Risks 586 - 15 December 2012

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
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Hazards at Work

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Editor: Hugh Robertson of the TUC. Comments to the TUC at healthandsafety@tuc.org.uk

Union News

Safety doesn't come in a vending machine

Construction union UCATT is warning that using vending machines to sell life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE) on sites risks workers' safety and could be illegal. The union alert came after UK vending machine specialist VendEase announced it had 'secured business with Barr Construction to help solve the costly problem of providing personal protection equipment (PPE) to sub-contractors.' VendEase director Dave Berman said: 'Thanks to vending machine technology, Barr now has a cost neutral solution to the often expensive obligation of providing essential safety gear.' UCATT said charging for protective equipment is contrary to the 1992 regulations on PPE, that state: 'Personal Protective Equipment is to be supplied and used at work wherever there are risks to health and safety that cannot be adequately controlled in other ways' and 'an employer cannot ask for money from an employee for PPE, whether it is returnable or not.' The union says the rules should usually apply to agency workers. Steve Murphy, general secretary of UCATT, said: 'This appears to be yet another instance of construction companies trying to cut corners when it comes to safety. UCATT officials all too frequently have to deal with companies and agencies who try to avoid their responsibility to supply the correct PPE. The failure to supply the correct PPE compromises workers' safety.' UCATT is also concerned that having to rely on a vending machine will lead to workers purchasing ill-fitting PPE, or they will not have the correct PPE for the specific task. Poorly fitting PPE can increase accidents and lead to workers being injured, it said. General secretary Steve Murphy added: 'Poorly fitting PPE is almost as dangerous as not having the correct equipment. Companies must take safety seriously and ensure that the right PPE is supplied.'

MPs back union over coastguard cuts

A committee of MPs has echoed a union's concerns over the loss of local knowledge and experienced coastguard staff as the government seeks to make massive cuts to the service. The House of Commons transport select committee said the government's view on the importance of local knowledge was 'confusing and contradictory.' Coastguards' union PCS said it fully supports the committee's call for the government to rule out any further closures. Following severe criticism of its original proposals, the government is now pressing ahead with scaled-back plans to shut half of the UK's coastguard stations and cut 160 jobs. Drawing on the union's evidence, the transport committee said 'there remains a worrying lack of information' about the role of a new national maritime operations centre (MOC) planned for the south coast and how it will work alongside coastguard stations that remain open. This, and confusion about new job roles, has damaged morale among staff, with the committee noting 'there is a risk that talent and expertise is being lost'. Committee chair and Labour MP Louise Ellman said: 'The manner in which changes are being imposed has already damaged the service and it is a great concern that the vacancy rate for skilled staff has doubled since 2010.' The committee found 'low morale and disillusionment with management were evident in all of the evidence we received from coastguards, and not just from the trades unions.' PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: 'We fully support the committee's clear call for the government to rule out any further closures in years to come and we expect ministers to provide an immediate and categorical commitment. It is simply staggering that even at this stage the government has so obviously failed to explain its plans to staff, the public, coastal users or MPs.'

Overground rail staff take action

Security and safety staff on London Overground services backed industrial action on 6 December, in a dispute over bullying and an attempt to impose new terms and conditions. The move, which was agreed by a unanimous vote, followed what rail union RMT describes as 'a rock-solid strike' by the STM Security Group employees in early November. STM is contracted to provide safety and security services on London Overground stations. RMT says members working for the firm are 'under extreme pressure' in the run up to the Christmas when the service is on a high state of security alert. It says despite several warnings from the union, 'management at STM Security Group have continued to bully and intimidate our Travel Safe Officer members and union representatives and in fact the threats and intimidation have increased since RMT moved the issue into a formal dispute and took strike action.' RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'The bullying and intimidation of our members' representatives by STM Security is utterly deplorable and represents a pre-meditated assault on this trade union in a desperate attempt to try and undermine RMT's growing strength on this contract.' He added: 'RMT is demanding that London Overground, which tolerates STM as one of its key contractors, intervene to stop the disgraceful activities of this outfit and we repeat our demand for these key safety services to be brought in-house rather than subbed out to these cowboys.'

Crossrail in Unite's crosshairs

Site union Unite has called for answers after contractors on the £15bn Crossrail network across the south-east of England were linked to blacklisting. The union said it has 'continuing and serious concerns' about how workers are treated by contractors working on the scheme, Europe's largest construction project. It was speaking out after a House of Commons committee heard that Crossrail contractors had called on the services of covert blacklisting organisation The Consulting Association (Risks 585). In a letter to London Transport Commissioner Peter Hendy, Unite's Vince Passfield espressed 'horror' at the use by Crossrail firms of blacklisting services, and said Transport for London (TfL) 'must act speedily to ensure the project is free from the illegal practice of blacklisting.' He added he was 'shocked' to have read newspaper reports that a former industrial relations manager working on the project, Ron Barron, had cross-checked job applicants against a blacklist run by The Consulting Association. Passfield said the safety record of the Crossrail project had recently been called into question, noting: 'Trade unions have a valid role and play a central role in supporting health and safety which is so crucial in the construction industry.' In the latest incident on 12 December, a subcontract worker was suffered burns and was hospitalised in a cable strike on the project near High Holburn and Drury Lane in London. The incident also led to road closures. Unions had earlier raised concerns about risks from high voltage cables. A Blacklist Support Group (BSG) spokesperson commented: 'It is a disgrace that public funds are being spent on blacklisting trade unionists on the Crossrail project. Workers have been dismissed from the largest construction project in Europe for raising safety concerns about high voltage cables and for joining Unite.'

Shipwright compensated for pleural thickening

A former shipwright and union rep diagnosed with a disabling lung condition has received 'substantial' compensation in a union-backed compensation case. GMB member Robert Kemp, 75, from Sunderland was exposed to asbestos while working as an apprentice and then qualified shipwright for two shipyards from the 1950s to 1980s. When he began to suffer from a cough and chest pain in August 2010 he was told by doctors there was a 90 per cent chance he had lung cancer. After a biopsy ruled out cancer he was diagnosed with diffuse pleural thickening, a condition related to asbestos exposure. The former GMB union branch secretary has been left breathless with the condition and is now unable to walk long distances or carry out DIY. He said: 'This has had a huge impact on my life. It is very frustrating that I cannot do the things I used to be able to do. I am terrified that I will get asbestos cancer in the future and this fear lives with me all the time.' The provisional settlement allows him to make a further claim for compensation if his condition worsens in the future due to asbestos related disease. GMB Northern regional secretary Tom Brennan said: 'Like many of our members who worked in the shipyards, Mr Kemp was negligently exposed to asbestos by his employers who knew the harmful effects it could have on workers, yet did nothing to ensure they were adequately protected.'

Other news

Work strain injury victims are being let down

A lack of positive practices to support people with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in work is leaving hundreds of thousands at risk of lost earnings, reduced productive working time and early retirement. A new study says this is also placing a strain on both household incomes and the UK welfare system. The findings, in a new report published by The Work Foundation, reveal that musculoskeletal disorders are the leading cause of people going onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). 'Taking the strain: the impact of musculoskeletal disorders on work and home life' draws on a survey 809 people living with MSDs in the UK. It found just over half of employed respondents reported a loss of earnings due to the condition. Threequarters of retired respondents said their condition had influenced their decision to retire, with the majority having left the labour market before reaching the age of 55. Of those not in work, 57.4 per cent had been the primary earner for their household before leaving a paid job. And one in four respondents reported concerns about remaining in work due to their condition. Ailsa Bosworth, chief executive of the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, said: 'The government's reforms are supposed to help people with long-term conditions return to work, but this survey shows people with MSDs aren't receiving the support they need. This needs a concerted effort across government departments to incentivise the NHS to get more involved in helping patients stay in work, so that patients and their families keep their heads above water.' The study raised concerns about employers reluctance to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of employees with MSDs. It found one in three respondents reported there had been no adjustment to their working time, work environment, or work duties when they required it.

Miners slam 'political' knee injury verdict

A miners' charity has slammed a 'political' appeal court decision to throw out miners' compensation claims for the crippling occupational disease miner's knee. Durham Miners Association (DMA) general secretary Dave Hopper said; 'We are bitterly disappointed. Now we are facing the other side's costs. It is a political decision. The lawyers are saying we should have won.' He added: 'These men worked underground for many, many years. Hundreds of thousands of miners just got on with their jobs.' He told the Morning Star: 'The courts said the men should have put their claims in when they first had trouble with their knees. But miner's knee was not a recognised industrial disease at the time.' The Morning Star said the impact of the ruling is 'even more bitter' as many retired miners are low living in poverty, after regular government raids on the miners' pension fund. It says when the coal industry was privatised the government agreed to underwrite the fund if there was any losses later on. In return it said it would claim a share of any surpluses. Since then, over almost 20 years, the fund has made hundreds of millions of pounds in surpluses every year and successive governments have raided the scheme. Meanwhile, miners' pensions are less than £50 a week and in some cases as low as £10. Miners' knee is a government recognised prescribed industrial disease in the UK.

HSE rethink on legionella inspections

Businesses and organisations with cooling towers in the west of Scotland are facing checks to ensure they are managing legionella risks, in a pilot that is expected to be rolled out across Britain. The move follows a Health and Safety Executive review of outbreaks in 2011 that identified cooling towers and evaporative condensers as being responsible for the majority of the most significant outbreaks in Britain in the past 10 years. But this report was followed by deadly outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease in Scotland and England in 2012, as HSE and local authority inspections of the facilities plummeted. In the worst outbreak, in Edinburgh, over 100 people were affected and three died. Two died in a second outbreak in Stoke-on-Trent. Both HSE and local authorities were criticised for the a dramatic decline in preventive inspections for legionella risks (Risks 577). In the new initiative, inspectors from HSE and local authorities are visiting cooling towers and evaporative condensers in Glasgow, North Ayrshire, Inverclyde and Renfrewshire. HSE said the checks are expected to inform visits to similar sites across Britain. The watchdog told Environmental Health News (EHN) it is liaising with councils on plans to visit all cooling towers and evaporative condensers in Britain over the next 18 months. Around 20 sites are to be inspected initially in west Scotland as part of a pilot scheme. David Snowball, the director for Scotland and Northern England said: 'Our research has confirmed that cooling towers pose the biggest legionella risk. If we, or local authority inspectors, find that the appropriate controls are not in place, we will take enforcement action. Inspections are a valuable part of our regulatory action. They are however no substitute for companies meeting their legal duties on a daily basis, given that legionella levels can increase to high levels in a matter of days or weeks.'

Plastics company fined after worker is hurt

A Suffolk plastics company has been prosecuted for safety breaches after a worker crushed a finger on a poorly guarded printing machine. Robert Waters, 62, caught his left hand between two rollers as he was cleaning the machine at Tenza Technologies Limited in Saxmundham on 12 October 2011. His ring finger was badly injured and he was unable to work for twelve weeks. Lowestoft Magistrates' Court heard that an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the standard of guarding on the printing machine was poor and wasn't fit for purpose. The machine was also poorly maintained and a risk assessment, training, instruction and supervision at the company were inadequate. Tenza Technologies Limited was fined £4,000 and ordered to pay £3,613 in costs for after admitting a criminal safety offence. After the hearing, HSE inspector Ivan Brooke said: 'The incident could have been prevented and a painful hand injury avoided, had Tenza Technologies had more robust systems in place to check the guarding was effective and properly maintained.' He added: 'HSE will not hesitate to prosecute dutyholders who choose to ignore their duty of care and legal responsibilities in this way.' HSE however does not normally take preventive action in the plastics industry. Although the safety watchdog classifies the sector as 'higher to medium risk' it is exempted from routine unannounced inspections. Firms in the industry can only expect to see an HSE inspector after an injury or other problem has been reported.

Firm fined for loco risk assessment job

The owner of a Norfolk aggregate site has been prosecuted for failing to complete an adequate risk assessment for moving rail wagons without a locomotive. King's Lynn Magistrates' Court heard that during a site visit to Sibelco Ltd, in Leziate, near King's Lynn, in November 2010, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) identified that although a risk assessment had been completed, it was unclear and failed to address all the hazards associated with the activity. Sibelco Ltd was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £10,203 costs after admitting a criminal breach of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. After the hearing, HSE inspector Steven Gill said: 'This prosecution underlines the importance of companies suitably assessing and controlling risks associated with workplace transport - whatever form this takes. Although in this case a risk assessment had been carried out, it was not deemed to be suitable and sufficient.'

Refurb job led to asbestos exposures

Safety failures by a plumbing company may have led to two workers being exposed to asbestos fibres during a major refurbishment project on flats in Aberystwyth. The workers - a site manager and a subcontractor - were not provided with information about the presence of asbestos while working at the flats from November 2010 to February 2011. Superior Plumbing Installations Ltd, the principal contractor at the site, appeared before Aberystwyth Magistrates in a prosecution brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The court heard that a routine inspection by HSE found contractors carrying out refurbishment work without taking account of asbestos that may have been present. Workers had removed 82 metres of cement board, which a survey had identified as 'presumed to contain asbestos', by breaking it up with a hammer and shovelling it into a wheelbarrow before putting it in a general waste skip. The contractor was due to do the same on two other properties, one of which had asbestos confirmed in the soffits. Superior Plumbing Installations Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay £3,830 in costs. HSE inspector Phil Nicolle, speaking after the hearing, said: 'Superior Plumbing's failure to follow advice, guidance and their own procedures to identify the presence of asbestos and plan for its safe removal has needlessly created a serious long term risk to workers' health. Contractors must ensure an asbestos survey has been carried out where a building - or part of it - needs upgrading, refurbishment or demolition.'

Firm didn't report chainsaw maiming

A Burton upon Trent builder has been fined for criminal safety offences after failing to report an incident where a worker seriously injured his hand on a chainsaw. The worker, from Swadlincote, who does not want to be named, caught his left hand on the moving teeth of the chainsaw after it snagged during work to cut felled trees. His thumb was cut to the bone, breaking the joint, and he also injured his fingers. He was unable to work for six weeks. Stafford Magistrates' Court heard that on 16 March 2012 he had been sub-contracted by Gary Wardle, director of Wardle Site Services Ltd, to clear trees as part of a scheme to build a wall along the driveway of the company's premises. Mr Wardle was using the chainsaw while the injured worker held the log steady at a distance of just 30cm. The blade 'snatched' a log during a cut and his hand was pulled towards it. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company director failed to follow basic working practices for safely using a chainsaw, such as providing supports for the log and maintaining a distance of five metres between the chainsaw and other workers. Wardle did not inform HSE of the incident, despite it being reportable under the RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences) regulations. He was fined £2,500 and ordered to pay £2,500 costs after pleading guilty to criminal safety offences. HSE inspector Nic Rigby said: 'The risks of using a chainsaw are obvious. They are dangerous pieces of machinery that can cause serious harm or even death, and Gary Wardle carried out his work in a dangerous and reckless manner.'

Site worker 'will never recover' from injuries

Two construction companies have been fined for serious criminal safety failings after a Coventry worker suffered 'life-changing injuries' when he fell more than six metres through a badly-covered hole in a floor. Contract worker Ian Howells, 33, punctured his lung, broke every rib on the left hand side of his body, shattered all the bones in his left hand and fractured his pelvis in three places when he stepped onto what he thought was a pile of wood covered by plastic. He was bedridden for two months and was unable to work for a year after the incident on 26 November 2010 at a fifth floor plant room undergoing construction at Edgbaston cricket ground. He still suffers considerable pain, walks with a limp and has not regained full use of his hand. Birmingham Magistrates' Court heard he and a colleague were trying to move a heavy floor grinder when he stepped onto the wood. He was unaware it was a polythene covered pallet placed on top of scaffolding that concealed a service void. The pallet snapped and sent him crashing to the fourth floor below. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that Parkstone Group Limited and Galliford Try Construction Limited, the principal contractor for the construction project, could and should have done more to prevent it. Neither company had properly assessed the risks or devised a safe system of work for moving the floor grinder. HSE discovered no information had been provided to anyone working on site on the risks posed by covered voids, and there was no signage affixed to the void to highlight the potential danger. Parkstone Group Limited and Galliford Try Construction both pleaded guilty to criminal safety neglect and were each fined £13,500 and ordered to pay £3,345 costs. HSE inspector Paul Thompson said: 'This incident was entirely preventable. The system of work adopted by Galliford Try and Parkstone Group was unplanned and unsafe... As a result Mr Howells has suffered life-changing injuries that he will never fully recover from.'

International News

Europe: Work cancer action edges closer

The European Commission has moved a step closer to improving Europe's law on cancer exposures at work. The European Advisory Committee for Safety and Health at Work (ACSH), the industry-government-union body advising the Commission on workplace safety issues, adopted an opinion on 5 December 2012 backing the inclusion of new occupational exposure limit values (OELV) to a revised version of the Carcinogens Directive, which if implemented would have to be introduced European Union-wide. Laurent Vogel of the European Trade Union Confederation's research arm, ETUI, said if the Commission accepts the ACSH opinion, ten new limit values - for crystalline silica, refractory ceramic fibres, chromium VI, trichloroethylene, hydrazine, acrylamide, epichlorohydrin, 1,2-dibromoethane, methylenedianiline (MDA) and an updated wood dust standard - would be added to the list of occupational carcinogens for which a mandatory OELV will apply in all EU countries. The Directive currently contains only three limits - for vinyl chloride monomer, benzene and hardwood dust - 'which is a big obstacle to cutting workers' exposure to the hundreds of carcinogens and mutagens still being used in European workplaces,' said Vogel. 'The tripartite opinion just adopted at European level by governments and employers' and workers' representatives should help jump-start the revision of the Directive which has been in the Commission's pending tray since 2004. It should give an estimated 10 million European workers better protection from the risks related to exposure to workplace carcinogens.'

Global: Documents 'make a mockery' of Walmart fire assurances

Two news reports have undermined Walmart's efforts to distance itself from the Bangladesh factory where at least 112 workers died in a 24 November 24 fire. One shows the role of the world's largest retailer in defeating a proposal for retail corporations to pay for safety improvements; the other shows that multiple Walmart suppliers used the factory this year. 'Walmart's efforts to evade accountability make a mockery of its pretensions to be committed to protecting the rights of workers in its supply chain,' said Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). This week Bloomberg News reported an April 2011 meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh, at which major retail corporations including Walmart and The Gap considered a proposed agreement under which they would pay more so that their suppliers could make safety improvements. Both the global retailers objected on grounds of cost. The New York Times revealed that at least three supplier companies were using the Tazreen factory during the past year to provide apparel for Walmart and its subsidiary Sam's Club. Bloomberg reported that at least five Walmart suppliers used the factory. WRC's Scott Nova said the documentary evidence clearly establish there were multiple Walmart suppliers using the Tazreen Factory as recently as April this year, and at least one when the fire broke out. He added that there are 'strong indications in the documents, but short of certain, that it was still multiple suppliers at the time of the fire,' rather than the single rogue supplier implied by Walmart's statement.

Syria: Execution threat highlights media safety crisis

Fears are mounting for the life of Anhar Kochneva, a journalist who was kidnapped in October by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Her captors are now threatening to execute her unless their demand for a ransom is met. The International Federation and its European group, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) this week called on those holding the dual national of Russia and Ukraine to respect her right to life. 'This news is very alarming indeed and we are gravely concerned for the safety of Anhar Kochneva,' said IFJ president, Jim Boumelha. 'Those who are holding her will be held responsible for summary execution if she is killed.' According to IFJ affiliate the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ), Anhar Kochneva was kidnapped near the Syrian city of Khoms at the beginning of October. The union says that the journalist, who was reporting for a number of prominent Russian media from Syria, appeared on 7 November in a video published on the Internet, in which she appealed to the Embassies of Ukraine and Russia as well as the Syrian government to meet the demands of her kidnappers. RUJ quoted family and friends as saying that she is held by two commanders of the Free Syrian Army, Aby Jamal and Farid Abu Hussein. At least three other journalists and media staff are either missing or held by warring factions in Syria. They include US freelance journalist Austin Tice, who writes for The Washington Post and McClatchy newspapers and who went missing in August 2012, Palestinian Bashar Fahmi al-Kadumi of the Arabic-language television channel Al-Hurra who disappeared during the same month in the city of Aleppo and Mustafa al-Khateeb, a Syrian interpreter who was arrested by the FSA in the city of Bab al Salameh in October.

USA: Site workers fear reporting injuries

There are layers of disincentives to reporting work-related injuries in the construction industry, a new report has concluded. It says the routine under-reporting hampers the understanding of risk and poses a threat to workplace safety and productivity. The study backed by the US Center for Construction Research and Training (CPRW) involved an anonymous survey of 1,020 carpenter apprentices in three union training programmes. It found reporting of work-related injuries was 50 per cent less prevalent when disciplinary action was related to injury reports. Researchers also found 'considerable evidence of fear of reprisal for reporting injuries.' Over 30 per cent of the carpenters said injuries 'were almost never or rarely reported,' said researchers. In an interview with US safety magazine EHS Today, study co-author Hester Lipscomb called the potential under-reporting of injuries 'a huge issue' for the construction industry. She applauded the unions participating in the study for creating an environment that allowed these apprentice carpenters to candidly report their perceptions. 'I think that if we had the opportunity to study other, more vulnerable groups of construction workers, we'd probably find things are worse,' Lipscomb said. 'Coming from a union workforce, where you'd think there's more safety advocacy, drives the idea home really strongly.'


New guide on chemical alternatives

US-based Clean Production Action (CPA) has released a new 'Guide to safer chemicals', a practical tool setting benchmarks for how users of chemicals - purchasers, retailers and product manufacturers - can track their progress towards safer chemicals use. The guide builds on four key principles: Know and disclose product chemistry; assess and avoid hazards; commit to continuous improvement; and support public policies and industry standards.

New website on site work and silica

The US based Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), has launched a 'Work safely with silica' website. CPWR, an organisation working closely with US construction unions, says as well as giving details of US silica regulation and official research, the new resource includes other research, articles, and training materials, as well as responses to frequently asked questions. Central features of the new site include a 'Know the hazard' section, geared for anyone interested in learning more about why silica is hazardous, the risk, who's at risk, the health effects, and steps workers and contractors can take to work safely with silica. Exposure to silica is linked to serious and potentially fatal occupational diseases, notably silicosis and lung cancer.

New website on site work and silica

The US based Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), has launched a 'Work safely with silica' website. CPWR, an organisation working closely with US construction unions, says as well as giving details of US silica regulation and official research, the new resource includes other research, articles, and training materials, as well as responses to frequently asked questions. Central features of the new site include a 'Know the hazard' section, geared for anyone interested in learning more about why silica is hazardous, the risk, who's at risk, the health effects, and steps workers and contractors can take to work safely with silica. Exposure to silica is linked to serious and potentially fatal occupational diseases, notably silicosis and lung cancer.

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