Metalworking fluids induce lung disease

Karl De-Loyde tells the story of the world’s largest outbreak of occupational lung disease

Around Easter 2003, some employees within the engine-making division of MG Rover (Powertrain) in Longbridge, Birmingham started to develop breathing difficulties.

They were suffering headaches, coughs, shortness of breath, fatigue and rapid weight loss. When they were signed off work they started to improve, only to deteriorate on their return to work.

Concerns were raised by the workforce, Unite, their union, and local GPs that their symptoms might be work related.

The Birmingham Chest Clinic, together with the Health and Safety Executive, undertook an investigation to establish the cause of the problem. By the summer of 2004, more than 100 employees had been diagnosed with work related respiratory disease.

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health legislation (COSHH) an employer must prevent exposure to hazardous substances. Where prevention is not possible, exposure should be kept to a minimum and further safeguards are required such as machine design, extraction and ventilation, providing personal protective equipment and health surveillance.

Insufficient to comply

A starting point for an employer to comply with coshh is the risk assessment. Powertrain appeared to consider that simply giving the safety data sheet for substances the new title of “Health and safety assessment for a substance at work” was sufficient to comply with their COSHH responsibilities.

Not so. They should have considered what dangers the substance posed when in use rather than just as a neat fluid and how to control the growth of bacteria and so forth.

To add insult to injury, when the works doctor expressed his concern that he thought the workplace was the most likely explanation for the workers’ illnesses, and asked for further investigations to be undertaken, Powertrain dispensed with his services.

Investigations revealed that the metalworking fluids in many machines were heavily contaminated with bacteria and dead bacteria (Endotoxin). These harmful substances were released into the atmosphere during the machining processes and thereby entered the respiratory system.

Employees had previously complained about the misty environment and a pungent ammonia type smell – often associated with sulphate reducing bacteria – but nothing had been done about it.

The factory contained over 160 machines and wash machines, all using metalworking fluids. Some of the machines were single sump; others were fed by huge reservoirs of fluid.

Employer denies wrongdoing

Notwithstanding this damning evidence that it was in breach of health and safety regulations, Powertrain denied they had done anything wrong. They maintained that they had at all times complied with their obligations while, at the same time, they sought to blame their fluid supplier (Houghton Plc) if anything was found to have been amiss.

Given the fiercely contested litigation, expert evidence had to be obtained from a variety of disciplines including respiratory medicine, occupational hygiene, microbiology and epidemiology. The expert evidence revealed how easily metalworking fluids can become contaminated and pose a risk to health, both in terms of skin irritation (dermatitis) and lung disease.

Thompsons acted for all of the claimants, instructed by Unite, under a group litigation order (a class action) and have secured settlement with damages of approximately £1 million.

As a result of this outbreak, the HSE has now changed the guidance it provides to users of metalworking fluids.

And with the assistance of Unite, benefits legislation has been changed so employees and former employees diagnosed with extrinsic allergic alveolitis, having worked in an occupation associated with exposure to metalworking fluids, can apply for industrial injuries disablement benefit.

What are the legal requirements?

Both you and your employer have responsibilities to make sure the risks to your health from metalworking fluids are properly controlled.

Your employer must:

  • assess the risks to your health and decide what precautions are needed
  • tell you about the risks and precautions necessary to protect your health
  • prevent your exposure to substances hazardous to health or, where this is not reasonably practicable, ensure that your exposure is adequately controlled
  • ensure that exposure control measures are followed at all times, and regularly checked and maintained, and that safety procedures are observed
  • monitor your exposure and carry out appropriate health surveillance, where the assessment has shown this is necessary
  • train you in the use of control measures and any personal protective equipment which is required.

You must:

  • co-operate with your employer
  • make full use of any control measures, use personal protective equipment and report any defective equipment
  • attend and participate in health surveillance programmes at your workplace, where appropriate.

Extract from the Health and Safety Executive’s: Working safely with metalworking fluids A guide for employees