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Hospital cleaners awarded damages over toxic fumes

27 March 2017

Cleaners who fell ill at Torbay hospital in Devon after being exposed to a chemical disinfectant have been awarded £70,000 in damages.

The 22 employees of the Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, who belong to public service union UNISON, began using the chemical Actichlor seven years ago but were allegedly not given any training in its use. 

A spokesman for UNISON said: "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.

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

The investigation found that the Actichlor, used for infection control, was being mixed with hot water in small, enclosed rooms. This led to the cleaning operatives breathing in toxic fumes. The disinfectant should be mixed 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 regulations.

Thompsons Solicitors who took on the case now believe it may have repercussions on other health trusts up and down the country.

Nicholas Seymour of Thompsons Solicitors said: "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."

A Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust spokesman said: "Ensuring we have a clean and germ free hospital is very important and to do this we use effective cleaning products. It is very important that our staff and patients are safe and to do this it is essential that these products are used correctly.

"As soon as we became aware that some staff had reported problems when preparing the cleaning substance we revised our training so that there was absolute clarity of how to use them. We also moved the staff who had reported the problems to other duties.

"This product or similar ones are used throughout the NHS as it is the only cleaning chemical which kills C Diff spores and is recommended for use by the Director of Infection Prevention and Control."