Torbay NHS pays out after cleaning fluid leaves workers sick

Cleaners at a Torquay hospital have won £70,000 in damages after they fell ill, having been exposed to a hazardous chemical disinfectant at work.

The 22 cleaning staff – who belong to public service union UNISON and all work for the Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust – began using Actichlor seven years ago, but weren’t given any training on its use.

Anyone using the cleaning substance experienced runny eyes, nose sores, and wheezing coughs. To make matters worse the masks they’d been given were useless and the goggles didn’t fit anyone who wore glasses, says UNISON.

When managers ignored their concerns, the cleaners contacted UNISON, which asked Thompsons Solicitors to investigate.

This investigation found that the Actichlor was being mixed with hot water in small, enclosed rooms, which meant the cleaners were breathing in toxic fumes. A lack of training also meant that staff didn’t know they should have been mixing the disinfectant using cold water and in large, ventilated spaces.

The case went to court and the cleaners were awarded compensation because the hospital had provided sub-standard equipment and had failed to comply with safety – Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) – regulations.

Allison Parker, UNISON representative at Torquay hospital said: “Staff love their work but their jobs were making them ill. Some even took ill-health retirement because they were too poorly to carry on.

“Now thanks to our union and Thompsons we can continue doing our work in a safe environment.”

UNISON South West head of health Helen Eccles said: “This case shows the value of being in a union. Employers shouldn’t expect staff to use dangerous substances without proper training or the correct protective gear to keep them safe. Hopefully this will be a lesson to other employers not to play fast and loose with the safety of their staff.”

Nicholas Seymour, Industrial Disease Unit Manager at Thompsons Solicitors said: “The staff at the Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust were needlessly made ill because of a lack of training and of basic health and safety equipment which is unacceptable.

“The concern now is that Actichlor is being used by NHS trusts across the country – and may be being prepared in similar conditions, causing lasting damage to respiratory systems and all sorts of other illnesses. We would urge anyone working with Actichlor who is unwell to get in touch with their union.”

Further info

Allison Parker and her colleague Kath Budd, the union reps at Torquay Hospital who helped the cleaners bring their case, have recently been recognised by UNISON’s South West region with an award for health and safety campaigning