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October 25, 2006

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Photo firm fined over allergic dermatitis

A mobile photo-processing firm whose staff were regularly exposed to hazardous chemicals, and which failed to report the ill-effects of this exposure to the HSE, was fined a total of £100,000 and ordered to pay £30,000 costs at Bristol Crown Court on 28 September.

The case followed an HSE investigation at Photo-Me International plc’s premises in Bristol, where exposure to the chemicals – over a four-year period – lead three machine maintenance staff to develop allergic contact dermatitis. Stuart White, 37, suffered skin blistering, cracking, splitting and weeping, and colleagues Derek Corcoran and Barry Woolford also suffered symptoms of allergic dermatitis.

All three employees had been exposed to photographic developing chemicals well-known to be damaging to the skin – in particular, paraphenylene diamine, known as PPD. Instead of the correct protective equipment – such as long-sleeved gloves and aprons – Photo-Me provided staff with washing-up gloves, safety goggles and absorbent cotton t-shirts, which offered little protection from the harmful chemicals.

The company also supplied unmixed chemicals to staff, leaving them to mix them on site – sometimes even in supermarket toilets, the court heard.

Photo-Me was fined £30,000 for breaching section 2(1) of the HSWA by failing to ensure the safety of its employees, and £10,000 each for six separate breaches of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations. This fine is thought to be one of the largest ever imposed for COSHH offences. They included: not making an adequate risk assessment; failing to prevent or control exposure of employees to chemicals; and not providing any health surveillance of employees at risk. The company was also fined £10,000 for not reporting a case of the disease to the HSE. It was ordered to pay full £30,000 costs.

In mitigation, Photo-Me said it had implemented a new occupational health management system and recruited a safety officer. It said pre-mixed chemicals would now be provided for mobile maintenance staff, and it has taken steps to speed up the changeover from chemical-based photo-processing techniques to ‘dry’ thermal imaging systems.

Speaking after the case, HSE investigating inspector, Liam Osborne, said: “Controlling dermatitis is not difficult. It is as simple as A, P, C – Avoid contact with skin, by taking all the steps you can to modify the task or process; Protect the skin by implementing a good skin-care regime; and Check for early signs of dermatitis to ensure that the control measures are working. The size of the penalty demonstrates the court’s approach to this type of failure in the workplace.

He added: “If companies are exposing employees to hazardous chemicals, they must monitor health effects with health surveillance. By the time symptoms have been spotted, it’s often too late.”

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