Row over workplace mineral fibre risks

UK communications giant British Telecom and NCU (now part of CWU), the union representing its engineers, had a long-running dispute over the risks posed by ‘man made mineral fibres’ (MMMF). The union questioned a company “assurances about the absence of risk,” which led BT to commission two external scientists to assess the evidence, both of which concluded the fibres posed no serious risk. One, Dr Robert Murray, noted strayed from a scientific analysis of the evidence, instead accusing unions of stirring up unjustified concern about fibre risks. He noted: “The subject of fibres has in the past been so charged with emotion that there is little hope of a detached scientific view being taken. This is evident from the literature provided by the other unions, especially the GMBATU [now GMB], which is full of selective quotation, misrepresentation and downright errors and is illuminated by the benefit of hindsight.” He added: “I think that existing evidence is sufficient to demonstrate the problem of MMMF is an industrial relations one rather than a medical one.” Murray was later discredited after it was revealed he had worked as a hired gun for the asbestos industry. The MMMF health concerns at BT led NCU to introduce a ban on work with MMMF in the mid-1980s, which remained in force until January 1987 when the union negotiated safety improvements. Roger Darlington, the NCU’s health and safety officer, said a recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statement on lung cancer risks linked to asbestos “vindicates the union position.” Within six years, the US safety authorities had fought of industry challenges and had mineral fibres added to the list of cancer-causing substances in the official Annual Report of Carcinogens [see: Industry sparks controversy over glass fibre and cancer, 1994].

BT v NCU: Cancer, Hazards, number 17, February 1988.


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