Risks 593 - 16 February 2013

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards magazine
Hazards at work

Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 23,000 subscribers. To receive this bulletin every week, click here. Past issues are available. This edition contains Useful links TUC courses for safety reps Disclaimer and Privacy

Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at healthandsafety@tuc.org.uk

Union News

Healthier workplaces deliver healthier workers

Employers who create healthy workplaces can reduce employee absence and boost productivity, according to a new TUC guide. 'Work and well-being' aims to promote healthier working and help union safety reps identify what in their workplaces is making staff ill. The TUC guide says the best method for improving the general well-being of a workforce is to change the way that work is organised and managed. For example, reducing workplace stress is far more useful than providing on-site massage for stressed workers. The report also says that running exercise classes during lunch hours may prove popular with some employees but employers need to ensure that workers have a proper lunch break in order to benefit. The union body says any lifestyle changes - diet, exercise, smoking or alcohol use - must be made available in a completely non-judgmental manner so that no-one feels any changes are being forced upon them. TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: 'Healthier lifestyles are something we should all be aspiring to, and given the amount of time we spend at work, the workplace is a good place to start.' But she added: 'Work can create a lot of health issues such as back problems, and it can also be a cause of stress which is linked to the increased use of tobacco and alcohol. Similarly, if employees are sitting down all day and only have access to junk food during their lunch break then they have more chance of developing heart disease or diabetes in later life. Far too many days a year are being lost through ill-health. Sensible employers who are able to identify problems at an early stage, and who introduce changes to prevent ill-health and promote well-being will reduce sickness absence and increase productivity.'

Damaged track exposes rail cuts dangers

Union warnings about the dangers of cutbacks in track renewals and maintenance have been given added credence after another broken rail was found on the InterCity East Coast Mainline (ECML). RMT says the 'potentially lethal' six inch gap was spotted near Selby, where normal running speeds are 125mph. In December, RMT identified another similarly damaged rail a few miles away on the same line. The union says its lobbying, combined with a high-profile media campaign, has forced the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) to launch a full investigation into the condition of the track on the ECML. RMT says the investigation must focus in on the impact of cuts to staffing and renewals and the consequences of sub-contracting core functions. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: 'This shocking new picture highlights the reality on Britain's railways today - staffing, inspections and track renewals have been cut in the dash to save money and there is massive pressure right from the top of government to keep services running at all costs regardless of the potential human cost. If we don't reverse the cuts on Britain's railways another major tragedy is inevitable.' He added: 'RMT has made it crystal clear that we want all cuts to staffing, maintenance and renewals reversed and all track works brought back in house rather than subbed-out to contractors. The current contractor staff should be transferred over to direct Network Rail employment. We also want the pressure from the centre to run services at any costs lifted to enable safety critical works to take place immediately.'

PCS calls for an end to privatised 'fitness tests'

Controversial assessments run for the Department for Work and Pensions by private contractor Atos should be scrapped and the work brought back in-house, civil service union PCS has said. The union, which represents almost 80,000 of the DWP's 100,000 staff, was commenting after MPs on the public accounts committee criticised the government for its treatment of sick and disabled people forced to undertake a work capability assessment. PCS said the key problem is not Atos's monopoly, something criticised by the parliamentary committee. Instead, the union said the real problem is the policy's primary aim, to remove vital benefits from some of the most vulnerable people in society, an approach driven by 'spending cuts and the profit motive'. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: 'These assessments are cruel and inhumane, and have been shown not to work. But the answer is not to throw the doors open to more private companies. Instead of targeting sick and disabled people in this way to simply cut the welfare bill, the government should scrap the assessments, bring it in-house and work with us and other advocates to set up a system that works with and for people, not against them.'

Union warnings after lifeboat deaths

Unions have expressed serious concerns after five crew members died when a lifeboat fell from a cruise ship docked in the port of Santa Cruz de la Palma in the Canary Islands. The incident happened on the Thomson Majesty, operated by UK-based Thomson Cruises, during a routine safety drill. The seafarers ? three Indonesians, a Filipino and a Ghanaian national ? died and three others were injured when a cable reportedly snapped as the lifeboat was being recovered from the water, causing it to plunge some 20 metres into the sea. Mark Dickinson, general secretary of the UK union Nautilus, said: 'The dangers associated with lifeboat drills are well known, and there is now extensive evidence to show the scale of fatalities arising from accidents. In the light of this, Nautilus has consistently advised members not to be in lifeboats when they are being raised or lowered, unless strops are in place.' He added: 'It is not only an issue of maintenance and training - it is a question of procedures. It is also time to have some more radical thinking about the whole concept of lifeboats and to examine the potential of alternative evacuation systems.' Bjorn-Erik Kristoffersen, of the global transport unions' federation ITF, said: 'This is a sad and awful accident, made doubly so because it happened during a drill whose whole reason is to safeguard lives. These accidents are all too common, and dramatically show that this is a recurring problem.' The UK Foreign Office said it was looking into the incident on the Maltese-flagged vessel.

Fire service privatisation will 'sacrifice lives'

New government plans to privatise the whole fire and rescue service will cost lives, Fire Brigades Union (FBU) general secretary Matt Wrack has warned. He was speaking out after fire minister Brandon Lewis wrote to the Regulatory Reform Committee at Westminster seeking views on new laws to 'enable fire and rescue authorities in England to contract out their full range of services to a suitable provider'. But FBU's Matt Wrack said handing over parts of the service in London and Lincolnshire to private firm AssetCo had 'already brought near-disaster', with the firm subsequently collapsing. He said the new proposals 'are grotesque and if they come to fruition will sacrifice lives on the altar of profit. This is the same disastrous model that has been used in the health service, the rail industry and local government to slash services while providing bountiful profits for private companies.' He added: 'There is no public demand for privatising the fire and rescue service. There is no support among fire-fighters for these measures. The government should stop now before they do untold damage.'

CWU welcomes new dog laws

New legal requirements on dog owners should help make postal workers safer from dog attacks, their union has said. CWU says the government move, which extends the law to cover private property, means workers attacked by dogs will finally have protection under the law. It adds a requirement for micro chipping will help 'improve responsible dog ownership and help identify owners of dogs which attack people and animals.' CWU general secretary Billy Hayes, whose union has been campaigning since 2008 for these changes in the law, said: 'Extending the law to private property will bring protection to hundreds of thousands of people who work on private land - such as postal workers and telecom engineers - who were previously left with little recourse in law if they suffered a dog attack.' He added: 'Compulsory micro chipping will help to link dogs with their owners, assisting dog attack victims in identifying owners as well as helping to reunite responsible owners with their pets. We want to see these new provisions brought in as soon as possible so that people start to benefit from the law changes and help to prevent future attacks.' Personal injury law firm Irwin Mitchell also welcomed the changes, but said the government should have gone further and introduced compulsory insurance for dog owners. 'Such a move would have ensured that victims left seriously injured in attacks would have been able to get access to vital funds which would have allowed them to get vital rehabilitation and support,' said lawyer David Urpeth. Changes to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme introduced by the government in November last year (Risks 582) closed one route to compensation for dog bite victims (Risks 559).

Eye injury ends lorry driver's career

An HGV driver employed by Salvesen Logistics in Northampton had to give up his driving licence and lost his job after suffering a serious eye injury at work. Karl Forkin, 43, needed an operation on his left eye following the incident at the firm's Stoke on Trent base in October 2007. The Unite member was securing a trailer in Salvesen Logistic's yard when one of the trailer's upright roof supports sprang out of the locked position and hit him in the face with two tonnes of force. Investigations later found that the locking mechanism was not connecting properly. He developed double vision and lost his HGV licence before the operation, regained it when his condition cleared up and then had it revoked again when his vision deteriorated once more. He is now retraining as a motorcycle mechanic and is awaiting further consultations to find out if there has been any improvement in his sight. The firm admitted liability and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Unite's Chris Dilley said: 'Our member has been left out of work and with a disability which impacts on his everyday life all because his employer failed to carry out basic health and safety checks on its equipment. Employers must have a system in place to ensure its equipment is working correctly and where it is not, to fix any faults, in an effort to avoid this type of accident from happening.'

Airport worker breaks wrist on dolly

A contract airport worker needed two operations on his right wrist after being injured loading luggage onto an aircraft. The ramp agent was moving a luggage belt away from the aircraft when his right arm hit a dolly, a type of trolley used to transport baggage, which had been parked in an unsafe area rather than in a special zone. The impact of the blow to his arm pushed his hand backwards causing a painful displaced fracture which needed surgery to insert pins. The Unite member, whose name has not been released, was off work for almost three months. Faced with a union backed compensation claim, the unidentified contractor settled out of court for £15,000. Unite's Peter Kavanagh commented: 'The airside of airports can be busy and dangerous places where health and safety is paramount. This employer should have provided its employees with regular training and reminders to ensure that equipment was stored safely.' Anna Barnett from Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm brought in by the union to act in the case, said: 'This was a classic case of health and safety being compromised in order to meet a tight deadline. Regular checks that equipment was being parked in the correct areas would have avoided an employee being badly injured and needing to take weeks off work to recover.'

Other news

Safety professionals back the TUC manifesto

The organisation representing the country's safety professionals has welcomed the TUC's safety manifesto. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) this week gave its backing to the TUC's new 'Time for change' document, which calls for regular safety inspections, a maximum temperature in the workplace and far greater control of carcinogens (Risks 592). The 10 point safety manifesto, released last week, also says there should be more safety reps with more rights, tighter dust controls, extended protection for vulnerable workers, legal safety duties on company directors, and only those firms with a good safety record should be eligible for public contracts. It adds that much greater importance must be given to prevention of work-related ill-health. IOSH said a number of the manifesto's recommendations mirror its existing policies and positions. Its head of policy and public affairs, Richard Jones, said: 'We particularly welcome the TUC's focus on the need for effective levels of regulatory inspections and prevention of work-related ill-health, especially occupational cancers. We are also pleased to see the call for more protection of vulnerable workers, positive directors' duties and a clear recognition of how public-service procurement can drive up supply-chain standards.' He added: 'While we understand this manifesto is aimed at a future government, we believe the current government can and should do more.'

Hospital inquiry calls for major safety reforms

A public inquiry highlighting failures in safety oversight in the health service has been welcomed by unions, who are now calling for major changes to protect patients and staff. The inquiry report by Robert Francis QC came last week after a £13m investigation into the Stafford Hospital scandal. It concluded their needs to be a 'fundamental change' in the culture of the NHS to ensure patients are cared for properly. Robert Francis QC said patients 'were failed by a system which ignored the warning signs and put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety.' The report said there was an unclear division of responsibilities between the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Care Quality Council (CQC), noting: 'There has been a gap between what the HSE and the CQC are respectively able or willing to regulate.' It concluded HSE should not be involved in policing patient safety issues, recommending: 'Either the CQC should be given power to exercise the statutory health and safety functions in respect of regulated organisations, or a new comparable offence should be created in respect of which the CQC has power of prosecution.' It is a position supported by the TUC and unions, who have previously called for HSE's role to be focused on workplace and not patient safety. Unite said there should also be a new network of 'patient safety officers' and a National Intelligence Unit (NIU) with a dedicated hotline for whistleblowers, moves it says would 'banish the culture of fear highlighted by the Francis Report'. UNISON said the report highlighted 'the basic necessity for safe staffing levels and forwards to have the right skills mix to deliver high quality, compassionate and dignified patient care.'

Half the office workforce skips their lunch break

More than half of office employees regularly work through their lunch breaks, a poll for BBC Breakfast has found. Commenting on the poll, which found 54 per cent of office staff routinely take no lunch break, TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: 'These figures shine a spotlight on Britain's long hours culture. Far too many employees are failing to take lunch because they have too much work to do. It is essential that employers recognise the damage this can do to their staff and to the productivity of their workforce. Workers who skip lunch and don't take time away from their desks in the middle of the day are likely to become less productive as the day wears on and are also taking risks with their health.' She added: 'We need to change the culture - prevalent in far too many workplaces -that it is acceptable to eat lunch at your desk, and not leave your workspace.' Last year, the TUC found that employees across the UK worked nearly two billion unpaid hours, worth over £29bn to the economy. On 1 March it will be the ninth Work Your Proper Hours Day, when employees across the UK will be encouraged to work their proper hours, including taking a decent lunch break.

Factory worker finds his brother dead

A family has been left devastated after a factory worker found his brother lying dead on a machine. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Unisign and WFEL Ltd after Brian Miller suffered fatal head injuries at the WFEL plant on 12 January 2008. Manchester Crown Court heard the 38-year-old father-of-two from Denton had been working on a large machine used to manufacture bridges for the military. An HSE investigation found Mr Miller had been leaning over a part of the machine to try and fix a fault with one of the switches when a large hydraulic ram descended on him. He was discovered by his brother, Robert, who also worked at the factory. Netherlands-based firm Unisign Produktie Automatisering BV, which designed and manufactured the machine, was found to have supplied a machine which did not comply with European safety standards, as access should not have been possible when the machine was running at full speed. The company pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of safety law and was fined £200,000 plus £28,313 costs. WFEL Ltd was fined £200,000 with costs of £28,074. Commenting after the hearing, Brian's sister, Linda Smitham, 44, said: 'The verdict at the inquest was accidental death. However, this accident was preventable. Today has confirmed that Brian should have come home from work that day.' According to HSE, a quarter of all workplace deaths occurred in the manufacturing industry in 2011/12, despite the sector only accounting for around 10 per cent of the British workforce. Most manufacturing workplaces are no longer subject to unannounced HSE inspections.

Lying director banned from running a firm

The director of a Nottingham building firm has been banned from running a business after lying to safety officials in a bid to cover up a worker's fall through a dangerous roof. Russell Lloyd's company, Lloyd Home Improvements Ltd, now in liquidation, had been contracted to replace the roof of a factory in Nottingham so solar panels could be installed. Nottingham magistrates were told that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) received two complaints about the work from concerned members of the public. When an inspector visited the factory on 28 February 2012 unsafe work was observed near numerous unprotected fragile rooflights. There was poor edge protection and workers were not using safe work platforms or harnesses to prevent falls. Two prohibition notices were served by HSE, halting work immediately. Several weeks later the inspector uncovered evidence that a worker had fallen through one of the skylights on the morning of her visit. The court heard that Russell Lloyd denied it had happened and failed to provide any information about the injured person or any workers who may have witnessed the incident. Nottingham Magistrates' Court fined Russell Lloyd £2,400 and ordered him to pay costs of £1,585. He was also disqualified from serving as a director for two years.

Passing inspector stops the job

A chance sighting by a passing Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector of a potentially deadly scaffold led the safety enforcer to stop the job on the spot. Trafford Magistrates' Court heard Stretford Scaffolding Ltd had been hired to dismantle the scaffolding in front of a row of Oldham shops after it had been used by another company for a roofing project. Neither of the two men standing on the scaffolding platforms was wearing a harness, despite working up to six metres above the ground. One of them was not a trained scaffolder, so should not have been allowed to work on a partially dismantled section. The court was told there were also no guard rails on part of the scaffolding to prevent falls. The HSE inspector issued an immediate prohibition notice, ordering the men to come down from the scaffolding until they were given suitable safety equipment by their employer. Stretford Scaffolding Ltd received a 12-month conditional discharge and was ordered to pay costs of £1,849 after admitting a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005.

International News

Bangladesh: Union anger after ferry tragedy

Repeated union calls for better safety standards had been ignored ahead of an 8 February ferry tragedy in Bangladesh in which dozens died. Early reports indicated at least 32 people died and scores were missing after the ferry sank on the Meghna River, south-west of the capital Dhaka. The double-decker Shariatpur 1 ferry was hit by another vessel, thought to be a small oil tanker, in the middle of the deep river. Police said the final casualty toll could be as high as 200, but the true figure is never likely to be known, because the ferry was not carrying an accurate passenger list. Nick Bramley, chair of the inland navigation section of the global transport unions' federation ITF, said: 'This is another totally avoidable accident that - like so many in Asia and Africa - will doubtless be linked to failing regulation, lack of enforcement, dangerous working and overcrowding. This latest incident shows the crying need for decent standards for vessels, for proper enforcement, and for training and certification for crew members.' He added: 'These dangerous conditions are exactly what our affiliated union the Bangladesh Noujan Sramik Federation has been repeatedly warning about for years.'

Ireland: Tesco staff wear work rate trackers

Staff at a Tesco warehouse in Ireland have been made to wear digital arm-band devices that constantly monitor their work rate. Workers at the distribution centre in Donabate in Dublin claim they got lower scores on the rating system if they keyed in that they went to the toilet or took a break. The Irish Independent reports the Motorola arm-mounted terminals (AMTs) are used to monitor the performance of 'order pickers', who load supplies, and forklift drivers. They are not used by managers, administrative workers or security staff. The devices give a set amount of time for a task, such as 20 minutes to load packets of soft drinks. One former picker, who did not want to be named, told the paper staff were under huge pressure due to the devices, which are like Game Boys strapped to their wrists. He said he got 'surprisingly lower' scores if he took a break or went to the toilet. Sometimes, management would call staff to an office and tell them they had to do better if their scores were low. 'I had really easy assignments and when I'd come back after a break, I would get a horrendous score and wonder why,' he said. The Motorola website promoting the technology tells employers the 'rugged mobile computing device will allow you to achieve maximum error-proof productivity, operational efficiency and accuracy through voice compatibility for streamlined warehouse and package handling functions.' It adds the ergonomic design 'ensures user comfort and worker safety to increase productivity and decreases the possibility of injury.'

Russia: Eighteen die in coal mine blast

An underground explosion at a coal mine in the Komi region of northern Russia has killed 18 people. Rescuers were brought in to search for people trapped below the surface at the Vorkutinskaya mine after the 11 February blast caused a tunnel collapse. The explosion is thought to have been caused by a methane gas build-up. About 240 miners escaped to the surface. Accidents are frequent in Russia's huge coal mining industry despite recent efforts to improve safety. The coal mine outside the city of Vorkuta in the Russian Arctic is operated by the steel-making giant Severstal. All the victims' families are to receive compensation of 2 million roubles (over £40,000) each from the federal government.

Global: It pays to prevent work cancers

Preventing environmental and occupational cancers is both possible and 'highly cost effective', according to a new paper by international experts. The authors, who include researchers from the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), note workplace and environmental exposures are responsible for a substantial share of the global cancer toll. Their report, published online on 5 February in Environmental Health Perspectives, notes: 'A substantial proportion of all cancers is attributable to carcinogenic exposures in the environment and the workplace, and is influenced by activities in all economic and social sectors. Many of these exposures are involuntary but can be controlled or eliminated through enactment and enforcement of proactive strategies for primary prevention.' The paper adds: 'Primary prevention of cancer of environmental and occupational origin reduces cancer incidence and mortality, and is highly cost effective; in fact, it is not just socially beneficial because it reduces medical and other costs, but because it avoids many human beings suffering from cancer.' The report concludes: 'Currently, the almost exclusive focus of cancer policies in most countries is on secondary prevention (ie. early detection), diagnosis and treatment. Too little resources are devoted to primary prevention, which aims to eliminate or control exposures to environmental and occupational carcinogens... The prevailing approach is socially unfair and often unsustainable, especially in low and middle income countries.' It adds: 'There is sufficient evidence that primary prevention is feasible and highly effective in reducing cancer incidence.'

USA: Officials call for breast cancer prevention

A new report from US government health agencies is calling for more resources to target prevention of breast cancer. Compiled by the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee (IBCERCC), the report notes that most cases of breast cancer 'occur in people with no family history,' suggesting that 'environmental factors - broadly defined - must play a major role in the aetiology of the disease.' These include alcohol intake and exercise; exposures to chemicals like pesticides, industrial pollutants, consumer products and drugs; radiation; and social and socioeconomic factors. At least 216 chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting substances like bisphenol A, have been associated with mammary gland tumours in animals. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, are used to make plastics and pesticides and found in products such as furniture, metal food cans and cosmetics. In total, some 84,000 chemicals are registered for use in the United States. But complete toxicological screening data are available for only 7 per cent of these substances, says the report, which calls for 'enhanced testing of chemicals, especially classes of chemicals combined together as a mixture, for effects on the mammary gland and breast ...' The committee recommends that researchers prioritise 'chemicals that are produced in high volumes for which there is biologically plausible evidence of their role in the development of breast cancer.'

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