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Occupational Hygiene Service

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 26 November 1964

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Harper.]

2.30 a.m.

I rise to introduce myself as the new Member for Clapham and I should like to thank you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and the House for according me the privilege of making my maiden speech in this pleasant fashion. I confess that I would not voluntarily have chosen to give a maiden speech at this hour of the night. Nevertheless, I will do my best to prove to the House that a new Member can take a hard day's night in the same spirit as any of the older Members.

I wish to draw to the notice of the House what lies behind the fact that 20 million working days are lost by workers suffering accidents and scheduled industrial diseases and that the position is not improving, but is deteriorating. This is an age of discovery and invention. New materials, techniques and processes are being introduced which bring in their train new health risks of increasing complexity. Sickness absence records and field surveys all point to the fact that there are undetected and unchecked health hazards in industry. Experts advise as that about 20,000 new chemicals are introduced yearly to the industrial scene and there is no guarantee that all these chemicals are being tested before use. In the result, thousands of workers are exposed to poisonous gases and vaporous fumes and to dangers from handling the toxic constituents of many products.

I know, for example, that within the last week or so the T.U.C. has made representations to, I believe, the Ministry of Labour concerning the dangers of the use of benzine in synthetic paint and paint strippers and that the industrial hygiene laboratory services have been seriously concerned by the fact that 2,000 known workers are exposed to dangers from benzine and other solvents. The T.U.C. and other bodies are concerned also about lead and mercury hazards. I could give a long list of diseases. I will not give them all, but I should like to refer to hazards from dust.

Medical officers of health report that in factories where they are employed—and I emphasise that there are thousands of factories which do not employ medical officers of health—they know of 5,000 workers who are exposed to the dangers of pulmonary diseases from the inhalation of dangerous dusts. There have been constant complaints about vegetable dust, particularly from dockers. There is, however, one form of dust and the dangers from it about which I shall probably—I hope not—speak with distress. I refer to the dangers from cotton dust.

How many workers' lives have been shortened by the dangers of the cotton industry? Of the lives lost, my father's was one. He was a brilliant man who was dead at the age of 29 from contracting tuberculosis from working in the spinning mills. If not, he would have been gracing this House many years ago. I am conscious that, as I speak now, I am speaking with the voice of the dead.

I sometimes wonder whose was the greater tragedy, the young and brilliant life that was lost, or the young widow left husbandless with three small children to bring them up alone in the world with no help and the tragedy of children at seeing the suffering of their mother and the lifelong hunger and struggle. It is for this reason that I have chosen this subject tonight speaking in their name, and for this subject I stand proudly on this side of the House, where they would have wished me to be.

In any event, what happened then is still happening in industry. I make a plea for the most urgent research into lung damage and chronic lung illnesses as a result of dangerous dusts in various occupations.

I could refer to a whole list of other ailments, but I will mention heat stresses and strokes, and rheumatism. Indeed, a small-scale inquiry by the National Coal Board and the National Insurance figures raise the question of the industrial origin of a great deal of suffering from rheumatism and lumbar degeneration.

Then there is the new illness which we are beginning to recognise as having an occupational origin—I have sometimes wondered whether we suffer from it in this House. It is noise stress. I have sometimes wondered how many decibels we have been registering, and whether we need an occupational hygienist to protect us. The industrial medical officers claim that in factories where they have had facilities—and I do not speak about the factories where there are no facilities—there are at least 5,000 workers who urgently require hearing tests.

Loss of hearing from industrial causes is now regarded as one of the two major causes of accidents and dangers in the factory. I would point out that in the United States industrial deafness is now scheduled as a disease which is accepted for workmen's compensation. Then there are the health hazards in commercial life of unsuitable heating, ventilation and lighting.

It was not my intention to give a list of horrors, but to point out that safeguards could be utilised. Indeed, experts claim that half the working time lost, and at least half the human distress which is suffered, could be reduced if the latest techniques of occupational hygiene were fully utilised.

I have been struck by the fact that when Members have asked what subject I am going to speak on, and I have replied, "Occupational hygiene", they have said, "Oh, yes. It has something to do with drains". Only this evening someone said to me, "What a nice subject. My wife is interested in clean food". But it has nothing to do with that, and their comments spurred me to greater efforts to explain to the House what this is. The phrase "Occupational hygiene" is somewhat misleading. It does not really express its purpose, so perhaps I might be forgiven if I explain for a moment that the purpose of occupational hygiene is to detect and control the noxious and dangerous elements in the industrial environment which imperil health.

I urge the Ministry to do all that is possible by administrative or other means to develop occupational hygiene services in Britain. This will involve engineering and medical techniques, and the closely integrated activity of chemists and engineers, and of physicians and physicists, who are trained to inter-relate their various scientific skills, and who work in areas which are related to, but different from, the medical and safety programmes.

In countries abroad the necessity for this specialist service has been very well understood, and I propose to refer briefly to what other countries are doing in this respect, which put our country in a very unfavourable comparison.

In the United States, for example—these are the figures of Government sponsored bodies and Government financed bodies—there are 300 such institutions. In Czechoslovakia, there is one in each of the 11 regions. In Russia, the service is very widespread, and in Moscow alone there are about 400 members of the staff employed in this and the medical inspection of factories. Finland has a world-famous centre at Helsinki. In Italy, there is a chain of institutions. Yugoslavia, Canada and Australia all have highly developed services, and the new developing countries, too, are making rapid strides, often with the help of the I.L.O. and the World Health Organisation. I would mention notably Mexico, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Malaya.

Where do we stand in this country? It is true that certain private firms have developed their services. I.C.I., certain oil firms, and I believe the National Coal Board, on a small scale, have done so, but it is very difficult for the mass of our factories to provide this service because the vast majority of them are quite small. In my constituency there is no major industry and there are no large factories. Nevertheless, there are workers, and they have the same needs and the same rights to protection. But they are unable to get this, and this shows the need for a hygiene service supplied, as in other countries, by the Government if possible, in the form of units to serve such areas as Clapham.

I know that for many years the Ministry has had an industrial health advisory committee dealing with this problem, and that it has had many reviews. What has the result been? We had three centres in this country—one connected with Newcastle University, one with Manchester University, and another at Slough, which depended on their own individual efforts or on charitable grants from the Nuffield Trust. Although we have this department at the Ministry the net result has been that Slough has been closed down, so that we are now one short even of the three former charitable bodies.

I pay tribute to the pioneers of Slough who, in the very difficult years, struggled to make enough money to set up the centre there, which has done work of lasting value and whose name became of nation-wide renown. I realise that in a maiden speech it is not very courteous to be partisan, but I grieve greatly over the fact that the previous Government could not see their way to save Slough. I pay tribute to the pioneers there, and I want to let them know that their names will not be forgotten in this House. I would mention Dr. Hickish, Dr. Challen, and the committee which did such fine educational work under the chairmanship of Mr. Bonham Carter. Now we have no Government centre, and we have two centres where we originally had three.

Is this the task of the Factory Inspectorate? Its task is to administer the law in relation to safety, welfare and health standards. I recognise that in the inspectorate there are persons concerned with industrial health techniques, but they are very thin on the ground, and there are only 400 inspectors for 25,000 factories. There is a need for strengthening the Factory Inspectorate on its own grounds, quite independently of the ground that I have put forward.

I want to say a word about the economic issues involved, as distinct from the humanitarian issues. I would remind hon. Members that we are—we hope—entering a period of industrial advancement and expansion. The 20 million days which are lost each year through industrial ill-health will undermine this expansion. This is a priority question if we are to succeed in getting Britain going, as is our intention. Industrial ill-health is wasteful in itself. It also affects labour relations. Were it not for the lateness of the hour I could give many instances where illnesses have been mistaken for slacking, and where there have been consequent industrial disputes which might have been avoided. Industrial ill-health also puts up operating costs, increases labour turnover and affects our production programme—and it can affect our export programme and, consequently, the economic solidity of our country.

I therefore urge that the Ministry should regard this problem as too deep and vast a problem to be dealt with purely by voluntary effort. The Government should examine the question with the determination to face their responsibilities to the country and the workers. I know that within the last week or so an advisory panel has been set up to the Industrial Health Advisory Committee, and that it is to conduct another survey. My contention is that another survey is not necessary; the experts in the field know the need. Even I know that what is required is to give the kiss of life to the existing surveys and not to wait too long for the results of another one. I understand the economic position of the country and that there are priorities, but this matter is very much a priority.

If we are to build new factories, as we understand from the President of the Board of Trade we are to do on a wide scale, the factor of industrial hygiene must be taken into consideration in the design of the machines and the design of the factories. It is a matter of urgency and I therefore urge the Ministry to see what it is possible to do administratively at least to give us centres in London, where we have none, in Wales and in Scotland. If this action could be initiated we could initiate a revolution of incalculable value.

I appeal to hon. Members opposite, for I am falling victim of an occupational disease in his House, by quoting Disraeli. In 1827, not 100 yards from my constituency, he said:
"The health of the people is really the foundation on which their happiness and their powers as a State depend."
It is in that spirit that I make my plea. I thank, you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and the House for the courtesy of hearing me, in a much larger audience than I ever dreamt would be present at a quarter to three in the morning. I appreciate many compliments paid to me by many hon. Friends. If the House is willing, and I am able, I shall return to this subject at a later date.

2.47 a.m.

I think that the House will agree that we have heard a truly remarkable maiden speech. It is my pleasure to express congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mrs. McKay). I am sure that a better attended House will look forward to hearing her often because of the way she addresses the House and the marked mastery that she has displayed of the subject she has chosen.

My hon. Friend has made a very powerful case. She may have underestimated what is being done, but there can be no doubt that much remains to be done in this very important field. We have from time to time discussed days lost in industry by strikes, but too little attention is paid to the much greater loss of productive effort caused in industry by ill-health which can be avoided. My hon. Friend has drawn attention this morning to a most important subject and her speech was a most able presentation of a complex topic. She was kind enough to inform me of some of the matters she would raise and I hope to be able to satisfy her that the Government are keenly alive to the need for action in this field.

In some discussions on this subject there is sometimes very understandable confusion about what is meant by an industrial hygiene service and what is meant by an industrial health service. It has been made apparent to the House that there is no confusion in the mind of my hon. Friend. An industrial health service is concerned with the employment of doctors and nurses in industry either in individual firms or by a number of firms subscribing communally to a group service.

That is an important subject, but it is not the subject we are debating now. An industrial hygiene service, about which my hon. Friend has spoken is concerned with investigating the working environment in factories, carrying out biological tests to determine whether the health of workers is affected and advising on remedial measures.

They are available to firms on a fee basis, either to carry out a single survey, and make recommendations, or to carry out routine laboratory tests to see whether good working conditions are being maintained. There were three Services specialising in this field, all of them grant-aided by the Nuffield Foundation. It is, indeed, regrettable that the Service at Slough closed down, largely because of lack of support from industry itself.

I want to say a word or two about the closure of the Slough service. It had been hoped, with the aid of the initial grant of £20,000 from the Nuffield Foundation, that it would become self-supporting. It did, in fact, make progress and carry out some very good work, but it is discouraging to know that its income became stabilised at about £7,000 per annum, rather less than half of its expenses. Because of this there was little likelihood of its being self-supporting. At that time there appeared to be, at least to the Government of the day, no alternative but to close it down. An appeal to industry for financial support met with a very disappointing result indeed.

I should emphasise that the existing services not only at Manchester and Newcastle, but also particular services provided by universities, hospitals and research associations, are sufficient to meet existing demands. It is not a question of employers wanting tests and investigations carried out and being unable to find the existing services needed to do the job. The existing services can meet existing demands made by industry.

I recognise that the question which at once arises is not what is the demand for services, as shown by the willingness of employers to commission and pay for them. The real question, as my hon. Friend pointed out, is the extent of the need for such services in order to safeguard the health of workers. That is the main point at issue.

Here, I should like to say something about the work which the Factory Inspectorate does in this field. With respect, I would suggest that my hon. Friend underestimated the work that is being done. There are, after all, many provisions in the Factories Act and in regulations dealing with particular industries and processes which require the maintenance of healthy working conditions. The Factory Inspectorate in its regulations for factories see to it that these requirements are observed.

The inspectorate has its own specialist branches of chemists, doctors and engineers to advise on problems requiring professional skill and laboratory services. During the course of the last year special investigations were carried out by the Chemical Branch in 541 factories and many analyses were made, including over 1,000 dust estimations.

In this connection, I want to make particular reference—and I appreciate my hon. Friend's reference to this subject—to the dangers from dust in cotton mills, byssinosis, of which both she and I have had experience during our own working lives.

Medical inspectors visited over 2,500 factories, and over 1,000 biological specimens were analysed in the medical laboratory.

I want to dispel any impression there may be that this subject is not receiving attention. It is. The question is whether the work now being done is adequate to meet the real needs, and I must say that my hon. Friend has made out a very powerful case for believing that what is being done is not adequate to meet the real needs.

My hon. Friend has said that what is needed is action and not another survey. I think that both action and more information are needed. The present work of the Factory Inspectorate and all the privately commissioned inquiries will continue, but, meanwhile, we are carrying out a special survey of a random sample of factories to discover the nature and extent of toxic hazards. The survey will be carried out by specialist teams of the Factory Inspectorate, including doctors and chemists, on lines we have been discussing with an Advisory Panel of the Industrial Health Advisory Committee, to which my hon. Friend referred. Once we know the extent of the need we can consider how it can best be met. If a need for more investigatory and advisory services is shown, the Government will, I can assure my hon. Friend, take the necessary further action.

This is a problem which faces all industrial nations, and we can look with advantage at the experience and the practice of other countries. Of course, comparisons of national performance are not easy to make and what we are really concerned with is the end result on the factory floor. We have, however, made a particular study of American practice, about which my hon. Friend seemed very well informed, and I would like to inform the House and my hon. Friend that two senior officers of the Ministry have accepted an invitation to study American schemes of industrial hygiene services early next year.

I can only refer briefly to the important point which my hon. Friend made, that it is better to eliminate risks at the design stage than to have to take special measures to deal with them later.

This is accepted doctrine within the Factory Inspectorate, and the specialist branches do a good deal of work with the manufacturers of plant and equipment to try to achieve this end.

I am very grateful indeed to my hon. Friend for having raised this most important subject tonight. I hope I have to some extent persuaded her that we are not by any means neglecting it at the moment, and that our intentions are to see that if there are any deficiencies, they are remedied.

I do assure the House that I shall myself, from my own experience of industrial diseases, having had to deal with them for a long number of years, take a close personal interest in these problems and that they will not be neglected.

May I take a moment or two to congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Clapham (Mrs. McKay), on her very moving speech, which the few of us privileged to hear it will long remember.

I was very glad to hear her deplore the closure of the very encouraging experiment in Slough. At that time, both my predecessor, Mr. Fenner Brockway, and I, as Conservative candidate, were very sad that this should have happened. We have heard from the Minister tonight—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Three o'clock.