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Hazards and
Workers' Health International Newsletter
PO Box 199
Sheffield S1 4YL

The union effect

Hazards shows why safety is better organised.

You know the answer

Companies that ask employees for their views on health and safety issues can cut down on accidents, a study by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has found.

The HSE report, Employee involvement in health and safety, concludes: "By including workers' ideas and involving them in enforcing health and safety rules, companies can create a positive attitude towards maintaining good practice and make significant improvements."

One initiative featured in the report led to "a huge drop in accidents from 1.2 to 0.1 per 100,000 man hours." HSE says workforce involvement "is a vital component of the Revitalising Health and Safety Strategy Statement produced by the government and Health and Safety Commission."

TUC's Owen Tudor said: "This report shows bad employers why good employers work in partnership with unions. And it shows non-members why union members are safer. Unions are good for workers and good for health and safety. What excuse has anyone got left for not recognising unions or for not joining one?"

Employee involvement in health and safety: Some examples of good practice, [pdf format]

Studies show Health and Safety Executive's chemical strategy has failed HSE's chemicals calamity

The law that is supposed to protect workers from chemical hazards is not working, an HSE investigation has found. Some observers think it is because HSE is too concerned about protecting companies' profits.

A third of companies using hazardous substances have no knowledge of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations and two-thirds are unaware of their legal obligations relating to occupational exposure limits, HSE-backed research (1) has concluded.

The contract research report, published in August, found that a quarter of firms that were "heavy users" of chemicals and a third of "users" of chemicals did not have a "reasonable unprompted response when asked what they understood to be the principles of COSHH."

Over a third of heavy users (35 per cent) and users (38 per cent) of chemicals were "not aware" of occupational exposure limits (OELs), the official standards for the amount of chemicals in the air breathed in by workers.

Most firms controlled chemicals through protection - the use of masks, ventilation systems and staff training. Only a small minority opted for prevention - elimination or substitution. This again shows a lack of familiarity with or concern for the law - COSHH prioritises the preventive approach over control.

Trade union safety reps were far more knowledgeable than their bosses, the research found. Ninety per cent understood the principles of COSHH and only 21 per cent were not aware of OELs.

Previous research has also shown COSHH to be a flop. A 1994 HSE survey of 200 chrome plating shops - a very high risk industry - found that only 30 per cent were using control measures. And a 1995-96 Gallup survey of small firms of the Department of the Environment found only six per cent awareness of COSHH.

Some observers are now saying the failure of COSHH can be explained in part by HSE's approach to its enforcement.

In October, HSE was accused of protecting the profits of medium density fibreboard (MDF) makers and not the health of workers exposed to MDF's toxic dust.

The criticism, from the Transport and General Workers' Union, followed an HSE press statement that "it is HSE's view that any health risks arising from the use of MDF at work can and should be effectively controlled by compliance with the requirements of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 1994 - there is no need for a ban on MDF."

HSE failed to refer to its own evidence showing few employers observe or even know about their COSHH duties.

HSE's statement came after national TV and press stories linked MDF's chemical constituents to lung cancer, allergies and other health problems.

HSE said that it is hardwood and not the softwood that is found in MDF that is classified as cancer-causing in the UK. Formaldehyde released by the bonding resin, MDF's other constituent, was an irritant, it said.

However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organisation's expert institute for evaluating cancer risks, does not distinguish between hardwoods and softwoods. It classifies all "wood dust" as "carcinogenic to humans". Formaldehyde is IARC classified as "possibly carcinogenic to humans."

In a letter to HSE Director General Jenny Bacon TGWU health and safety co-ordinator Alan Dalton said: "Do you feel that the issuing of this HSE press release really adds anything to the protection of MDF workers' health? Or does it, in fact, protect the profit of the MDF manufacturers?"

1. Industry's perception and use of occupational exposure limits. HSE Contract research report No.144. ISBN 0 7176 1407 7. £49.50. HSE Books. Tel: 01787 881165.
2. Europe-wide check finds 40 per cent of new dyestuffs illegally marketed, according to report on enforcement project. HSE news release E191:96, 6 November 1996.

Dye, dye, die

It's not just the law that is not up to much. The instructions provided by chemical suppliers might be of little use to chemical users either.

A 1996 project by European Union health and safety enforcement agencies on dyestuff safety found nearly 40 per cent of new dyestuffs were on the market illegally "putting workers and the environment at risk from exposure to them," said the Health and Safety Executive.(2)

HSE added: "Of particular concern was that half of the suppliers of merchants dealing in hazardous dyes (eg carcinogenic), had inadequately labelled substances, thus increasing potential risk to users...

"150 substances, out of the 4,000 dyestuffs checked, were found to be hazardous (eg sensitising or carcinogenic), and around 50 per cent of these were imported without a proper label indicating the hazardous properties."

HSE's 1997 contract research report (1) found that firms relied heavily on information from suppliers in deciding measures to control exposure.

Twenty years of life-saving work: Union safety reps
Standing up for safety

It is two decades since the first trade union safety reps appeared in British workplaces. Caroline Bedale of the Hazards Campaign finds reps have done a great job but that's a lot more they can do.

Safety reps, with the backing of their unions and members, have played a major part in alerting employers, the public and governments to workplace and community hazards.

Trade union reps and officials have exposed new or under-estimated hazards and diseases, and have often been years ahead of medical thought.

It was unions and health and safety campaigners, not "experts" or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), that correctly predicted the deadly epidemic of asbestos-related disease now affecting construction and maintenance workers and the public.

It was UNISON legal action that established employers were liable for the breakdowns, ill-health and even suicides caused by workplace bullying, over-work and stress.

Safety campaigns have been a constant feature of union work. T&G fought for and won national controls on the highly toxic Vietnam defoliant and local authority herbicide 2,4,5-T.

ASTMS, now MSF, unearthed the high risk of heart faced by users of the solvent carbon disulphide, leading to new controls.

In the early 1980s print union GPMU won bans on TDI, a chemical still in industrial use today and which poses a serious asthma risk. Textiles unions campaigned for and won controls on cancer causing dyes. And construction union UCATT successfully campaigned for safer paints, wood preservatives and building boards.

Most improvements did not come easy. Even now, health and safety problems are at the root of about 10 per cent of official industrial action, and about 15 per cent of unofficial action(1), more than for "changes to bargaining" and "dismissals".

Safety reps have proven their worth. Organised workplaces are safer workplaces (see page 2) and as that's what workers' want, safety not only makes unions a safer bet, it makes the union stronger.

A 1994 report said 70 per cent of new trade union members considered health and safety a "very important" union bargaining issue, more than cited improved pay(2).

And a 1995 NOP poll for the TUC revealed 98 per cent of those asked believed "people at work should have the right to be represented by a trade union if they want to on health and safety."

It is clear that reps would be more effective still with more rights, more tools and more protection. Delegates at the 1998 TUC unanimously passed an ambitious resolution seeking just that (see summary below).

This included labour movement ideas now attracting official support, among them prison sentences for the most dangerously negligent employers, "roving safety reps" and "provisional improvement notices" (PINs).

A T&G pilot roving safety reps' scheme in the agricultural sector won praise from HSE, but roving reps would need new legal rights for to enter workplaces for such an initiative to have a serious impact (Hazards 61).

Sticking a "PIN" on an employer would give safety reps the power of an HSE inspector, until the real thing arrived.

After two decades of campaigning, safety reps may be edging closer to some of these goals. Minister Glenda Jackson recently said(3) that a proposed review by the HSE of safety consultation regulations would consider ways to enhance the role of safety representatives, and that they should be given appropriate support by enforcing authorities. The review will also cover roving safety reps and PINs.

1. Safety reps in action, Labour Research Department, March 1998
2. Research by Colin Whitston and Jeremy Waddington, cited in New Statesman and Society, 18 November 1994.
3. Hansard, 479 CD175-PAG1/33

Effective partnerships are the key to health and safety improvements, says HSC Chair [HSE news release, 20 July 2000]

HSC Chair Bill Callaghan today urged unions and employers to work in partnership to improve safety standards in Britain's workplaces. Speaking to union members and employer representatives at the TUC's 'Partners in Prevention' conference in London, Mr Callaghan said that unions should :

• encourage more employers to accept the role of safety representatives, so that more workplaces are covered by staff with appropriate safety responsibilities and training;
• encourage individual companies and sectors to set safety improvement targets agreed by employers and workers;
• establish - or in existing cases reinvigorate - joint health and safety committees as a focus for closer working partnerships to improve health and safety;
• be a 'good neighbour' to workers not in trade unions and those workplaces without union recognition by giving practical advice and support on health and safety.

Mr Callaghan said:

"In June the Deputy Prime Minister and I announced the 'Revitalising Health and Safety' initiative, which sets targets to reduce accidents and ill-health in the workplace. The partnership approach is vital to this initiative, while the role of safety reps is the clearest example of how it can work in practice. This is not a point for debate - workplaces with safety reps and effective safety committees have up to 50 per cent fewer injuries than those that don't.

"I would like to see employee involvement in all workplaces and the HSC will shortly be making recommendations to Ministers on this vital issue. In order to make real progress, more employers need to understand and value the shop floor 'reality check' that safety reps provide. In turn, unions need to recognise the real concerns that employers have over some of their proposals. This is a time for consensus, not confrontation. All partners in the health and safety equation must remain open to new ideas and approaches. The status quo is not an option."

"I particularly welcome the examples in the TUC's report which demonstrate that sector-wide initiatives can reap benefits for unionised and non-unionised workers alike. But I also ask whether we can take this approach further. Responses to our recent consultation on worker involvement show that unions consider they can play a key role in enforcing universal rights."