Bus driver develops dermatitis after being exposed to irritants

Unite member, Shelley Hardwick, has secured £17,500 in compensation after developing dermatitis from being exposed to irritants while at work.

In October 2012, Shelley, who was employed as a bus driver for First South Yorkshire Ltd, noticed that she had developed sore blisters and spots on her hands, which was diagnosed as dermatitis by her doctor. Despite being prescribed steroid cream and antibiotics, her symptoms continued.

Shelley reported her symptoms to her employer and was seen by the occupational health doctor and referred to a dermatologist. They confirmed that her dermatitis was likely caused by exposure to disintegrating steering wheels on the older buses that she has been driving, and that she should only drive newer buses and wear gloves to protect her hands.

Patch tests confirmed that she was allergic to formaldehyde, a chemical compound which is present in many day-to-day products such as plastics and rubber. When Shelley was not at work, her dermatitis would improve.

Over the years, drivers had regularly reported the poor state of repair of the steering wheels and handbrakes on the older buses to management. However, rather than replacing them, they were repaired by wrapping electrical tape around the areas where the coating had worn off. On occasions, body filler had also been used to patch up areas where the rubber was disintegrating.

Drivers also reported that the steering wheels and handbrakes on the buses were dirty as a result of fitters and cleaning staff failing to remove their work gloves before moving the buses around the depot. Therefore, oil, diesel and dirt were transferred onto the steering wheels and handbrakes. Despite employee complaints, no action was taken to resolve the problems.

Shelley approached Unite Legal Services who made a claim for compensation on her behalf.

While conducting the investigation, it was found that many other bus drivers at the depot had the same skin condition as Shelley. They provided witness statements detailing their symptoms, along with confirming that the older buses were in a bad state of repair.

First South Yorkshire Ltd admitted a breach of duty, but continued to dispute that Shelley had developed her condition as a result of exposure to irritants on the dirty and damaged steering wheels.

Shelley received £17,500 in compensation without having to pay towards her legal costs. As her case was funded by Unite Legal Services, she retained 100% of her compensation.

Shelley said: “I am so glad that I got in touch with Unite Legal Services. We had to start court proceedings because to begin with my employer was not prepared to accept responsibility. They were trying to argue that it was not the damaged steering wheels that had caused my skin condition.

“Unfortunately, I will now have to live with this condition for the rest of my life, but Unite Legal Services fought for me every step of the way and got me the compensation I deserve."

Karen Reay, North East, Yorkshire and Humberside regional secretary at Unite the Union, said: “Employers are under a duty to ensure their employees are kept safe whilst working, unfortunately sometimes this does not happen and despite complaints, employee’s concerns can be ignored. Shelley was able to get expert legal advice, medical treatment and compensation with the support of Unite Legal Services.”