£20,000 asbestos fine imposed on John Lewis ‘low hazard’ workplace

High street retailer John Lewis PLC was yesterday handed a fine of £20,000 for failing to do proper checks for deadly asbestos while carrying out refurbishment work at a city department store.

In a case which gives the lie to Lord Young’s recent assertion that offices present a low hazard risk to health and safety, Edinburgh Sheriff Court heard renovation work was being carried out over four days at the management suite of the retailer’s store at the city’s St James Centre in July 2008 when asbestos was discovered at a board between two radiators.

Workers covered it in a bag and reported it to management before a check was carried out. The board was sent for analysis but work was allowed to continue when the site should have been shut down. It was only when the results came back positive that the project was halted. The court heard around 15 workers could potentially have been exposed to the harmful substance.

Sheriff Elizabeth Jarvie QC today also fined contractors Morris and Spottiswood Ltd £20,000 and added that she had reduced both fines from £30,000 to reflect the guilty pleas. However, she went on to say: “This was a serious and disturbing case but in any event no-one sustained any harm. As soon as discovery was made effective and immediate action was taken by the companies.”

Fair enough?

Well sorry no, not really and here’s why. Far from ‘no-one sustaining any harm’, the reality is that asbestos is an invidious, invasive and life-threatening substance which, if even a single fibre is inhaled, can cause cancer in the victim, a fact borne out by the 4,000 plus deaths from asbestos-related cancer each year in the UK.

Are we missing the point here? Lord Young has chosen to completely ignore the fact that ANY WORKPLACE HAS THE POTENTIALTO BE HAZARDOUS OR INJURIOUS TO HEALTH.

It is quite astonishing that a government funded report can blandly state that: ‘low hazard workplaces are those where the risk of injury or death is minimal. These include shops, offices and classrooms…’

Perhaps the HSE should have made Lord Young aware of its own research on asbestos-related deaths before rushing to endorse his various ill-judged pronouncements on the relative dangers of ‘low hazard’ workplaces.

John Lewis PLC and Morris and Spottiswood each admitted three charges under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

If you have been exposed to asbestos or any substance injurious to your health and wish to discuss your case, please contact us on FREEPHONE 0800 163 978.

BP now under attack for a ‘culture of complacency’ in oil spill hearing

In stark contrast to the views expressed on Monday by Fred Bartlit, the panel’s chief investigator, new attacks were launched yesterday against BP and the other leading companies implicated in the April oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bill Reilly, a co-chairman of the presidential commission investigating the accident said:

“They all suffered from a ‘culture of complacency’ about safety. There was not a culture of safety on that rig. BP, Halliburton and Transocean are in need of top-to-bottom reform.”

The remarks from the panel’s chief investigator, Fred Bartlit, on Monday suggesting that greed had not been a factor in the tragedy and that BP, contrary to the assertions of some Democratic members of Congress, had not cut corners to save money, sparked wonderment and anger in some quarters yesterday.

Most controversial were Mr Bartlit’s comments repudiating the allegations of cost-cutting. “To date, we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favour dollars over safety,” he told the hearing.

“Absolutely absurd,” declared Daniel Becnel, a lawyer suing BP and others over the spill, upon hearing of Mr Bartlit’s assessment. “The reason is it so absurd is because BP is known to paste over safety, especially if it involved money and downtime. They couldn’t afford any more downtime on that rig.”

The presidential commission will present its final report to the White House in January. It is seeking subpoena powers to oblige some key figures to testify, but some Republicans are objecting. The main focus of its probe is the apparently faulty cementing process that was the responsibility primarily of Halliburton and the failure of engineers properly to heed warning signs from a key pressure test that was conducted just prior to the explosion.

The more critical comments from Mr Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, yesterday were echoed by another co-chairman of the panel, Bob Graham, an ex-US Senator from Florida. “There were a series of almost incredible failures in the days and hours leading up to the disaster,” he told the hearing.

From the comments now emerging from the presidential commission, it seems that the panel is divided on the key issue of cost v safety.

Mr Bartlit’s views have been seriously undermined by the contrasting opinons of Mr. Reilly and Mr. Graham, his co-chairmen, which at least auger well for a full and detailed review of each company’s approach to safety management procedures and the actions of all three in the days leading up to the disaster.

BP did not put cost before safety claims oil spill probe chairman

A White House inquiry into the Gulf oil disaster has found “no instance” of BP putting cash before safety.

The report’s findings, delivered yesterday, will be embarrassing for Mr Obama who held BP responsible for the disaster, savaging its then chief executive Tony Hayward. Mr Hayward has since stood down and been replaced by Bob Dudley. At the time critics claimed that Mr Obama was trying to shift the blame from American firms.

The spill which pumped 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over five months was America’s worst environmental disaster. It was triggered by a blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig on 20th April this year which killed 11 workers.

The oil spill commission’s chief counsel, Fred Bartlit, told the start of a two-day hearing: “We see no instance where a decision-making person or group of people sat there aware of safety risks, aware of costs and opted to give up safety for costs. We do not say everything done was perfectly safe. We’re saying that people have said people traded safety for dollars. We studied the hell out of this. We welcome anybody who gives us something we missed.”

In a seeming vindication of BP, which was widely condemned for the catastrophe, Mr Bartlit said the panel agreed with about 90 per cent of the findings of the company’s internal inquiry. This found flaws with American contractor Halliburton’s cement work and the maintenance performed by rig owner Transocean on critical pieces of equipment.

Transocean has denied the criticisms and said BP’s Macondo well design was a key factor in the accident. Halliburton has also defended its cement work on the well, and blamed other actions for causing the explosion. However, last month Bartlit released a stinging report that said Halliburton used flawed cement in the well.

In our view Mr Bartlit’s admission that “we do not say everything done was perfectly safe” is far from a vindication of BP, Halliburton or Transocean. We are sure that the victims’ families would like to know exactly which aspects of the rig’s operation were unsafe and we feel certain that their legal representatives will be urged to pursue the details of the events leading up to the disaster.  

The families are expecting the commission to answer the fundamental questions surrounding their loved ones’ deaths. It is too easy to arrive at the conclusion no one or no single group was to blame because there is no evidence of deliberate decison making which sacrificed rig safety for cost. The job of the commission is surely to thoroughly examine and investigate the failings of operating systems and safety procedures, or are the families supposed to shrug their shoulders and accept that because nobody meant to harm their loved ones then nobody should be held to account for their deaths.

Just because nobody took premeditated action to cut corners on safety does not mean that Deepwater Horizon was a safe place to be on 20th April this year. The hearing continues.

Six construction site deaths in one week

Analysis by construction union UCATT has discovered that six construction workers were killed in the week that the Government announced it was slashing funding to the Health and Safety Executive by 35%.

With fears growing that the cuts will mean that frontline inspectors will be reduced and the recovery in construction resulting in inexperienced companies and workers entering the industry, deaths are likely to increase.

Alan Ritchie, General Secretary of UCATT, said: “Every one of these deaths was an individual tragedy. Each death underlines the dangers faced by construction workers. Sadly these risks will increase if the already low levels of inspections and enforcement activities are reduced.”

The sad statistics are as follows:

Saturday 16th October – a worker was electrocuted on a refurbishment job in Houslow, West London.

Monday 18th October – a 23 year old man, was killed in a trench collapse in Heaton, West Yorkshire.

Thursday 21st October – two workers were killed in Worlington, Suffolk when a wall on a barn conversion collapsed.

Friday 22nd October – a 65 year old man was killed in Bollington near Macclesfield, when a lorry load of bricks crushed him.

Friday 22nd October – a 55 year old man, died after falling from height in Ilkeston, Derbyshire.

The recent deaths coincided with Conservative MP Christopher Chope tabling a Private Members Bill on the back of Lord Young’s report, which would loosen the rules about reporting accidents under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR). Research by Liverpool University has found that just 32% of reportable injuries of employees and 12% of reportable injuries suffered by the self-employed were recorded under RIDDOR.

We believe that the construction industry is facing a very difficult time and that worker safety is in danger of being compromised and lives put at risk. It is clear that increased vigilance is necessary to ensure safety at a time when the government is attempting to roll back regulation and weaken the existing laws. A major problem is that accidents are not being reported. Weakening the rules will make the problem worse and will further increase the danger faced by workers…a point which unfortunately has not registered with Lord Young, who seems more interested in cutting corners in the name of cutting costs. 

Bonnar & Company specialises in construction industry accidents. We offer expert legal advice free of charge to direct employees, sub-contractors, the self-employed and apprentices on FREEPHONE 0800 163 978

Health and safety inspections already at too low a level says TUC

With the ink still drying on Lord Young’s report on the Compensation Culture, the TUC reports that almost half (49 per cent) of workplaces in the UK have never been visited by a health and safety inspector.

The TUC’s biennial survey of safety reps, published today, finds nearly one in 10 says that the last inspection at their workplace was more than three years ago, while a further 15 per cent say it was between one and three years ago. Only around a quarter (27 per cent) say their workplace has received a visit within the last 12 months.

In small companies who employ less than 50 people only 16 per cent have had an inspection in the last year. Even among large workplaces with over 1,000 workers, only one third (33 per cent) have been inspected within the last 12 months.

Despite the low level of inspection, the TUC believes that enforcement has an effect on employers taking action to make improvements in health and safety and cut the number of accidents and injuries at work. The proportion of employers who make some improvements because of the possibility of an inspection has jumped up to 61 per cent from 52 per cent in the last survey, and two thirds of employers do more than the minimum to comply with a legal enforcement notice.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:

‘Knowing that an inspector is likely to visit is one of the key drivers to changing employers’ behaviour and making the workplace safer and healthier. ‘More than a million workers are currently suffering from an illness or injury caused by their work, and in 2009 over 30 million days were lost due to work-related sickness absence. This time off work cost employers £3.7 billion – yet much of this could health have been prevented if they had ensured their workplaces were safe.

Deep cuts in spending, and a reduced visit programme as recommended by Lord Young, will make it easier for employers to avoid their obligations under the law to protect their staff at work. The Health and Safety Executive has just seen its government funding cut by 35 per cent.

These are worrying times for the UK workforce as Lord Young’s recommendations to government seek to reduce the health and safety legislation ‘burden’ on  British industry in the name of enhancing efficiency and improving competitiveness. As the TUC has pointed out, the cost to industry in terms of days lost and payments made to people unable to work due to injury or industrial illness far outwiegh any short term gains that cutting so-called health and safety ‘red tape’ might deliver.  The evidence suggests that more, not fewer accidents at work can be expected if HSE inspections are decreased from an already low level. 

If you have been hurt or injured in an accident at work, or if you have been diagnosed with an industrial illness or disease you can call us FREE on 0800 163 978 for a no obligation review of your case by a personal injury solicitor.