Ex-RAF Unit Struck Down By Terminal Illnesses Seek To Sue MOD
The Law Of… protecting employees from toxic chemicals
A group of Scottish RAF workers, exposed to toxic chemicals during their time as a specialist unit repairing aircraft survival equipment, are looking to bring court action against the Ministry of Defence. A string of cancer diagnoses and other debilitating illnesses has cursed the former members of the Engineering Corps known as the 'squippers', operational during the 80s and 90s.
Phillip Gower, an Industrial Disease Partner at Simpson Millar, examines this tragic case.
The number of ex-squippers who are currently living with or have died from a terminal illness stands at a staggering 26. Diseases which have preyed upon this formerly-healthy RAF outfit include leukaemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, blood cancer, brain cancer, breast cancer and bronchiectasis.
The blame for the disproportionate instances of debilitating illness is said to lie with the chemicals they used in the repair and production of the equipment, which, somewhat ironically, was intended for saving lives.
The RAF men and women used a variety of glues, solvents, lubricants, and resins in their line of work, all of which contained a mixture of the poisonous chemicals, toiling away in confined, poorly ventilated areas without respiratory equipment or other forms of protective clothing.
This meant the workers were exposed to a "toxic soup" of assorted fumes, as the former Scots Guard championing the surviving victims in their bid to bring legal action describes it.
The key chemicals used on a daily basis, all known to be harmful to humans, included:
- Toluene – used as a solvent in some types of paint thinner. Prolonged exposure can lead to damage of kidneys and other organs
- Trichloroethylene – another solvent, primarily used as a metal degreaser. Linked with liver and kidney cancer, as well as increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Parkinson's disease
- Beryllium – used as an alloying agent for a variety of metals. Inhalation of beryllium dust can result in lung cancer
- Benzene – a core constituent of crude oil, which has industrial application in adhesives and thinners. Causes cancer and is harmful through inhalation, contact and consumption.
Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Act (COSHH)
Despite the risks to health posed by these chemicals being known during the affected individuals' periods of service, health and safety practices were not adhered to, with the lack of safety equipment made available to them and the absence of a mechanical air filtration system meaning there was nothing to mitigate their exposure to the carcinogenic substances.
With former airmen and technicians taking to online chatrooms and forums to report similar experiences, the problem may extend well beyond the initial group presently looking to claim against the MOD over their injuries.
Phillip Gower, currently pursuing a similar case on behalf of a client, comments:
"As well as employers having a duty of care to protect their staff under general health and safety legislation, there are also specific regulations regarding toxic chemicals, covered by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Act."
"This Act states that an employer must perform a risk assessment of the dangers that could arise from the use of a hazardous substance, setting in place arrangements to deal with accidents, incidents and emergencies, as well as evaluating the dangers that could arise from the storage, handling and disposal of such a substance."
"The employer is also required to provide employees with information, instruction and training regarding the risks pertaining to the substance and the precautions they have taken to control them – such as the protective equipment provided and its use."
"Perhaps most importantly, the employer must prevent, where possible, exposure to substances that are hazardous to health or, alternately, control it."
"Prior to COSHH – introduced in 1988 and last updated in 2002 – the use of toxic chemicals was regulated by the Factories Act 1961 and the Safety at Work Act 1972, covering the same measures."
"As this case harks back to the 1980s and the 1990s, the ex-servicemen involved should've been protected by the appropriate legislation and provided with the necessary equipment, along with suitable ventilation."