Cabinet maker’s widow is awarded £375,000 after her husband died of nasal cancer decades after exposure to wood dust
The Health and Safety Executive is to investigate the occupational risks facing those in the furniture and woodworking industries, more than 10 years after the last checks.
It says about 50 people a year are diagnosed with nasal cancer which may have developed decades after their exposure to wood dust, while others have asthma as a result of their occupation.
Its announcement coincides with a £375,000 compensation payment to the widow of a cabinet maker who died of nasal cancer in 2005, and suspicions from her solicitor that some former woodworkers are unaware of the link.
Ken Mitchell from Canvey Island, Essex, died in April 2005 aged 56 after “a gruelling four years of biopsies, operations, radiotherapy and chemotherapy”, said his wife, Deborah.
“It is an evil disease. He was still only a young man. Before he passed away, he said: ‘Make people aware of what this does.’ People need to know this is an industrial disease.”
She met and married Ken years after he worked for an east London cabinet maker, E Lock and Son, in the late 60s and early 70s.
The company had gone out of business before the cancer developed, although solicitors found its insurers.
“[The money] will never compensate for the loss of Ken but it will help to ease the pain a little and I know my Ken will be looking down saying: ‘You’ve done it. You’ve got me justice.’ ”
Her lawyer, Pauline Chandler of solicitors Pannone, said: “His job involved a lot of sanding and sweeping up the dust of hardwoods like oak … Nasal cancer caused by wood dust seems to be on the increase so far as compensation claims are concerned and, like most cancers, it develops many years after the exposure.”
Valerie Lund, professor of rhinology at University College London and a consultant at the Royal National throat, nose and ear hospital, said although nasal cancer was very rare in the general population – fewer than one in 100,000 develop it – the relative risk of developing a particular nasal adenocarcinoma, a tumour in gland tissue in the upper nose, was at least 70 to 80 times higher in woodworkers.
Many of these workers did not know they had the cancer until it was well advanced and former employers had often merged or closed down.
“You are exposed to wood dust of a certain size. It is people who are sanding or lathing wood in conditions where you have to have quite a long exposure,” she said.
Symptoms could be non-specific, including a blocked or runny nose with a bit of blood.
“What should alert people is a new symptom on one side of the nose and which doesn’t get better after a few weeks.
“It is important to flag this up. People need to get sent to hospital. These sort of symptoms send an alarm bell both for patients and for GPs who, with the best will in the world, cannot investigate inside the nose or pick up a tumour when it is quite small. They do not have the equipment to do so.
“The cancer is very unpleasant indeed, particularly when it spreads to the eye and the brain.”
Sample checks on employers by the HSE more than a decade ago indicated that workers were exposed to higher than permitted levels of wood dust at more than a quarter of sites (pdf), although there have been only a handful of prosecutions or convictions in the past seven years.
Employers are meant to ensure they have suitable dust extractors and vacuum cleaners that will not disturb dust as brushes or compressed air do. Workers may also need face masks.
The HSE said: “The relationship between wood dust and nasal cancer is well-known … Funding has been secured for HSE to commission a piece of research, alongside intelligence gathering activities undertaken by HSE, to update our understanding of exposure risks in the woodworking industry. Such risks can lead to nasal cancer or occupational asthma.”
Repeated attempts to speak to the BFM, the association for British furniture manufacturers, about the issue were unsuccessful.
The occupational risks from wood dust may be well-known to the HSE but not to the general public.
The numbers affected are small compared to the 4,000 job-related deaths a year in the UK from asbestos, while the health problems of miners, from coaldust affecting lungs to vibration white finger from handling equipment, are established in the national consciousness.
Nasal cancer itself is rare – about 300 people a year are diagnosed with it in the UK – but the strong link with one form of it was uncovered by an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, the late Esme Hadfield – based in Wycombe, Buckinghamshire – and others more than 40 years ago.
She was curious about the high number of cases of adenocarcinoma, a cancer of nasal gland tissue, in the area.
Her work with Oxford ENT surgeon Ronald Macbeth and epidemiologist Donald Acheson, later the UK’s chief medical officer, associated these with the long-established local chair-making industry.
Acheson and colleagues went on to make a wider correlation with furniture-making across England and Wales and similar links were found in other countries. The occupation was then classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organisation.
Numbers of workers in the industry are small but their relative risks are high.
The decades between exposure to the dangers and the emergence of tumours mean it may take years to see just how effective health and safety at work legislation has been in this area.
Asthma is four times more prevalent in carpenters and joiners than in other UK workers, according to the HSE.
Article Taken from The Gaurdian