Legal aid changes hit sick steel workers: Lynne Wallis reports on the latest twist in a 30-year fight for a fair deal

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The Independent Online
TENS of thousands of former steelworkers who claim they have suffered long-term illness through inhaling metal fumes and dust at work could be denied the chance of claiming damages because of imminent changes in the legal aid rules.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 men worked for British Steel in the early 1980s and many are now extremely ill.

They say this resulted from working with dangerous metals, while wearing only flimsy paper protection masks.

Some have developed heart disease from the strain of coughing and can walk only a few yards without having to pause for breath.

Research has shown that steelworkers are twice as likely as other manual workers to suffer lung damage. The Sheffield Occupational Health Project, which is campaigning for the men, says 16 per cent of steelworkers develop chronic bronchitis and emphysema, compared with two per cent of white collar workers.

Last week the Government finally announced the details of compensation that will be paid to miners whose lungs were damaged by coal dust. The decision follows a ruling last November by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council that their illness had been caused by working conditions. The steelworkers have been waging a 30-year battle to have bronchitis and emphysema similarly recognised so that they can take civil actions for damages against their employers.

Their case was rejected at the same time that the miners won theirs. The steelmen believe this was partly because the Government was reluctant to pay thousands more men disability benefit.

The next step is to seek a judicial review of the council's decision. But this will be expensive. One sufferer will have to agree to become a test case, proving in court that his illness was caused by work and much research needs to be done to identify the right person.

John Howell, a Sheffield solicitor helping some of the men, explained: 'Engineering reports cost pounds 500, medical reports pounds 200. You are asking people to lay out maybe pounds 1,000, just to find out if their case is worth bringing.'

Many of the steelworkers have only their pensions to live on, so the case will have to qualify for legal aid. But even under the present legal aid rules those pensions, coupled with redundancy cash, made it difficult to find one that was eligible. And the steelworkers' cases are likely to be lengthy, as the damage from metal dust inhalation is virtually identical to that caused by cigarette smoking.

Under the new limits, only people with a disposable income of less than pounds 2,213, the level at which income support is payable, will be allowed legal aid. The Law Society estimates this will deny it for around 14 million people.

It believes that only around 25 per cent of the population will be eligible for free aid, compared with 70 per cent 20 years ago.

Dennis Smith and Fred Milner, both 59, retired from British Steel within the last year on health grounds. Neither was offered redundancy. Dennis has chronic emphysema, Fred emphysema, asthma and angina.

Both worked as furnace servicemen, standing above a filtering system which constantly belched out metal dust and fumes. Their paper face masks were chocolate-coloured within hours. No one warned them of any danger but they have since discovered they were breathing in sulphur, lead, iron, cobalt and nickel, all of which are known to cause emphysema and asthma.

Dennis said: 'We were told dust is irritable to the eyes and skin, but to wash with soap and water and we would be OK. We gradually began to realise that we were taking an hour and a half to do what should have taken an hour. And it got worse. Much worse. Now, it can be a good two hours in the morning between getting up and making myself a cup of tea. Getting dressed and washed are exhausting.'

Fred, who had worked in a foundry since he was 15, said: 'Because you look OK, people think you are flannelling. The weather is a factor. Windy weather is awful for breathlessness, so are hot days, because of the asthma and the pollen count. This disease is like a creeping death.'

A worker who replaced Fred and Dennis while they were off sick was not allowed to enter the work area without a full respirator mask on. 'If they had taken that sort of care when we worked there,' said Dennis, 'we wouldn't be out of work and ill now.'

Brian Taylor's job was to reline the brick furnaces where scrap metal was melted down. He believes this was one of the most dangerous jobs in the plant.

He gradually became iller

and iller until in 1983, when he

was 54, British Steel made him redundant, with a pounds 15,000 payoff. His loss of earnings will have amounted to pounds 132,000. He said: 'When the sun was shining in the plant, you could see dust in the air. Millions of tiny particles of metal that we were breathing in. If only we had known what it would do to us.'