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The next plague to strike the workplace


The TUC is calling on trade unions to be on the lookout for new workplace diseases, in the hope of discovering the 'next big thing' after RSI and stress.

In a special report in the TUC-backed quarterly safety magazine Hazards, union safety reps are urged to ask their workmates what health problems they are experiencing, so that detailed research can identify previously hidden occupational diseases. Safety reps are to be trained by the TUC in techniques such as "body mapping", which involves workers marking on a map of the body where they are experiencing pain, collating the results and identifying any links with work.

The TUC advice coincides with the launch of the results of a worker-based study into the effects of poisonous chemical vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) carried out with financial support from the TUC and a number of organisations in North Derbyshire. The study of workers who used to work for Vinatex, a plastics manufacturer based in Chesterfield, will be used by the TUC to campaign for changes in benefit rules, so that more people who become cancer victims following contact at work with dangerous substances can be compensated.

The Hazards article says that it was trade unions which first identified most of the major industrial diseases of the twentieth century, often years before the medical or political establishment took note. These diseases include: miners' pneumoconiosis and chronic bronchitis; asbestos-related diseases; industrial deafness; vibration white finger; occupational asthma; RSI; and stress. But the TUC believes that many other diseases caused by work, including large numbers of cancers, could currently be being wrongly classified as "lifestyle" diseases.

Industrial diseases identified by unions have historically led to tens of millions of pounds paid in compensation by employers or the government to victims, and the older diseases are now at last being prevented by health and safety laws. But the process can be very slow - asbestos was first recognised as hazardous at the end of the 19th century, but it wasn't banned completely until last year.

TUC General Secretary John Monks said: "This isn't scare-mongering, it's about finding out what's hurting and killing people at work and stopping it before more lives are needlessly put in danger. Workers are living lives of misery and in some cases dying before the establishment accepts they've been poisoned by their work.

"Medical studies often lag behind new diseases, and we need to get ahead of the game. We need to listen to the real experts, the workers themselves."

As well as a history of campaigning for official recognition for now well-recognised occupational diseases, the TUC points to the gap between official reports of industrial injury and disease and studies which ask workers directly. The government puts the level of under-reporting at 40%, but the TUC believes the real picture could be much worse, because the government's figures only cover officially recognised workplace diseases.

The TUC initiative is partly a response to a recently released Health and Safety Commission report on occupational health which urged unions to do more to raise awareness of occupational health among their members.

The Vinatex study

Workers at the Vinatex plant in Chesterfield (which operated from 1969 to 1986) have been campaigning for years to get someone to take notice of the high rates of cancers and other diseases which affected workers at the plant who were engaged in the manufacture of vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), a dangerous chemical used, among other things, in car-seat production.

Only when the local trade union safety committee (now called TRUST) got involved were their claims taken seriously. After a two year study run by Professor Andy Watterson of De Montfort University, and tests on ex-workers' liver function were carried out at the local hospital. Researchers found substantial numbers of people suffering from cancers of the liver, bladder, skin and other organs, as well as respiratory and psychological problems.

As a result of the Chesterfield study, the TUC is calling on the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to amend the eligibility criteria for DSS industrial injuries benefits so that more people suffering diseases caused by VCM are covered - the benefit pays up to £110 a week for serious conditions.

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