Health & Safety News

H&S | 02.02.2017

HAZARDS CONFERENCE 2016: BUILDING THE HAZARDS RESISTANCE TO SUPPORT SAFETY REPS

HAZARDS CONFERENCE 2016: BUILDING THE HAZARDS RESISTANCE TO SUPPORT SAFETY REPS

MICK LONGSTAFF, HEALTH AND SAFETY REPRESENTATIVE AT LOW NEWTON, AND NORTH EAST MEMBER OF THE POA HEALTH AND SAFETY CONSULTATIVE COMMITTEE, ATTENDED THE HAZARDS 2016 CONFERENCE AT KEELE UNIVERSITY.

Over 350 health and safety representatives from all areas of the UK attended the 27th Hazards Conference, the UK’s biggest and best educational and organising event for trade union safety reps and activists. Consisting of a mixture of plenary sessions, meetings and a comprehensive workshop programme, it gives delegates the opportunity to exchange experience and information with, and learn from, safety reps and activists from other unions, sectors and jobs across the UK.

Hugh Robertson, the TUC Head of Health and Safety opened the evening plenary on the Friday with a presentation on protecting health and safety after Brexit. What is clear, is that the current Government Cabinet is full of ministers who have previously voiced their opposition to keeping the “mountain of red tape” which has come from Europe, despite clear evidence of the opposite − and that they have an agenda to weaken those protections so as trade unionists, we need to be organised to fi ght to retain those minimum standards we have.

Aida Ponce Del Castillo, from the European Trade Union Institute, gave solidarity greetings and described the work that is going on in Europe between unions of all countries to improve the working lives of all citizens. An interesting point was made, that the UK will still have to implement any new European laws until the exit is agreed. A member of the audience stated that they expect the EU to insist that the UK has the same standards as present, if it wishes to sign free trade agreements upon exit, which is the Government’s position.

Dr Anne Raynal gave a view on the state of the HSE and the crisis it is currently going through. Anne was a senior medical health inspector and it was frightening to learn that in 2002, there were 60 full time medical inspectors, in 2015 there was just one full time inspector and one part-time − for the whole of the country.

HSE inspections will be a rarity

Professor Steve Toombs once again gave an inspired presentation called ‘Better Regulation: Better for Whom?’ This is the new inspection called ‘Primary Authority’, where an employer who has premises in different local authority areas, can sign contracts with a council of their own choice who lead on health and safety issues, usually the ones who are least likely to prosecute. He found evidence that councils are outsourcing the regulation of private companies to... private companies. He also mentioned the decimation of the number HSE inspections; workplaces now will receive an inspection every 45 years on average!

Saturday was full of workshops and I attended the ‘Prioritising Action’ workshop, demonstrating how a plan is formulated and then how support can be gained from other trade unions through sharing of experiences. My plan is to look at sickness absence and looking at the reasons behind absences through evidence-backed research.

I also attended a workshop on work-related stress, and how excessive workloads can affect members in a variety of ways. We looked at using a questionnaire to give to members and then present the findings to the SMTs through the Health and Safety Committees, to make sure that we have the evidence to ensure action is taken. Some aspects identified in work-related stress were:

• Work demands; • Shift patterns; • Staff cuts but same workloads; • Colleague absences; and • External environmental factors, including second hand smoke in our workplaces.

Punitive absence monitoring was the theme of the next workshop, and there was a good discussion by the delegates of how absence through sickness is dealt with, especially with the increasing use of disciplinary measures against ill members. It is easier to dismiss ill staff than deal with the root causes of their illnesses and tackling unhealthy workplaces and the underlying causes, as we have seen in increased substance use and violence by prisoners. It was interesting to hear of stories where workplaces were fully aware of why employees were off sick, thus breaching confidentiality – how many times have you heard of people’s absence being discussed in the wing tearooms? ‘Presenteeism’ was also discussed, where staff are so frightened of receiving a warning that they attend work when they are sick, therefore, easily spreading contagious diseases.

Brexit

A theme workshop was held to discuss how Brexit would affect our health and safety using the experiences of current trade deals such as CETA, (a Canadian deal currently being ratified through the EU), which the UK is compelled to implement, TTIP, which is expected not to be ratified and various other deals from the far east. The most worrying concern is that it is expected that private companies will be able to challenge governments, they expect to challenge state institutions such as the NHS and that health and safety laws would be challenged to reach the lowest common denominator.

The final workshop for the day was on an update of recent legal cases concerning health and safety. This was facilitated by Irwin Mitchell. The recent Cox v Ministry of Justice case, where a member of catering staff was injured by a prisoner, was seen as a stand-out case in vicarious liability, where an employee is working for an employer and something goes wrong, therefore holding the employer liable for injuries. Also covered was the case of Mohamud v Morrisons supermarket, where employees verbally and physically racially abused a member of the public. The judge at the Supreme Court ruled that the employees were working as customer services assistants during the incident and Morrisons were held liable under the vicarious liability rule.

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act was discussed which removed civil liability from health and safety regulations so that members must prove negligence in these cases. It is therefore vital that members ensure that their accident reports and witness statements have as much detail as possible, and that other documentation is complete when submitting a claim for personal injury to Thompsons.

Supporting safety reps

The Social Action Responsibility and Heroism Act (commonly called Sarah’s Act) is the brainchild of Chris Grayling and is designed to give employers a ‘joker’ card defense to claims against them if they can prove that they generally are responsible and have an effective approach to health and safety, not that it will affect us!

It was reported that the European originating legislation will continue to be applied until alternative legislation is passed in our Parliament, and it appears that isn’t high on the agenda. There is also a new defence of ‘fundamentally dishonest’ that an employer can use in any claim, if they can show that the claimant has lied or exaggerated any part of a claim, and there have been recent claims thrown out when this has been proved, such as injuries in accidents.

Sunday’s session started with a plenary titled: ‘Developing the Hazards Campaign to support Safety Reps in fighting back’. We heard from a variety of speakers including Sarah Wiktorski on the campaign along with the Scottish TUC, which is focusing on engaging with young people who are employed on minimum wages and have been made to pay for training and uniforms while working for G1 Group, a bar and nightlife company who own over 50 venues in Scotland. David Hardman, a university lecturer and health and safety rep gave an account of the disgraceful treatment that both he and his UCU branch chair have had from the London Metropolitan University, where they have both been chosen for compulsory redundancy after refusing to sign confidentiality agreements, which would have seen their payout doubled.

Sanjiv Pandita gave a presentation on his work with the GOSH Network in trying to improve the health and safety of employees in Asia. He gave graphic accounts of the dangers faced both in the formal, (where factories making trainers for big brands and modern mobile smart phones employ up to 100,000 workers in a single factory) and the informal economy (which recycles lots of our unwanted electrical items) with no health and safety measures in place.

Royston Bentham, from the Blacklisting Support Group, gave an update on the recent court case where major construction companies, including Carillion, paid the Consulting Association as a vehicle to blacklist building workers, whose only crime was to raise concerns over health and safety. The case was settled, costing the firms £75 million, including legal costs. Royston called for a public inquiry into state collusion in this as well as other workforces such as the rail industry and the offshore industry.

Section 127

The meeting was addressed by Honorary Life Member of the POA, John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, who offered to take the conference demands and bring them before the shadow cabinet to introduce them into policy for a future Labour government. I questioned John, one POA member to another, about his commitment to removing Section 127 from the statute book and he agreed that previously Labour supported it (remember Blunkett’s speech at conference?) but that Tony Blair stopped it. He promised that he would do it when Labour regains power! I also asked him to condemn the massive rise in the pay of Michael Spurr and also offered support for both prison and probation staff saying that he knows who will get the blame when things go wrong – the staff.

The conference closed with the Campaign statement and the demands, which will be published on the Hazard website.

I would urge all branches to subscribe to Hazards magazine, which is published quarterly at only £15 per year. For further details go to www.hazards.org

Further details about the Hazards Campaign are at www.hazardscampaign.org.uk

Mick Longstaff
Health and Safety Representative at Low Newton and North East member of the POA Health and Safety Consultative Committee