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TUC campaign to clean up Britain’s dirtiest workplaces

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The TUC is launching a campaign to clean up Britain’s workplaces, with the launch on Wednesday of a new guide to help unions tackle dangerous chemicals, dusts and fumes at work.

The TUC plans to use the law and the COSHH regulations (The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1999) to target the worst employers and insist on better health standards.

The guide, Clean up with COSHH, says that over seven million (one in three of all British workers) breathe harmful fumes and dusts on a daily basis in the course of their work. These substances can cause skin diseases like dermatitis, lung diseases like asthma, and in some cases, even fatal cancers like mesothelioma.

The TUC campaign is to target the worst offending industries. Government figures show that men are more likely to be exposed than women, because of the high levels of exposure in construction, agriculture and metal processing. But there are still hotspots for women – with workers in hairdressing, textiles, catering, nursing and cleaning all at risk.

Older workers of both genders are slightly more likely to be exposed than younger workers. Workers aged 35-55 are more likely to come into contact with hazardous fumes and dusts than 16-34 year olds.

TUC General Secretary John Monks said: “The effect of fumes and dusts at work can be insidious and deadly. They can cost workers their health, and employers could lose their most skilled staff, and face substantial compensation costs. The TUC is on the offensive against chemical illness in the workplace. Union safety reps and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) can make work safer and healthier. Together, we’re going to clean up Britain’s dirtiest workplaces.”

The TUC’s own recent survey of 9,000 workplace safety reps (in unionised workplaces which are known to be safer than the average) showed that one in four (24%) were seriously concerned about the hazards of chemicals and solvents, one in five (21%) were worried about dusts, and one in ten (11%) were concerned about dermatitis.

Levels of concern were higher in some sectors than in others:

  • 55% of construction safety reps were worried about dusts, which could include the fatal fibre, asbestos, which currently kills about 4,000 people a year;
  • 47% of safety reps in manufacturing reported concerns about chemicals and solvents, and 45% were worried by dust levels; and,
  • 46% of agriculture reps were worried about chemicals (mostly pesticides), where it was the fourth highest health and safety concern after stress, back strains and machinery.

Concern about chemicals and solvents was highest in Wales (29%) and the North (28%), and there was the most concern about dusts in the North West (26%) and Yorkshire and Humberside (25%), against national averages respectively of 24% and 21%.

Recent examples of workers harmed by fumes and dusts at work include:

  • Peter Moore, an AEEU member in Newcastle, who died of the rare mesothelioma cancer as a result of exposure to asbestos dusts when he worked as an electrician at Vickers and Swan Hunter on Tyneside. His widow, Pauline, received £132,000 in compensation.
  • Mary Watkins, a UNISON member in Birmingham, who developed baker’s asthma as a result of working surrounded in flour dust in a small room with a tiny window and no vents at William Cowper Junior and Infants School in Aston. Her union secured £200,000 in compensation, but she says: “I feel very bitter. The money will not bring back my health.”
  • Diane Chambers, a nurse from Pontypridd, who developed dermatitis and eczema as a result of being issued with cheap latex gloves rather than the safer alternatives.
  • A nurse at Cardiff Royal Infirmary, she was awarded £100,000. UNISON commented: “The hospital has not only lost a good nurse, but had to pay compensation for the damage they have caused.”
  • John Gill, a teacher from Dorset, was gassed over several years in his own teaching lab by carbon monoxide from a faulty flue in the school boiler room. His employers even tried to discipline him for the poor performance caused by the poisoning. The NASUWT secured £562,000 for him, but he is left disabled and unable to work, drive or even help his own children with their homework.

The TUC survey of safety reps was conducted in the summer of 2000 and published in December, as Focus on health and safety available from the TUC price £30. The government figures come from the Self-reported Work-related Illness Survey 1995 (published by the HSE).

Clean Up with COSHH was written by Peter Kirby, and costs £15 (£5 to trade union members and unions). Contact TUC Publications (0207 467 1294).

Clean up with COSHH is part of a HSE campaign called COSHH Essentials which unions helped to develop and the guidance was produced with financial support from the HSE.

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