‘WORSE THAN THE VICTORIAN ERA’ –T UC exposes conditions of up to 11 million workers

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‘UP to 11 million UK workers could face serious health problems from prolonged standing at work, and they are offered less protection than employees from the Victorian era,’ says a new report from the TUC, just published.

The report appears in the latest edition of the TUC-backed health and safety magazine ‘Hazards’.

It says that, despite calls at the end of the 19th century for action to be taken about the dire health consequences for London’s shop assistants from constant standing, the problems are as acute today as they were in Victorian Times.

‘Every year over two million sick days are lost due to lower limb disorders, with nearly 200,000 people reporting lower limb ailments caused or made worse by their job,’ the TUC says.

Workers who spend most of the working day on their feet are at risk of work-related varicose veins, poor circulation and swelling in the feet and legs, foot problems, joint damage, heart and circulatory problems and pregnancy difficulties.

A ‘Hazards’ survey of UK union national safety officers was conducted for the report.

Unions representing shopworkers, teachers, library staff, production line workers, warehouse staff, museum workers, school supervisors, train drivers, printers, hospitality and casino workers and engineers all reported standing-related health problems experienced by their members.

The TUC said: ‘The health effects associated with prolonged standing vary with the job – whether for example, you are stood still, required to lift materials or operate machinery, or whether you are required to walk some or all the time.

‘Constant walking, particularly on hard surfaces, can cause progressive damage to bones in the foot, including the heel.

‘With each step, the heel lands on the floor with a force of between one and a half and two times a person’s body weight.

‘The way some jobs are performed can greatly exacerbate strain on joints and muscles.

‘Badly designed checkouts require retail workers to stand with their feet fixed while twisting their upper bodies and moving goods.

‘Shopworkers’ union USDAW estimates that a checkout worker lifts up to two tonnes of goods in an average four-hour shift.’

Commenting on the report, the TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: ‘It’s quite incredible that some staff today would be better off under Victorian working conditions.

‘There really isn’t any need for the excessive standing on the job that this report highlights.

‘Most jobs don’t need people to be on their feet all day and bosses need to get over the fact that someone sat down is protecting their health, not being lazy.

‘Simple adjustments to the way millions of people work will save countless sick days each year and stop British workers from, in some cases, dying on their feet.’

Hazards Editor Rory O’Neill said: ‘Britain’s stand-and-deliver workplaces are causing disfiguring, disabling and potentially deadly health problems.

‘For some circulatory conditions, for example atherosclerosis, prolonged standing could be as risky as smoking; it could cause hypertension equivalent to 20 years of ageing.

‘In pregnancy, both the mother and the foetus can face unacceptable and avoidable risks.’

O’Neill said that in other countries, like Sweden for example, it is rare for workers to be required to stand for more than two hours per day.

Wendy Murphy, an organiser with retail union Usdaw in the north-west, says plans by high street chain Boots to replace checkouts with a standing room only alternative have caused dismay among its staff.

She says her members have been offered ‘perch’ seats, but added: ‘Although the idea of the perch is to relieve staff standing constantly whilst serving on the tills, they can only use it in between serving customers.

‘There is always a queue of customers so the opportunity to use the perch doesn’t arise so it’s pretty pointless being there.’

Usdaw believes the failure to provide suitable seating is a breach of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations.

Several workers are interviewed in the TUC report.

Jim Marshall, who started work as an apprentice in heavy engineering in Glasgow in 1963, at the age of 16, said: ‘I was a turner. This meant standing for at least eight hours, sometimes 12, a day operating a turning lathe.

‘Some had wooden duck boards, but often I had to stand on concrete.

‘After about three years I first noticed I had a varicose vein running up the inside of my right leg.’

By the time Jim was in his 30s, both his legs were covered in unsightly and sometimes irritable veins.

He said: ‘After a discussion that involved me relating my work history, my GP suggested that I have the veins removed.’

It took two surgeons, one on each leg, around three hours to remove the veins.

‘The problem is that having veins removed when you are relatively young means that others could develop and there are a finite number in your legs.

‘This could lead to serious problems in later life.’

Allie Ewan, a UNISON health and safety rep at a library in Taunton, reported that on late opening days, staff can spend eight hours out of a 10.5 hour shift on their feet.

Allie said most of her colleagues considered standing as ‘part of the job’ and would not complain.

Rich Thompson undertook a union health and safety survey in his print shop.

‘There were two stand out results,’ says the TUC report. ‘Workers were getting bad backs and bad feet.

‘The Amicus-GPM safety rep at Amcor Flexibles Colodense in Bristol found over half of his workmates were suffering from foot or knee problems, ranging from sore heels to aching, itchy feet.’

Back problems were linked to work on a cylinder wash machine.

‘The findings were instrumental in getting a new cylinder wash machine,’ said Rich, ‘and as a result we would hope to see fewer back injuries.’

David Craner was employed for 13 years as a school site manager in Weymouth.

A highly qualified UNISON branch health and safety officer and safety rep, he was very aware of safety and his rights.

But this didn’t stop his employer from terminating the 58-year-old’s contract on medical grounds in February 2005 when bad knees, the result of a workplace accident, made it difficult for him to cope with prolonged standing.

He says two operations made very little difference and he now has other problems affecting both legs, which make prolonged standing, sitting or bending very painful.

‘This accident has cost my job, my tied accommodation, my credit status and my leisure interest,’ he said.

Virgin Trains driver Martyn Hazelhurst, 38, was awarded £41,000 in disability discrimination damages at a June 2005 employment tribunal in Exeter.

The ASLEF member claimed that under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) the company should have done more to help him to return to light duties after a knee operation on injuries sustained in a rail crash in 2000.

The painful injury made it impossible for him to cope with prolonged standing.