Risks 556 - 19 May 2012

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards magazine
Hazards at Work

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

Union News

Workers are taking fewer days off sick than ever

Workplace sickness levels have fallen to a record low, official figures show, but the TUC and two prominent employment thinktanks believe this points to a worrying epidemic of 'presenteeism' rather than an improvement in the health of the working population. Office for National Statistics statistics released this week reveal the number of working days lost to sickness fell again in 2011, by 4 per cent. Last year 131 million working days were lost to sickness absence, with the most common causes coughs, cold and flu, and back, neck and limb problems. The average number of days lost per worker is now 4.5 a year, down from a recent peak of 7.2 days per worker in 1995. ONS said 'the greatest number of working days lost was actually due to musculoskeletal problems (34.4 million days).' It added: 'Around 27.5 million days were lost due to minor illnesses, such as coughs and colds, and 13.1 million days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety.' TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: 'Workers are taking less time off sick than ever. The biggest problem workplaces face is not absenteeism but 'presenteeism' where workers come in when they are too ill. Presenteeism can multiply problems by making someone ill for longer and spreading germs around the workplace.' He added the figures 'show that the biggest causes of long term sickness absence are musculoskeletal disorders and stress. Both of these are often as a result of a person's work. Employers need to look at their working practices and see whether they can be changed to prevent ill-health, rather than try to blame workers for falling sick, which serves no good to anyone.' Like TUC, The Work Foundation and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) both point to more working wounded fearing for their jobs as an explanation of the figures, rather than less sickness.

Teachers dismayed at Ofsted pressure

The head of the schools standards body Ofsted has angered teachers by saying he is not interested in hearing about stress of their jobs. In comments to a May 2012 conference of independent school heads, new chief inspector of schools Sir Michael Wilshaw said he didn't want excuses for poor performance, among them 'this job is far too stressful.' He added: 'What we don't need are leaders in our schools whose first recourse is to blame someone else - whether it's Ofsted, the local education authority, the government or a whole host of other people.' The Ofsted head was continuing the combative tone he adopted when he took up the position in January. 'If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low', you know you are doing something right,' he said at the time. Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of teaching union ATL, responded: 'It is really not helpful for Michael Wilshaw to rubbish the amount of stress teachers are under,' pointing out teaching is in the Health and Safety Executive's top three most stressful jobs. 'Ofsted is part of the problem with its continual changing of the inspections goal posts, and ridiculous demands for lessons to be exciting at all times.' Four years ago Ofsted was linked by the safety journal Hazards to a series of teacher suicides (Risks 345). A survey by ATL found in the current academic year four in ten education staff have visited the doctor and a quarter taken sick leave because of job pressure. And a new survey of 17,500 teachers by teaching union NASUWT found nearly half (49 per cent) have considered leaving the profession.

Union concerns persist after helicopter ditching

Concerns have been raised by unions after offshore helicopter operator Bond Aviation decided to recommence flights less than a week after one if its craft developed a fault and undertook a controlled ditching in the North Sea. All fourteen passengers and crew on the Super Puma helicopter were rescued after the 10 May incident off the cost of Aberdeen, thought to have been caused by a damaged gearbox on the Eurocopter manufactured helicopter. The union Unite said rather than resume flights, there should be an extension of the no-fly policy to Bristows and CHC, the other North Sea helicopter operators using Super Puma helicopters. Speaking on 15 May, Unite regional officer, John Taylor, said: 'Bond has rightly grounded its fleet of Super Pumas while it waits for answers from Eurocopter. We would urge Bristows and CHC to follow suit and suspend their Super Puma flights as well. We cannot gamble with people's lives while questions remain unanswered by Eurocopter.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said the union had 'placed a list of concerns in the hands of Bond relating to their operations during the last few months, issues raised by our members prior to the ditching event. We await a response from Bond on these issues.' Pilots' union BALPA praised the 'terrific piece of airmanship' by the Super Puma pilots, adding a helicopter ditching 'is one of the most difficult manoeuvres in commercial aviation.'

Usdaw backs police cuts protest

Drastic government cuts in police numbers will leave shopworkers at an increased risk of violence, their union has warned. Commenting ahead of a Police Federation march in London on 10 May, which saw an estimated 35,000 off duty officers take to the streets to protest at a 20 per cent cut in police budgets, Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: 'Usdaw members are genuinely worried about the impact these criminal cuts to police budgets will have on their working lives and in the communities where they live and I'm sure the vast majority of people in this country feel exactly the same.' He added: 'Shopworkers in particular are often on the frontline preventing theft and under-age sales in their workplaces and they should feel confident that in the event of a violent incident, the police will be able to respond immediately and without having to worry about stretched resources.' In November 2011, Usdaw launched a campaign against the cuts, which will take 16,000 police officers and 1,800 PCSOs off the streets. Usdaw's latest Freedom from Fear survey found in the previous 12 months, 6 per cent of the shopworkers surveyed had been victims of a violent attack, 37 per cent had been threatened with harm and 70 per cent had suffered verbal abuse. The union fears cuts to frontline police will lengthen response times to serious incidents and could undermine the efforts of the union, retailers and police to deal effectively with lower level incidents of retail crime.

Union welcome for action on retail violence

The shopworkers' union Usdaw has welcomed the latest move by the country's top retailers to ensure the best possible measures are in place to protect shop staff from violence and abuse. It was commenting on the publication this week of a British Retail Consortium (BRC) best practice guide on tackling violence against staff. The guidelines are endorsed by Usdaw. The union says they show the extent of the action being taken by retailers to keep their staff safe. Measures include having clear policies against violence and abuse, robust store based risk assessments, appropriate store layout, security and preventive measures, good staff training and reporting procedures and support for staff after incidents. Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: 'Working together we have seen a significant reduction in serious assaults in the last five years. However we share the BRC's concern that reports of threats and verbal abuse have escalated and the rise in robberies over the last year shows that there is no room for complacency. Usdaw is committed to working with the BRC and with employers to make it clear that abuse is not part of the job.' BRC head of crime, Catherine Bowen, said: 'Our new guidelines will help businesses be sure they've done all they can to prevent staff from being attacked or abused. The question that remains is whether the police and criminal justice system are doing all within their power to protect the country's three million retail employees. Those who are violent or threatening towards our staff are as guilty of a crime as anyone who behaves that way on the street. The police response needs to reflect that.' Both BRC and Usdaw have expressed concern at a dramatic cut in police budgets.

Dangerous dog action won't close loophole

New official sentencing guidelines on how to deal with dangerous dog offences have been welcomed by CWU, but the union warns they will do nothing to plug a gaping hole in the legal protection offered to workers. The new Sentencing Council guidelines will come into force on 20 August. But the union says the law must also change, so it applies on private property. CWU says this is where 70 per cent of attacks on postal workers take place. CWU general secretary Billy Hayes said: 'This is one small step forward in tackling the failings of the current system and we now need the government to push ahead with a comprehensive overhaul of dangerous dogs laws to protect victims and encourage more responsible dog ownership.' CWU health and safety officer Dave Joyce added: 'We welcome the tougher approach that will be taken in future as a result of this new guidance, with more people being jailed and fewer being let off. There is a desperate need for greater consistency in sentencing so in that respect this guidance is also welcome.' But he added: 'This won't solve the problem of dangerous dogs on its own and it now needs to be combined with changes in the law for a comprehensive solution.'

Injury costs prison officer his job

A prison officer had to give up his job after he broke his ankle breaking up a fight. Iain McCallum, 61, needed surgery to repair his right ankle following the incident at HM Prison Camp Hill in Newport, Isle of Wight. The senior prison officer was breaking up a fight between two offenders when he slipped on water which had accumulated on the floor from a nearby shower room. The prisoners were restrained whilst he was left in agony on the floor. He suffered a nasty break which needed surgery to insert a metal plate. Three years later he needed another operation to remove the metal work which was aggravating his ankle and causing him pain. Mr McCallum was never able to return to his work at the prison and was medically retired in February 2010. A compensation claim brought with the support of his union, POA, was settled out of court for £23,000 after the Prison Service admitted liability. Glyn Travis from the POA's legal department said: 'Prison officers have to deal with potentially dangerous situations every day and need to feel confident that their work environment is not working against them as it was for Mr McCallum. Unfortunately an experienced prison officer has had to retire from the service much earlier than planned. This accident could easily have been avoided.' Christalla Christdoulidou from Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm brought in by POA to act for Mr McCallum, added: 'This case shows how important it is for employers to pay attention to the working environment. It seems obvious that water from the shower rooms could cause this type of hazard and something should have been done to avoid the accumulation of water before an accident was allowed to happen.'

Rail firm did not see sense on poor lighting

A rail union safety rep who had complained to management about poor lighting in the yard subsequently hurt his wrist and knee when he tripped on discarded rails at night. The ASLEF member, whose name has not been released, had warned managers that the poor lighting at the depot was an accident waiting to happen. Concerns about poor lighting, raised repeatedly in his union safety rep role, were ignored by the unnamed rail firm. Just a few weeks later he was walking across the yard to drive a train when he tripped on some discarded rails. Investigations showed that whilst there were light towers in the yard, only one set was working. Additionally the rails shouldn't have been left where they were a potential hazard. The railway worker of almost 30 years suffered a soft tissue injury to his left wrist and a sprained knee. He had to take time off work as a result of his injuries. An ASLEF backed compensation claim was settled out of court for £4,900. He said: 'As health and safety representative I took my job seriously. I could see that the lack of lighting was a hazard but my concerns were just ignored. It's ironic that in the end I was the one who ended up injured but I feel strongly that it should never have got to the point that I had to take legal action to see things improved.' ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan commented: 'It is extremely disappointing that this employer appointed a health and safety representative but then failed to listen to his advice. Good quality lighting is an obvious priority in a workplace where activity is being carried out at night, particularly when it is an industrial environment like the railways where there is very real potential for a serious accident.'

Union protection on the job and on your bike

A Norfolk County Council worker was forced to take medical retirement after she suffered nasty fractures to both her wrists when she fell from her bike. The 57-year-old UNISON member from Norwich, whose name has not been released, was left needing surgery in both wrists after she came off her bike as she cycled over electrical cables laid across the road on a country lane. The incident happened at road works while she was on a bike ride with her husband in June 2008. As they approached the road works, the site foreman signalled it was safe for them to ride over the cables. But when the woman's front wheel hit the last cable she was thrown from the bike. She fractured both wrists when she put her hands out to break her fall. Both her arms were put in plaster up to the elbow but the breaks did not heal correctly and she needed surgery. She has been left with severely weakened wrists which cannot take her weight. She is reliant on her husband's help for personal care and cooking. She had hoped to return to work, but after 18 months off sick it was clear that her injuries were too severe and she was medically retired. Her UNISON backed compensation claim was settled out of court for a 'significant' sum after Spice Ltd, the company responsible for the road works, admitted liability. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis pointed out that the union's legal service for members 'extends beyond injuries in the workplace. This member has been left unable to work as a result of this accident and we were more than happy to take her case and offer her our full support during this difficult time.'

Other news

Disaster risk firms asked how they like their enforcement

The government is asking those British chemical firms with the potential to cause the worst devastation if they go bang how they'd like their safety enforced. Under a Focus on Enforcement initiative announced by the Department for Business (BIS) on 8 May, 'the government is inviting companies in the chemicals sector to feed in their experiences of working with national regulators and local authorities on the enforcement of the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) regulations.' The firms will be allowed to make anonymous submissions. Announcing the initiative, business and enterprise minister Mark Prisk said: 'Focus on Enforcement will give businesses in the chemicals sector the chance to make a real difference to the way compliance and protection is achieved on COMAH sites, shaping how companies can best work with regulators in a successful and cost-effective way. He added: 'I want companies in this area of business, and those that advise and assist them, to visit the website, to tell us their views and suggest how we might reduce enforcement burdens and share best practice. This is your chance to make a real difference to the way these regulations are enforced.' Peter Newport, chief executive of the Chemical Business Association, welcomed the review, adding: 'We are keen to see the review explore how the burden and costs of regulatory compliance can be reduced.' COMAH comes under the enforcement umbrella of both the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and environment regulators. But unlike HSE consultations, this BIS led initiative is only seeking the views of the major hazard firms. COMAH site workers and neighbouring residents who could face drastic and possibly deadly consequences in the case of another Buncefield or another Flixborough, are not being given the opportunity to participate.

'Rank exploitation' blights the food sector

Migrant workers continue to live and work in inhuman conditions and indebted to gangmasters, a study has found. Researchers from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation conducted one of the largest studies into conditions experienced by workers in the food sector, from farm and factory workers through to those toiling in restaurants. They interviewed 62 workers, mostly from Poland, China, Lithuania and Latvia, working in south Lincolnshire, east-central Scotland, south west England, London and Liverpool. More than two-thirds complained of living in fear, experiencing psychological harm, working more than 50 hours a week, being paid below the minimum wage and having illegal deductions made from their wages. The report noted: 'The bottom of the UK labour market, despite protections, can be deeply unattractive and all too often exploitative. Work is tough, low-paid and insecure... Fear and powerlessness were almost ubiquitous.' TUC general secretary Brendan Barber commented: 'This report further exposes the rank exploitation in the food sector. But with too many ministers who think the vital protections that vulnerable workers need are no more than red tape and with workplace inspections also being cut, the problem is only likely to get worse, not better.' The union Unite called on supermarkets to look more closely at the companies in their supply chain to root out any abuse of migrant workers. National officer Jennie Formby said: 'One of the key ways to ensure workers get decent treatment and protection from exploitation is for trade unions to organise at these workplaces. The fact that these companies will all be supplying supermarkets makes it imperative that senior supermarket executives should be scrutinising those firms supplying their chains of stores for abuses.' She added: 'This report confirms our fears and makes it even more important that when ministers come to legislate on its supermarket code, there must be no dilutions or watering down - the rot in the supply chain starts at the top, and causes the horrific abuses that we have long campaigned against.'

Recycling firm fined after crushing death

A recycling firm has been prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after a yard foreman was crushed to death. Norman Mayne from Newport died after he became trapped between a container and a skip at Amber Services Ltd's recycling yard at Dyffryn Business Park in Ystrad Mynach on 25 June 2008. Cardiff Crown Court heard the 56-year-old was carrying out one of his regular duties of locating suitable skips, when he became trapped between a stationary skip and a container a colleague was loading onto a vehicle that had been reversed in to the yard. An investigation by HSE found the company had failed to ensure the safety of its employees because an effective system to permit the safe movement of pedestrians and vehicles was not in place. HSE inspector Clare Owen said: 'The death of Mr Mayne could have been prevented if a few simple measures had been put in place. There was no effective system for managing vehicle and pedestrian movements on site, and skip storage was disorganised. If a clearly defined system to control vehicles was in place and the site was kept in an orderly condition, the likelihood of such an incident occurring would be dramatically reduced. It is particularly important, wherever a driver has no view of his 'blind spot' during reversing and loading and unloading operations, that the activity is managed and controlled.' Amber Engineering Limited, trading as Amber Services, pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £112,000 and ordered to pay costs of £36,000.

Worker crushed to death in mini digger

Two Leicestershire companies have been fined after a worker was killed when a lorry overturned onto his vehicle. Richard Kenny, 48, was killed instantly as the mini digger he was driving was crushed when a tipper lorry suddenly overturned on uneven ground while delivering around 20 tonnes of aggregate to a construction site. The incident happened on 3 October 2006 at a Melton Mowbray construction site. JH Hallam (Contracts) Ltd and J&H Construction Ltd were prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for failing to ensure the safety of Mr Kenny and for failing to properly plan, organise or control the tipping of bulk materials at the site. Mr Kenny was employed by J&H Construction Ltd who had been subcontracted by principal contractor JH Hallam (Contracts) Ltd to do the groundworks at the site. At Leicester Crown Court this week JH Hallam (Contracts) Ltd was fined £80,000 and ordered to pay £20,000 costs. J&H Construction Ltd was fined £50,000 and ordered to pay £20,000 costs. HSE inspector Frances Bailey said: 'This death could have been prevented if deliveries had been properly planned. It is well known that tipper lorries can overturn, especially on sloping or uneven ground and it is vital that people are kept a safe distance. In this case the principal contractor and the subcontractor failed to recognise the potential risk and regularly allowed lorries to tip without the aid of a banksman close to the site compound and visitor car park. J H Hallam (Contracts) Ltd should have been aware of the potential risk as it was involved in a previous incident where a skip lorry overturned on uneven ground.'

Printer crushed to death after warnings ignored

A retail marketing company has been fined for serious criminal safety failings after a worker at its Wakefield printing site was crushed to death. Bezier Ltd, which employs some 700 people across nine UK sites, failed to heed warnings that could have saved the life of 49-year-old William Aveyard. Mr Aveyard, of Shipley, West Yorkshire, was trapped in a hand-fed press on 8 May 2008 and pronounced dead at the scene. Leeds Crown Court heard he was using the press to cut out signs printed on corrugated card. It is thought he had climbed onto a moveable platen to remove waste following a misfeed. Mr Aveyard received fatal injuries when the platen activated, crushing him against the fixed press. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found Bezier failed to act on the knowledge they had of a fatal incident at a separate company a year earlier when a worker died after being crushed between the fixed and moveable parts of a similar hand-fed platen press. After the hearing, HSE inspector Andy Denison said: 'The sudden - and avoidable - death of Mr Aveyard was a devastating blow for his family. Bezier did not act on the knowledge they had of a similar incident. The need for a safe system of work was identified at a Bezier meeting in May 2007. In February 2008, an external health and safety consultant prepared a risk assessment and an action plan but again, the company failed to act. Accessing the machine to retrieve misfeeds created a serious and foreseeable risk of death or serious injury. Bezier were fully aware of those risks before this incident and failed to implement the required controls.' Bezier Ltd, a specialist in point-of-sale marketing, of Silkwood Park, Wakefield, pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £80,000 plus £38,501.83 costs.

Firms in the dock over crane collapse

Two construction firms have been fined after a crane collapsed onto a city centre apartment block in Liverpool, resulting in the crane driver being paralysed from the waist down. The 79-metre-high tower crane was being used as part of a multi-million pound project to build a new eight-storey hotel and seven apartment blocks at Kings Dock Mill when it overturned on 6 July 2009. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted the site's principal contractor, Bowmer and Kirkland Ltd, and structural engineering company Bingham Davis Ltd following an investigation. Liverpool Crown Court heard the crane fell onto a partially constructed apartment block, across a road and came to rest on the Chandlers Wharf apartments. Eight counterweights on the crane, weighing a total of 56 tonnes, broke free and crashed through the roof and six floors of the building. Crane driver Iain Gillham, 55, from Woolton, fell from his cab onto the roof of the apartments and through the hole created by the counterweights. He suffered multiple injuries including a brain haemorrhage, fractured skull, broken right shoulder, broken ribs, crush injuries to his left side, and major spinal injuries which resulted in his legs being paralysed. HSE's investigation into the incident found that the crane's foundation could not cope with the forces generated by the crane. Bowmer and Kirkland Ltd was fined £280,000. A decision on prosecution costs will be made separately. Bingham Davis has ceased trading since the crane collapse after going into voluntary liquidation. The company was fined a nominal £1,000.

International News

Korea: Cancer kills another young Samsung worker

A 32-year-old Korean worker has become the latest cancer casualty of Samsung's assembly line. Safety campaigners say on 7 May, Lee Yunjeong was the 55th person to die as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals in the multinational's Korean factories. She leaves behind a husband and two children. Lee Yunjeong worked in the Samsung semiconductor Assembly & Test factory in Onyang for six years from 1997 to 2003, and was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer in 2010. According to SHARPS, the organisation which has been campaigning on behalf of Samsung workers suffering from occupational cancers, 140 Samsung workers have contracted work-related diseases and 55 of them have died. In June 2011, the Seoul Administrative Court made a landmark ruling relating to two of the deaths, recognised the link between the leukaemia that killed them and their work at Samsung (Risks 512). This legal precedent established that their families were entitled to compensation. But Samsung and the Korean government refused to accept this decision and the company continues to deny responsibility and oppose all applications from Samsung workers for compensation. A court challenge to the denial of compensation started by Lee Yunjeong was not resolved at the time of her death. Both SHARPS and the unions that have faced strong opposition from Samsung attended her 10 May funeral. Global union federation IMF said it is backing the campaign to get Samsung and the Korean government 'to compensate all victims and stop violating the rights of Samsung workers.'

Philippines: Probe demanded after deadly store fire

Authorities in the Philippines must conduct a comprehensive investigation into a 9 May department store fire that killed 18 workers, a top safety body has said. The fire started around 3am at the three storey Novo Jeans and Shirts department store in Butuan City. It is believed around 22 female employees were sleeping on the second floor at the time of the fire. Chief inspector Mario Palarca of the provincial fire department said: 'They could not find the emergency exit because of the huge volume of black smoke.' Noel Colina, executive director of the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD), called for an official probe. 'The regional office of the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) must investigate the death of the workers and why they were trapped inside the burning building and prosecute those responsible for the neglect of the workers' safety,' he said. Official safety standards require at least two exits on every floor and a fire safety plan with which workers are familiar, he added. Colina was critical of a DoLE order which allows self-enforcement of safety standards by firms with 200 or more workers. He called instead for stronger laws and penalties to bring dangerous firms into line. 'We should also legislate for industrial manslaughter to prosecute employers who neglect their duty to protect the health and safety of their workers,' he said.

USA: Even nuke safety not safe from Republicans

Some of the USA's most hazardous job sites are in the Department of Energy's (DOE's) nuclear weapons facilities. But that doesn't mean safety rules governing those sites are safe from deregulation-crazed Republicans. They are pushing extreme proposals in the a Defense Authorization bill to allow employers to opt for self-regulation and self-oversight - even at the most hazardous facilities. The House of Representatives debated the proposals this week. Other measures in the Republican bill would strip workers of their protection against employer retaliation for reporting safety concerns and would remove their rights to be involved in workplace inspections. The bill would also eliminate any requirement on employers to record and report injuries and illnesses. The Steelworkers' Union USW said the bill would gut health and safety standards at DOE weapons sites and put workers at DOE facilities, and residents of neighbouring communities, at greater risk of exposure to hazardous materials and radiation. USW international president Leo W Gerard raised these concerns in a letter sent to Howard P 'Buck' McKeon, the Republican chair of the House Armed Services Committee. 'This legislation would strip away the gains in radiation safety that have been made over the past half century,' Gerard wrote. 'This will result in today's workers being our next generation of occupational disease victims.'

USA: How to make injury reports disappear

An official US report has exposed how safety incentive programmes and post-incident drug and alcohol testing can discourage workers from reporting workplace injuries and illnesses. The report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) presents the results of its survey of US manufacturing companies. This found that 75 per cent of firms had safety incentive programmes or other workplace safety policies that can affect workers' reporting of injuries and illnesses. GAO, the official US congressional watchdog, noted experts and industry officials indicate the 'programmes may discourage reporting of injuries and illnesses. Experts and industry officials also reported that certain workplace policies, such as post-incident drug and alcohol testing, may discourage workers from reporting injuries and illnesses. Researchers and workplace safety experts also noted that how safety is managed in the workplace, including employer practices such as fostering open communication about safety issues, may encourage reporting of injuries and illnesses.' The report notes: 'Without accurate data, employers engaged in hazardous activities can avoid inspections and may be allowed to participate in voluntary programmes that reward employers with exemplary safety and health management systems by exempting them from routine inspections.' The report was welcomed by the Steelworkers' Union (USW). International president Leo W Gerard commented: 'Such programmes make employers' injury rates look good while job hazards go unidentified and uncorrected. We've seen far too many tragedies and catastrophes in facilities where employers are playing these numbers games.' In September 2010, safety bonus schemes were linked by the UK Office of Rail Regulation to widespread under-reporting of injuries at Network Rail (Risks 477).

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