Sunday, 11 October 2015

Thanet Council: Two Fingers to White Finger

Apology. This post was written in a hurry and probably reads very badly.
Like most council’s across the country Thanet District Council (TDC) has a Governance and Audit Committee. The purpose of the committee is to oversee the financial and operational management of the council by evaluating performance against TDCs corporate plan and budgets and by considering internal and external audit reports. It also keeps TDCs Corporate Risk Register (CRR) under review. The purpose of the CRR is, to put it crudely, to work out the likelihood of any of TDCs major operations or processes fucking up and causing embarrassment or serious problems for senior officers and political bosses.
On 24 September 2014, TDC’s Governance and Audit Committee met to consider the CRR. Amongst the risks included was health and safety. The officer responsible for managing this risk was, at the time of the meeting, the then Director of Operational Services Mark Seed.  His assessment was that health and safety had a medium to low risk of fucking up – a classification which suggests that Mr Seed and other council bosses were taking care of the safety business pretty good. Or so it seemed!
8 weeks later, at the next  meeting of the Governance and Audit Committee, held on 10 December 2014, councillors were told that Mr Seed now rated the chances of health and safety fucking up as being medium to high. I’ve checked all the paperwork from the meeting but I can find no explanation about why, from being a low to medium risk, Mr Seed had decided that health and safety had suddenly become a medium to high risk. Clearly something serious had gone wrong, but in typical Thanet Council fashion nobody was saying what and nobody was asking why.
On 6th February 2015, Mr Seed left TDC on ill-health grounds. 5 weeks later, on 17 March 2015, the Governance and Audit Committee met. At this meeting, Paul Cook,  the then then Interim Corporate Services Manager explained why the CRR Health and Safety risk had increased from low to medium to medium to high. This was  because  “there was an investigation underway into a potential health and safety failing”. He promised that “once the investigation had reached conclusion a report would be brought to the Governance and Audit Committee for review”.
At the next meeting of the Governance and Audit Committee, on 24 June 2015, there was no report about the health and safety investigation promised by Mr Cook 3 months earlier. But councillors were advised that the CRR health and safety risk factor had been increased yet again. This time to a high risk status. The minutes of the meeting blandly state that the reason for this re-classification was because “a review of (health and safety) practices has been undertaken and there is evidence of claims to be processed. So in a period of 9 short months TDCs  corporate Health and Safety risk evaluation went from being classified as low, to an out of control high risk fuck-up, with the “risk owner”  having  left the council’s employ on ill-health grounds (not that I am suggesting that Mrs Seed’s departure was related to anything other than his health).  Why did this happen?
Simple. The reclassification of the CRR Health and Safety risk from low to high was because it was discovered in late 2014 that a number of staff employed in the Council’s ground maintenance and cemetery teams had contracted Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVs) and that the Health and Safety Executive had launched an investigation into the situation.
For those who don’t know HAVs, often called “vibration white finger” is an extremely serious industrial disease which damages nerves and blood supply in the hand and arm, following prolonged over-exposure to vibration from equipment such as road breaking hammers, lawn mowers, chain saws, strimmer’s and brush cutters. The symptoms of HAVs include numbness, tingling and loss of feeling in the hand and fingers, inability to grip, severe pain and the characteristic whitening of the finger tips. Once you have it HAVs is irreversible and if you have it badly it will end your working life.  
 So serious is HAVs that in 2005 the Government issued the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations. These Regulations place a legal duty on employers who use vibrating equipment to safeguard their staff by carrying out risk assessments to identify dangers to workers, minimise any risks identified by the assessments, and monitor the exposure levels of staff who work with vibrating equipment, act to reduce excessive exposure and provide safety equipment and training to staff. These legal requirements are not one off actions, but an ongoing responsibility of the employer, especially in organisations where the use of vibrating equipment is common, such as ground maintenance and the cemeteries. If these regulations are followed then no member of staff should ever contract HAVs and face the ruin of their health and the ending of their working life.

 So what happened at Thanet? Surely if Health and Safety had been classified by Mr Seed as a low to medium corporate risk in 2014 then it would be reasonable to assume that  the legal requirements of the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations were being strictly adhered to and workers were at little risk of getting HAVs. But no! My information from a senior ex-council manager is that somewhere approaching 20 current council staff have been diagnosed has having HAVs. Some with the most serious type others with a lesser serious, but still nasty and debilitating,  type.
The only explanation I can think of for the discrepancy between the CRR risk classification and the development of HAVs in a large group of workers  is because  the information upon which the CRR was based was either misleading, incomplete or possibly a pack of lies told by people who wished to appear to be doing their jobs properly when they were not. Its likely that such misleading or untruthful information was either accepted without challenge, or accepted  knowing that it was false,  by those higher up the decision making food chain  and found its way into the CRR. But  this was not an unfortunate one-off incident. To develop HAVs you must have prolonged exposure to high levels of vibration over many months and sometimes years. So it would appear that despite the CRR assurances that all was well, some managers may have possibly ignored the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 for years and years. It was only when the cat was out the bag that the risk was eventually reassessed to the extremely serious level it is now at.
To damage the health of your staff by not following legal regulations and to provide misleading information to cover up your unlawful actions is not only despicable, but possibly criminal as well. To do this over a prolonged period of time makes the action even more serious. Thankfully any manager who is proved to have acted in such a reckless way can be held individually liable and can be sent to prison. It will be interesting to see if the Health and Safety Executive investigation of Thanet Council uncovers such wilful neglect by TDC managers and if so will they be held individually account?
In my opinion, I think there is a reasonable chance that
managerial neglect will be uncovered by the HSE.  Why? Well at the meeting of the Governance and Audit Committee held just after Mark Seed’s departure from the Council  the minutes record “that it had been agreed with East Kent Audit Partnership (EKAP) (who conduct all of TDCs internal audits ID) that they would facilitate the Corporate Risk Register on the Council’s behalf…. It was felt that this would improve the Register as it complimented the current work of EKAP, and could allow for a more arm‟s length assessment of risk”. Cutting through the Council-speak bullshit this decision means, in my opinion, that the Council had lost confidence in the accuracy and truthfulness of its CRR  and had called in an  external organisation to ensure that there was no fiddling, lying or cheating going on. This reminds me  of the Volkswagen situation where test results were deliberately falsified to hide the truth about the  poor performance  of their diesel engines.  But unlike Volkswagen who immediately fessed up to falsification when they were rumbled. Thanet Council bosses and its then Labour leadership preferred to keep this possible criminal abuse of its health and safety management a secret.
This has been a long rambling post about a very complicated and very serious matter. Much of what I have written is speculative and may or may not be true. But I personally believe that there has been, what appears to be, a most serious neglect of health and safety at Thanet Council and that internal risk management process may also have been abused to cover up this neglect. If this true then Thanet Council may have to pay out £millions in compensation, fines and legal fees. This will not be covered by TDCs insurance policies which do not provide cover for unlawful and criminal acts by the Council or its servants. Just as insurance didn't cover the £2.3 million compensation paid to the live animal exporters because the Council had illegally interfered with EU free trade rules. So once again the taxpayers are likely to have to foot the bill for TDCs serial law breaking. But don’t forget the staff. Up to 20 people, maybe a lot more when you count ex-staff who might have been  affected, have had their health ruined by what appears to be the neglect of their bosses. If its true, its a fucking disgrace and another reason why TDC should be closed down and replaced by something better. A subject I will return to very soon.

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