falls from height is the second biggest cause of injury and death in agriculture, an industry with one of the worst safety records in the UK, however earlier this year the government instructed the HSE to stop proactive inspections of the sector. Now inspections are normally only allowed after an incident takes place and is reported. The first case involved a Shropshire poultry farm which was fined after a worker fractured his pelvis falling nearly three metres from an unguarded platform. Shrewsbury Magistrates' Court heard how the 36-year-old agency worker was walking on a temporary platform made from stacks of cages to move hens from the poultry house when he tripped. He fell nearly three metres from the unprotected platform edge, fracturing his pelvis in two places and also suffering a collapsed lung. The HSE's investigation into the incident found the company, Llynclys Farm had identified the risk of workers falling from the platform but did not fit any edge protection to it or take any other measures to reduce the risk of falls. Speaking after the hearing, at which the company pleaded guilty and were fined £6,000 and ordered to pay £6,276 costs, HSE inspector Janice Dale said "Falling from height remains the most common cause of workplace deaths and those who survive are often seriously injured, as in this avoidable incident. Llynclys Farm had identified the potential for workers to fall from the platform but failed to act on its own risk assessment. This dangerous system of work had been in place for around five years before the incident. Working at height on temporary platforms made from poultry cages is common practice in the agricultural industry. It's vital that proper measures are taken to minimise the risk of falling, such as fitting suitable guard rails and toeboards'. The second happened after an employee was injured when he fell from a roof at a Carmarthenshire farm. Ammanford Magistrates' Court heard that an inexperienced steel erector and had been employed by Towy Valley Fabrications to assist in the construction of a new pitched roof between existing buildings on the farm. He was standing on the roof of one of the existing buildings and pulling up an electrical extension cable, when he stepped backwards onto a fragile PVC skylight and fell 5.5m to the ground below. As a result he broke two bones in his spine in the fall, fractured his pelvis and suffered an injury to his arm which required stitches. He has not been able to return to work as a steel erector and is now pursuing an alternative career. The court heard the defendant had failed to notify the HSE of the incident at the time. The HSE was eventually made aware of the incident by Mr Elliot's mother and a subsequent investigation was launched. The company was fined £6,500 and ordered to pay £2,651 in costs.

More evidence of dangers from Trike

An international study has linked trichloroethylene (TCE), also called 'trike', an industrial solvent, to Parkinson's disease. Researchers found a six-fold increase in the risk of developing Parkinson's in individuals exposed in the workplace. Trike is still used for degreasing and metal cleaning despite it having been linked to cancer and it is currently classified as a category 2 carcinogen which means that employers should be using substitutes where available and, where it is used, keeping the process sealed. Unfortunately it is still used in over vats by some companies, mainly small ones and there have been over a dozen enforcement notices served on employers for exposing workers to trike in the past 5 years. This is not the first time that a link between solvents and Parkinson's has been found and unions and safety campaigners have been calling for much tighter control on trike for many years. The research was based on analysis of 99 pairs of twins selected from US data records. The findings are presented as the first study to report a "significant association" between Trike exposure and Parkinson's and suggest exposure to the solvent was likely to result in a six-fold increase in the chances of developing the disease. The study also adjudged exposure to two other solvents, perchloroethylene (PERC), which is used in dry-cleaning, and carbon tetrachloride (CCl4), "tended towards significant risk of developing the disease". No statistical link was found with the other three solvents examined in the study - toluene, xylene and n-hexane.

Cleaner killed by killer dust

A college cleaner died from mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos at Grimsby College where she worked. Brenda Waddell, 61, developed the disease after being exposed to asbestos at the then Grimsby College, where she worked as a cleaner from 1984 to 2007. Before her death, Mrs Waddell prepared a statement which detailed where she believes she was exposed to the material. It read: "In 1984, I joined Grimsby College as a cleaner. I was employed by Grimsby Council and was contracted out. I believe it was during this period of employment at the college that I was exposed. I have been informed that in the early years there was a removal programme from the boiler house. I was not able to walk down the nearby corridor but I believe me and the other cleaners would have still been exposed to it'. She added 'There were also six pre-fabricated huts which I have been told contained asbestos. I regularly cleaned these. I remember they were very cold in the winter. I understand the fabrications of these buildings was asbestos. We were never warned of the dangers of asbestos exposure and I can only remember one removal programme, although I gather there may have been others.' Recording a verdict of industrial-related death, district coroner for North East Lincolnshire, Paul Kelly, said: "Mesothelioma is nearly always associated with exposure to asbestos and in Mrs Waddell's case this is no different. Between 1984 and 2007 in various occasions while working as a cleaner at Grimsby College she was exposed to asbestos that led to the disease causing her death. It is on this basic, primary fact that I am satisfied Mrs Waddell died as a result of an industrial-related disease." The inquest was told one other contractor had died of mesothelioma after working at the college. Cleaners have the highest number of mesothelioma deaths amongst female occupations from 1991-2005.

Government inaction leads to mother unable to get compensation

A mother who was diagnosed with mesothelioma will be deprived of compensation unless her employer's insurer can be found. Sharon Walker was diagnosed with mesothelioma in August 2010 but she is unlikely to receive compensation from her former employers because it no longer exists and no trace can be found of its insurers. She was exposed to asbestos when she was 16 working as a seamstress for Benjamin Simon & Sons in Kirkstall Road, Leeds but her solicitors have been unable to trace the insurance company on cover for Benjamin Simon for the period Mrs Walker worked there despite undertaking extensive searches including the Association of British Insurers' Employers Liability Tracing Office (ELTO). From 1972 employers had a legal duty to hold Employers Liability Insurance but neither the employers nor the insurers were required to keep records of the policies and many have since been lost or destroyed. Mrs Walker, who has an 18-year-old daughter, and was exposed to asbestos used in the factory's press when making suits. She said: 'It was a great shock to be diagnosed with a fatal cancer at 45. I feel overwhelming sadness that I won't be here to see my daughter grow up. I was determined to claim compensation to ensure her financial security in the future. She plans to go to university and I was going to help her fund her studies. 'To be told that it is unlikely that I will ever receive a penny because my employer's insurers couldn't be traced was a double blow. If an ELIB (Employers Liability Insurance Bureau) was established it will give me a great peace of mind to know that one way or another my daughter would be provided for following my death.' The TUC has been calling for the setting up of an ELIB for four years to pay compensation to asbestos victims who cannot trace their former employer's insurers. The previous government consulted on proposals to establish one last year but since then the current government has refused to take the proposals forward and will only say they are still considering the situation.

Member of public snaps roofer

A member of the public reported a worker to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after photographing him undertaking cleaning work on an industrial roof, which contained around eighty potentially fragile roof lights, using no safety equipment, edge protection or harnesses to prevent falls. As a result Michael Hallwood and his son Michael Thomas Hallwood, partners in Cladding Coatings, were fined £2,500 each and ordered to pay costs of £2,604 between them at Nottingham Magistrates Court. After the hearing, HSE inspector Lee Greatorex said "Fortunately no one was injured on this occasion, but Mr Hallwood Senior, his son and their employees were at risk. This was a blatant disregard for health and safety which put people in danger. Roofing work requires careful planning and assessment of the risks involved. In this case employees were working without the correct equipment to protect them from falls. Falls from height are the biggest cause of workplace deaths and it's crucial that employers make sure work is properly planned, appropriately supervised and that sufficient measures are put in place to protect staff from the risks."

Sick Pay is good for everyone

A week before the Government published a report on sick pay in the UK a research study in the US says that extending paid sick leave could save the country $1 billion in medical costs annually. On 21st November the UK Government will unveil a report by Dame Carol Black and David Frost into the workings of the present sickness absence and sick pay scheme. While it is not unlikely to propose a major overhaul of the system many unions and disability charities are worried that it might be used to force workers back too early. However according to a report released today by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), paid sick leave is good for the economy, employers and the country. Currently, more than 44 million American workers do not have access to paid sick days, and more are unable to use time off to take care of sick children or other family members. "Taking time off work to see a primary care doctor is common sense, but over 40 million Americans cannot do so without losing pay or their job," said Kevin Miller, Senior Research Associate with IWPR and an author of the report." Americans are paying over $1 billion each year in preventable emergency department costs because hard-working people without paid sick days are unable to get the preventative and early treatment they and their children need." Employees with access to paid sick days have an easier time getting to a doctor during regular business hours to care for themselves or family members. In turn, access to paid sick days can help to decrease the likelihood that a worker will put off needed care and increases access to preventive care among workers and their children.

International News

Canada told to stop asbestos exports

Canadian opposition MPs renewed calls for the Canadian government to stop their efforts to block asbestos being listed on the UN's list of hazardous substances, and to help asbestos miners and communities dependent on the substance in their adjustment as that economy ends. During a debate on the issue Carol Hughes MP stated 'Canada can save millions of lives by stopping what remains of our asbestos exports given that we cannot guarantee the dangerous material will be properly handled in developing countries where it is still widely used. Here in Canada, we understand how dangerous asbestos is. We have, for years, mitigated against the worst effects of this substance and sought to replace it when we know it has been used in homes and public buildings but we are supposed to believe that developing nations will manage to do an adequate job of utilizing this unique material and protecting those who work with it or, worse, do not much care what happens to people in other countries once we get payment.' The debate happened as the last operating asbestos mine in Canada, operated by LAB Chrysotile, announced its indefinite closure. It is no longer able to produce asbestos because of a landslide in 2010 and because of depletion of the mine's reserve. This is the first time in 130 years that Canada is no longer producing asbestos. Both LAB Chrysotile and the Jeffrey Mine hope, however, to expand into other asbestos deposits and to re-start asbestos mining next year. Once completed the proposed underground mine, the Jeffrey mine, which ceased operations in October 2009, has sufficient reserves to produce 200,000 tons of asbestos fiber per year for 25 years. Canada produced 175,000 tons of asbestos in 2008. Approximately 98% of their annual production is exported to 50 different countries, 60% of which are in Asia. Canada is the world's third largest exporter of white asbestos. The World Health Organization claims that asbestos is responsible for as many 10 million deaths worldwide.

Concern over use of bonded asbestos after disasters

Cancer specialists have been told that 'bonded asbestos' may not be as safe as once thought. The chairman of the Federal Government's Asbestos Management Review, Geoff Fary has told an annual oncology conference in Perth, Australia, that he has received several submissions that suggest the country's recent spike of natural disasters has resulted in asbestos fibres being released, and that may have some unexpected consequences. He says in the rush to clean up in the aftermath of a cyclone, flood or bushfire, the health risks posed by broken sheets of asbestos can be easily forgotten. Mr Fary said, "One of the great things about Australians is that they're very, very public-spirited people, and when we're hit by these sort of disasters, the tendency to sort of hop in and help out is very strong and people, for instance in the Queensland floods, were very keen to clean up the debris from the floods, but some people have said, 'Well look, that's excellent, but unfortunately some of that debris included broken asbestos cement sheeting'. And frankly, unless people are properly trained and have the right equipment, they ought not be dealing with broken or damaged asbestos products." Mr Fary says support groups for sufferers of asbestos-related diseases are particularly keen to see asbestos management rethought quickly. "What they say in their submissions is that the previous approach - which said that if asbestos was bonded and encapsulated, that you monitored it and made sure that it was OK but didn't remove it - may no longer be appropriate because stuff suddenly becomes not bonded and encapsulated when it's hit by a fire or a flood or a cyclone." The concern came just days after the South Australian state government was warned against plans to reduce asbestos protection by taking away air monitoring during the removal of bonded asbestos.

Further disaster hits Chinese mining industry

At least 34 workers were killed, and a further 9 are missing after a blast at a mine in China on Thursday in the latest disaster to hit the country's mining industry. The mine was hit by a "coal and gas outburst" ? a sudden and violent ejection of coal, gas and rock from a coal face in a mine. The explosion at the privately run Sizhuang Coal Mine comes days after a rock blast in a coal mine in the central province of Henan killed 10 miners and trapped dozens more. Last month, an explosion in the central province of Hunan left 29 miners dead and two further explosions in the city of Chongqing and the northern province of Shaanxi killed 13 and 11 miners respectively. Last year, 2,433 people died in coal mining accidents in the country, according to official statistics ? a rate of more than six workers per day, although unions believe the actual figure is much higher, partly due to under-reporting of accidents as mine bosses seek to limit their economic losses and avoid punishment. Mine supervisors can be fined between 10,000 yuan ($1,500) and up to 80 percent of their income from the previous year and face a lifetime ban on mine supervision work. The Chinese press has reported the Sizhuang Coal Mine's license was revoked in April and that it was operating illegally. Following the incident police arrested the deputy head of the company claiming he smeared coal on his face to pretend he had been in the shaft. Mine bosses who don't go underground with their workers face punishments under a rule imposed last year to improve safety.

State told to sign up for new safety system now

The Western Australian government has been condemned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) for refusing to join other states in a new uniform health and safety system that will begin on 1 January. ACTU President Ged Kearney said workers in WA should have the same OHS standards and protections as in other states and territories, but would be left behind by the Barnett Government's stubborn refusal to join the new system. Ms Kearney said 'West Australian workers and their families deserve the same standard of workplace safety as workers in the rest of Australia. It makes no sense for WA to have lower standards and protections than the rest of the nation.' Ms Kearney said a WA worker was killed almost every two weeks, while someone was seriously injured at work every 30 minutes, yet the State Government's refusal to legislate for safety showed a complete lack of value for their lives. The state Government has said it will not sign up to five key points of the new national laws, including an increase in the maximum penalty for negligent employers to $3 million. The new system has the support of trade unions, major employers and nine State and Territory Governments. The state of Victoria is the only other one yet to sign up.

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