Green energy can still make safe choices

While green energy has its safety problems, it’s worth remembering traditional energy production has always been a major consumer of human lives – even in countries boasting a good safety record.

In the UK, the official workplace regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), has been instructed to explain its mines safety strategy, after a series of fatalities this year and revelations Britain’s coal mine fatality rate has hit a 50-year high. Union representatives raised concerns about the industry’s record at HSE’s December board meeting, which agreed the watchdog should prepare a paper for the board on its strategy to address safety in the mines.

The deteriorating coal mine safety record came to light after Hazards magazine obtained official figures showing in the five years to 2010/11 the fatality rate in the UK coal mining industry has been running at 42.9 deaths per 100,000 workers – over 60 times the all-industries rate of 0.7/100,000 for the same period. The figures showed the UK coal industry has not had a single fatality-free year in the last six. The six years before that saw one fatality in total. This year’s flurry of deaths will push the average rate in the six years from 2006 to in excess of 47 deaths per 100,000 workers – a 50-year high.

In a statement to Hazards, HSE confirmed: “The last time the equivalent rate of fatalities in coal mining was in the range of 40 per 100,000 was in the early sixties when we estimate it was 46.” When pressed by Hazards, HSE admitted: “A deterioration in the long-term improvement began to emerge in the last five years and, given the reduced size of the industry, was both pronounced and of concern to HSE.” The mine safety watchdog added: “We are focused on ensuring through our interventions that improvements in the industry are keeping pace with the changing activity levels in mining.”

Mines safety expert Dave Feickert says with the UK industry typically paying less regard for safety, the mining unions no longer present in all the mines and with curtailed safety rights where they are present, and HSE doing less with less. “Sadly, large British mines… in recent years have been less safe than some comparable large mines in China. There are relatively new mines in China which have not had a single fatality… the simple fact is China is getting better while the UK is getting worse.”

China’s official death toll for 2010 was 2,433, but that is in an industry employing over 4 million miners. It amounts to an official death rate for China’s coal mines not too far distant from that in the UK. The China figures may be suspect, but they are at least heading in the right direction, down from almost 7,000 deaths a year in 2002. Mine disasters in New Zealand and the US in recent months show the mine safety problem is not restricted to developing economies.

As a relatively new industry, ‘green energy’ can still choose to integrate safety at the development, operation and decommissioning stages. Some early studies suggests it is not taking this role as seriously as it might, with evidence of old hazards persisting and new one emerging.

But there is hope. The US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system – the most influential of its kind worldwide – is looking at introducing credits recognising a good occupational health and safety performance as part of its overall green buildings rating. It’s overdue. Last month, the green watchdog got round to introducing credits on bird-friendly design. Workers may be lower down USGBC’s pecking order, but may at least now have made it on to its ‘to do’ list.

This month, the US Green Buildings Council added Howard Frumin of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health to its board, to advise on public health issues.

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Green construction’s added ingredient – danger

Construction workers involved in environmentally friendly, ‘green’ building projects can face additional traditional and novel hazards, researchers have found.  Problems identified in the study identify a greater risk of falls and new, high risk tasks.

The University of Colorado study, publishing in the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, examined construction projects built to achieve the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.  The research team found compared to traditional builds, certain tasks in sustainable building projects put workers at an increased risks of lacerations, strains and sprains (up 36 per cent from handling recycled materials), eye strain (up 19 per cent from installing reflective membranes) and exposure to hazardous chemicals (up 14 per cent from installing wastewater technologies).  The study also found a 24 per cent increase in falls during roof work, attributed to the installation of on‐site renewable energy systems like photovoltaic cells.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” noted Peter Stafford, executive director of CPWR – the Center for Construction Research and Training, which supported the study. “With proper layout of the worksite, recyclables can be sorted safely and efficiently. With properly scheduled breaks for hydration, a reflective roof doesn’t have to mean trips to the hospital. And with proper fall protection solar panels can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels without risking workers’ lives and limbs.”

Contractors and designers interviewed for the study said measures to reduce injuries and better protect workers could include incorporating prefabrication, more effective site layout and use of alternative products. Using low-emission materials also could reduce occupational health risks for workers in enclosed environments.

  • Katherine S Dewlaney, Matthew R Hallowell, and Bernard R Fortunato, Safety risk quantification for high performance sustainable building construction, Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, published online ahead of print, 2011 [abstract].
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USA: Green jobs can be just as deadly

A surge in alternative energy projects and related employment in the US is seeing inexperienced workers recruited to jobs they do not have the skills, training or supervision to do safely, US reports suggest.

The US experience echoes that in Australia, where a government energy efficiency home insulation programme saw a spate of injuries and deaths in workers employed by get rich quick non-union contractors. In the UK, concerns have been raised about fatalities in wind farm construction and the notoriously deadly recycling industry.

In the US, online news agency FairWarning reported in October 2010 that authorities in California alone investigated three workplace deaths in the solar panel industry in slightly over two years. Installing solar panels combines three of the most hazardous jobs — roofing, carpentry and electrical work — with work at height, making it particularly risky.

Wind power, too, has its risks. ‘The dark side of solar and wind power projects’, a 3 August 2011 report in the Los Angeles Times, points out that many technicians on wind power projects work in bathroom-size spaces, high above the ground, surrounded by high-voltage electrical equipment. Workers also sometimes inspect turbine blades while suspended alongside them, on sites whipped by strong winds. The result: technicians have fallen hundreds of feet, and others have been crushed by, or trapped in, moving machinery.

The Times adds that the risks go beyond the manufacture and installation phase. It reports the complicated wiring under solar panels has left some firefighters so bewildered they have allowed residential rooftops to burn. Some panels contain materials such as cadmium and selenium, which could be explosive or carcinogenic, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

While watchdog groups say the existing state and federal regulations are inadequate to protect workers, wind and solar energy industry trade associations say they are offering, or developing, safety recommendations.

The US federal health and safety regulator, OSHA, remains concerned. But OSHA is facing its own battle for survival. As budget cuts to federal agencies appear inevitable as a consequence of the debt deal agreed by Congress, safety enforcement in any workplace, green or otherwise, could itself be in danger.

According to a report in the online magazine In These Times, OSHA has no fat to trim, with a current budget of only $558.6 million. “Many public health and safety advocates say that that figure doesn’t leave OSHA with the resources needed to adequately inspect workplaces. There are only 2,218 inspectors at both the federal and state level who inspect 7.3 million workplaces employing more than 135 million workers (that’s one inspector for every 57,984 workers.)”

The article concludes: “At this rate, OSHA can inspect a workplace on average once every 129 years and state OSHA inspectors could inspect one every 67 years. For a country the size of the United States, health and safety experts say you need at least 12,000 inspectors, six times more inspectors than OSHA currently has, in order to properly inspect America’s workplaces.”

While traditional workplaces fall off the enforcement radar, green jobs may never even make a blip.

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WHO backs work-related cancer action call

Urgent action is needed to tackle the occupational and environmental exposures “responsible for a substantial percentage of all cancers,” a new report says. The paper published this month in the online journal Environmental Health Perspectives, says “credible estimates” suggest these exposures could account for up to 1 in every 5 cancers.

The authors, Philip J Landrigan of New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Carolina Espina and Maria Neira of the World Health Organisation (WHO) write: “Despite their proven feasibility and cost-effectiveness, efforts to prevent environmental cancers have lagged. In contrast to vigorous and well-coordinated global efforts to prevent cancers caused by tobacco, much more needs to be done in environmental cancer control and to further develop strategies for prevention of environmental causes of cancer.”

The paper notes “credible estimates from the World Health Organisation and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) suggest that the fraction of global cancer currently attributable to toxic environmental exposures is between 7 per cent and 19 per cent.” It adds: “Primary prevention—environmental interventions that halt the exposures that cause cancer – is the single most effective strategy. Primary prevention reduces cancer incidence, and it saves lives and billions of dollars.”

The authors summarise the ‘Asturias Declaration’ agreed at a March 2011 WHO-convened conference, saying the “recommendations will also prevent recurrence of such tragedies as the global asbestos epidemic”.

The declaration, which is posted on both the IARC and WHO websites, includes a call on WHO to “develop a global framework for control of environmental and occupational carcinogens that concentrates on the exposures identified by IARC as proven or probable causes of human cancer”.

Corporations should comply with all rules and regulations for prevention of environmental and occupational cancers and adhere to the same standards in all countries – developed and developing – in which they and their subsidiaries operate, it adds.

To be successful, these prevention efforts “will require partnerships among countries and collaborations of public health authorities with ministries of environment, labour, finance, and trade,” it concludes.

* Landrigan PJ, Espina C, Neira M. Global prevention of environmental and occupational cancer, Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 119:a280-a281, 2011. doi:10.1289/ehp.1103871. The Asturias Declaration: A call to action [pdf].

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Commons ‘misled’ on the cost of unsafe work

SCREW YOU: Tory bully boy Chris Grayling calls it a strategy for health and safety, but it is really a giant stride towards lawlessness. It leaves the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) sidelined, starved of funds and staring extinction in the face.

UK employment minister Chris Grayling ‘misled’ the House of Commons by claiming the costs to society of workplace safety failings are billions less the real figure, a campaign group has charged. The Hazards Campaign is warning that ministers are constructing a job fear smokescreen to justify a business-friendly drive towards safety lawlessness at work.

The campaign was commenting after a House of Commons debate on 13 June. In a response to questions from Labour MP Ian Lavery, the minister said “the annual cost to Great Britain of workplace injuries and work-related ill health is currently in the order of £20 billion.”

He also “absolutely agreed” with Tory MP Stephen Metcalfe who has asked if health and safety legislation “when it is applied inappropriately and gold-plated…. can cost jobs and damage the economy?”

The minister added that “we have to understand that if the system is over-bureaucratic, it will lead to the closure of businesses and cost jobs, and that does nobody any favours.”

Hilda Palmer of the Hazards Campaign, which is spearheading a ‘We didn’t vote to die at work’ campaign, commented: “There’s nothing ‘current’ about this cost estimate – the minister has misled the Commons.

“The £20bn figure was the lower extreme of a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that put the possible cost to society of workplace health and safety failures at £31.8bn. This was based on 2001 data. Add in a decade of inflation, increasing health care costs and changing patterns or work-related ill-health, and the figure is certainly now considerably higher.

Palmer added: “There are now over 1,000 more deaths from work-related mesothelioma each year, for example, which would add at least £3bn to the total. And sensible voices accept workplace health and safety is if anything under-regulated and under-enforced in the UK, where only 1 in 19 major injuries at work are even investigated.

“Studies show workplace safety regulations save money and lives. And far from being job killers, they don’t result in job losses but can actually promote jobs through innovation.”

She added the employment minister had “first down played the costs to society of failures to abide by the law – which are largely borne by individuals and the broader community – then repeated the fiction that safety legislation costs jobs”.

Unions, for example, point to the potential to drive the creation of green jobs through the introduction of protective health and safety legislation.

After the debate, Labour MP Ian Lavery vowed to fight the government’s “nonsensical” health and safety cuts and said the dramatic reduction in health and safety inspection at work “is atrocious. It is absolute nonsense.”

The cuts were also condemned at this month’s annual conference of the union Community.

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Deregulation is really a workplace death wish

ROLE MODELS? If it's good enough for China...

A UK government-commissioned review of health and safety, which will report to ministers in autumn 2011, is not really about changing the law. It’s about risk envy – our competitors don’t all abide by strict rules governing safety and decency at work, so why should the UK? And it is a topic on which Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, charged with undertaking the review, is an acknowledged expert.

In May 2011, the government put out a call for evidence for the Löfstedt review, inviting contributions “from all interested parties on the scope for reducing the burden of health and safety regulation on UK businesses whilst maintaining health and safety outcomes.”

The government said the review “is part of a package of changes to Britain’s health and safety system to support the government’s growth agenda and cut red tape.” It hopes Professor Löfstedt will give it license for a backdoor erosion of safety rights and of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) enforcement role.

In the US, the professor has been a prominent opponent of tighter regulatory controls on industry. Under his “risk-risk” analysis he argues they can mean an unjustified bill for firms that would then be disadvantaged in global markets.

In the case of Portland cement, a potential human carcinogen, Löfstedt’s March 2010 report concluded “putting forward stringent regulation on the US cement industry, will lead to a risk transfer from the United States to offshore (most notably China), leading to negligible environmental improvements for the United States and the global community.”

The March 2010 analysis was press released by the cement industry. The paper contained all the key talking points from the business lobby’s anti-regulation template. Regulations cost jobs, regulations are expensive, regulations are unfair to domestic industry and regulations don’t work. It’s a package found repeatedly to be based on inflated estimates of costs and consequences, and a blind eye to the potential benefits.

Equally concerning, it is informed by an assumption that regardless of the costs, it should be the world’s dirtiest players that set the standard. The logic would also make forced labour an economic necessity – it’s a practice that remains a significant problem worldwide, and which presumably offers some economic advantage to less scrupulous employers.

Professor Löfstedt’s work has not previously focussed on occupational health and safety issues. However, he is viewed as a strong anti-regulation advocate by many who have encountered him on food safety and environmental issues. He is an adjunct professor at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, a body which has been criticised strongly by unions, safety and environmental advocates in the USA as an anti-regulation “front” for business interests.

Throughout July 2011, in the midst of the health and safety review, Professor Löfstedt is scheduled to be running a 30-session ‘Managing hazards in Europe and the United States’ course at King’s College London. He will be working hand-in-hand with long-time collaborator and founder of the Harvard Center, Professor John D Graham. The academic’s 2001 nomination for a key regulation-busting role in George W Bush’s administration prompted a letter from 53 of his peers warning Graham’s work “demonstrated a remarkable congruency with the interests of regulated industries.”

Morality and facts are already casualties of the business driven ‘business burdens’ debate, and safety is set to follow suit. The deregulation urge is now so engrained at the UK’s safety watchdog, HSE, it routinely ignores evidence that legal standards designed to protect workers from established poisons like lead and cancer-causing chemicals are inadequate and tightening them will save lives.

Its latest denial of responsibility involves workplace dust. Unions have long called for tighter dust exposure standards and HSE’s own advisory committees have demanded a campaign to promote awareness of the risks. Even if HSE was willing, which is it not, it now says “constrained resources” rule out a campaign. And despite acknowledging evidence showing hundreds of lives each year could be saved if employers reduced workplace dust exposures, it describes this as “only limited benefits” so it would not be tightening the occupational exposure standard.

This outbreak of deregulatory fever not limited to the UK. Business lobby groups across the world are issuing a stream of cookie-cutter reports. It is not about lifting burdens, it is about evading responsibility. This may seem a good idea from the safety of the boardroom, but at the shopfloor it is, inevitably, a bloody disaster.

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Don’t be green on nano dangers

Nanotechnology has a very polished public relations machine. It will, we are told, save our lives, clean our windows and clear up our toxic waste.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies even has a whole GreenNano theme, that “aims to advance development of clean technologies using nanotechnology, to minimise potential environmental and human health risks associated with the manufacture and use of nanotechnology products, and to encourage replacement of existing products with new nano products that are more environmentally friendly throughout their lifecycle.”

There’s one little hiccup. We don’t know the nature of the environmental and human health risks, but we are exposing the population and the planet to novel, virtually unregulated and a largely untested dizzying array of products anyway.

The latest signal everything in nanoworld may not be entirely healthy came this week from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive. Carbon nanotubes (CNT) may cause serious diseases, but a lack of adequate information means safety datasheets are likely to be of little or no use, the safety watchdog suggests.

Risk management of carbon nanotubes notes: “The toxicity of CNTs has not yet been fully investigated. However it is clear that Safety Data Sheets for CNTs that are based on conventional graphite or graphene will NOT provide suitable adequate information to assess the risk from CNTs.” The guide advises: “Since there is uncertainty about the risks of being exposed to CNTs, the regulatory and safe response is to take a precautionary approach.”

According to HSE: “Emerging data indicates that when CNTs are breathed in they can cause lung inflammation and fibrosis… It is also not clear if inhaled CNT have a role in the development of adverse health effects at other sites in the body. There is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that CNTs and other nanomaterials with a long, thin and straight shape (referred to as high aspect ratio nanomaterials or HARN) may be particularly hazardous. However, there are insufficient data to confirm the health consequences of long-term repeated exposure.”

The HSE guide adds there is “some evidence” CNTs “may be able to provoke inflammatory reactions in the skin.” It concludes:  “In view of the evidence for lung damage and lack of information on the effects of long-term repeated exposure a high level of control is warranted for CNTs.”

Simon Pickvance, an occupational health specialist based at Sheffield University in the UK, criticised HSE’s “passivity.” He said: “HSE should take a positive role as the guarantor of the quality of safety datasheets. If the information on datasheets cannot be relied on, then they are more dangerous than informative. Neither HSE nor chemical firms should be operating a cross-your-fingers-and-hope version of risk assessment.”

It’s a line supported by unions across Europe. On 1 December 2010, the executive committee of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) adopted a second resolution on Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies.  It says the intention of the resolution, which came out of an October 2010 seminar on nano risks, is to secure protection of workers potentially exposed to nanomaterials, and calls for adherence to the “no data, no market” principle.

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Heavy recycling work caused hernia

A UK employee of a global metals recycling giant needed surgery to correct a hernia which could have been avoided if the company had undertaken and acted on a simple risk assessment.

Andrew Kelly, 47, needed the major surgery after moving several objects weighing up to 40kg during an eight-hour shift. The yard supervisor for global recycling giant Sims Group UK, who has worked for the firm for 31 years, was unable to access lifting equipment when instructed to move heavy objects like lorry batteries and fridge motors to various parts of the yard for collection.

He said: “I knew that it would take me several weeks to recover from the operation so contacted the union because I was worried about what it would mean for me and my family financially.” He added: “The hernia was painful and it slowed me down a lot. I wasn’t able to lift and found walking difficult. Since the operation I have been able to return to work but I still suffer from some discomfort.”

Thompsons Solicitors, the law firm brought in by Mr Kelly’s union, GMB, to handle a compensation case, argued the Sims Group, part of the worldwide Sims Metal Management group, should have risk assessed the task and provided either equipment to move the objects or assistance from other employees. Mr Kelly has now received an undisclosed sum in compensation from the firm.

Andy Worth from the GMB said: “Long established employers like these really have no excuse not to think ahead when they ask employees to lift heavy weights with no help. Mr Kelly’s losses and pain lie at their door when a simple risk assessment could easily have avoided the accident.”

The company’s safety record has been called into question recently. Sims Group UK has been prosecuted twice by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in last three years for criminal breaches of safety law, the latest in April 2010 following a workplace death and resulting in a six figure fine.

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Recycling death highlights green job dangers

A man has died after an explosion at a UK waste recycling plant which left another man seriously injured.

The incident at the Sterecycle plant in Rotherham occurred mid-afternoon on 11 January. South Yorkshire Police said a waste incinerator had exploded, creating a hole in the factory’s wall. Michael Whinfrey, a 42-year-old father of three from Rotherham, was airlifted to hospital in Leeds where he later died. Peter Lindon Davis, 51, from Barnsley, was taken to Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital with serious, “potentially life-changing”, head and body injuries.

Sterecycle suspended operations at the plant after the blast. Sterecycle chief executive officer Tom Shields said: “We clearly regret this incident and have advised the Health and Safety Executive. We will urgently investigate the causes of the incident and ensure that all necessary actions are taken.”

The company, whose Rotherham plant is in the middle of a rapid expansion plan, was voted ‘one to watch’ at the ‘clean and green’ Cleantech industry awards in November 2010.

Sterecycle’s news release on the awards noted: “Design and construction works are already underway to increase the capacity of the Rotherham plant to 240,000 tonnes per annum by mid 2011.” In November 2010, its capacity stood at 100,000 tonnes.

The case is the latest to highlight potential risks to workers in ‘green’ industries. This week it was revealed an investigation is continuing into an incident last year on an offshore windfarm when an 18-tonne section of turbine plunged into the sea.

The £1bn Walney Offshore Windfarm is being built in the Irish Sea, nine miles from Barrow. Nobody was injured but local media reported a source had claimed two workers badly shaken by the incident later quit.

Danish firm Dong Energy, which is developing the windfarm, and the Health and Safety Executive launched investigations and work was stopped for a week after the August 2010 incident.

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Chemicals linked to male breast cancer

Common workplace chemicals have been linked to an increased risk of male breast cancer. The authors of the European study conclude their findings “support growing evidence” linking environmental pollutants to the disease.

The study, whose findings are published this week in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, investigated occupational risk factors for male breast cancer, using a case control study conducted in eight European countries. The researchers found male breast cancer incidence was particularly increased in motor vehicle mechanics, who were twice as likely to develop the disease. There was a clear “dose–effect” relationship, with the risk of developing the cancer increasing with duration of employment.

The male breast cancer risk was also increased in paper makers and painters, forestry and logging workers, health and social workers, and furniture manufacture workers. The authors note: “These findings suggest that some environmental chemicals are possible mammary carcinogens. Petrol, organic petroleum solvents or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are suspect because of the consistent elevated risk of male breast cancer observed in motor vehicle mechanics.” They add: “Endocrine disruptors such as alkylphenolic compounds may play a role in breast cancer.”

The paper concludes: “The elevated risk of male breast cancer among motor vehicle mechanics points to a role of PAH and petrol or petroleum solvents in breast carcinogenesis, which needs to be investigated further in studies of male or female breast cancer. For the first time in male breast cancer, we have shown that endocrine disrupting chemicals could affect breast cancer risk. These results support growing evidence that breast cancer may be linked to exposure to environmental pollutants, and should encourage further studies on this issue.”

Sara Villeneuve, Diane Cyr, Elsebeth Lynge and others. Occupation and occupational exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in male breast cancer: a case–control study in Europe, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, volume 67, pages 837-844, 2010 [abstract].

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