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A factory worker who was forced to give up his job after he developed occupational asthma and dermatitis as a result of exposure to a chemical used in the manufacturing process has secured £40,000 in damages.
The man had worked for a company that produced motor parts. He operated a grinding machine, which involved the use of cobalt, a hard, bluish-white metal. Cobalt and its compounds are used in many processes and products.
Shortly after he started working on the grinding machine, he developed a skin irritation on his hands and arms, which then spread across his body. Some months later, he began suffering with a persistent, painful cough and was often short of breath. His symptoms were noticeably less severe when he was away from his workplace, however.
His health failed to improve and he began suffering from asthma attacks. He sought the advice of his doctor, who diagnosed occupational asthma and dermatitis which he attributed to exposure to cobalt.
It is well known that cobalt can enter the body by breathing in dust or mist containing cobalt or by skin contact with dust or solutions containing cobalt. Longer-term effects can include allergic reactions in the skin (allergic dermatitis) and respiratory tract (asthma) and even a condition called 'hard metal disease', which is inflammation and fibrosis of the lung. However, the man's employer did not provide its employees with personal protective equipment.
The man was moved to work on the metal presses, but these were in the same area of the factory. He was given protective clothing and a mask to wear, but this proved impractical and he was forced to give up his job. Whilst his dermatitis has eased since he stopped work, the symptoms of wheezing and breathlessness are likely to affect him for the rest of his life.
He brought a personal injury claim against his former employer on the basis that it had failed in its duty to carry out a risk assessment as regards exposure to cobalt and its compounds and to identify precautions necessary for the protection of its employees. In particular, he argued that the ventilation system and extraction fans in the factory were inadequate given the nature of the manufacturing process. His claim was settled for £40,000.
The Health and Safety Executive provides advice on working with cobalt.