UK tax office under fire over work diseases compensation backlog

UK government tax officials are breaching the human rights of bereaved spouses and the terminally ill by making them wait more than a year for essential employment records in work-related disease compensation claims, lawyers have warn.

Solicitors acting for sick workers say an average time of 383 days to retrieve historic work histories by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is denying claimants the right to pursue firms over sometimes terminal occupational diseases.

HMRC blames a lack of machines to access records held only on archaic microfilm and the volume of claims. It adds officials are “scouring the internet” for spare parts to fix the decrepit readers and have given priority to mesothelioma sufferers, who are promised their details in just ten days. However, this asbestos cancer makes up much less than a third of work-related cancer deaths each year, with other non-prioritised occupational diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) also killing substantially more.

Law firm Irwin Mitchell says it has dozens of clients with other conditions such as lung cancer, or who have lost spouses to work-related conditions, who are waiting up to 18 months. It said that in such cases the delays were a breach of the right under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights to have civil claims heard “in a reasonable time.” Some with little time to live risked being denied justice altogether, lawyers argued, accusing officials of failing to act on their calls for action to improve the service.

Roger Maddocks, a partner at the law firm, said: “It is particularly concerning that the backlog for work history requests is running at 383 days, preventing people determining their rights within a reasonable time.”

He added: “We have yet to receive any indication that HMRC is taking any adequate steps to address these serious issues, which are having a significant impact on those who have developed terrible illnesses as a result of their employment, who are desperate for answers from their former employers about why steps were not taken to protect them, and their colleagues, from harmful substances.”

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European Commission proposals on endocrine disruptors criticised

Groups advocating for greater control over endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) – a range of common substances linked to cancer, reproductive and other adverse health effects – have said European Commission (EC) proposals “will do nothing to protect human health.”

The proposed criteria on EDCs were announced on 16 June 2016 by EC Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, after three years of intense debate and industry lobbying which stalled progress. The Commission was criticised by the European Court of Justice last year for the delay.

The UK-based Alliance for Cancer Prevention said “the disappointment and frustration at the failure of the proposed criteria to offer any protection against EDCs is palpable as they demand an impossibly high burden of proof to link EDCs to adverse human health effects, which means that few EDCs will be banned as a result. Shockingly the core underpinning principle of all EU chemicals legislation, the precautionary principle, has been totally omitted.”

The alliance says over 1,300 studies have linked EDC exposure to cancer, infertility, reproductive disorders, cancer, birth defects, obesity, diabetes, neurological and behavioural defects, and learning difficulties.

The EDC Free Europe Coalition also condemned the EC’s failure to propose protective measures and called on member states to “insist on major changes because these proposals will do nothing to protect human health and environment from further harm but instead allows the pesticide and chemical industries to continue using harmful substances to which we are all daily exposed.”

These concerns were echoed by Dr Anna Lennquist, a toxicologist with the Gothenburg-based ChemSec non-profit chemical safety advocacy group. She said that under the proposals, “EDCs cannot in practice be identified until they have been proven to cause adverse effects in humans. Obviously, such criteria will fail to protect human health.”

Calling on the European Parliament and member states to reject the draft, ChemSec said problems that need to be addressed include a change of wording from “negligible exposure” to “negligible risk”, an edit that raises the burden of proof enormously. It concludes: “Criteria for identifying EDCs need to be in line with the identification of other chemicals so that the precautionary principle can be functional and the criteria can be used to prevent harm.”

Low demand means no interest in reopening Zimbabwe’s asbestos mines

The Zimbabwe government’s hope that asbestos mining could be revived in the country have not been realised because there is little interest in the deadly product.

Ministers have supported efforts to secure capital to reopen the troubled Shabanie and Mashaba Mines (SMM), but these efforts have failed to bear fruit. President Robert Mugabe’s administration has negotiated with several potential foreign investors, mainly from Russia and China, but it now appears all hopes to resuscitate Shabanie Mine in Zvishavane and Gaths Mine in Mashaba have evaporated.

The Financial Gazette reports the two asbestos mines, which closed in 2008, require US$1 billion in fresh capital to resume operations. Mines and Mining Development deputy minister, Fred Moyo, earlier this year conceded that efforts to lure investors were being hampered by low global demand for asbestos.

“We are not getting investors [for SMM] and it seems to be a big problem largely because the market for asbestos is not looking good,” Moyo said.

New Zealand unions welcome ‘long overdue’ asbestos ban move

Unions have welcomed what they say is a long overdue move by the New Zealand government to ban imports of almost all asbestos-containing products. “Thousands of kiwis have been killed from being exposed to asbestos.

We’ve known for a long time how dangerous this material is. It is certainly a relief that the government has finally acted,” said Sam Huggard, secretary of the national union federation CTU. “Almost 200 people die every year as result of exposure to asbestos. It can take as long as 20 years from when people are exposed to asbestos fibres to when they actually get sick, so there hasn’t been the same immediacy to address this hazard as there has been to other dangerous workplace bio-hazards.”

However, he criticised a government decision to allow some exemptions to the asbestos ban, which is due to take effect on 1 October 2016. “We are disappointed that the government has not gone as far as they could have and banned, without any exception, all importation. Kiwis will be safer with less asbestos. We are pleased that the changes we have been calling for, have now been, mostly, actioned.”

Malignant lymphoma recognised by Korean government

In what has been described as an ‘unprecedented’ ruling, authorities in South Korea have recognised malignant lymphoma (non-Hodgkin lymphoma) as an occupational disease.

The Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) decision on 1 June 2016 approved workers’ compensation to Park Hyo-soon, a former Samsung Electronics Co Ltd employee who died of the blood disorder four years ago.

Her family were supported throughout the lengthy adjudication process by victims’ campaign and advocacy organisation SHARPS. The group says it has identified around 200 Samsung workers who developed the blood condition.

In 2002, Park Hyo-soon got a job as chip-line operator at Samsung, a few months before graduating high school. She was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma in 2010, about four years after she quit her job at Samsung. She died in 2012, aged just 28.

In a statement, SHARPS said: “Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) on 1 June decided to grant workers’ compensation to the late Park Hyo-soon, aged 28 years, citing that non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or malignant lymphoma, constitutes an occupational disease as she could have developed it as a result of exposure to benzene or other materials.”

It added: “KCOMWEL’s decision is significant because for the first time it declared malignant lymphoma an occupational disease.”

Europe’s chromium VI limit accepts 1-in-10 cancer risk

An Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL) for chromium VI proposed by the European Commission has been set at a level it knows will see 1-in-10 exposed at that level develop occupational cancer.

The proposed limit of 25 micrograms per cubic metre of air (μg/m3) would “render fatal lung cancer in every tenth worker over a working-life exposure”, said the non-governmental chemical safety group ChemSec. It bases its conclusion on a dose-response curve used by the EC’s official European Chemical Agency (ECHA).

The proposed standard is considerably higher than those in place in a number of EC member states, including France (1μg/m3) and Sweden, Lithuania and Denmark (all 5μg/m3).

There is also a danger the standard could be cited as an alternative to compliance with the REACH chemical registration law, ChemSec warns. “The new chromium VI OEL could open up a possibility for companies to use this chemical without having to apply for authorisation,” it notes.

“No doubt some industry will try to use this argument in order to avoid having to apply for authorisation. However, looking at these proposed numbers and knowing the different scope of the two regulations it is crystal clear that workers protection legislation could not qualify as equivalent to REACH” so should not be allowed, said Theresa Kjell, a ChemSec policy adviser.

A number of the 13 new limits proposed by the European Commission are considered by unions to be inadequate. These include a 0.1mg/m3 limit for respirable silica. This is the UK’s current standard, but twice the 0.05mg/m3 standard being introduced in the US and four times Canada’s 0.025mg/m3 limit. In the EU, Finland, Italy and Portugal already have a silica standard at or below the 0.05mg/m3 US limit.

Steven Wodka, a leading US occupational disease lawyer, said he was concerned about the proposed limits for some of the other substances, citing the case of ortho-toluidine, a potent cause of bladder cancer.

UK unions say time to get rid of asbestos

It is time to get rid of asbestos for good, the TUC has said. Britain’s biggest industrial killer, responsible for thousands of cancer deaths every year, “can still be found in around half a million non-domestic premises and probably around a million domestic ones”, the UK union federation says.

The TUC says the official line that asbestos is best left where it is, managed and undisturbed, isn’t realistic. “It is extremely unlikely that asbestos is never going to be disturbed if it is left in place for decades. There can be few cupboards, boilers, wall panels and pipes that have had no work done on them since the 1970s, when asbestos use was at its peak,” it notes.

“There is therefore considerable doubt that most of the asbestos that is to be found in buildings is going to lie undisturbed for the next 20 years, let alone the next hundred… So long as asbestos is present there is a risk.” The TUC has published a new guide for workplace representatives on how to negotiate “to get rid of this killer dust once and for all.”

The guide says “there is a need to ensure that all workplaces have a programme of identifying, managing and safely removing and disposing of all asbestos.” And the government should introduce a law requiring this to happen, it maintains.

According to TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson: “There is no place for complacency. It is not only your members that are risk, it is anyone who enters the premises, or who in years to come has to work on refurbishing or demolishing the building. Remember that your workplace could be one of those that the HSE estimates puts 1.3 million tradespeople at risk from asbestos. By ensuring that it is safely removed and disposed of, we can protect our members, and anyone working in the building in the future.”

Europe proposes new cancer exposure standards

The European Commission has announced new ‘binding occupational exposure limits’ for 13 cancer-causing substances in a move the Europe-wide union body ETUC has called a ‘cancer victory’ for workers.

“This is important news for the health of workers across Europe,” said Esther Lynch, ETUC confederal secretary, “and a hard-won victory for workers and their trade unions. Although some of the exposure limits are inadequate, and some substances are not included, this is a significant step forward. After 12 years of inaction the European Commission has finally listened to demands to protect workers better from work-related cancer.”

She added: “I am expecting the Commission to put forward exposure limits for at least 15 more substances by the end of the year.”

ETUC notes that exposure limits do not replace employers’ obligation to eliminate and substitute toxic substances in the workplace. It says 100,000 people die in the EU every year from preventable work-related cancers, adding it has called repeatedly for limits to be extended to more cancer-causing substances.

The Commission’s proposal for binding occupational exposure limits for 13 substances brings to 16 the total number of substances covered by exposure limits under EU law.

One of the new limits considered by unions to be inadequate is a 0.1mg/m3 limit for respirable silica. This is the UK’s current standard, but twice the 0.05mg/m3 standard being introduced in the US and four times Canada’s 0.025mg/m3 limit. In the EU, Finland, Italy and Portugal already have a silica standard at or below the 0.05mg/m3 US limit.

Steven Wodka, a leading US occupational disease lawyer, said he was concerned about the proposed limits for some of the other substances, citing the case of ortho-toluidine, a potent cause of bladder cancer.

He said the EC-recommended standard was never exceeded at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company plant in Niagara Falls, USA. However the plant still had a bladder cancer rate more than six times the expected level in the highest exposed groups, and more than double the expected level across the workforce.

 

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Global union IUF slams EC on chemicals retreat

Voting in the European Parliament, public opinion and credible, independent scientific research appear increasingly irrelevant to the European Commission (EC) when it comes to the protection of public health and the environment, the global farm and food union has charged.

Peter Rossman, of the plough-to-plate union federation IUF, writing in Social Europe, noted: “An estimated 100,000 workers die each year in the EU from work-related cancers, prompting the ETUC to demand stronger laws and enforcement. Yet we are experiencing a generalised retreat from regulation.”

Rossman cites the case of glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and the world’s most widely used herbicide – whose authorisation for use in the EU is currently up for renewal. He says despite growing evidence of cancer, reproductive and other health risks, the EC has proposed renewing the approval of glyphosate for the maximum period of 15 years.

The European Parliament has called for a highly restricted seven year renewal, and has said the EC had exceeded its statutory powers. But, according to Rossman: “There are no democratic mechanisms in place to stop the Commission from cutting a deal with the corporate agrochemical giants which would keep Europe locked into the deadly spiral of increasing pesticide applications for another decade.”

He concluded: “The rush to glyphosate renewal is part and parcel of the EU’s general retreat from regulation… Nothing is more political than food, which involves, or should involve, choices about what we produce and how we produce it, bearing in mind that foodworkers are in the frontline of exposure to the hazards which consumers experience as residues.”

Study links many jobs to non-Hodgkin lymphoma

New research has identified a wide range of occupations associated with a risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a group of related cancers affecting the body’s immune system.

The large-scale study, conducted by more than 30 researchers from 13 countries, included an analysis of 10 international non-Hodgkin lymphoma studies consisting of about 10,000 cases and 12,000 controls.

The paper, published in the April 2016 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives,  concluded: “This pooled analysis supports a role for textile-, hairdressing-, and farming-related exposures in the development of NHL. Additional occupations associated with NHL or NHL subtypes include cleaners, painters, printers, and wood workers. The results by sex indicate that occupational exposures may play a role in NHL for both women and men, but the specific occupations involved differ between the sexes.”

It continued: “The large numbers of participants and the application of standard NHL and occupational classification systems allowed us to make estimates of relative risk by NHL subtype, forming an important step towards improving our understanding of NHL etiology. The findings of the present study can be further refined at the next stage, after specific exposures are identified in detailed exposure studies.”

Two kinds of NHL were especially associated with employment as women’s hairdressers and two types of NHL were especially associated with work in the textile industry.

The authors postulate that exposure to solvents in many of the jobs identified may play a role in the development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

A continually-updated, annotated bibliography of occupational cancer research produced by Hazards, the Alliance for Cancer Prevention and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).