Workers claim compensation for alleged dangerous exposure to fumes and dust


Every workplace has its share of risk. This case may be at the top end of the scale and it relates to activities that took place many years ago: but it has lessons that should be heeded by every employer in terms of managing the health and safety of a workforce.

The case concerns 300 former workers at Phurnacite, a former smokeless-fuel plant in south Wales, who allege that they contracted cancer and respiratory diseases that are a direct result of their working conditions there.
British Coal and National Smokeless Fuels were responsible for the plant, which closed in 1991.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has since taken over their responsibility and is contesting the claim.

Details of the claim

Solicitors acting for former Phurnacite workers and their families say that the unit was once called “the dirtiest factory in Europe”. It turned waste steam coal into fuel briquettes by crushing the waste and mixing in pitch then removing most of the smoke element through heating the mix.

In 2003 the local Health Authority carried out a health impact assessment of land recovery options for the site. This reported that the briquette production process had generated large quantities of gas, tar, ammonia, and other polycyclic hydrocarbons. The report stated: “The process was self-perpetuating, as the gas was used for heating tar tanks and for firing carbonisation ovens, which would generate more gas. Such processes are associated with a higher-than-expected incidence of cancer, particularly respiratory cancer, among workers.”

Over 100,000 tonnes of contaminated waste was removed from the site in a major land regeneration scheme, 14 years after the plant’s closure.

The claimants allege that working at the plant directly caused them to suffer lung, skin and bladder cancer, as well as respiratory disease. It is said that British Coal failed to provide necessary protection for the workers from exposure to, and the inhalation of, dust and fumes. Protection was provided, but the claim is that it was supplied too late and was inadequate.

A judgment of the case is expected in 2012.

Implications for other operations

If you are responsible for a production plant or for construction safety, you are likely to have to deal with potentially damaging exposures to toxic chemicals, asbestos, contaminated air, boiler fumes, dust and other hazards.

Legislation has toughened up since the above plant was in operation and there is a much greater focus on workplace safety: this puts the onus on employers to protect against all foreseeable risks.

When sensitive plants are being built it is incumbent on the operator to build in protection of the workforce and of the environment in every aspect of the planned operation.

Rather than go it alone in what can be a minefield of legislation, you would be well advised to seek the support of a dedicated firm of health and safety consultants.

This support should include the ability to actively cooperate with your team and help you by writing your risk assessments, as well as supplying training on all key risk areas and helping you to mange the all-important follow-through into practical application of the action points from your assessments.