16 February 1996

Absence of health inspectors raises alarm bells over safety

By Liz Mason

CONCERN over Health and Safety Executive investigations into cases of ill-health, possibly linked with pesticide poisoning, has been raised in the House of Lords.

Lord Blyth said a number of cases had been brought to his attention recently where the HSE "does not seem to have conducted field investigations as early as might be necessary".

He cited the case of Richard Bruce, Thorley, Isle of Wight, who was ordered by a foreman to empty a spray tank containing an unidentified chemical which had been standing for several months.

He experienced breathing difficulties and headaches and has not been able to work since January 1992.

Mr Bruce contacted the HSE at Basingstoke for advice in June 1992 and was told new COSH rules required the HSE to investigate and Employment Medical Advisory Service doctors would help with the case.

As he had not heard from the HSE, Mr Bruce contacted PEGS (Pesticide Exposure Group of Sufferers) who suggested he should be referred to the National Poisons Unit, Guys Hospital.

Poisoning confirmed

The National Poisons Unit confirmed organophosphates caused his poisoning and Mr Blyth 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 accident," said Lord Blyth.

Baroness Turner of Camden told Lords of NFU concern at "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," she said.

The Transport and General Workers Union, representing farm workers, was also concerned about the lack of inspectors.

Replying for the government, Lord Lucas said he would look into the specific cases raised by Lord Blyth.

Responding to concern over HSE and government advice on organophosphorus sheep dips raised by the Countess of Mar, and other peers, Lord Lucas said government had to get its overall priorities right and make sure attention and effort was directed where it was most needed.

"We must recognise, for example, that a farmworker is far more likely to be injured by a tractor than poisoned by sheep dip."

There were, he said, about 54 fatal accidents a year. "I do not believe that a single one is due to chemicals poisoning."

But government recognised that "people have understandable worries about particular risks" and have "a reasonable claim to information and advice". &#42