Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Elf and Safety in the Media

Imagine you are a newspaper editor, a Rottweiler like Kelvin McKenzie or Anne Robinson perhaps. Or maybe you see yourself as someone a little more cerebral, Andrew Neil, say, or Rosie Boycott. Or maybe you want to go the whole nine yards and fancy yourself in the role of Daily Bugle Editor J Jonah Jameson from the Spiderman comics and movies.

Either way, you have a lot of power, you can set the tone of the paper, decide what kind of stories it covers – and what it omits, decide whether to support a particular cause – or to attack it.

Against this level of control, what chance do the poor readers have?

Perhaps the first step is to realise what else the papers could be covering instead of bashing minorities and devoting page after page to celebrities.

Let’s take a practical example.

A number of papers, the Daily Mail being a particular culprit, moan relentlessly about “elf and safety” as though regulations aimed at protecting people was an inherently evil thing.

Oh yeah? Well, lets have a look through the pages of three random issues of the H&S trade magazine “Health and Safety at Work” (May and Sep 2011). What we find are the following :

A story about car part manufacturer Calsonic Kansei who were fined £495,000 for an incident where a worker suffered fatal head injuries when a forklift truck reversed into him. He was due to take voluntary redundancy on the day of the accident. The company had already been warned about the poor control of it’s fork lift working procedures when a fork-lift ran over an employees ankle two years ago.

The case of Piperdam Golf and Leisure, who failed to control bacteria in their water supply – resulting in the death of a guest at the centre. The head of the Crown Office said that the company’s control measures were inadequate and that the guest would still be alive if the company had met its statutory obligations. The company were fined £120,000.

Demolition contractor Micor and their subcontractor Crane and Transport Services were fined £160,000 for an incident where a 31-tonne concrete beam fell from a low-loader and fatally crushed a worker. The HSE said that “There was no forethought or planning of how to attach a very large lump of concrete, which was an inherently unsafe load, to the back of the lorry”. Perhaps, dear reader, you will agree with me the perhaps risk assessments aren’t such a bad idea after all. . .

Dutch owned firm (Coolrec Group) who supplied recycling systems were fined £82,000 for a plant that had poor guarding, resulting in an operator getting their arm caught in rotating machinery. Emergency services took 45 minutes to free the victim but his arm could not be saved and had to be amputated below the shoulder. The sentencing judge said that whilst Coolrec was not alone in causing injuries, it had “designed a system that was dangerous and had wholly inadequate provisions for guarding”.

The story of a truck driver who was fatally electrocuted when the crane on his lorry touched overhead 11kV power lines. The HSE commented that the driver had not been provided with suitable training and supervision, particularly in terms of the risk from overhead cables. The yard manager said that he knew of the overhead cables but “did not consider them dangerous”. Commenting further, the HSE added that “proper training, simple checks and procedures could have prevented this horrific accident”. The company was fined £50,000.

An incident at Corus Steel in which poor guarding on a pipe strapping machine resulted in a worker receiving serious chest and abdominal injuries, including several broken bones. The HSE commented that, as well as the poor guarding, the company had failed to follow its written safe system of work. The company was fined £20,000.

Serco and Birse Civilis, who were contractors working on the M5, failed to inform a worker who was working in the pitch dark that there was a 12 metre vertical drop immediately behind the crash barrier. The worker hopped over the barrier, thinking that the foliage he could see was bushes (instead of the canopies of trees that it actually was) and fell to his death. The companies were fined a total of some £200,000.

A skip company allowed untrained workers to maintain the wheels and tyres of waste-moving vehicles. The worker (together with colleagues) had tried to fix a "split rim" wheel by using spot welds. These failed when the the tyre was inflated, sending the rim and flange directly into the workers face and chest. He was thrown into the air and hit a loading shovel head-first. He died from his injuries n hospital later that day. The HSE inspector commented that "There's enough compressed air in a split rim wheel of this type to send a family car 26 metres into the air". The company was fined £150,000, plus £50,000 in costs.

The cautionary tale of Greenway Environmetal, who did not think through the risks of shredding large batches of aerosol cans (which often contained flammable contents). An explosion resulted which spread over more than 10,000square metres and required 25 fire engines to bring it under control. The HSE commented that "there could easily have been fatalities". The company was fined £37,500.

Northumberland County Council were fined £21,000 for poor warnings that there were overhead power cables at depot. A lorry drove off with its crane still extended and brought down the power line. The case is an example of how workplace accidents are often caused by multiple effects because the alarm on the crane (which would have warned the driver that he was driving off with the crane still extended) had been disabled.

The case of INEOS oil refinery at Grangemouth. Important procedures on how to deal with high pressures in the pipelines were communicated by word of mouth and not documented anywhere. Inevitably, the day came when neither the control room operator nor the external technician were staff who had not been informed of what to do when the oil pressure became dangerously high. As a result the pipeline burst and sprayed highly flammable oil over adjacent pipelines. The oil could easily have ignited, resulting in a much more severe incident. The company was fined £100,000

These were not “accidents” – they were all instances of employers putting their employees in harms way. They were, essentially, acts of negligence.

Why were they not reported in the mainstream media? Why is there no Daily Mail campaign to “put an end” to these this kind of tragedy? Why is it so much more important for the national press to report poppy burners or “bogus asylum seekers” than to go after companies that show scant regard for the safety of their employees?

You can find out more about the valuable work of the HSE by visiting their website. A good place to start is probably their press centre

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