Cleaner exposed to irritants at work compensated06 July 2011
Dermatitis caused by chemicals at work
A London Underground station cleaner who developed a severe skin condition after his employer introduced a cleaning chemical and took away his protective gloves has received £14,900 in compensation, with the support of his trade union Unite.
The cleaner lost his eyebrows, developed hypo-pigmentation on his face and had black patches on his hands after using the industrial cleaning product Traffic Film in his job as a cleaner at Piccadilly tube station.
Despite telling his employers GBM Services that the product was causing him to develop dermatitis he was forced to work with the hazardous agent for more than six months before steps were taken to help him.
No instructions provided on how to use new chemical
The Unite member, who has four children, had worked as a cleaner for more than 20 years. He began working for GBM Services Ltd in 2004 where he cleaned the tube station’s ticket hall. His employment was transferred to Initial in 2010.
In June 2007 he was told by his boss that the type of multi purpose cleaning agent he was using, Sprint, was being replaced by Traffic Film.
It was provided without any labels or instructions and he was given no training in how to use it.
He used the product as he had used Sprint - diluting it in a bucket and using a long handled brush to wash the walls and ceilings. The cleaning agent would drip onto his face and run down the brush handle onto his hands and arms.
He later found out that the product should only have been used on floors and with a machine.
Protective Gloves were taken away
Around the same time the product was issued he was also told he would no longer be able to use the black latex gloves he used to protect his hands and instead had to use household rubber gloves.
Within weeks of using Traffic Film he began to experience itchiness on his face and his eyebrows fell out. He then began to develop dermatitis on his hands and elbows.
By November 2007 his palms had turned black and he had open wounds on his hands. Patches of skin on his face began to darken so much that colleagues were concerned.
In December 2007 he was questioned by management about his condition and he was told that he would be given black latex gloves and that more would be done to improve the situation.
But the gloves were only available for a week before he was told that they no longer had them. No steps were taken to change the cleaning product or remove him from tasks where it was used.
Thompsons Solicitors made claim for compensation
In June 2008, a year after his condition started, he was finally told to take two days off work to recover. On his return he was given training on the cleaning product and was given cotton gloves to wear under the black latex gloves.
He was later told to avoid using Traffic Film and to start using Sprint again. In 2010 the company stopped using Traffic Film altogether.
He approached Unite for advice. It instructed its lawyers, Thompsons Solicitors to pursue a claim for compensation against GBM and later issued proceedings against Initial Facilities Services which had taken over responsibility for his employment. Initial Facilities Services didn’t admit liability but settled the claim out of court.
Thompsons argued that simple measures could have been taken to avoid Mr Solomon’s exposure to the product.
Dermatitis has now improved
The member’s dermatitis has now improved but he still has hypo-pigmentation on his right elbow.
He said: “I’ve worked as a cleaner for 20 years and this was the first time I have suffered any problems with my skin. When we were first told to use Traffic Film we were told it was replacing Sprint and given no further instructions. The product had no labels so we trusted that it would be used in the same way as Sprint. I now know that it should never have been used in the way we were using it, particularly without proper protection.
“My skin has now cleared up but I know that it could flare up in the future as I’m now prone to sensitivity. I am very much aware of the dark patches on my skin, which do embarrass me.”
Dangers that chemicals in the workplace present
Acting regional secretary at Unite, Peter Kavanagh said: “The fact that our member’s condition was made clear to employers six months before they took the problem seriously shows the absolute disregard this firm had for its employees’ welfare. This product was never intended to be used to clean station walls and should never have been introduced without clear instructions and training in its use. At a time when the government is looking to water down health and safety regulations, this case demonstrates what little attention some employers pay to the existing regulations and why they must be maintained and rigorously enforced.”
Anna Barnett from Thompsons Solicitors said: “It doesn’t cost employers much to adhere to the law and carry out risk assessments to establish the potential dangers that chemicals in the workplace present to their workers and then to take action to ensure that no harm is caused. They are obliged to either remove the risk altogether – by using an alternative, safe chemical for example – or by providing protective equipment if they cannot.
“Not doing so has cost Initial a great deal more than taking these simple measures would have.”
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