Risks 498 - 19 March 2011

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Asbestos - the hidden killer
Hazards magazine
Hazards at Work

Risks is the TUC's weekly online bulletin for safety reps and others, read each week by over 18,000 subscribers and 1,500 on the TUC website. To receive this bulletin every week, click here. Past issues are available. This edition contains Useful links TUC courses for safety reps Disclaimer and Privacy

Editor: Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. Comments to the TUC at [email protected]

Union News

TUC warns of safety 'race to the bottom'

Rogue companies will be the major beneficiaries of a dramatic cut in the Health and Safety Executive's resources, the TUC has warned. In a keynote address to the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) conference this week, TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said: 'I don't agree that the cuts are necessary, nor do I believe that health and safety is a special case. The health service, education and social care are all important and we must show that there are alternatives to the cuts. He added that cuts to safety would lead to more expenditure by the NHS and employers as injuries and illnesses rose. He said 'money put into safety is an investment. If we reduce that investment, it will have a significant effect on lives and the ability of employers to support their workers.' He criticised the government's 'hands-off' approach to regulation, noting 'we have known since the 19th century that regulation is the only thing that works. Regulation and enforcement mean a level playing field and good employers shouldn't have to race to the bottom because non-compliant companies are breaking the law. We need the eyes and ears of inspectors in the workplace but these cuts will mean fewer inspectors and inspections.' Lawrence Waterman, head of health and safety for the Olympic Delivery Authority, accused HSE of losing its intellectual leadership in the debate about cost savings - a term he described as an 'obfuscation' for cuts. He expressed disappointment that the HSE had not provided a more coherent 'opposition' to the cuts by emphasising more clearly the business case for investing in health and safety. Safety minister Chris Grayling is expected to announce on 21 March the government's latest plans for workplace health and safety, including a further review of legislation. The TUC is organising a major demonstration against the cuts, and promoting alternatives, on 26th March in London.

BA stops pay of pregnant cabin crew

British Airways (BA) is throwing safety and equality law out the window by denying pay to some pregnant cabin crew who can no longer perform their normal duties, the union Unite has indicated. The union says cabin crew members who are pregnant and live too far from Heathrow or Gatwick to travel there to perform ground duties, 'will now be forced to take unpaid leave by the airline.' The new policy, introduced last week without negotiation, changes a long standing agreement that offered protection to pregnant cabin crew members who are required to be grounded from flying duties as soon as they are pregnant. Unite says this agreement was put in place to protect women and to reduce the risk of miscarriage and pregnancy-related complications. Health and safety law guarantees wage protection for pregnant employees stopped doing their normal duties because of possible risks. Unite national officer Brendan Gold said: 'This is a shameful attack on pregnant women and a further example of a macho management culture at BA which is out of date and now seriously out of line.' He added: 'Over the years BA has recruited its cabin crew staff from all parts of the UK as well as from continental Europe. BA has closed its regional bases forcing workers to travel hundreds of miles to their place of work, yet it now intends to stop payment to any pregnant crew staff member who is unable to commute to BA's last two hubs, Heathrow and Gatwick.' He said the union is taking legal advice and 'will challenge the decision.'

Vibration gives gardener damaged fingers

A council worker whose hands have been permanently damaged after using vibrating tools at work has received £60,000 in compensation. Landscape gardener Andrew Bowler, 51, is now only capable of a three day week after developing carpal tunnel syndrome while working for Nottinghamshire County Council. The GMB member used vibrating tools on a daily basis whilst working for the council's landscape services department for almost 30 years. The excessive vibration led to tingling in his hands and fingers, numbness and muscle weakness. He was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in 2008. He had surgery on his hands in an attempt to relieve the condition but has been told that he will be affected for life. Faced with a union-backed compensation claim, the council admitted liability and settled the claim out of court. Mr Bowler is still working for the council but is now only able to manage a three day week and is in a supervisory role no longer using vibrating tools. He said: 'I've got to live with this condition for the rest of my life. I can no longer look after my garden or do DIY, which I loved.' GMB regional secretary Andy Worth commented: 'Carpal tunnel syndrome is a major workplace hazard and can have a devastating impact on employment opportunities and private lives. The risks have been well documented since the 1970s and yet this employer turned a blind eye to the health and safety precautions they should have been taking.'

Asbestos ruling 'a victory for fairness'

The Supreme Court ruling allowing the family of a former Merseyside pupil a six-figure compensation payout following the exposure to asbestos at school which subsequently killed her, is a victory for fairness and a wake-up call for the government, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has said. The Supreme Court last week agreed unanimously that the family of Dianne Willmore, who died aged 49 from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma, can keep the £240,000 compensation awarded to her by Liverpool High Court in July 2009 (Risks 497). Echoing sentiments expressed by asbestos advocacy groups and other unions (Risks 497), ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: 'We are particularly pleased the Court ruled that even those exposed to low levels of asbestos are eligible for compensation if they become ill as a result.' She added: 'We hope the Supreme Court ruling is a wake-up call to the government to take its head out of the sand and act before any more pupils or teachers die needlessly from exposure to asbestos.'

Other news

No job is better for you than a bad job

As the government presses ahead with plans to force the sick back to work and job seekers into 'Mandatory Work Activity placements', new research has blown a hole in its 'work is good for you' mantra. A study published this week warns while good quality jobs deliver health benefits, bad jobs can leave you in a worse state of health than remaining unemployed. Following on from its heavily criticised health reassessments of incapacity benefit claimants (Risks 496), the government this week announced that where Jobcentre Plus advisers 'believe a jobseeker will benefit from experiencing the habits and routines of working life, they will have the power to refer them to a four week mandatory placement.' Participants will be expected to spend up to 30 hours a week, for four weeks, on the placement and will be required to continue to look for work. Employment minister Chris Grayling said: 'I've been really worried by some of the job search interviews I've sat through where people are clearly losing their focus and just aren't getting any closer to a job.' However, TUC and others have warned that applicants outstrip vacancies by at least five-to-one, and there is particularly a shortage of good jobs. A study published this week concluded that while overall the unemployed had poorer mental health than those who were employed, 'the mental health of those who were unemployed was comparable or superior to those in jobs of the poorest psychosocial quality.' The Australian research team say their findings, published online in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, show: 'The health benefits of becoming employed were dependent on the quality of the job. Moving from unemployment into a high quality job led to improved mental health... however the transition from unemployment to a poor quality job was more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed.'

  • DWP news release. P Butterworth, LS Leach, L Strazdins, SC Olesen, B Rodgers and DH Broom.The psychosocial quality of work determines whether employment has benefits for mental health: results from a longitudinal national household panel survey, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Online First, 14 March 2011, doi10.1136/oem.2010.059030 [abstract].

'Raw deal' for sick British staff

British workers are among the worst protected in terms of benefits if they are off work sick, according to a new report. A study of 12 countries by Demos put Britain in eighth place in the level of protection in case of ill-health, below countries including France, Germany, the United States and Canada. 'Of mutual benefit', produced by the think tank's 'Progressive Conservatism Project', said savers and homeowners were 'penalised' by means testing for savings above £16,000 if they were off work ill. Max Wind-Cowie, author of the report, said: 'Our welfare system is badly broken, and with people living and working longer we need to make sickness and disability support sustainable. The squeezed middle get a raw deal - contributing to a so-called safety net that can't protect them from financial shocks.' The report notes: 'Successive efforts to reform the way in which incapacity benefits are assessed and paid in the UK have played on a suspicion that many who claim them are 'scroungers' and 'benefit cheats' to justify increased conditionality and more stringent testing. But the truth is that incapacity benefits in the UK are not only low but also insufficient for most people's financial needs. They may be hugely expensive overall, but they are relatively ungenerous at the individual and household level.' Demos describes itself as the 'leading centre of progressive Conservative thinking in the UK.'

Massage therapists get strains payouts

Two former beauty therapists who developed repetitive strain injuries through giving massages to air travellers have won a total of £300,430 damages from Virgin Atlantic. Jayne Evans and Michelle Hindmarch worked in the Clubhouse Lounge at Heathrow, giving frequent prolonged treatments, until they developed pain in their wrists, shoulders and backs. The court was told the problem was caused by working over-long shifts, and by using Shiatsu pressure-point techniques with heavy pressure and at fast pace. It was also told there were insufficient breaks between therapy sessions and that the main determinant of work pressure was flight scheduling. Both women had to give up their careers, for which they had trained since they left school, and find other work. They also now need help with daily tasks around their homes. Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd accepted liability but disputed the amount of compensation due. Mrs Evans, 40, was awarded £230,972 by Judge Martin McKenna at London's High Court. He said she was entitled to consider she had achieved professional success in her chosen field but now had less congenial and well-paid clerical work in the airline's cargo division. Mrs Hindmarch, 32, who quickly found better-paid work in a different field, was awarded £69,458. The judge said she was 'a woman of determination and fortitude who was making the best of her situation' and dismissed a suggestion that she was exaggerating her symptoms.

Flight attendant suffer spinal injuries

A flight attendant suffered spinal injuries when her plane hit turbulence and she was thrown into the air. The Boeing 737 SAS Scandinavian Airlines flight was approaching Heathrow Airport in August last year when the incident happened. An Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) report said the flight attendant had been in a crew seat, unrestrained, and was making a passenger announcement. After being thrown into the air, the woman landed back on the seat and badly injured her back. She was in considerable pain and had to remain on the galley floor as the flight came in to land, the AAIB report said. Another cabin crew member had managed to sit in an empty seat but was not able to fasten the seatbelt before she was thrown into the air. She hit the cabin roof but was unhurt. The injured worker had to stay in hospital for 10 days following the incident. The AAIB said the airline's procedures called for cabin crew to be seated with seatbelts fastened when the seatbelt signs were on. SAS carried out an investigation which highlighted three similar occasions of cabin crew suffering injuries due to turbulence. In one case, two crew in the forward galley suffered fractures.

Suspended sentence for asbestos crimes

A site manager has been given a two month suspended sentence and 150 hours of community service for exposing a bricklayer to asbestos. Henry Bohlen, 63, from Barry, south Wales, directed the bricklayer to demolish a wall that contained asbestos, putting him at serious risk. On 22 May 2009 the site manager was in Newport, supervising the refurbishment of the Monwel Hankinson facility which manufactures equipment for people with disabilities. A full site survey for asbestos had been carried out, but Mr Bohlen failed to check the warnings it gave and instructed bricklayer Justin Jones to demolish the known asbestos-containing fascia boards from the building. Mr Jones used a hammer and chisel to break up the board into fragments, which generated plumes of dust, releasing asbestos fibres into the air. He continued working as instructed until another manager realised the danger and told him to stop. Mr Jones had to undergo emergency decontamination as a result. Architects employed by Newport City Council, which partly runs the Monwel Hankinson facility, had specifically designed the refurbishment work to avoid disturbing any of the asbestos-containing materials. As site manager, Mr Bohlen was aware of this element of the refurbishment plan. He pleaded guilty to a criminal safety breach and was given a suspended sentence of two months. He was also ordered to carry out 150 hours of community service. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Liam Osborne said: 'Rather than wait for the architect's plans, consult the site survey, or if that was not available, to have taken a few minutes to check with other parties, Mr Bohlen went ahead and instructed Mr Jones to do the work, which ultimately exposed him to the potentially deadly asbestos.'

Worker crushed to death by concrete beam

Two companies have been fined a total of £130,000 after an Aylesbury worker was killed by a 31-tonne concrete beam on a building site in Thurrock. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted the two firms, Micor Ltd and Crane and Transport Services, after the incident on 6 April 2006. The court heard that Gary Drinkald, 43, was working for Micor Ltd during the overnight demolition work of the A1306 Stifford Rail Bridge, West Thurrock, Essex. The concrete beam had been removed from the bridge and placed on the back of a low loader lorry. The chains securing the beam were removed from the crane before it was secured to the low loader. The beam then fell - crushing Mr Drinkald under it. Main demolition contractor Micor Ltd, which had pleaded guilty to two criminal breaches of safety law at an earlier hearing at Southend Crown Court, was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay costs of £20,000 at Basildon Crown Court. Crane and Transport Services Ltd had been subcontracted to provide staff to supervise the lifting procedure. It had pleaded guilty at the same earlier hearing to a breach of the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 and was fined £30,000 and ordered to pay costs of £10,000 at this month's sentencing. HSE inspector Nicola Surrey commented: 'A family, including four children have had their lives devastated by this tragic incident. With adequate planning and supervision of how the concrete beam should have been secured on the low loader lorry, this outcome could have been avoided. This case is a warning to other employers that there are serious consequences for not protecting their workforce."

New worker suffers death by electrocution

A Newbury-based roofing company has been prosecuted after a new employee was electrocuted while operating a lorry driven crane. Anthony Milani, 26, died when the crane touched overhead power cables at West Horton Farm Industrial Estate, near Eastleigh on 14 August 2007. Blackford (Newbury) Ltd, formerly Harris Roofing Supplies Ltd, pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of safety law at Southampton Crown Court. The company was fined £50,000 and ordered to pay £20,000 in costs in the case brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The court heard that Mr Milani had been employed by Blackford as an HGV driver and warehouseman in April 2007. He was shown how to use the Hiab crane by the senior warehouseman, who was not a competent trainer. Although the senior warehouseman was aware of the overhead electric cables at the site, he said he did not consider them to be a hazard. He was unaware of health and safety guidance about overhead power lines or the necessary training of crane drivers. Signs warning of overhead cables had been removed several weeks earlier by the site owners. Mr Milani was delivering roofing materials to the premises of SBM at the industrial estate on his own when he parked directly underneath the three overhead 11Kv cables. He deployed only the nearside stabiliser when both sides should have been used. After unloading the second pallet he brought the jib of the Hiab across the rear of the flatbed when it struck one of the cables. He was killed instantly. HSE inspector Dennis MacWilliam commented: 'Proper training, simple checks and procedures could have prevented this horrific incident. Tragically, Mr Milani had been booked-in to do a professional course in handling lorry mounted cranes in the month he died.' He added: 'The company failed to provide suitable and sufficient training and supervision for Mr Milani in the used of Hiab cranes and especially the risk from overhead power lines. They also failed to ensure lifting operations were properly planned and hazards identified.'

Firms guilty over scaffolding death

Two companies have been convicted of criminal health and safety offences after a construction worker fell to his death at a top private school. James Kelly, 50, was erecting stonework at Glasgow Academy in April 2007 when he fell about 30ft from scaffolding. His employer Stirling Stone Limited and Robertson Construction Central Limited were found to have failed to meet their health and safety obligations. Sentence at Glasgow Sheriff Court was deferred until next month. The three-week trial heard that Mr Kelly had been employed as a labourer by Stirling Stone Limited. He was working on the third level of a loading tower of the scaffolding when he fell in Glasgow's Colebrook Street on 26 April 2007. Following the case, Elaine Taylor, head of the health and safety division at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), said: 'James Kelly went to work and as a result of failings by his employer and the principal contractor on site, he never returned home. He left a family devastated by their loss. The incident that led to Mr Kelly's death was entirely avoidable had the two accused met their statutory health and safety obligations.' Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Iain Brodie said: 'Companies working at height should ensure scaffolding is correctly erected, safe to use and properly checked and maintained. Where building materials are to be transferred into loading towers on scaffolding there should be a realistic safe system of work for workers to follow. They should be given information, instruction, training, and be adequately supervised. If these companies had taken these steps, then James Kelly might be alive today.' The case is the first to proceed to trial since the creation of the COPFS Health and Safety Division in Scotland in January 2009 (Risks 377). In other cases, the division has secured guilty pleas.

Recycling giant takes worker's arm

An international waste recycling firm has been fined £60,000 and ordered to pay £22,000 costs after a worker lost his arm in an industrial incident in Basildon. Daniel Ali, 35, was working as a process operator at Coolrec UK Ltd on 4 April 2008 when his arm got caught in a conveyer belt. Doctors later had to amputate it. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted the Dutch parent company, Coolrec Group BV, which admitted a criminal breach of safety law. Basildon Magistrates' Court heard that Mr Ali was picking plastic off a recycling line which handled old computer monitors and television sets. A pulverising machine smashed the screens into smaller parts before operators removed materials from the conveyor. He had bent down to clear some wire from the ground when his glove became caught in an unguarded conveyor running underneath the one he was working on. He was trapped for approximately 45 minutes until emergency services freed him, but doctors could not save his arm and it was amputated between the elbow and shoulder. HSE inspector Vicky Fletcher said: 'This incident was completely avoidable and has left a man in the prime of his life without his right arm. Coolrec Group BV could and should have ensured the conveyor belts on the recycling line were properly guarded in order to prevent incidents as this.' She added: 'This case highlights just how important health and safety at work is. The law is there to protect the workforce and when it is not adhered to people can suffer life-changing injuries such as this one.'

Company fined after worker is forked

A Lincolnshire pipework company has been fined after a fork lift truck that had been lowering a cage containing two workers to the ground, hit one of the men with its forks. The worker, who asked not to be named, had been standing on top of a lorry, loading coiled plastic pipes at Polypipe Ltd's site in Horncastle, Lincolnshire. Skegness Magistrates' Court was told that to get from the 14 feet high lorry, he and a colleague stepped into a cage supported on a fork lift truck to be lowered to the ground. However, the cage caught on the side of the lorry and started to fall. The fork lift driver tried to catch it by piercing the side of the cage with the forks but unfortunately a fork hit one of the men. He was hospitalised with fractured ribs and unable to work for three weeks. After the 16 June 2009 incident, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found the company had failed to ensure the work was properly planned or carried out safely. Polypipe Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and was fined £20,000. The company was also ordered to pay compensation of £5,000 to the injured person and £4,765 costs. HSE inspector Emma Madeley said: 'This incident was completely avoidable and stems from Polypipe's entire system of work being fundamentally unsafe. There should have been a system for loading that didn't involve unsafe work at height and employees should have been provided with a safe method of getting back down to the ground.'

Chemical spray left sprayer sore

An international utilities company has been fined after an agency worker suffered skin problems caused by prolonged exposure to a hazardous chemical. Laing O'Rourke Utilities Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after Peter Johnson, 48, from Exeter, suffered sore skin around his face after several weeks of exposure to isocyanate between July and August 2007. The chemical is the second largest cause of occupational asthma, and can also cause conjunctivitis, dermatitis, bronchitis and rhinitis. Mr Johnson was exposed while repainting joints along a raised gas pipeline near Ivybridge, Devon. He was driving an open-cabbed vehicle with an attached sprayer which was spraying paint containing isocyanate. Torquay Magistrates' Court heard how Laing O'Rourke Utilities had failed to protect Mr Johnson by ensuring exposure to isocyanate was prevented or adequately controlled. HSE said the open cab meant Mr Johnson was periodically exposed to the paint aerosol as it was being sprayed. The company failed to provide him with proper protective equipment, and so he was likely to have been exposed to up to ten times the workplace exposure limit for isocyanate. When his skin started to feel sore, Mr Johnson filed a complaint with HSE, which then launched its investigation. He has since been referred to a dermatologist and continues to receive treatment. Speaking after the prosecution, HSE inspector Jonathan Harris said: 'Although the type of work meant there was no alternative to the type of paint being used, it could have been applied with a brush, instead of by spraygun, thereby removing the risk of exposing Mr Johnson to an air contaminant containing isocyanate.' Laing O'Rourke Utilities Ltd pleaded guilty to a criminal breach of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 and was ordered to pay a £4,000 fine and £15,062 in costs.

International News

Canada: Asbestos suffers a mortal blow?

A top union body in Quebec has dealt a serious blow to the province's embattled asbestos industry. In an overwhelming voice vote last week, representatives of the 300,000-member Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) voted against the planned expansion of Canada's last asbestos mine in the town of Asbestos, Quebec. 'This is a truly historic moment,' said Kathleen Ruff, a leading Canadian human rights advocate, adding the union body 'is showing courage, integrity and, above all, solidarity in taking this public stand in support of the lives of workers in India and other countries where the cancer-causing fibres were being sold.' Ahead of the vote, CNS president Claudette Carbonneau told delegates: 'Quebec, like many advanced industrial societies, has been shaken by the use of a resource which sows death. If health and safety conditions do not prevent these deadly illnesses in Quebec, it is difficult to pretend that there can be safe use of asbestos in developing countries.' Carbonneau said it was vital to take the action now as the Quebec government is deciding 'whether to finance a revival of the bankrupt Quebec asbestos industry.' The union body says it now wants 'to draw up a proposed schedule and transition and restructuring programme for workers in this industry, from a standpoint of triggering the necessary debate on banning asbestos with both levels of governments.' Owners of the Jeffrey Mine, which is currently seeking support from the federal and Quebec provincial governments to underwrite a massive expansion plan (Risks 493), has seen its proposal opposed by the major medical, cancer, union and occupational disease prevention organisations in Canada and, recently, in traditionally pro-asbestos Quebec.

Chile: Government told to deliver on safety promises

Unions worldwide are calling on the Chilean government to deliver on mine safety promises made to Chilean miners rescued in the San José mine last October (Risks 479). 'When the world's media was still focusing on Chile, President Piñera committed to reform Chile's weak mine safety laws within 90 days, and to ratify the International Labour Organisation Convention on safety in mines. Nothing has changed yet, and Chile's miners are still facing unacceptable risks to their health and safety,' said ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow. In an appeal for international support to press Chile to do what the president promised, the general secretaries of the International Chemical, Energy and Mineworkers' Federation (ICEM), Manfred Warda, and of the International Metalworkers' Federation (IMF), Jyrki Raina, called on Chile to adopt the key UN regulation, ILO Convention 176. 'Convention 176 can and will provide the framework for revising the mine safety laws in Chile,' they state in a letter to the global union movement seeking support for the campaign. 'It is a universal fact that when the union voice is part of monitoring mine safety, the risks in mining get reduced dramatically. This convention makes union involvement through safety committees an inherent part of the process.' According to ITUC's Sharan Burrow: 'On several occasions, President Piñera has highlighted the importance of ensuring sustainable development in Chile, recognising the fundamental role of workers and inspired by the courage, solidarity and vision shown by the 33 trapped miners. Sustainable development cannot become a reality in Chile without a comprehensive mine safety culture that includes respect for the rights of mine workers to union representation and genuine dialogue to bring urgently-needed reform.' Aidan White, general secretary of the global federation of media unions IFJ added: 'After soaking up the publicity, the government is now backing away from its commitments. Journalists groups in Latin America and around the world are shocked by this cynical behaviour and we fully support the trade union demand that Chile cleans up its act and gets into line with international mining standards.'

Japan: Concern grows for nuclear workers

After a rise in radiation levels at Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear plant forced a suspension of emergency work at the plant, concern is growing about the welfare of these frontline nuclear workers. Japanese cabinet secretary Yukio Edano told a 16 March news briefing that workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant had been withdrawn following the sudden rise in radiation levels. The government had already revised upwards the permissible allowable radiation exposure level for workers by 2.5 times at the plant. Last week's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, which killed thousands, damaged the plant's cooling functions. The site has also been hit by four explosions, triggering radiation leaks. It is believed that about 50 employees had been working at the plant - 220km (140 miles) north of Tokyo - to try to cool its four reactors and avert a meltdown. Mr Edano said 'workers cannot carry out even minimal work at the plant now. Because of the radiation risk, we are on standby.' The workers had been performing what has been described as heroic tasks, like using fire equipment to pump seawater into the three failing reactors to keep the nuclear fuel from melting down and fighting the fire at a fourth reactor. The New York Times reported on 14 March: 'They are operating in places that have been contaminated by radioactive isotopes from all four reactors. Technicians who have not been evacuated face an escalating exposure, and will have to be replaced if the fight is to go on.' Dr Lew Pepper, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health who has studied the effects of radiation on nuclear weapons workers, told the paper: 'If they exceed a certain amount, they can't go back in for a day or a week or longer.' And the pool of available replacements is finite, he said. 'What do you do? You don't have a lot of people who can do this work.'

South Africa: Top court backs mine dust victims

South African miners have won a landmark dust disease case in the nation's highest court. The legal precedent is expected to allow thousands of miners stricken with life-threatening respiratory and other diseases to sue companies under common law in South Africa. The Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, overturned a Supreme Court of Appeal judgment and granted a former AngloGold Ashanti worker the right to sue the company for damages for silicosis, a debilitating and often fatal occupational lung disease. The worker, father-of-ten Thembekile Mankayi, died six days before the ruling, and now it is up to his family whether or not to continue the case. The Supreme Court and a lower court had ruled against Mankayi because he had already received state compensation under South Africa's Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA). Under the scheme he received just R16,320 (£1,460) after it was determined he was ill with tuberculosis and silicosis caused by exposures to crystalline silica dust while working inside the AngloGold's Vaal Reefs mine from 1979 to 1995. But in this month's ruling, Constitutional Court Judge Sisi Khampepe said the Supreme Court 'had erred in concluding' the two pieces of legislation had the same compensatory structure. 'If COIDA removes Mr Mankayi's common law right to claim compensation for negligence, employees in his position... would be left without an effective remedy to rectify the harm caused by the negligence of employers,' Khampepe wrote. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) welcomed the ruling. 'For many years mining employers had sent hundreds of thousands of poor, sick miners home to die,' said NUM general secretary Frans Baleni. He said the union would remain 'at the forefront of ensuring that employers pay for their long forgotten sins.'

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