Industrial Noise and Industrial Deafness

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:02 pm on 11th March 1983.

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Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster 2:02 pm, 11th March 1983

I beg to move, That this House, mindful that noise is probably the most widespread and underestimated of industrial hazards, and aware that much more needs to be done not only to protect the hearing of workers but also to make more extensive, fair and equitable arrangements adequately to compensate those already injured by industrial noise, calls on Her Majesty's Government to adopt more rigorous standards to regulate and reduce industrial noise levels, including further statutory requirements to control noise at source, together with requirements that appropriate standards be incorporated in the design and development of industrial premises, machinery and equipment; further calls on the Government immediately to implement the recommendations of the Report of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, Cmnd. 8749, published in November 1982, and in particular the recommendations:—(i) that occupational deafness should be prescribed in relation to any occupation involving work wholly or mainly in the immediate vicinity of prescribed processes; (ii) that the time a claimant is required to have worked in a prescribed occupation should be reduced from twenty years to ten years; (iii) that the period since leaving a prescribed occupation within which a claim must be made should be increased from twelve months to five years; (iv) that the Department of Health and Social Security should ensure that audiological testing should be carried out only by fully qualified people; (v) that the word `permanent' should no longer appear in the statutory definition of PD48 (occupational deafness); and (vi) that a standing working group of the Council should be set up which would collect evidence on noisy occupations not covered by the occupational deafness scheme; and notwithstanding the important role of such a group, further calls upon the Government immediately to recognise that the present categories of occupational deafness contained in Schedule 1 of the Social Security (Industrial Injuries) (Prescribed Diseases) Regulations 1980 are anomalous and inadequate, leaving out of their scope many cases of industrial deafness clearly attributable to occupational causes, and forthwith to amend the Regulations accordingly, taking into account in so doing the very large number of successful common law claims in which damages are conceded by employers and their insurers but which do not at present qualify for any benefit or compensation under the existing statutory arrangements, thus bringing British practice and law nearer to that of some other industrial countries which have more beneficial arrangements; and calls upon the Government to press vigorously for the international adoption of these higher standards so that no country may gain an unfair advantage in world markets from the exploitation of the health and well-being of its workers. We have had an agreeable debate today, and I do not wish to say anything that might make the day any less agreeable. I wish to express my appreciation of the fact that the House has conducted its business today in such a way that I am able to speak on my motion. I have no complaint about the fact that, in the previous debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Employment to some extent anticipated my remarks. I do not think that he intended to pre-empt anything that I or anyone else might say. Indeed, I very much welcomed some of his remarks about noise and occupational deafness. I assure him that if he pursues, as doubtless he will, the interest he has already shown in this matter, he will be able to rely on a great deal of support not only from me but from the House in general, and certainly from my hon. Friends who have shown a consistent interest in this subject over a long period.

My motion inevitably straddles different Government Departments. I would not expect the Under-Secretary of State for Employment to respond to those issues which are quite properly the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Security. While I would have been glad had a Minister from that Department attended, I would not expect on a Friday, when there is always some doubt about whether we will reach other motions, a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Security to be present, although I hope that at the conclusion of the debate the Under-Secretary of State for Employment will ensure that not only the motion but the remarks that I shall address to the House are drawn to the attention of his right hon. Friends.

I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Welsh) in his place. He has returned from Doncaster, where he had an important constituency engagement, to take part in the debate, if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am particularly grateful to him not only for the consistent interest he has shown in this subject but for his invaluable advice and help in drafting the lengthy motion before the House. I confess to having some direct and personal interest in the subject. I do not know whether I am of the upper age scale to which the Under-Secretary of State referred. I am, however, one of those who has to pin his ear to the amplifier as I am partially deaf in at least one ear. I attribute this not to advancing years, but to my former industrial experience in the engineering industry.

More important than my personal experience is that of many of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and myself who suffer partial deafness and hearing difficulties incurred in their occupations. I think in my constituency of the number of cases that arise in the engineering industry, particularly the railway workshops at Doncaster, the coal mining industry and the glass manufacturing industry. In many cases such people have inadequate scope for securing a remedy. The motion before the House draws attention to some of the anomalies and inadequacies of present statutory arrangements under which people can seek compensation.

I understand that little can be done in many cases to restore the hearing of those who have been injured. Most cases of industrial deafness, I am informed, are irreversible. I share the Minister's view that many people seem to think that all that is needed is the passing of an Act of Parliament. Notwithstanding what the Minister has stated about the expectations that people attach to legislation, it lies within the power of the Government and the House to take some action. It is our duty to try to ensure that people who incur industrial deafness have adequate opportunities to seek compensation. More important, it is our duty to try to ensure that far fewer people in future are disabled, with all the misery and unhappiness that is consequential upon that disability, by industrial noise.

The principal target that we should seek to achieve is to cut down industrial deafness and therefore the cost of compensating deafness. Many hon. Members know that this can be done and also know why it is not done—the cost, and our competitiveness in world markets. I hope that I am not unfairly representing the Minister's remarks. There was, however, an implication that desirable things should be done but cannot be done because they would affect adversely the competitiveness of British industry in world markets. I understand that view. I hope, however, that the hon. Gentleman is not arguing that we should stand still until we have persuaded all our competitors that they should accept the standards that we think appropriate or that we should be prepared to sacrifice the well-being and health of our workers by accepting lower standards.

I recall the couplet of Oliver Goldsmith: How small, of all that human hearts endure,That part which laws or Kings can cause or cure. That reflects part of my attitude.

I wonder whether adequate research has been done into the cost to industry and to the economy of failing to take action that has long been advocated but which we are told would adversely affect the competitive edge of British industry. I refer to the cost of compensating needless disability—a matter pursued by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) earlier today. I recall, as will the hon. Gentleman, my return as junior Minister to the Department of Employment in 1974, when the Woodworking Machines Regulations 1974 were in gestation. The hon. Gentleman came to see me on behalf of the furniture workers' trade union to insist that we should include in regulations what is now implemented as a consequence of his representations—that is, the statutory requirement of a noise limit of 90 decibels.

We were bitterly opposed by the officials of the Department. The Health and Safety Executive had not been set up. Its predecessor, the factory inspectorate, and its officials, supported the Department and bitterly opposed us. Despite their opposition, we went ahead. Their line was that it was much more desirable, instead of proceeding in a piecemeal fashion, to have across-the-board noise limits. They said that they were on the threshold of doing that and that if the hon. Gentleman and I would only have patience there would be across-the board limits.

That was in 1974. We are nine years on and still waiting for those limits. If I could have looked ahead and had an almanac to tell me that we would have this debate today, I would not only have proceeded with more vigour to ensure that we got that requirement in the Woodworking Machines Regulations 1974 but I would have been keen to ensure that it applied to other appropriate regulations rather than having to wait for across-the-board provisions that never come.

We still have the same voluntary code that was introduced in 1972, which years ago the industrial health advisory committee of the Department of Employment said should have statutory backing. As long ago as June 1980 the Under-Secretary of State for Employment said that the Health and Safety Commission was considering proposals for legislation within the framework of the 1974 Act. That was nearly three years ago. We are entitled to ask what has happened. Where is that legislation?

I say to the Minister, if I may be presumptuous enough to give him some advice, that he does not want to let those people get away with this "Yes Minister" stuff about setting up committees. Those people say to each other that they will con the Minister and wait until he has moved on to the Home Office or somewhere else and then they can do the same to the next one. There are some good people in the Minister's Department, but he should watch out. There are many Sir Humphreys in Whitehall and there are one or two at Caxton house.

I understand the arguments about cost, but I hope that the Government will not continue to use that as a pretext for inaction. Those arguments can be overplayed. I understand what the Minister said about the need to try to get other countries to march in harmony with us, but I hope that he will not allow that to be an excuse for inaction. I am as concerned about the health and safety of workers in France, Belgium, Australia and Canada or anywhere else as about workers here. I hope that the Government will press for the adoption of international standards. I hope that, despite the Government's manifest contempt for the International Labour Office, they will continue to press it for vigorous action on the adoption of international standards.

The other leg of my motion deals with compensation for deafness. Recently The Observer carried a report with the headline: Severe rules on work-deaf to be relaxed". There was no question mark at the end of that heading. It was a categorical assertion. I was disappointed to read that that report, by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, has not yet received the endorsement of the Government. One of the purposes of drafting and tabling my motion was to press the Government for an immediate response to the report in the most positive way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Welsh) must have drawn considerable satisfaction from the report, as its principal recommendations are what he pressed the Government for in the debate on 14 December 1981—the relaxation of the 20-year and 12-month rules. The then Minister commented that when the council's recommendations were available they will be looked at with care and sympathy by the Government."—[Official Report, 14 December 1981; Vol. 15, c. 136.] That report has now been with the Government since November. I hope that we shall soon see some care and sympathy in response to its recommendations, as was promised my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. I hope that the Secretary of State for Social Services will write to me when the report of today's debate has been published and let me know how quickly we will see that sympathy and care.

There are other anomalies in the existing regulations which are not adequately or properly responded to by the national advisory council. There are, for example, the types of problems that I have encountered—no doubt other hon. Members have too—in my constituency. The Social Security (Industrial Injuries) (Prescribed Diseases) Regulations 1980 give a narrow list of the occupations in which people may suffer deafness and those who, if they pass the 20-year test and the 12-month rule, may qualify for some form of statutory compensation.

The first is the case of someone who has been employed for 20 years in The use, or supervision of, or the asssistance in the use, of pneumatic percussive tools". Provided that those people have worked with such tools for 12 months before the application for statutory compensation, they may have a case. That means that someone who has worked with, for example, a pneumatic hammer or a riveter and suffers deafness may have a claim. The regulations refer to The use, or supervision of or assistance in the use". Therefore, the person helping him, whom we call a dolly in the engineering industry, who goes deaf, may also have a claim. So does the foreman in his office 400 yards up the shop because he is a supervisor, but the poor chap who has been pusing the brush around that area for 20 years has no claim at all.

The regulations refer to the use of high-speed grinding tools, in the cleaning, dressing or finishing of cast metal or of ingots, billets or blooms". Anyone who has been employed in a boiler shop will know that the most agonising noise that anyone can endure is the sound of a grindstone being operated inside a welded cylinder.

My final point, which is also referred to in the motion, relates to the number of claims that succeed at common law but which are barred from compensation under this scheme. There are many such cases in my constituency, including those of people who have worked in glass manufacturing, railway workshops and coal mining. It is inexplicable to them that they suffer crippling injuries, incurred in the course of employment, as the jargon has it, yet they cannot qualify for any state benefit or compensation as they would be able to do if they suffered from other industrial injuries. That seems to me and to them to be contrary to the principles on which the industrial injuries scheme was founded.

I hope to leave time for my hon. Friends to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope, as he suggested by a nod of his head, that the Minister will pass on what I have said to the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Secretary of State for Employment so that we can have their comments on what has been said today and, which is more important, they can show by their actions that we have persuaded them of the need to do more not merely to reduce industrial noise but to help those people who have suffered industrial deafness.