4. Her Majesty’s Government: health & safety responsibilities, with particular reference to OP pesticides

Agriculture: Health & Safety Responsibilities

6 Feb 1996: Column 183

The Countess of Mar rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the statutory duties of the Health and Safety Executive and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ensure that employers and employees carrying out exclusively agricultural operations are kept informed of, and adequately advised on, matters relating to health and safety.

The noble Countess said: In asking the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I declare an interest. I have been exposed to organophosphate sheep dip and believe that I suffer chronic ill health as a result.

There are a number of provisions which govern the approval, licensing, advertising, use and disposal of toxic chemicals used in agriculture. The legislation defines the responsibility of the pesticide and veterinary medicine manufacturers, government departments and employers to ensure that those chemicals present no risk to the health of humans, animals or the environment if properly used.

The prime responsibility lies with the end user. It is my contention, and the reason I have tabled this Question, that an individual cannot make a full and proper assessment as required under the COSHH regulations unless he is provided with the information he needs to make that assessment. It is the user’s perception of the risk which governs his actions.

OP pesticides are poisons which act on the central nervous system. Of the three which are active ingredients in sheep dips, the World Health Organisation classifies chlorfenvinphos as Class IA (extremely hazardous); diazinon as Class II (moderately hazardous); and propetamphos as Class III (slightly hazardous). Diazinon dips are the most commonly used.

The Farmers Weekly of 7th and 21st May 1965 carried full-page advertisements stating: “Boots New Diazinon Dip is completely safe”, and “Nucidol Diazinon Dip: Proved safe. Proved effective”.

When organochlorine dips were found to leave residues in the food chain and the soil, the OP dips which replaced them were promoted as safer and more environmentally friendly.

When MAFF introduced national dipping orders in 1976, farmers were required to dip their sheep once a year until 1985, twice yearly until 1990 and once yearly until the orders were rescinded in 1992. To all intents and purposes they were compelled to use OPs, for of more than 20 MAFF-approved dips only two were non-OP, and they were nearly twice the price of the others.

Farmers’ perception of OP dips, conditioned by advertising and articles in the farming press, was that they were safe. Recommendations for protective clothing were minimal. Rubber gloves included in some dip packs soon perished after contact with the phenolic disinfectant. Not until 1994 were manufacturers required to put a skull-and-crossbones symbol on dip containers to warn of toxicity. Dippers instinctively discarded clothing if the weather was hot and wiped sweating brows with dip-soaked arms, for they knew no better. They made no connection between the flu-like symptoms which developed after dipping and the chemicals that they were using, and certainly did not think that the symptoms warranted a visit to the doctor.

When many developed delayed symptoms such as overwhelming tiredness after minor exertion, muscle pain and weakness, joint pain, chest pain with breathing difficulties and sudden mood changes, they began to be concerned. GPs, untrained in chemical toxicology, either subjected patients to batteries of irrelevant tests which proved negative and decided patients were psychosomatics, or regarded them as psychotic. At best they had ME.

As far back as 1951, Solly Zuckerman, later Lord Zuckerman, chaired a working party which investigated the health effects on workers using dinitro and organophosphorus compounds in agricultural sprays. This was before the advent of OP sheep dips. It made a number of important observations and recommendations. These included simplifying labelling and including the words “Deadly poison” in large letters on containers.

It said that it was “imperative” that all concerned be thoroughly educated in the dangers and precautions which should be taken when using these compounds. They recognised that there was no material which combined imperviousness to these chemicals while allowing proper ventilation of the body. Most significantly, it found that repeated low level exposures could result in chronic effects on human health.

The Health and Safety Commission is under the duty to “make such arrangements as it considers appropriate for securing that government departments, employers, employees, organisations representing employers and employees respectively and any other person concerned with matters relevant to any of these purposes are provided with an information and advisory service and are kept informed and adequately advised on such matters”.

Those matters are: “Health, safety and welfare in connection with work and control of dangerous substances and emissions into the atmosphere”.

My first question to the Minister is this. Why did not the Health and Safety Commission consider it appropriate to advise and inform farmers of the inherent dangers of these substances?

The inactivity of the HSC and the HSE in 1988 when a senior employment medical adviser presented a paper to officers of the HSE and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate is unforgivable. This doctor, who encouraged farmers to come forward at a public meeting and through a television appeal, promised to report his findings to the HSE. He described persistent, delayed symptoms in a group of about 40 farmers and MAFF inspectors. He described multi-system involvement typical of OP exposure, uptake and toxicity. He found that a significant route of absorption was by inhalation, as the inspectors would not have had skin exposure. Also, for other toxic substances such as lead and mercury, the HSE correlates uptake with symptoms and does not rely on measurement of an effect in ascribing cause and effect relationships. The measurement of cholinesterase activity, which is affected by OPs, was by this time becoming discredited. Manufacturers’ toxicity tests on animals used urine metabolites as a measure of uptake at least since the early 1980s.

Can the noble Lord the Minister tell me why those tests were not recommended by the HSE to GPs and consultants? Much of the literature which discusses symptoms of OP exposure, including the 1980 version of the HSE guidance note MS17, notes the limitations of reliance upon measurement of blood cholinesterase activity to assess uptake.

The HSE again failed to act upon–in fact, it actively suppressed–a field research project conducted by another EMAS doctor, Carol Davison. In 1990 she found that sheep dippers who were wearing protective clothing had metabolites associated with diazinon in their urine after dipping–an indication that the dippers had, despite their protective clothing, absorbed the OP. Both reports were rejected because they relied to some extent on comments made by their subjects, and consequently they lacked scientific methodology. If a patient does not tell his doctor his symptoms or the cause of his injury, how is the doctor to make a diagnosis?

By 1991 there was increasing evidence of ill health in the agricultural community. Self-help groups were receiving numerous requests for help and advice from sufferers and their families.

I ask the Minister why no one from MAFF, the Health and Safety Executive or the Department of Health has ever sought to question or clinically examine a group of reported sufferers to substantiate departmental assertions that the symptoms are diverse and attributable to a number of other causes and that there is no evidence that long term, low level exposure to OPs causes chronic ill health?

Further research by the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh in 1992 and 1993 confirmed that OP metabolites were found in dippers’ urine whether or not protective clothing was worn.

The HSE contracted with the Institute of Occupational Health in Birmingham a study into the neuropsychological effects of long-term exposure to organophosphates in sheep dip. The group had conducted previous studies for the HSE and ICI and its methodology was established. After the contract was made, there were two meetings with HSE staff to refine the protocol. A member of the HSE was on the steering group which monitored progress throughout. This person also represents the HSE on the Veterinary Products Committee. The researchers had no reason to believe that there were any serious reservations about the study by the HSE.

I was assured in Written Answers in 1994 that the study was based on good science and that the control group was accepted. The results of this research, published in the Lancet in May 1995 after peer review by an eminent British psychologist and an equally eminent US scientist, received glowing references. The paper has since been accepted internationally.

The researchers found that there was damage to farmers and that there was a dose relationship. Despite all this, the VPC rejected the results of the report in a manner which has been described as disgraceful. Will the Minister state how many members of the VPC have a competent knowledge of neuro-behavioural testing methods and outcomes? Why have the Birmingham researchers not been given the opportunity to defend their integrity in the proper place–the scientific journals?

OPs are now extensively used in agriculture and in domestic situations. There is very little in the literature on the effects on human health of long-term, low-level exposure.

We are told that OPs are too toxic to test on humans and maximum levels of exposure are arbitrarily set.

We know that different species of animals respond differently to different doses, and yet the results from animal tests are extrapolated to humans. We know that the observed differences in anecdotal reports of human exposure may be genetic or caused by nutritional variations. We know that inhalation is a major route of absorption for many OPs. They are popular because they retain their toxicity to pests for long periods–more than 10 weeks in a lamb’s fleece–but we do not know what effect this persistence has on unwary adults and children who may come into contact with them.

We are now in a situation where neither the manufacturers nor the HSE nor the Minister will recommend protective clothing which is both practical and effective. Why is it that, in the face of overwhelming scientific and anecdotal evidence, no government Minister will order that OPs should be available only to licensed users from restricted outlets? Why does the HSE persist in blaming the farmer?

There is a great deal more which needs to be said, but time does not allow. Perhaps I may end with a significant quotation.

Dr. T.C. Marrs, senior medical officer at the Department of Health, adviser to Ministers and government committees, and co-author of the current source book Clinical and Experimental Toxicology of Organophosphates and Carbonates said at a meeting of farmers in October 1991, “You don’t have to convince me there is long-term damage. I know it”. My Lords, why has he not told Ministers?

Lord Blyth: My Lords, I have had brought to my attention recently a number of cases where the Health and Safety Executive does not seem to have conducted field investigations as early as might be necessary to establish the cause of illness which could be associated with misuse of agricultural chemicals. Where it has investigated, there seem to have been attempts to minimise the effect that this misuse might have had.

For example, Mr. Richard Bruce of Thorley in the Isle of Wight was ordered by his foreman to empty a spray tank containing what was an unidentified chemical, later found to be pirimiphos methyl which had been standing for several months. After doing this both he and the foreman were unwell and experienced breathing difficulties and severe headaches. Nine or 10 days later, Mr. Bruce was asked to repair the drain in the yard on to which the chemical had been spilled. He worked for a couple of days after that but was obviously so unwell that the foreman told him to stay at home. He has not been able to work since January 1992. His doctors attempted to improve his health, to no avail. They were unaware of the effects of chemical exposure and did not know what tests or treatment should be carried out.

Mr. Bruce contacted the HSE in Basingstoke for advice and information in June 1992. He was told that the new COSHH regulations required the HSE to investigate and that the Employment Medical Advisory Service doctors would help with the tests. At that stage Mr. Bruce did not lodge a formal complaint as he was not absolutely certain that the chemicals were the cause of his illness. Like so many others, he was afraid that he might lose his job and his house. As he had not heard from the HSE, Mr. Bruce contacted PEGS who advised him to ask his GP to refer him to the National Poisons Unit at Guy’s Hospital.

There, organophosphates were confirmed as the cause of his poisoning and he was advised to complain formally to the HSE, which he did. At no time did the HSE inspectors visit either Mr. Bruce or the farm where he worked specifically to investigate the incident.

There follows a long saga of unsatisfactory contacts extending over three years with the HSE, NPU, the Pesticides Incidents Appraisal Panel, his MP and the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Initially, Mr. Bruce had hoped that the HSE would simply advise his employer how to avoid dangerous practices. He was particularly concerned because the yard was open to the public, including children. When he knew that his illness and inability to work were the result of his exposure to the OP, he felt that he should try to obtain compensation not only for himself but for his family.

It is apparent that things started to go severely awry when a High Court writ was issued in November 1994.

The NPU withdrew the diagnosis of OP poisoning in a letter to the HSE, copied to Mr. Bruce’s GP on 2nd December 1994, while, very strangely, confirming the diagnosis to the Benefits Agency in a letter of the same date.

The HSE assured the Ombudsman and Mr. Bruce’s MP that they had kept Mr. Bruce fully informed at all stages. Mr. Bruce is a meticulous record keeper and those statements do not seem to tie in with the facts.

Mr. Bruce is now left in a state of limbo. Because his case was not thoroughly investigated at the time when he reported the incidents which led to his illness he has no evidence and is unable to proceed with his claim for damages. He has tried frequently to establish what are the duties of the HSE to investigate and what action it is required to take. He is now in a position where HSE refuses to answer his correspondence.

There is another case of a lady on the Isle of Wight, Mrs. Constance Bradford. In September 1990 she was caught in spray drift and by the evening was feeling very ill. Her GP notes state: “Sudden onset of Vertigo, tinnitus, vomiting, nystagmus and blood pressure 180/130”.

Her GP had her admitted as an emergency case; he thought she might have had a stroke. She was discharged from hospital four days later without any diagnosis. It was only later when she was in contact with spray drift and again felt unwell that she made the association. She contacted PEGS and was advised to report the farmer to the HSE. This she did in early 1994. In March 1995, the HSE wrote to her to say that her hospital notes stated that she had had acute labyrinthitis for three days before admission and that there was no connection with OP exposure. That was clearly an error, particularly in view of the GP notes, but HSE will do nothing more.

I have given just two examples. I understand that there is no legal requirement that HSE advise and inform all those mentioned. The duty of the Health and Safety commissioners to do so and to investigate incidents is discretionary. What is the view of the Government? How serious does an incident have to be before it is thoroughly investigated? What powers do health and safety inspectors and EMAS doctors have to inspect premises and obtain other evidence? If they are all discretionary, is there much point in a worker or member of the public reporting an incident? If not, what is the Government doing to encourage individuals affected by misused toxic chemicals to be aware of their health effects and to report promptly without fear of retribution? And will the Minister look into Mr. Bruce’s case to see whether there can be a satisfactory resolution?

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Countess for having raised this subject once again in a speech which will be a brief if the unfortunate affair trickles on beyond tonight, which I rather hope it will not. It is time that we reached an end.

The noble Countess has been tireless in coming back to your Lordships’ House and asking the Government about the matter. She is absolutely right to do so. Section 15 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 lays down that the Secretary of State for Health has power to make regulations except as regards matters relating exclusively to agriculture. They are in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I believe that there is a need to clarify the responsibility. We are confronted with at least two government departments which should have some responsibility, plus the various agencies which have been established over a period of time.

As the noble Countess put it, the situation is that we are confronted with many reported cases of chronic OP poisoning. The recent Australian case with damages awarded in a court of law is an added piece of evidence. I do not believe that the noble Countess had time to mention it. The dips are damaging and they should at least be classified as prescription products until the results of the Government’s delayed researches are known. The Government’s attempt to have a test and certification scheme has been an arrant failure. Scab is on the increase and the cost of alternative treatments is prohibitive.

There are many things that should be done and the noble Countess and my honourable friend Paul Tyler in another place have urged what they are. Ultimately, what is needed is the political will. In all matters of safety, a good Minister takes the bull by the horns and the ewe by the tail and does a hard and tough thing, no matter how much it costs.

The agricultural worker has been on the dirty end for the whole of history. It is time that we ensured that he or she does not suffer in this case any more than he or she has to. It is time that the Government decided not to treat this as something which can be passed from agency to agency, department to department, and research committee to research committee. It needs political will. An injustice has been and is being done, it is endangering people and must be cured.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Countess for once again raising concerns about the health and safety of workers in agriculture. As usual, she has done her homework and clearly knows a great deal more about the problems than many of us.

In 1994-95 farm working became the number one killer of workers, even greater than the construction industry. Fifty-four deaths occurred in the agricultural sector during that year, 32 per cent. more than the previous year. Many Health and Safety Executive surveys have shown that the vast majority of workplace deaths are preventable; in other words, they have occurred because precautions that management could well have taken were simply not taken. But the deaths from major and minor accidents, many of which are under-reported in agriculture, are relatively few compared with the cases of ill health being suffered by those who work in this sector. Some examples have already been given by the noble Lord, Lord Blyth.

The HSE has stated that four out of 10 farmers reported health problems caused by their work, and one in three agricultural workers had to take time off as a result of health problems. Those problems include: pesticide poisoning, including of course organophosphate sheep dips, to which a number of noble Lords referred; diseases caught from animals, such as brucellosis, ringworm, etc.; breathing and chest problems arising from working in dusty and biologically active environments; noise and vibration injuries; repetitive strain injuries (RSI); back-ache and strain; dermatitis and other skin disorders; problems that arise from working in all weathers; long and unsocial work hours; isolation; and fear of BSE, which has recently arisen. The noble Countess has repeatedly raised in this House concerns about OP sheep dips.

The union to which many agricultural workers belong is pressing for the use of the dip to be banned in the interests of the health and safety of farm workers. It is stated that only one in 10 farmers has the legally required certificate of competence to use these sheep dips.

At a recent British Medical Association conference a spokesman for the NFU said that it had members reporting breathing difficulties, nausea, dizziness, and even paralysis. The NFU, he said, found this mounting evidence about OP dips and human health problems extremely worrying. The NFU has also expressed concern at what it describes as the steady reduction in the number of agricultural inspectors. It fears that current levels may be too low to provide an adequate level of assistance. They regard the provision of advice and assistance as crucial, particularly as health and safety legislation becomes increasingly complex. The NFU recently participated with the HE Agricultural Advisory Committee in a joint initiative to produce a model risk assessment for both agriculture and horticulture. Nevertheless, it remains concerned at the level of risk and says it is acutely aware of the increase in fatal accidents reported in 1995.

The Transport and General Workers’ Union, representing agricultural workers, also voices its concern about the lack of inspectors. It says that a small farm will be inspected, on average, about once in 30 years. There is also concern about the level of penalties when breaches are identified. There is no prosecution for offences regarded by the HSE as trivial. The average fine for the serious criminal offence of breaking health and safety law is £3,000. That is in general cases. In agriculture, I am informed, the penalty is usually much less. Fines average £500, and are sometimes as little as £100 for serious, life-endangering incidents. The union believes that that is because the magistrates in farming areas are often farmers themselves or the golfing colleagues of farmers.

The union is calling for inspections of agricultural premises at least once a year, and immediately on the occurrence of a serious accident or case of industrial disease. It believes that if health and safety law is seriously broken, prosecution should be taken at a Crown Court and not the local magistrates’ court.

Because of lack of union recognition in many agricultural establishments, there are few trade union safety representatives. It is commonly accepted in industry that the presence of trade union safety representatives is conducive to greater safety. The Transport and General Workers’ Union therefore believes that the Government should modify the law to provide for roaming safety representatives for non-trade union recognised agricultural workplaces.

The union has also drawn attention to the fact that children often work on farms. Clearly they need special protection. It is felt that perhaps the HSE should initiate a study of children working on farms in order to try to protect them. The same goes to some extent for elderly people, since they often work on farms, particularly on family-owned farms.

Tractors and other moving farm equipment should be subject to an MOT. Many accidents on farms are due to poorly maintained moving equipment. There should be more academic research on occupational safety, health and environmental issues in agriculture. It is alleged that what there is at present is under-funded.

It is clear from the information received from a number of sources that much needs to be done to improve health and safety standards in this vital industry. Many employers in it are suffering the effects of pesticide poisoning, and many are dying as a result. They also suffer the effects of poorly maintained equipment, which causes accidents. These risks are in addition to the risk inherent in the industry resulting from contact with animals, weather conditions, and the unsocial hours and isolation that are part of the working environment.

As the noble Countess so eloquently said, work must be done to see that steps are taken to ensure that workers know how to enforce their statutory rights to health and safety protection. Again, I express gratitude to the noble Countess for sponsoring this important debate.

 

Those who wish to read the minister’s most unsatisfactory answer may do so by following this link: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199596/ldhansrd/vo960206/text/60206-18.htm

 

 

 

 

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