Asthmatic laboratory staff win damages

November 24, 1995

Four former Glasgow University technicians who gave up their jobs working with laboratory animals after developing asthma have been awarded damages totalling more than Pounds 200,000.

The three men and one woman, whose Court of Session actions for damages were backed by the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, claimed they contracted the condition through close contact with mice, rats, guinea pigs and rabbits used in experiments by university departments.

They alleged that they were not provided with proper protective clothing and had to work in unsatisfactory environmental conditions.

Their work involved feeding and watering the animals, taking blood samples and cleaning out cages. The university did not provide up-to-date cage cleaning systems, they said, and waste trays containing fur, fluff, dust and excreta had to be tipped into a dustbin, adding to the allergens in the air.

The ventilation system was inadequate, the masks they were given did not filter out the allergens, and lab coats did not protect them against the animals' urine. The technicians often did not wear the rubber gloves provided, saying these pulled fur off the animals, especially rabbits, causing them pain.

Frank Maguire of the law firm Robin Thompson and Partners said: "We argued that allergic asthma was a well-known risk for people who worked for long spells in close proximity with animals. Government officials carried out regular checks on the welfare of the animals, but nobody seemed to care about the conditions of the humans who looked after them."

Glasgow admitted liability, and a spokeswoman said safety measures were now in force including annual health checks of all animal unit technical staff. Disposable respirators were now a requirement, and ventilated visor helmets were available. All animal units had dry vacuum cleaning equipment and some wet cleaning methods.

Carmen McAteer, regional official of the MSF, said: "This case sets a precedent and is a clear demonstration that employers cannot flout health and safety rules and get away with it."

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