UNISON wins £70,000 pay-out for hospital cleaners

22 union members in Torquay receive damages after being made sick by hazardous chemical disinfectant

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

Those were the words of Torquay hospital UNISON rep Allison Parker, after 22 cleaners – union members – at the hospital were awarded £70,000 damages after falling ill because they were exposed to chemicals.

The cleaners, who all work for Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust fell ill because of using a chemical disinfectant called Actichlor seven years ago – but were given no training in 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, said 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.

“Staff love their work, but their jobs were making them ill,” said Ms Parker.

The case went to court and the cleaners were awarded compensation because the hospital had provided sub-standard equipment and didn’t comply with safety regulations – specifically, the COSHH regulations covering the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health.

“This case shows the value of being in a union,” commented UNISON South West head of health Helen Eccles.

“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 of Thompsons solicitors said the cleaners were made ill “because of a lack of training and of basic health and safety equipment, which is unacceptable”.

He urged “anyone working with Actichlor who is unwell to get in touch with their union”.