Foundry Workers (Pneumoconiosis)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th December 1957.

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8.11 p.m.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Macpherson Mr Malcolm Macpherson , Stirling and Falkirk Burghs

The subject I want to raise does not have very much in common with what we have just been discussing, but it does have this much in common with it in that it is concerned with safety and, indeed, with life and death.

I am grateful to the hon. Member the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour for coming along. The subject which I want to discuss covers the interests of his Ministry and also those of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. I am told that the hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance was in Scotland until very recently and had intended to come from there to be present for this debate. I take it from her absence that she has decided that since she had the good fortune to be in Scotland, she might as well extend her good fortune and stay there. However, I am sure that she will be interested in what her hon. Friend passes on to her about her aspect of the debate.

I do not want to elaborate the matter at great length. I have geared my speech to fifteen minutes, although, because of the change in time, I need not perhaps be quite as strict as that.

This is a matter which originates in my constituency, although its application is a great deal wider than that. I am concerned about the existence of dust in the atmospheres of foundries and the effects of that on the health of foundry workers. In the past, a foundry worker spending a lifetime in a foundry has been likely to find himself spending a lifetime exposed to dust which in the course of time might affect his lungs and, if he were unfortunate, might well shorten his life considerably.

The industry is, of course, one of a high degree of craftsmanship, but also—and this is one of the things which probably contributes to the incidence of the disease about which I am about to talk—one in which there is a high degree of sheer hard graft. It is one of those industries in which there is still an enormous amount of sheer back-breaking hard work and I understand that that fact makes the treatment of the dust diseases which arise rather more difficult.

A tremendous amount has been done in recent years, especially since the publication of the Garrett Report. I appreciate, as do all the workers in the industry in my constituency, the amount of improvement which has taken place, an improvement due very largely to cooperation among Her Majesty's Government, through the Factory Inspectorate, the employers and the workers.

The hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance has now entered the Chamber. I have just told her colleague that I thought that since she was in Scotland she might extend her good fortune and stay there, but I see that duty has brought her here and I am very grateful to her for attending.

The Iron Foundries Joint Standing Committee, which was set up some years ago as a consequence of the work of the Garrett Committee, has also done extremely useful work and the first Report which it produced a year ago is part of the data upon which I rely for a good deal of what I have to say. But in spite of all that has been done—and this is the point I want to make—it is still possible for a new official appointed to one of the unions to be able to come along to me and to say that after a few months in his job he is absolutely appalled with the proportion of foundry workers, particularly dressers, who fall victims to pneumoconiosis.

When he gave me some figures—not official statistics—I, too, was appalled. My conversation with him is the genesis of this Adjournment debate. He told me that he had a membership of about 150 dressers of whom 30 had applied for benefit because of pneumoconiosis in the last three or four years. Those figures show that in spite of the work which has been done in foundries, foundry workers, particularly dressers, are still seriously endangered by pneumoconiosis.

I will instance one figure which, though not an official figure, is sound enough, of X-ray examinations undertaken in 1953–54 in selected areas including Falkirk. They were carried out by Dr. Meiklejohn of Glasgow University who published the results. He said that he had examined 28 dressers and had found 11 to be suffering from pneumoconiosis leaving the possibility that others might contract it later. Those figures suggest how desperately serious the position still is in foundries.

There are two broad lines along which one can try to remedy the situation and one is very much more fundamental than the other. The lesser in importance is that of the workers themselves taking steps to protect themselves against dust in the atmosphere, for instance, by wearing respirators. The problem about that is that although the employers should and do provide respirators, the workers who should wear them do not always do so. There is a still serious problem for the workers to solve on the workshop floor.

In that respect, there is a tremendous amount to be done, but it is in the other and more fundamental matter that the more important improvement must be made. The essential is not so much the taking of precautions by the individual workers, but a change in processes in such a way that dust is not freed into the atmosphere. The ultimate ideal would be a process of iron founding which would not permit the emission of dust into the atmosphere. That is the ideal which we cannot achieve right away, but we can achieve a part of it, with modern knowledge and modern techniques.

In the old-established floor moulding, it is a good deal more difficult, but with mechanised moulding I should have thought, on the face of it, that there was much more chance of completely eliminating the emission of dust. That is not the case in spite of the nature of mechanised foundries and at least at two key points, knock out and sand reconditioning, there is still a good deal of what might be called slack which can be taken up in efforts to control the emission of dust.

That leads me to the general suggestion that in all these processes the tools which are used should be fitted with some kind of dust extractor or exhaust. That is common place in the case of a great many modern tools; they are made in such a way that the dust is contained. In the business of dressing, for instance, if the rumbling barrel is efficient it does not usually emit dust into the atmosphere. Hand wire brushes, however, which are used to a considerable extent in my constituency, could have precautionary apparatus fixed to them, but they do not. Generally speaking, a great deal more could be done in that respect in most foundry work, particularly fettling.

I should like to know whether, when such devices become available, it is possible to make their use compulsory. Compulsion is something which we do not like to introduce if things can be done by co-operation. An enormous amount has been done by co-operation, but much ground remains to be covered. When we suggest compulsion in matters of that sort the foundry employers are apt to say, "We have spent a tremendous amount in recent years"—as they have—"and this would cost a great deal more money." But what is involved in the long run is life and death—and not always in such a very long run.

There is at least a case for saying that whenever the devices are available they should be fitted. A case was recently made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) for providing tax incentives when such devices are used—not penalising the failure to use them, but rewarding their actual use. My own constituency is a fairly happy one in this respect, but in some parts of the country slum foundries exist and there we do not get co-operative employers. The case for further compulsion is worth considering, although I am not standing here as a full-blooded advocate of it. The hon. Member should consider whether it would help. If it would save a good deal of the serious diseases which are contracted and of the early deaths which result there is a case for it.

There are one or two other suggestions that I should like to make, and which I shall make very generally because my time is slipping away. There is a need to improve working conditions generally. Co-operation in the last few years has resulted in improved conditions, and the introduction of the 1953 Regulations has helped, but among the foundry workers in my constituency there is a continual suggestion that the Regulations are not stiff enough, and that they are not being enforced strictly enough. I do not suppose that many industries owe more to the Factory Inspectorate than does the foundry industry. The Inspectorate has done an enormous amount of good, but it can probably do still more to enforce the necessary standards.

Since pneumoconiosis takes about five or six years to develop normally it should be possible to watch young workers coming into the industry and try to make sure that none of them falls victim to it. It should be possible to give them a medical examination for this disease periodically and, when there is the slightest sign of their falling victims to any dust disease, to take the necessary steps, even if it means asking them to move to another industry. The hon. Member might consider that point and let me know what he has to say about it.

In the case of adult workers the recent X-ray survey has shown the value of carrying out rather more X-ray examinations. Periodical X-ray examinations would be extremely useful, but the question arises whether this form of examination has not been relied upon too much in the past for diagnosis. It would be useful to workers in the foundry industry to know more about this, if the Minister has any information. I understand that there has been a certain amount of criticism of the X-ray examination, as giving not quite so much information as people have been inclined to believe. I should also like him to state what he thinks of the possibility of setting up in iron foundry centres pneumoconiosis clinics where provision might be made for heading off the onset of the disease. These, put very quickly, are the points upon which I should like the hon. Member to express an opinion.

I should now like to turn to the hon. Lady's side of the matter—the question of what happens after a man has got pneumoconiosis, or suspects that he has it. First, let us leave out of account the man who, thinking he has the disease, finds that upon diagnosis he does have it, and is then given benefit. Let us consider the other man—and there are a great many in my constituency—who thinks that he has pneumoconiosis; goes to his doctor; is told by the doctor that he has it; is sent to the infirmary; is told by the infirmary that he has it, and is then sent to the pneumoconiosis medical panel, which tells him that he is not suffering from it. He then appeals to the medical appeal tribunal, and the tribunal says that he has not got pneumoconiosis.

That is all right if the man afterwards lives a happy and a healthy life; but he does not usually do so. Although such a man has been told that he has not got pneumoconiosis he very often finds himself going through the same stages as he would if he had got it. In the long run the diagnosis may be exactly and strictly correct, but in a great many cases the man has some lung condition which has arisen because of his work. In the purely technical sense it may not be pneumoconiosis.

I want to know whether it is possible for such cases to be followed up. After a few years it should be possible to tell whether the original diagnosis or the tribunal's diagnosis was right. It should be possible, following up these cases, to know whether the present procedure is sufficiently effective and whether it covers the sort of cases that arise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch) had criticisms to make during the debate last Monday. He speaks with greater knowledge than I on the subject of procedure. I think his criticisms are right, and also that there exists something which is perhaps even broader than the matters he criticised and which should be dealt with. I should like to think that not merely sufferers from the exact described disease should obtain benefit, but that anyone who is suffering severely from exposure to dust in foundries should do so, whatever may be the exact description of his medical condition.

The question of benefit is secondary to that of prevention, but it is important. The onset of this disease is long and slow. A man has usually worked a great many years of his life before he has pneumoconiosis, and it is not easy for him to change his mode of life. The only thing which can give him comfort is benefit, so that benefit is important, even though it is not so important as actual prevention.

I wish to emphasise the seriousness of this matter from both points of view. I gave the hon. Gentleman some figures at the start of my speech and I will conclude with a remark which I hear fairly frequently. It is a common saying among those who work in foundries that to go into that kind of work "takes ten years off your life". That may be an exaggeration; on the other hand it may not. If we take the average life of a dresser, I do not think there is any reason to believe, on the face of it, that it is an exaggeration. Whether there is any truth in it or not, it is something which is widely believed. That shows the seriousness of the matter, and if there is truth in that belief there is cause not merely for a gradual step-by-step improvement, but a serious attack on this disease and on the conditions experienced by those who work in foundries.

8.30 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robert Carr Mr Robert Carr , Mitcham

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Malcolm MacPherson) and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Service was present to hear those parts of his speech dealing particularly with insurance matters. I will not attempt to answer those points. I am sure the hon. Member realises that I should do so inadequately. What he desired was that my hon. Friend should hear them and consider them. The main purpose of this debate was to enable the hon. Member to hear the Ministry of Labour view about the control and possible prevention of pneumoconiosis.

I agree that this question is most important. It is a risk in foundries which we must do everything possible to eliminate. The hon. Member has a particular concern and interest because of the amount of foundry work that goes on in his constituency. I share that interest for a different reason. I have had some experience of working in a foundry, not, let me hasten to add, an iron foundry, but an aluminium foundry, where conditions are somewhat easier. However, it gives one some appreciation of the problems involved.

I was glad to hear the hon. Member say that work in an iron foundry is one of the few occupations where there is "hard graft." I agree with him. Unless one has worked in a foundry one does not know what hard work is. The hon. Member said that many people believed that working in a foundry particularly in the dressers' shop, cut ten years from one's life. There is, of course, no statistical evidence to support such a statement. Indeed, the statistical records are not sufficient to provide a picture of the extent of the pneumoconiosis risk in foundries. But, figures apart, there is a problem here and I know that there exists a fear, about which we should not be complacent.

We have been, and are still, attacking this problem and we shall go on doing so in close co-operation with both sides of industry. That co-operation is important and I was glad to hear the hon. Member refer to the effects of existing co-operation. I do not want to belittle the need for a legislative background in some of the work, but the more I see of it the more I am convinced that real progress is usually made by co-operation. The legislation should be there and should be enforced, but real, positive progress comes from developing an atmosphere of consultation and co-operation within the industry, and between the industry and inspectors from my Department and other officials.

There is certainly too much dust in foundries, and it is our intention to do everything that is practicable to reduce and control it. However, we must not under-estimate—and the hon. Member himself was very fair in referring to this—what has already been done, not only since the Iron and Steel Foundries Regulations came into force, but for many years previously, and particularly since the publication of the Garrett Report. While we must certainly not be complacent, or pretend that there is no significant risk, we ought also not to speak of the subject in a way which will frighten people from entering the industry, and I appreciate the most responsible way in which the hon. Member raised this subject.

Of course, there is scope for further advance, and I hope we are making it, but already if employers and individual workers—the two together—take proper care to make use of the existing techniques and appliances, there is no reason to fear taking employment in a foundry. I want to say that, because this is a craft trade of immense importance to the economy of this country, and in the next few years, with the great growth of young people leaving our schools and needing employment, it is important that the foundries should get their fair share of these young people. Because it is a craft trade, it is work which offers real satisfaction to those who take part in it.

Therefore, on the one hand, we want to assure entrants and would-be entrants into the industry that we are doing everything we can to reduce the risk the whole time, and, on the other, we also want to say to them that, provided reasonable care is taken in the light of modern knowledge, both by employers and individual workers, there need be no fear about going into this industry. In saying that, I do not think that it is being complacent; I certainly do not want to belittle what the hon. Member said about the incidence of the disease which has come to his notice. Of course, this is a slow-developing disease, as the hon. Member knows, and the changes and improvements which have been made are not yet fully apparent. They should be shown in a number of years to come, in what we hope will be a decrease in the number of cases a few years hence.

I should like to say something generally about the question of prevention, which is the special responsibility of my Ministry. Since the war, a considerable amount of new legislation dealing with this matter has been brought into force. The occupiers of foundries are now under an obligation to maintain appropriate standards of cleanliness in foundries, and that alone is an extremely important matter. The use of sand has been prohibited in the blasting of castings and other articles, and the use of free silica has been prohibited in parting powders.

The Iron and Steel Foundries Regulations, 1953, represented the first attempt to deal with these foundries, as such, by special regulations, and certain of the provisions relating to dust, represented a very considerable step forward: in particular, the requirements about the separation of processes and the use of protective equipment.

Among other protective equipment, it is obligatory under the Regulations for the occupier to supply approved respirators in certain conditions, and it is also obligatory on the employed person to make full and proper use of the equipment and to report without any delay the loss of, or defects in, that equipment. I think that that answers one of the points which the hon. Gentleman made. There is an obligation here to provide protective equipment on the employer, and an obligation on the worker to use it and to report less or defects without delay; and it is most important that both these obligations should be carried out.

I know from an experience of some years as a foreman in a foundry that it is not always easy to get workers to use the equipment that is provided. I know from my experience of the foundry in which I worked that there seemed to be great difficulty in getting people consistently to use goggles or respirators or other special clothing which was properly provided for them. Further, in our legislative framework, there is special provision against young persons being employed in blasting processes, or being near one unless effectively protected from dust.

It is too soon to say what the effect of these requirements will be. The disease is slow to develop, but it is definitely the view of the Factory Inspectorate that the regulations, taken together, are having a real effect upon working conditions in iron foundries.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Macpherson Mr Malcolm Macpherson , Stirling and Falkirk Burghs

One point on the general question I did not bring out when I was speaking. There has been a great deal of improvement and there probably will be further improvement because some of the regulations will take effect later. One of the things to notice is that improvement is uneven. Some firms, as the recent X-ray survey shows, are bad firms, while others are better. One of the problems is to make sure that when progress takes place it happens everywhere and that the bad firms are brought up with the good firms.

Photo of Mr Robert Carr Mr Robert Carr , Mitcham

That is absolutely true throughout industry and not only throughout the foundry industry, and whether in the conduct of industrial relations, safety, welfare, etc. If only we could get the average up to the level of the good there would not be much further work to do. The problem is how to do it to a large extent.

Perhaps, since the hon. Gentleman has intervened on that point, I might move straight to a question which I was going to deal with later. He suggested that the regulations were not stiff enough. I do not want to be dogmatic, but I must point out that the Regulations have been fully operative only since January, 1956, barely two years and that before we begin to talk about the need for new Regulations—unless any unperceived gap appears—we ought to get these Regulations applied and general progress made. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that the making of Regulations is not by any means simple. They take a great deal of thought and research, and very often the very people—I am not thinking only of our factory inspectors—who would be engaged on them can be doing more immediate practical work by getting the state of the existing knowledge applied to the Regulations. There is always a difficult balance to strike in deciding when it is time to go ahead and to try to improve the legislative framework. Much of the work has to be done in the factory by enlightened and knowledgeable people. One's time can be consumed to a very large extent in making mere reports and Regulations.

Tied up with the stiffness of the Regulations is the question whether the Factory Inspectorate is firm enough in enforcing the existing law. If the hon. Member ever has evidence that they are not I should be glad to inquire into the case, but, generally speaking, I do not think that it is so. I suppose he is suggesting that the Inspectorate is too reluctant to prosecute when he suggests that it is not firm enough in enforcing the law. I can assure him that where we become convinced that the occupier is failing to do what is reasonably practicable in the light of modern developments, the policy is to prosecute.

Having said that, I stress again the importance that we attach to co-operation, in securing improvements in working conditions in industry. The Iron Foundries Joint Standing Committee, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, is an admirable example of it. Our object is to make progress. Particularly in view of the fact that the Iron and Steel Foundry Regulations have been fully in force for less than two years, however, we believe that at this point of time our most potent methods of achieving that progress are by consultation, advice and persuasion. I assure the hon. Member that the Department and its Inspectorate are wholehearted in their attempts to this end.

Having said something about the general position and dealt with the strength of the present law and its importance, I turn to some of the other points raised by the hon. Member and also to the work which is in hand for future progress. First, I wish to say a word about the fundamental investigations which have been going on over a long period into the incidence of this disease. We have made repeated medical examinations in foundries and our knowledge is continually expanding.

As the hon. Member knows, whenever appropriate, the results are published. The particular value of these studies from our point of view at the Ministry of Labour is the way in which they relate the hazard to particular processes so that we find which are the dangerous processes and where remedial or preventive measures are most urgent. The work of our medical inspectorate in this matter has been of great practical value and constitutes a contribution widely recognised, not only in this country but well beyond it. We are fortunate in having eminent workers in this field.

I certainly agree with the hon. Member that the first objective should be to reduce and control the dust. Although important, the provision of effective protection for the worker and ensuring that everything possible is done to make the worker use the equipment provided is only the second line of defence. The hon. Member said that there should be effective exhaust ventilation for dust control on all processes, including particularly those of the dressing shop or "fettling shop", as it is called, and that fettling tools, whether fixed or portable, power driven or hand-operated, like the brushes he mentioned, should be properly protected. Where reasonably practicable devices already exist, their use is definitely compulsory under the existing Regulations. As new devices are de-developed and become practicable, they also become obligatory under the existing Regulations and there is no need for new Regulations to make them so.

The obvious point of doubt is sometimes at what stage the new development has become reasonably practicable and, therefore, obligatory. I agree with the hon. Member that that is a matter on which sometimes there are bound to be differences of opinion. There is also the question, when a basic piece of equipment or device has been developed, of the time and trouble which need to be taken in tailoring it to meet the needs of different types of production. There is no doubt that formidable problems still exist in the development of dust control devices. I could give many examples, and the Report on Conditions in Iron Foundries by the Joint Standing Committee is at once an indication of the complexity of these problems and of the directions in which we are seeking remedies for them. For example, at the moment it has under consideration research in a large number of fields. To mention a few, there are: the application of local exhaust ventilation for all dressing tools except the cut-off wheel; exhaust systems for dust removal at fettling wheels on stand grinders; exhaust systems for dust extraction at knock-out; and the design of an exhaust system for the removal of dust generated by knock-out in pit moulding, where weight and design make the separation process of knock-out physically impossible.

This research is in different stages. In some cases, it is already bearing fruit and equipment is becoming available. In other cases, several years of research, although elucidating fundamental issues, have not produced concrete solutions and there is still a lot to be done. It is fair to say that research and development work has been and is being done by a number of organisations and bodies and a great deal by the industry itself, which I think, is a particularly encouraging sign.

Another point that the hon. Member made was that pneumoconiosis clinics should be established in foundry areas. Throughout the country there are facilities for the diagnosis and treatment of chest diseases. I am not aware of any particular difficulty having been experienced in foundry areas. The point I am making is that it is the facilities for chest examination which I believe to be important and I believe these exist. Provided those facilities exist, I doubt whether there is much cause for special pneumoconiosis clinics. If the hon. Member has any particular area in mind where the general facilities for chest examination which I have mentioned are proving difficult, I would certainly like to look into the matter and to take it up.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Macpherson Mr Malcolm Macpherson , Stirling and Falkirk Burghs

I understand that the diagnosis of pneumoconiosis is extremely difficult. Therefore, in an ordinary clinic which has not a special bent towards that kind of work it might not prove a very easy task.

Photo of Mr Robert Carr Mr Robert Carr , Mitcham

I will certainly look into that matter and consider it. If I think that there is anything in it, I will get in touch with the hon. Member.

The hon. Member also talked about the need for medical examinations. I know of a number of foundry areas where works doctors provide services of that kind. They make regular medical examinations. I should like to see that practice extended. Compulsory medical examination, however, raises a much wider question, including consideration of a much larger field of workers at risk in many occupations. That is altogether beyond the scope of a short Adjournment debate such as this.

The hon. Member mentioned young workers. Of course, in this industry, as in every other industry, they are examined not only on entry, but once a year for the first few years after they come in up to the age of 18.

The hon. Member also mentioned the possibility of financial assistance being given by the Government to employers to help them in installing machinery to cut down dust. It seems to me that any such provision would be a complete reversal of existing policy and, clearly, would have far-reaching consequences.

I do not think that it is a matter that can be considered in isolation as affecting work in foundries. The proposal is contrary to the principles of the Factories Acts. There is a duty to people to take precautions. They ought not to be given incentives to do what is their duty. In so far as they affect taxation, there are very serious complications and it would be impossible for me, on behalf of the Government, to accept any commitment like that.

This is a most important, very wide and complicated subject, as the hon. Member said. The diagnosis problems alone are serious. I assure him that I will look further into the points he has raised. I can also assure him that we at the Ministry treat this subject seriously and admit that there is a problem. We are not complacent about it and we intend to go on trying to improve the progress which we are all certain has been made in the last few years.

Photo of Mr Arthur Tiley Mr Arthur Tiley , Bradford West

May I ask my hon. Friend a question? Is there not consultation with the insurance companies about this matter? They are carrying out such huge research that, of all people, they know where the danger spots are from the complaints which arise.

Photo of Mr Robert Carr Mr Robert Carr , Mitcham

I hesitate to say "Yes" to that, because I do not know categorically the answer. However, in all the work we do in connection with factory and industrial diseases, we receive co-operation from a great range of bodies and I should be surprised if any organisation carrying out extensive work is not in touch with us. But I will make sure that that is so.