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London Action Mesothelioma Day 2014

Hailed as a success by everyone involved, the London Action Mesothelioma Day event at Leigh Day Solicitors in Farringdon, had a top-flight platform of speakers, addressing key issues like increased funding for research into a cure for Mesothelioma, and opposition to government plans to replace Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007.
Jointly organised by the London Hazards Centre and East London Mesothelioma Support (ELMS), the event is held annually in memory of those who have died from Mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases.

The chair of the event set the scene by reading out some of the terrible statistics connected with Mesothelioma. Around 2,500 people a year are diagnosed with the disease and it can take anything from 20-40 years to develop. Exposure to asbestos is always the cause – there is no cure. Students and staff are at risk because asbestos is present in over 75% of UK schools and colleges. The British Lung Foundation estimates that around 60,000 people will die from Mesothelioma in the next 30 years.

The speakers:

Dan Shears, from the GMB National Health & Safety Office
Tony O’Brien from the Construction Safety Campaign
Rachel Thomas, from the Guy’s and St Thomas lung cancer team,
Dan Easton from Leigh day Solicitors together with Phil Lewis of Unison
Vince Hagedorn from the Asbestos in Schools Group

After a questions and discussion session the meeting expressed support for the following action:

• Signing the e-petition calling for the government to increase Mesothelioma Research Funding at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/59014 or go to the
e-petition website and key in Mesothelioma in the search box.

• Supporting the call for an international ban on the use of asbestos and banning the import and export of it

• Endorsing the TUC 10-point Manifesto of measures for implementation by a future government

• Setting-up a new London Asbestos Support Group

• Endorsing the Action Mesothelioma Charter

• Opposing government plans to replace Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007.

• For existing health and safety standards to be strictly enforced and increased workplace inspections

The event closed with the release of a flock of white doves to remember all those who have died from asbestos diseases. This was the ninth annual Action Mesothelioma Day and similar events were being held in Manchester, Liverpool, Dundee, Sheffield, Birmingham, Southsea and Leicester.

Blowing the whistle on Crossrail

The unusual amount of news coverage in recent weeks over unsafe working conditions in the construction industry focused on the Crossrail Project, and raises serious questions over the management of health and safety.  On March 7th Rene Tkacik was killed when a large slab of concrete tunnel lining broke-off and crushed him 32 feet beneath Holborn.

A whistleblower has revealed how workers have been injured in earlier falls of ‘shotcrete’ concrete lining and that it has been kept quiet.  Confidential internal documents leaked to journalists list the unsafe working conditions facing workers spraying concrete in the tunnels.  According to the whistleblower “the warning signs were evident from the start” and goes on to list incidents that are subject to further investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The process known as ‘shotcrete’ involves spraying quick-drying concrete onto the tunnel wall.  It is an inherently risky system that requires special design, installation and inspection to minimise the risks to those working with it.  Unless the application of the sprayed cement lining is uniform, voids can be created that can lead to sections collapsing. 

Studies by the EU’s Community Research & Development Service in the 1990’s shows that “shotcrete’s quick-setting properties have been achieved by the injection of high-alkaline additives at the spraying nozzle ….however, this method has always had its drawbacks …the resulting concrete is highly porous, and lacks strength. Caustic dust from the additives can cause skin and lung problems, and represents a real health hazard to construction workers”.

Detailed industry guidance on using ‘Shotcrete in Tunnel Construction’ by Schlumpf & Höfler (2006) statesthe most serious hazards are without doubt the risk of freshly sprayed concrete or unstabilised substrate (tunnel walls) falling onto workers”  Other health and safety concerns involve fire retardants and fibre re-enforcing additives that are used in the spraying process.

Information provided by the whistleblower spotlights some of the most worrying practices like workers carrying out their work under freshly applied shotcrete, and draws attention to a section of tunnel that has had multiple shotcrete falls from the roof. 

Articles in April editions of the Observer by Daniel Boffey drew on information supplied by the whistleblower which reveals a culture of fear on the Crossrail Project that discourages workers and middle management from raising safety issues.  The articles referred to a report entitled ‘Cultural Overview’ that was commissioned by the main Crossrail contractors and carried out by independent consultants MindSafety, that describes workers being too scared to report safety issues and not reporting injuries for fear of being laid off.  The report condemns a culture in which “individuals cannot move and work freely as they are constantly looking over their shoulder in fear of reprisals”.  This, together with evidence of blacklisting on the project, clearly shows that Crossrail and its contractors want to get the job done by paying only lip service to health and safety. 

If things are left as they are, further accidents are almost inevitable.  That’s why the London Hazards Centre has added its voice to those calling for the HSE to fully investigate safety procedures on the project. But if Crossrail executives and their contractors are really serious about safety, they must address the single most important issue, and that is to include trade unions in delivering a safe site.  Trade unions have a role to play and there is no substitute for trade union safety reps when it comes to building safe workplaces.

TUC health and safety reps survey 2014

The TUC is carrying out a survey of health and safety representatives to gather information on their experiences, and what their needs are.  The TUC aims to do more to help health and safety reps, as well as use the information to better inform public policy debates and the work of the HSE.  The TUC will publish the results, and use the information to campaign for better safety at work and more rights for health and safety reps.  The survey closes on the 27th June 2014.  So if you are a safety rep, go to http://www.tuc.org.uk/health-and-safety/health-and-safety-reps-survey-2014  and complete the on-line survey.  Your views important.

Shocking carnage on London sites

The number of people killed in fatal accidents at work has increased this year.  Last year 148 people were killed at work, but we know already that this figure will be overtaken – and that’s with two full months of the count to go.

During the first week of March two construction workers were killed on London sites, and a third seriously injured.  This shocking carnage once again highlights the dangerous conditions that exist on building sites, and the need to enforce safety rules and regulations on employers prepared to risk the lives of workers.

On the 2nd March Kevin Campbell was killed at the Stratford DLR Site, Pudding Mill Lane.  Then on the 7th March Rene Tkacik was killed at the Cross Rail Site in Holborn.   Also on the 7th March, a crane driver suffered serious head injuries when a crane jib collapsed at Balfour Beatty’s Providence Tower Site in London’s Docklands.

The Construction Safety Campaign held silent vigils outside two of the sites on the 20th March.  Leaflets were distributed expressing regrets and concern at the fatalities taking place.  Safety campaigners also returned to the site at Kings Cross where in November Richard Laco was killed in another construction incident.

We believe urgent action must be taken by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to enforce existing safety regulations and restore site inspections in an industry wide crack-down.  It’s no accident in our view that sites where trade unions are present are safer sites.  As Construction Safety Campaign Chair Peter Farrell said, “Construction employers must also stop banning trade union activity on site as they are currently on some major projects in London. They must be reminded of the positive influence of unions as happened on the Olympics site where happily no-one was killed.”

London Hazards Centre is urging people to rally at the statue of the building worker, Tower Hill, on Monday 28th April to support Workers Memorial Day.  Starts at 10:30am.  We remember those that have died by fighting for the lives of the living.

Fire service cutbacks increase risks

Just how dangerous things are getting when it comes to being able to call on the fire and rescue service for help in an emergency has been highlighted in a report by the Local Government Association (LGA).

The LGA, which represents all the fire and rescue services in England and Wales, has mapped the impact that an expected further 10% cut in funding will have in 2015 – 2016 on a typical fire and rescue service.  Despite “driving out inefficiency” and “pioneering innovative service delivery”, the LGA says it will have to reduce or remove services altogether as they try to manage 2014 -2015 budgets with on average a third less government funding than four years ago.  It’s clear from the impact assessment in the report that the LGA is deeply worried about their ability to deliver effective fire and rescue services.

The LGA claims to have made significant savings so far without a major impact on critical services, but now says further funding restrictions will possibly force fire and rescue services “to make cuts that could increase the level of risk faced by local people and local businesses”.  The report refers to the preventative work done by fire and rescue authorities that has resulted in a steady fall in the number of fires, but points out that this is now at risk because of sustained cuts to fire authority budgets.  FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack said “it’s clear that across the country cuts are already slowing emergency response times, impacting on critical services and endangering lives”.

The report estimates that a typical fire authority is faced with a funding gap that is increasing by £3 million a year and set to reach £17.5 million by 2020.  The LGA’s Fire Services Management Committee Chairwoman Kay Hammond said “ the reality is that fire services are reaching the limit of efficiency savings and the next few years will be very challenging … if fire and rescue services are expected to keep playing a key role in national resilience, then they must be given the funding to do so effectively”.

FBU General Secretary Mark Watts said, “the LGA is right to say that fire and rescue services must be given the funding to play a key, continued role in national resilience”.  “All of us working in fire and rescue and local government must stand together to save fire and rescue services and convince central government to provide adequate funding for brigades”.  The report points out that the impact assessment does not cover the London Fire Brigade, which accounts for 20% of all fire service expenditure in England. (Source: Morning Star10/03/2014)

Despite London Mayor Boris Johnson’s claims that there will be no reductions in front-line fire and rescue services, Chairman of London Fire Authority Brian Coleman, in an interview on LBC said “The truth is there are going to be £60 million pounds worth of cuts to the fire authority budget over the next four years – the details are still being worked out”. (Source: LBC 11/03/2014)

Time to care

The increasing demand for care services has seen a corresponding rise in care workers getting paid less than the minimum wage and not getting the rest breaks established under the Working Time Regulations. A report by the Resolution Foundation last summer titled “Does it pay to care” drew attention to the shocking working conditions of care workers that “has an impact on the quality and dignity of care provided to older and disabled people”.  The report estimates that up to 220,000 care workers are being paid less than the minimum wage

What’s more, thousands of care workers are not getting paid travelling time between visiting clients, they are only getting paid for the actual time spent in the home of those they are caring for.  This has the effect of reducing their pay to beneath minimum wage levels and is illegal. The law on travel time states that a worker travelling for the purpose of duties carried out in the course his or her work will be required to be paid at least the minimum wage.

The social Care sector is notorious for being one of the lowest paid sectors in the economy, with an overwhelmingly female workforce and a growing proportion of migrant workers. It’s hard and stressful work.  Being able to take proper breaks is therefore important. The Working Time Regulations are very clear on breaks. Employees are entitled to a rest break of not less than 11 hours in each 24 hour period, as well as a rest break of not less than 20 minutes when they work more than 6 hours.

Alan Hood, a care worker employed by Accept Care Ltd in Consett for seven years, won his GMB-backed legal case after being denied daily rest and rest breaks at work. His complaint that the firm was in breach of the Working Time Regulations was upheld at a Newcastle employment tribunal in January 2014.  GMB Regional Organiser Gail Johnson who supported Alan Hood with his claims said, the GMB “sees this as a victory for all care workers in care homes across the country in the fight to improve working conditions”.

The ‘London Report’ by the National Minimum Data Set for Social Care (October 2013) estimates that there are 166,000 care workers providing direct care across London.  The London Hazards Centre suspects it is safe to assume that a significant proportion of them are affected by the issues raised by the Resolution Foundation.

TUC alerts ILO over health & safety changes

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has asked the UK government to explain why it has stopped health and safety inspections in the majority of workplaces.  This comes after a TUC complaint that the new system of inspection does not meet ILO standards.  Changes introduced during 2012-2013 to reduce “the burden of unnecessary health and safety rules on businesses” substantially reduce the number of health & safety inspections.

The TUC has also raised the Health Safety Executive’s (HSE) “fee for intervention” scheme under which employers now have to pay for HSE time spent rectifying any potential breaches in safety legislation.  This is expected to stop businesses drawing the HSE’s attention to safety concerns for fear of being charged.

The government’s claim that “the system of labour inspection continues to apply to all workplaces” is clearly untrue.  The TUC has reported this to the ILO and now the government has been asked to provide detailed information on how workplaces will be selected for inspection, along with how the social partners are involved in the process.

Importantly, the ILO wants to know how safety is affected by businesses not being subject to inspection.  The government has also been asked to report the number of infringements detected along with the number of workplace injuries and occupational diseases.

The London Hazards Centre welcomes the TUC’s initiative and awaits the outcome with interest.  The effect of less regulation will in our view regrettably be more workplace injuries and deaths.  We will keep you posted on this.  (Source: TUC Risks e-bulletin)

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