Legal action as 300 former coke oven workers seek justice

26 Jul 2013 | Firm news


More than 300 former coke oven workers are taking legal action against British Steel and British Coal in a battle for justice for cancers and respiratory diseases they are now suffering because of exposure to harmful dust and fumes decades ago.

A landmark judgment against a Phurnacite plant in South Wales in the High Court last year paved the way for legal action in areas particularly badly affected including Porth, Coed Ely, Newport, Caerphilly, Shotton and Port Talbot, as well as other regions in and around the North East of England where coking and steel plants were particularly prominent.

Today law firms Hugh James and Irwin Mitchell confirmed they had jointly issued a letter of claim against British Coal and British Steel on behalf of 300 former coke oven workers who became ill after working at coking plants and steel works across the country.

The majority of workers were employed in a range of occupations at the coke works between the 1940s and 1980s and suffered with various respiratory illnesses, including lung cancers, emphysema, COPD, chronic bronchitis and asthma. Many have now since died as a result of their condition.

Lawyers from the two firms have sent letters of claim to both the British Steel Corporation and British Coal Corporation and their subsidiaries outlining allegations that both companies:

  • failed to correctly assess the risks of working on coke ovens; and
  • failed to adequately protect workers from the significant dust and fumes generated.

The letters of claim also asks the defendants to agree to a limitation amnesty – removing strict time deadlines for bringing a usual workplace illness case – which would ensure that all those affected could get access to the justice they deserve.

Kathryn Singh, of Hugh James, said: “Sadly this is yet another instance where workers are left paying the price of their employers not protecting their health and safety decades ago.

“We now hope that the defendants will work with us to resolve our clients’ cases quickly and amicably.”

Roger Maddocks, a specialist workplace illness lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, added: “Hundreds of former coke oven workers are now suffering from terrible conditions simply because of the work they carried out on a day-to-day basis. Employees have a basic right to be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day.

“Sadly, in these cases, the workers have been affected by very serious and in some cases terminal illnesses just because of the air they breathed at work. We have repeatedly called for improvements to safety in the workplace and will continue to campaign for the rights of the victims we represent.”

Case study: Mr Derek Williams from Newport

Mr Derek Williams, 71, is a former coke oven worker from Newport, South Wales.  Mr Williams worked at Llanwern Steelworks from 1982 until 1999 when he was forced to take early retirement due to his poor respiratory health at the age of 59.

Mr Williams suffers from COPD which he believes was caused through his work on the coke oven tops and sides during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

When discussing his role, Mr Williams said: “Working on the oven tops was a very dusty and dirty job as you would have to go between the pipes to take temperatures.  You would be exposed to excessive dust and fumes on the oven tops.”

“When working on the oven tops we would have to wear an airstream helmet but these were cumbersome and heavy to wear which I believe led me to suffer from a bad back and a bad neck as a result.”

The work was very physical and there was no let up, Mr Williams was constantly on the go.  The physical nature of Mr Williams’ role would leave him breathless due to his respiratory condition.  This eventually led to his early retirement as his poor health rendered him unable to do the job.

As a result of his COPD Mr Williams suffers from shortness of breath, regular chest infections and a cough productive of black phlegm on a regular basis.  He manages his condition with a mixture of steroids and pumps.

Mr Williams’ daily life has been severely affected due to his condition and he hopes that by pursuing a claim, some kind of justice will be done if he is compensated for the condition he has to live with every day.

Another case is that of Martyn Bowden, 58, is a former coke oven worker from Caerphilly. He was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2007 after suffering with chest problems since leaving work at the coke works.

Martyn began working for British Coal at Nantgarw Coke Works when he was 16 years old and continued to work there for 15 years.

Martyn spent a lot of time on the oven tops and the sides of the coke ovens, where he says that it was very unpleasant and it was always very hot and smoky:  “The continuously smoky and dusty atmosphere would affect my chest and it would feel very tight when I was breathing in the fumes. It would often make me cough.”

“It was well known that the coke works was a very hot and unpleasant place to work…it was very smelly and dirty. Before Racal helmets were introduced none of the workers had any protection from the fumes, not even paper dust masks.”

Martyn’s current state of health is very poor, he adds: “The lung cancer has a very negative impact on my daily life and I get breathless when I walk up the stairs or try to walk any distance. It upsets me as I cannot play games with my grandson as I get too breathless.”

Martyn hopes that the claims made by former coke workers around the UK will provide compensation to help those who can no longer work due to poor health, as a result of working without protection in the coke works.

In a series of test cases last year at the High Court against the National Coal operating the Phurnacite plant near Aberaman in South Wales, the Court ruled that the Coal Board had not taken all practicable measures to protect employees from the inhalation of dust and fumes at the site. The company finally introduced proper respiratory protection around 1981 but workers had already been exposed to dangerous chemicals for decades.

In August 2012, former coke oven workers with lung cancer also became entitled to industrial injuries disablement benefit, subject to meeting certain employment related criteria.

This followed a paper issued by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council in September 2011 which found that the risk of contracting lung cancer doubled for those employees who worked on the coke ovens for 15 years or more. Those that worked on the oven top doubled the risk of contracting lung cancer after only five years of employment.

Contact us for more information

Anyone who has developed lung cancer or other respiratory diseases after working exposure to dust and fume over a number of years whilst working at a coking plant, or who has information about conditions at any coking plant operated by National Coal Board/ British Coal, or its subsidiaries (National Smokeless Fuels, Coalite, Coal Products) or British Steel or its subsidiaries (including  Randolph Coke and Chemicals, Dorman Long), is asked to contact Hugh James or Irwin Mitchell on 0800 652 5524.

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