Author Archives: Nick Underwood

Health and Safety Executive inspections focus on occupational lung disease

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is inspecting fabricated metal businesses across Great Britain to check that they are managing the respiratory risks of welding fumes and metalworking fluids.

From today, World Asthma Day 2021, health and safety inspectors across GB will be targeting businesses whose workers undertake welding and use metalworking fluids to check that they are complying with the welding fumes guidance and metalworking fluid guidance. During the visits, dutyholders will need to demonstrate they have measures in place to manage risks to protect their workers from occupational lung disease and ‘WorkRight’ to keep workers healthy and safe.

Last year in the UK, 12,000 people died from lung diseases estimated to be linked to past exposure, from work in a range of sectors. There is scientific evidence that exposure to welding fumes can cause lung cancer and exposure to metalworking fluids can cause a range of lung diseases, including occupational asthma and occupational hypersensitivity pneumonitis (OHP), which are debilitating diseases with life changing impact.

Inspectors will be looking for evidence of employers and workers knowing the risks, planning their work and using the right controls to protect workers’ health. If necessary, they will use enforcement to make sure workers are protected.

While the primary focus will be on lung health during this programme of inspections, if an HSE inspector identifies any other areas of concern, they will take the necessary enforcement action to ensure these are dealt with. This will include making sure that businesses are COVID-secure and doing all they can to protect their workers from the risk of coronavirus.

HSE’s Acting Head of Manufacturing and Utilities Unit, Clare Owen, said: “12,000 people died last year from lung diseases estimated to be linked to past exposure from work, with thousands more cases of ill-health and working days lost. We want businesses whose workers use metalworking fluids and undertake welding activities to take action now to protect their workers’ respiratory health.

“Through visiting metal fabrication businesses, our inspectors are able to speak to a range of dutyholders and look at the measures they have in place to comply with the law and protect workers from lung diseases such as occupational asthma and lung cancer.

“Our inspection initiative aims to ensure employers and workers are aware of the risks associated with the activities they do. They must recognise these dangers and manage these risks through reducing exposure. Dutyholders need to do the right thing, for example, through completing a risk assessment, ensuring workers are trained and reducing exposure using local exhaust ventilation (LEV) and using suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to protect workers, where required.”

Construction workers urged to open up over stress

The construction industry is being encouraged to start talking about employee stress with the launch of a joint initiative between the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) and Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

The CLC said the move was in response to “unprecedented strains” on workers as companies adopted new ways of working in response to the pandemic.

The HSE has published ‘Talking Toolkit’, a guide on how to prevent work related stress in construction.

Now the Construction Leadership Council is encouraging all businesses from across the industry to put their guide into the hands of their teams, inspiring better conversations to identify and manage stress for construction employees.

HSE chief inspector of construction Sarah Jardine said: “We have worked with industry partners to develop the toolkit, which specifically homes in on the particular work-related stress challenges that may be experienced by those working in construction. Stress, depression and anxiety are the second biggest cause of ill-health in the sector, so tackling them offers the chance to make a real difference to thousands working in the sector”.

Construction Leadership Council co-chair Andy Mitchell said: “While the industry has made an outstanding effort to protect employees from the effects of the pandemic in the last year, it is all too clear that workers continue to be at risk from work-related stress. The Talking Toolkit offers free, practical help developed by experts to help release pressure from the workplace. The CLC strongly encourages everyone to pick up a copy.”

Construction Manager

Covid site safety here to stay, says BESA

The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) has become the first training provider to fully integrate Site Operating Procedures (SOPs) into its health and safety courses.

Understanding SOPs will also become a pre-requisite for anyone applying for or updating their SKILLcard so making it a requirement for working on site. The online BESA Academy has embedded a series of mandatory SOP questions into the existing health and safety test that forms part of the SKILLcard application process.

SOPs were developed by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) to ensure all construction sites could continue operating during the Covid-19 pandemic by following strict guidelines that protected workers and minimised transmission of the virus.

The guidance was regularly updated to reflect changing conditions during the crisis and the requirements are expected to become a long-term part of the construction landscape despite the easing of lockdown restrictions.

During the pandemic, the BESA Academy developed an online SOP training module which leads to a certificate proving the individual worker understands the requirements and has been trained to work safely on site. This standalone module is freely available to all and can be completed online in 15 minutes.

The SOP content is regularly revised to reflect changes in site guidance and has already been updated seven times. Anyone who has already completed the course is automatically alerted to log-in and update their training.

“This is a responsible and forward thinking move,” said Rachel Davidson, director of certification at BESA. “Embedding the SOP questions into the SKILLcard process means it will become standard industry practice, which all employers and workforces can follow to make sites even safer.

“Every site operative can now prove they have been trained to work in a competent, compliant and safe manner and are providing further protection against the spread of Covid-19,” added Davidson, who has overall responsibility for the Engineering Services SKILLcard managed by BESA.

“While lockdown restrictions are easing and everyone is looking forward to returning to something like normality, we must remain vigilant. The construction industry did a fantastic job during the height of the crisis by managing sites carefully so they could keep operating, but we can’t let our guard down now.

“By making SOPs a regular part of health and safety training we can help the whole industry navigate the next stages,” said Ms Davidson.

ACR News

HSE issues pressure valve safety alert for tanker operators

The Health and Safety Executive has issued a safety alert to fleet operators to check the pressure relief valves on road tankers are operating correctly.

It follows an incident in 2020 when a valve got stuck open and was venting hazardous vapour.

Tank containers and road tankers used for flammable, corrosive and toxic liquids and gases will normally have a valve fitted to prevent damage to the tank from changes in the internal pressure. Haulage containers used for less hazardous liquids and gases may also have a valve.

These valves should be inspected and maintained in line with the manufacturer’s instructions.

In April 2020 the driver of an HGV hauling nitric acid noticed vapour coming from the tanker barrel in the area of the pressure/vacuum relief valve. He stopped at the roadside and rang the emergency services. Police closed the road and it remained closed until the tanker barrel had been fitted with a replacement valve. The tanker continued the short distance to its intended destination where it was safely discharged.

During what should have been a momentary operation to vent the road tanker, the vacuum relief element of the valve became stuck in an open position allowing an uncontrolled escape of hazardous vapour. The relief valve fitted to the tanker barrel had been modified in a way that made it unsafe.

Some valve designs require a special tool to dismantle them for servicing. Investigations by HSE found a technician had welded a nut on to the top of the valve to allow it to be dismantled without the use of a special tool.

The nut prevented the free movement of the valve stem, resulting in the valve sticking open and releasing hazardous vapours.

Users are advised to visually inspect the pressure/vacuum relief valves fitted to tank containers and road tankers. The inspection should establish if there have been any unauthorised modifications made to the valve, particularly items added to the valve to allow for easier dismantling.

Inspectors witnessing pressure testing of tanker relief valves may need further information and training so they can visually identify unsafe modifications made to valves.

Where valves have both a pressure and vacuum relief function, then both the over-pressure and under-pressure safety functions should be verified during the pressure test.

Anyone working on relief valves should be competent to do so. Valves should be serviced following the valve manufacturer’s guidance. Valves should not have temporary nor permanent modifications in order to by-pass the need for special tools to carry out the work. Where a modification is felt necessary, the valve manufacturer or similar competent person should be consulted.

BUILDING RESILIENCE

COVID-19 has shown that OSH is critical to creating safe working environments. As this year’s ‘SafeDay’ underlines, investment in OSH research, systems and training is important for responding to future crises.

First observed by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2003, the World Day for Safety and Health at Work (or ‘SafeDay’) has become an annual event celebrated on 28 April.

Held to promote the global prevention of occupational accidents and diseases, the awareness-raising campaign has a different focus each year. SafeDay 2021 builds on 2020’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic by emphasising the importance of investing in OSH now in order to capitalise on safe working environments in times of crisis.

To coincide with April’s virtual event, the ILO will publish a report, the findings of which it will use to inform preparations for future global incidents.

What seismic events such as COVID-19 and the Beirut explosion in August 2020 underline is the importance of adopting resilient OSH systems to mitigate the risks presented by dynamic events.

‘The OSH community has a very solid conceptual foundation in the risk assessment approach and the hierarchy of controls,’ notes William Cockburn, head of the prevention and research unit at EU-OSHA, who says the profession has responded well to the pandemic.  

Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at IOSH, concurs. She emphasises the importance of a preventative approach to occupational injury and illness. She also highlights other key features of an effective OSH management system, which will support the preparedness and response to dynamic events and risk management.

These include visible leadership, with a strong commitment to health, safety and wellbeing; worker involvement with two-way feedback channels; and a systematic ‘plan, do, check, act’ approach.

‘It’s important that you have the right competencies for assigned roles and responsibilities,’ she says. ‘Effective communication strategies and the right controls, for which you monitor/review/take action, while ensuring that you’ve got good risk management practice in place.’

ROOT AND BRANCH RETHINK

Euan Ronald, national head of safety, health and environment for BAE Systems Australia (see On the radar, overleaf), says that an additional strength of the OSH profession is that it’s used to operating across all phases of emergency management.

‘Leveraging our internal and external networks, we act as a conduit to facilitate information flow and support action. We are one of those few professions that touch all spans and layers of an organisation.’

A particularly significant contribution that the OSH community has made is the delivery of practical, industry-targeted guidance to help businesses adopt safe work practices.

EU-OSHA, for example, has issued two publications, one of which, COVID-19: Back to the workplace: adapting workplaces and protecting workers, outlines the measures needed to set up a safe working environment.

Lacye Groening, junior technical officer for OSH at the ILO, says that one of the major developments over the past year has been lockdowns and stay-at-home orders affecting a large section of the workforce. This resulted in a dramatic spike in telework – an issue covered in detail in the SafeDay report.

Not only has this upheaval created isolation issues and new psychosocial risks for workers, but it has also blurred the lines between the home and work environment.

Businesses have been forced to radically rethink and adapt their management styles with some countries and sectors proving more successful at this than others.

A SILVER LINING

Dr Michelle Robertson is executive director for the Office Ergonomics Research Committee, an industry research consortium based in the US.

She says its members have taken innovative steps to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and working from home. They quickly concluded that a long-term approach to the pandemic was needed but that employees required immediate help, particularly from an ergonomics and mental health wellbeing point of view.

‘It’s the psychological stress of working at home and balancing that with connectedness with the organisation and other team members,’ she says.

‘Then there’s the physical strain of working in a poorly-designed work area, with no ergonomic chair, no dedicated workspace and lack of ergonomic training. What is the guidance that the organisation can give?’

To support this move to working from home, companies have provided virtual ergonomic assessments and guides and followed up with online training to help staff set up workstations correctly.

They have also started to create hybrid work hubs, so that workers can return to an office environment in the knowledge that it is safe. This has required them to respond to OSH requirements such as cleaning protocols, density issues and air circulation.

‘We have to be resilient because things can change quickly, so managers need to monitor the situation and follow the World Health Organization [WHO] or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to keep the platform of response the same,’ she says.

For last year’s SafeDay event, Michelle participated in an international expert panel on the ILO’s ‘Stop the pandemic’ webinar to explore OSH solutions for working from home.

‘As long as we can set up the work/life balance for the mental and physical needs and meet these working challenges with creative ergonomic solutions,’ she says. ‘The current situation provides us with exciting opportunities to innovate new ways of working. I call it the silver lining of COVID.’

IS FOOD SOLD THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA SAFE?

At-home food selling via Facebook, eBay and the like is all the rage thanks to lockdowns. The creativity is welcome, but are many businesses ignoring health and safety regulations? Nick Hughes reports.

Covid-19 has been a boon for home-based food businesses. Whether it’s furloughed chefs preparing restaurant-quality meals from their kitchens or domestic cooks knocking up hearty stews and curries for home delivery or collection, entrepreneurial types have found creative ways to make money from food during lockdowns.

About 44% of new food businesses started since the first lockdown are home-based, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Yet the rise in at-home food selling is also causing alarm among food safety professionals.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) recently expressed concern at the growing number of home food businesses that have sprung up during the covid lockdown. Often selling through social media and other informal networks and apps, many are not registering as food businesses as they are legally required to be, meaning local authorities cannot check that hygiene and food standards are being met. CIEH president Julie Barratt warned “they won’t cause big outbreaks of food poisoning, but there is every chance that they are making people ill”.

So what’s being done to strike the balance between encouraging the development of innovative foodservice models while managing the risk to consumers?

The concept of ‘social selling’, and the associated risk, is nothing new. Two years ago I investigated the trend for The Grocer and found multiple examples of individuals offering curries, samosas, pies, pastries and all manner of other foods for sale via platforms such as Facebook, eBay and Amazon. As one experienced environmental health practitioner (EHP) told me at the time: “The more you look the more you find.”

The most obvious health risk from at-home food production is where proper food hygiene practices are not being followed on storage, preparation and transport. Beyond that there are other serious concerns. Allergen information, for instance, should be provided both before the purchase of the food is completed, either in writing or over the phone, and again when the food is delivered. Yet such information is often difficult to find or entirely absent from online food listings.

Regulators, meanwhile, are struggling to keep up with the trend towards online selling both of home-cooked dishes and of products such as herbs and spices being traded in bulk over the internet. The CIEH notes the pandemic has already put local authority and environmental health teams under considerable strain with resources close to breaking point. As such, EHPs are having to focus on those businesses that pose the greatest risk.

That’s if they know those businesses exist. In a recent article for New Food magazine, Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, called food sold via the internet “the wild west of the food market” with businesses often unregistered and uninspected. “When I talk to many representatives from the food industry and I bring up this topic, they roll their eyes,” Elliott wrote. “They believe they are overregulated, yet just a few clicks away the same produce they sell can be sourced from vendors who probably don’t know what the FSA is, let alone worry about incurring its wrath.”

For a foodservice sector facing financial devastation from the impact of coronavirus, the risk of legitimate pubs and restaurants offering takeaways or home deliveries being undercut by unregistered domestic sellers is yet another bitter pill to swallow.

Elliott challenged the FSA to set out the steps it is taking to police at-home food businesses. Taking up the challenge, Julie Pierce, FSA director for Wales, information and science, wrote in New Food that Elliott was right to be concerned. “The trend for food sold over the internet is both growing and changing at a rapid rate. Finding a neat regulatory answer is difficult,” she stated.

Pierce noted that the FSA has been rolling out its digital ‘register a food business’ tool, which allows businesses to register digitally with their local authority using a smartphone, tablet or PC. Almost 200 local authorities are now using the system with 33,720 businesses registering since the start of the pandemic. The FSA ultimately wants all businesses, wherever they are based, to have access to this technology.

Those businesses that do register, however, are unlikely to be inspected any time soon. Environmental health teams were already losing headcount before the pandemic as a result of swingeing local authority cuts. Hygiene inspections were then put on hold during the first lockdown and since then a scaled-back operation has focused on high-risk cases.

EHPs have turned to video calls to help clear the backlog of inspections as well as to offer guidance to new sellers, but as Barratt told BBC News, remote inspections are unable to reveal things like ingredients past their use-by date, or rat droppings under the cooker.

Pierce revealed the FSA has also been working closely with key food delivery aggregators like Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Just Eat to use the FSA’s food hygiene rating scheme to determine whether they will allow businesses onto their platforms. Just Eat now displays the official food hygiene rating of every restaurant partner for customers to see. Last summer, the company revealed it had removed 35 restaurants from its register for irregularities around food hygiene ratings.

The FSA now wants other platforms to work with it collaboratively and take responsibility for the food businesses selling through their sites, according to Pierce. Following The Grocer report, eBay added information about the requirement to register as a food business to its food safety policy. But given the responsibility to adhere to relevant food laws is on the seller, social media giants have little incentive to properly police the food being offered via their platforms. Meanwhile, the number of platforms through which people can offer food is proliferating all the time.

Experts suggest the aim should not be to stifle the development of new food business models, but to bring them within the regulatory orbit in a way that protects the public. “We don’t want to discourage businesses, we want to work with them to get it right first time,” said Barrett, adding that the best way for that to happen was for new businesses to register with their local authorities and talk to their environmental health teams before opening. “That way they can open with confidence and peace of mind that they are supporting their local communities, not harming them.”

Growing call for action on stranded seafarers

As the Covid-19 crisis swept across the globe with restrictions on travel and trade resulting in closed ports and cancelled flights, it began to cause severe delays to the ordinary rotation of cargo vessel crews between their ships and home ports. It soon became clear that this was not just a liability for the commercial shipping sector, but also a growing humanitarian crisis for the thousands of seafarers who are the engine of global trade. To protect global supply chains and seafarers’ health and safety, we sounded the alarm calling for critical crew changes last year.

Over 400,000 seafarers remain stranded at sea, and many have been working for up to 17 months, much longer than the industry norm and the regulatory limit of 11 months. A further 400,000 seafarers remain ashore waiting to relieve them, often with little or no pay. The International Chamber of Shipping has estimated that the number of seafarers affected could soon reach one million if this issue is not addressed urgently.

This issue is presenting significant health and safety concerns to the already elevated mental and physical stress seafarers are facing and has the potential to result in major safety risks when exhausted seafarers handle dangerous or perishable cargoes. The environmental consequences of a serious maritime accident involving these cargoes could be catastrophic for our oceans and our security.

Urgent action

In an open letter to the United Nations, and in consultation with key marine organisations, a consortium of international investors representing US$2 trillion of assets under management, led by Fidelity, have called for urgent action to end this humanitarian crisis.

In the letter, the group reiterated the need to classify seafarers as “key workers” to enable them to continue to perform their essential services in a safe and secure manner. And as the most effective way to resolve this crisis, we are also calling for seafarers to have access to vaccines with immediate effect.

The consortium of fund managers collectively invests in every part of the shipping transportation value chain, including ship owners, logistics providers, management companies and charterers. Signatories include Achmea Investment Management, ACTIAM, Ethos Foundation, Lombard Odier Investment Management and MFS Investment Management.

Active engagement

Shipping is responsible for 90% of global trade and holds the key not just to a global economic recovery from the devastation of Covid-19, but to maintaining our current way of life.

In the open letter to the United Nations, we noted that any solution has to be premised on a multi-lateral approach aimed at facilitating seafarer movement while protecting local communities from re-infection risk.

As investors, we also have a responsibility with regard to the companies of which we are lenders or owners to raise our concerns and seek constructive responses. We will engage our relevant portfolio companies to communicate our expectations around these measures.