'Health risk' row over 48-hour week

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Labour Editor

Ministers were yesterday accused of suppressing research which would undermine government court action against a key European directive on working hours.

The Department of Health yesterday admitted destroying copies of a government- financed study because of a single sentence which reported that working more than 48 hours a week doubles the risk of heart disease.

In December the European Court is due to hear a case brought by the Government that a Brussels directive aimed at limiting working time is not a health and safety issue and therefore Britain should not be forced to apply it.

Even if the Government loses the case, it has negotiated a six-year delay on the 1996 implementation date for the order.

The study, by Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, which was due to be published on 4 September, refers to inquiries in Sweden and American which have supported the link between long hours and ill health.

The offending sentence says: "Research has shown that working more than 48 hours per week, doubles the risk of coronary heart disease."

A spokesman for the Department of Health conceded the reason for pulping the study, but pointed out there were other reports which showed that a link had not been proven. "We didn't like the bold and bald assertion in the report," said the spokesman. Professor Malcolm Harrington, of Birmingham Institute of Occupational Health, stated in a paper published in the British Medical Journal on 18 June that there was "no unequivocal evidence" supporting the link.

The Department of Health spokesman said there had been an "oversight" in the production and presentation of the booklet which might give the impression that its findings represented the views of the Government.

It was simply one contribution to the department's work on mental health in the workplace.

Professor Cooper, however, said it was clear that "long hours do not mean good health".

The MSF manufacturing union, to which the document was leaked, argues that the document, Mental Health and Stress in the Workplace, was suppressed because its publication would undermine the Government's case at the European Court. Roger Lyons, general secretary of MSF, yesterday called on Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, to issue the document, abandon the court case and implement the directive.

Mr Lyons claimed that 10,000 employees working more than 48 hours a week die each year from heart disease.