All posts by Rory O'Neill

Global union BWI condemns UN asbestos ‘junket’

The appearance of asbestos industry lobbyists at a meeting organised by UN agencies and funded by the European Commission (EC) has been condemned as ‘farcical’ and a ‘junket’ by unions.

Global building unions federation BWI said the event in Geneva on 30-31 March, ahead of a Rotterdam Convention conference in May, was hosted by the convention’s secretariat, the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) and World Health Organisation (WHO) and funded by the EC. Its purpose was to exchange information on chrysotile or ‘white’ asbestos.

The addition of this form of asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention’s list of exported substances for which ‘prior informed consent’ must be obtained has been repeatedly blocked by governments supporting the asbestos lobby. Attendees at the pre-meeting in Geneva included representatives of asbestos groups from countries including India, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.

According to BWI: “This move by the Rotterdam Convention Secretariat is politically naïve, to say the least. Presumably they seek to convince these representatives not to block listing of chrysotile ahead of the 7th Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention in Geneva this May.” The union body added: “Once again, the voice of the genuine, representative, trade union movement and of the victims of asbestos will be missing from the conversation. The plight of those who have paid with their lives for the profits of this deadly industry seems to be of little interest to the Secretariat of the Rotterdam Convention.”

BWI has prepared a model letter it wants unions worldwide to send to their national governments. The letter says national government representatives attending the May Conference of the Parties should call for chrysotile asbestos to be included under the Rotterdam Convention’s prior informed consent disclosure requirements.

Risks 697.

UK asbestos, Irish victim, US court case

A New York appellate court has ruled that a former mechanic in Ireland can sue Ford Motor Co in the US courts because the company’s “substantial role” in the design of car parts distributed by its UK subsidiary.

The appellate panel dismissed Ford’s UK subsidiary, the Ford Motor Co Ltd, from the case for lack of jurisdiction. But it ruled that there were “issues of fact” about whether Ford USA can be held liable in the case brought by Raymond Finerty, a US resident who claimed his work in Ireland from the 1960s to the 1980s with automotive parts, including car brakes, caused him to develop the asbestos cancer mesothelioma.

The ruling affirms a lower court’s decision in October denying Ford USA’s summary judgment motion, and reverses that court’s decision denying its UK subsidiary’s motion to dismiss the suit.

“The record demonstrates that Ford USA acted as the global guardian of the Ford brand, having a substantial role in the design, development, and use of the auto parts distributed by Ford UK, with the apparent goal of the complete standardisation of all products worldwide that carried the signature Ford logo,” the panel said in its ruling.

“Thus, issues of fact exist whether Ford USA may be held directly liable as a result of its role in facilitating the distribution of the asbestos-containing auto parts on the ground that it was ‘in the best position to exert pressure for the improved safety of products’ or to warn the end users of these auto parts of the hazards they presented,” the court said.

“We’re very pleased with the court’s decision, and it could have wide-ranging effects because the court found that Ford can be responsible for exposing people to its products around the world,” said Mr Finerty’s lawyer, Amber R Long.

Risks 697.

UK union warning on school asbestos toll

Asbestos is claiming the lives of up to 300 former pupils and 15 teachers a year, according to a report from the teaching union NUT. The union is calling for a national audit of all schools to assess the asbestos risk. It says said that while research suggests around 86 per cent of school buildings contain the substance – which can cause cancer – 44 per cent of teachers questioned did not know whether their school was one of them.

Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, said: “There has to be a proper audit to determine the scale of the problem. The dangers of asbestos in schools are obvious. What is needed to truly address the problem is a concerted effort on a national scale.” She added: “Political parties must actively engage with a problem which is very far from being addressed and has taken many lives. Children, parents and staff deserve better.”

The newly published findings of an NUT survey conducted in March revealed that just 15 per cent of teachers who were aware that their school contained asbestos had seen a copy of a management plan to deal with the problem. One in three teachers reported there had been an incident that may have led to exposure to asbestos. The union added there could be extra risk for children at free schools, which are often opened in “unsuitable buildings.”

According to the World Health Organisation, Britain has the highest mesothelioma rate in the world, at 17.8 deaths per million of population.

Risks 697.

UK unions welcome Sellafield body parts report

The government has apologised to the families of dead nuclear workers whose body parts were taken for testing without their knowledge. The Redfern Inquiry was ordered when it emerged in 2007 that organs were taken from 65 workers at Sellafield in Cumbria between 1962 and 1992.

Michael Redfern QC concluded that the relationship between pathologists, coroners and Sellafield medical officers ‘became too close’ with failures to adhere to professional standards. He said: “The blame lies mainly at the door of pathologists who performed the post-mortem examinations. Ignorant of the law, they removed organs for analysis without satisfying themselves that the relatives’ consent had been obtained.”

Mr Redfern said it was the view of the families that the bodies were treated as a ‘commodity’. Bones were even replaced with broomstick handles so no-one would become suspicious at the funerals.

Nuclear industry unions Prospect and GMB, who were among the organisations who called for the inquiry, welcomed the report. Mike Clancy, deputy general secretary of Prospect, said: “Nobody would question the value of medical research into potential health risks to the industry’s employees and close neighbours. Such research is clearly in the public interest but that does not in any way justify the removal of tissue without appropriate consent. Our thoughts are with the affected families, for whom this is difficult and upsetting.”

Steve Gibbons, regional officer responsible for GMB members at Sellafield, said: “This has been an extremely distressing period for the families involved in this ordeal and this union shares their concerns. GMB believe that we have played our part in trying to eradicate, completely, levels of radiation exposure in order that workers are protected from industrial disease.”

TUC Risks, Number 483, 20 November 2010.