A local government worker won pounds 15,000 in tax-free compensation in an out-of-court settlement from her employers, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, who did not accept legal liability.
Veronica Bland, 36, said she developed chronic bronchitis as a direct result of a smoky atmosphere and, in particular, because three women working within a few feet of her each smoked 15 to 20 cigarettes a day. 'They just weren't the sort of people to take my complaints seriously and although some of the management team made sympathetic noises, they refused to move me away from them,' Miss Bland said after the award yesterday.
Her 'beautiful soprano voice' was damaged, she needed an operation and spent four months off work. 'I joined the council in the hope that I would be working in a non-smoking environment but I soon became ill, suffering from sneezing, coughing, streaming eyes and then bronchitis,' she said. Both Nalgo, the local government workers' union which backed her case, and the anti-smoking pressure group Ash predict a flood of similar claims from non-smokers.
Yesterday's developments come after a warning by the Government that it will consider legislation to outlaw smoking in public places and at work if voluntary means fail. But Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, is resisting pressure for a change in the law.
Mark Flannagan, assistant director of Ash, knows of six passive smoking cases that may go to court. Employers anxious to avoid paying compensation are expected to introduce smoking bans.
Although yesterday's settlement was out of court and not a judicial ruling, the consequences were highly significant, Mr Flannagan said. Ash estimates that one in five companies now has a non-smoking policy. Nalgo may take legal action under exist
ing health and safety legislation, which
insists that employers provide adequate ventilation.
A Bill to compel employers to provide a smoke-free workplace will be presented to Parliament next week. Its sponsor, George Foulkes, Labour MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, said: 'Passive smoking is not only an irritant. It causes illness and even death.' The Bill's prospects of success - even though it has all-party backbench support - are remote.
Anne Greaves, Nalgo's health and safety officer, said the award would have 'colossal reverberations' in Britain and abroad. 'The case will be a warning shot across the bows to all employers who ignore the risks of smoking to non-smokers. It will tell them that they will be hit where it hurts most - in their pockets - if they fail to recognise that their non-smoking employees have rights to a clean bill of health.' It would also help smokers to 'kick the habit', she said.
Stockport council, a hung council with Liberal Democrats as the largest group, said in a statement that it had banned smoking in offices throughout the authority from 1990. Staff are permitted to smoke only in certain areas not used for work.
Andrew Marston, chief personnel adviser to the council, said: 'The no-smoking policy was not introduced as a result of the proceedings instigated by Veronica Bland. In fact, the policy was implemented six months before legal action started.'
The council is now considering a total ban on smoking in all council workplaces. Nalgo is also close to concluding an agreement that will ban smoking altogether at its London headquarters.
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