When Simon died, a war began: Martin Whittaker reports on the brave and effective crusade of a woman who set out to control health risks in factories after the death of her son

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Over the past 18 months, the sitting room of June Freeman's modest semi in Wolverhampton has been transformed. In one corner a sofa has been pushed aside to make way for an office desk, groaning with bulky files and letters from MPs. A wooden cross adorns the sideboard and framed photographs of her son Simon hang on the wall. Meanwhile, June herself has also changed - from a housewife and mother into a full- time campaigner for tighter safety in the workplace.

The turning point came in November 1992, when Simon overdosed on his mother's quinine tablets, which she took for cramp. He was rushed to the local hospital, but too late: that night, Simon had a heart attack and died. He was 17.

Simon's death was a bombshell for June and her husband, Barry. The youngest of their five children, he was an easy-going, well-balanced teenager who had everything to live for, including a job at Genoa Engineering in nearby Ettingshall, making archery equipment. It was his first job since leaving school and, says June, he enjoyed the independence it gave him. Just two weeks before his death, he got engaged to his girlfriend, Jayne.

But some six weeks before Simon died, the family began to notice changes in his behaviour. 'He started shouting at us for no reason at all. Then a minute or two later he'd be all right again.

'One morning I came home to find Simon home from work. He was sitting in the kitchen crying. I asked him what was the matter. But he said, 'Nothing'.

'Then we found out he was getting into arguments at work. He came home an hour early one day with bruises over his eye. Somebody had gone and knocked something off his bench. Simon had attacked him. His mates had to pull him off. But Simon wasn't like that. It was a real personality change. He changed from somebody who was pleasant into somebody who was moody and impatient. At the time I put it down to him being a teenager.'

On 11 November, Simon came home from work as usual. 'His colour was terrible. He'd never looked like that before. His eyes were completely bloodshot. He sat down on the settee and went to sleep. That was very unusual. Normally he'd come in from work, have his tea as quick as he could, shower and go off to meet Jayne.'

It took several attempts to wake Simon for his evening meal. Afterwards, she says, he went upstairs to his room. 'About 15 minutes later, Jayne came knocking at the door. Simon had phoned her from upstairs. She said: 'He thinks he's done something silly.' He died later that night.'

The Freemans were devastated. 'He wasn't just our son,' says June. 'He was our friend. Every time I went out and saw a young man, I'd look to see if I could see any resemblance to Simon.'

The post mortem attributed his death to a drug overdose. But a doctor who'd tried to save Simon had commented on traces of a solvent called trichloroethylene (trike) in his blood. This was confirmed at the inquest.

With the help of the Freemans' son Barry, who also worked at Genoa, the full story began to emerge. Simon's original job had been fibreglass laminator. But before his death, he'd been transferred. His new task was to dip archery bows in a degreasing tank containing trike and wipe them clean.

June trawled university science departments for information. She found that over-exposure to trike can suppress the central nervous system, bringing on fatigue and sleepiness, eye irritation, and depressant and irritant effects. Sniffing trike fumes can also lead to kidney and liver damage.

Another case then came to June's attention. A few months before Simon's death, 21-year-old Dennis Clarke was overcome by trike fumes while cleaning out a degreasing tank at Nuttalls Shelving Systems in Dudley. He died of cerebral anoxia. The company was later fined pounds 30,000 for breaching health and safety laws.

June became convinced her son's apparent suicide was linked with the use of trike at work. She says: 'There were no safety measures. There wasn't even a warning on the tank. Simon didn't wear a mask, gloves or protective clothing. And he was given no training.'

At the inquest into Simon's death last June, the coroner, Stephen King, said it was not clear that Simon did mean to kill himself and recorded an open verdict.

Last September, however, the Health and Safety Executive found trike dripping from leaking tanks, and poor ventilation at Genoa Engineering. The company admitted three breaches of health and safety laws and was fined pounds 9,000 at Wolverhampton magistrates court. June felt the fine was little more than a slap on the wrist. But the company wasn't prosecuted for Simon's death because he had died of a drugs overdose outside work.

Undeterred, she is suing Genoa for damages over her son's death. Her lawyer, Alan Care, says he is about to issue proceedings. 'We are supported in this case by expert evidence,' he says. 'The argument we have is that although trike didn't kill Simon directly, ingesting it would have disturbed the balance of his mind.'

Meanwhile, June has turned her attention to campaigning for a change in the law to protect youngsters from solvents at work. She started a petition, taking it to football grounds and shopping malls, and collected 11,000 signatures. She sent handwritten letters to all 651 MPs and 1,194 peers and lobbied Euro MPs. Her hard work has paid off. Last month an EC directive was passed on the protection of young workers, including a ruling making it illegal for under-18s to work with harmful substances like trike. The ruling should take effect by January 1996.

June is both surprised and delighted by the effects of her lobbying, and has turned her attention to wider safety issues. She has joined forces with the West Midlands Health and Safety Advice Centre, a trade union-backed organisation based in Birmingham, and set up a support group for families whose relatives have been injured or killed in factory accidents. The group holds its first meeting this month.

Looking out of a back window in her home, June points to two chimneys dominating the skyline. 'That's a foundry. A worker called Geoffrey Onions was killed there.' She walks to a front window and points between rows of houses. 'See that factory there? That's where Reginald Price got crushed to death.

'I was quite happy to be a housewife and mother until Simon died,' she says. 'Now I've succeeded with the EC legislation, I won't stop. Fighting for health and safety at work is now part of my life. Everybody comes up against the same bureaucratic hurdles. I just wish there had been something there for me when we lost our Simon.'

West Midlands Workers' Relatives Support Group, 37 Harding Street, Coseley, Wolverhampton WV14 8QR; (0902) 490474.

(Photographs omitted)