The families of three of the employees at Thor Chemicals SA mercury reprocessing plant, set in the hills of Cato Ridge, in Natal, are alleging it failed to protect the workers from the potentially deadly effects of the heavy metal, which attacks the brain. They are planning a test case against the factory's Manchester-based parent company - Thor Chemicals UK.
The claim arises from events at the plant - reputed to be the biggest in the world - in early 1992, when two workers, Peter Cele and Englebert Ngcobo, collapsed showing symptoms of mercury poisoning. Mr Cele, 21, has since died and Mr Ngcobo, 54, remains in a coma. It is their families who intend to launch the test case, along with Albert Dlamini, 26, unable to speak or work since he was employed at the plant. If successful, actions by the other workers found to have toxic levels of mercury in their bodies could follow.
An inquiry by the South African health authorities found 'ample evidence of widespread contamination of the plant and the surroundings with mercury and its compounds'.
A report by an occupational health expert, Tony Davies, found that casual workers were given no proper training or respirator equipment, that levels of mercury in the air were consistently above the maximum allowed, that 'skin contamination, including burns, are frequent, and that contamination of work clothes is common'. The South African government has since charged three executives with culpable homicide and 42 other offences covering breaches of health-and-safety procedures.
Concerns over Thor's work with mercury were first raised at its factory in Margate, Kent, in the Eighties, when allegations of excessive levels of mercury in the air and in workers' urine were investigated by the Health and Safety Executive.
The company gradually transferred its mercury operation to Natal, leading Professor Davies to conclude: 'Thor Chemicals must accept full responsibility for the consequences of the transfer of hazardous processes to the plant at Cato Ridge over the past decade, both in terms of the environmental impact of the plant and the health consequences of the men employed at the plant.'
But the families are faced with starting the legal proceedings in the UK because under South African law they are prohibited from suing their employers in that country. Similar legislation in Britain - which provided minimal compensation for work injuries or death but prevented civil court actions - was repealed in the 1940s.
Richard Meeran, solicitor for the families, said yesterday: 'It would be wholly contrary to the interests of justice and public policy to allow Thor Holdings to benefit from foreign legislation which they would not be entitled to rely on here and at the same time deprive foreign workers of compensation.'
No one at Thor Chemicals in Manchester was available to comment.
Granada Television's World in Action programme tomorrow night examines Thor's safety record on ITV at 8.30.Reuse content