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Friday, January 22, 1999 Published at 07:56 GMT


Injured miners share £500m pay-out

Thousands are hoping for compensation

More than 30,000 former miners have been awarded £500m by the High Court after they developed the industrial disease known as vibration white finger (VWF).

The BBC's North of England Correspondent John Thorne visits a victim of vibration white finger
The ruling has been hailed as a landmark decision and mean the government could lose more money in compensation for health injuries from mining than the Conservatives gained from privatising British Coal's assets.

The ruling could also lead to much bigger compensation payouts for VWF, which can affect anyone working in heavy injury with pneumatic tools.

The compensation package, agreed by the High Court in Manchester, was drawn up by the miners' lawyers with the UK Government, which took over responsibility from British Coal after the industry was privatised.

Thousands of coalface workers and surface miners who worked in the toolshops and repairhouses lost the full use of their hands because they worked constantly with vibrating machines, similar to pneumatic road drills, which were used to extract coal.

Some miners handled the tools for hours on end every working day.

Men like George Ainsworth are typical. He was forced to retire, aged 50, due to VWF after 26 years working as a collier at pits around Barnsley in South Yorkshire.

'Painful in the cold'

That was 12 years ago and he has never worked since. One finger had to be amputated because of the disease, another is permanently deformed and may have to go.

His hands are white, his fingers numb and tingling. They are painful in the cold and everyday tasks like dressing or holding a cup are virtually impossible.

Speaking at his home at Worsborough near Barnsley, Mr Ainsworth said he was angry British Coal took so long to acknowledge the disease and their responsibilty.

A group of law firms has been fighting the miners' case through the courts for eight years. Each test case victory was appealed by British Coal, until the new Labour Government took over the negotiations.

Andrew Tucker, a solicitor representing some of the miners: "British Coal was very obstinate"
Andrew Tucker, of Sheffield-based solicitors Irwin Mitchell, said the miners were bitter at the delay, particularly those who had been ill for years and had no chance of fresh employment.

Industrial expert Dave Tyler said the ruling would have big implications for other industries.

"This is a much more significant level of compensation than anyone has achieved in the past, for example, shipyard workers," he said.

The typical pay award for each miner is likely to be between £5,000 and £10,000.

Shipyard workers have had a compensation scheme since 1975, but the amount of money it awarded was much less than the High Court sum.

"It means that it has now been recognised that this is a debilitating disease and is much more serious than it was considered in the early 1970s," said Mr Tyler.

The 30,000 recognised claims are just a small fraction of the number of miners who have made claims.

The National Union of Miners estimates around 250,000 have lodged claims.

Medical assessors to decide

The agreed settlement package amounts to £500m - a record for a compensation case in the UK - and the lawyers expect the government to pay for it from money from the sales of British Coal pits, property and land since privatisation.

The Energy Minister John Battle is expected to make a statement after the High Court hearing.

Independent medical assessors will now decide on the exact damages for each VWF victim. Some redundant miners who contracted the disease early in their underground careers may receive up to £40,000.

VWF became a prescribed disease in 1985, but doctors have been aware of the problem since 1911 when it was noticed that US workers who used pneumatic chisels developed spasms in their fingers.

A form of the condition Raynauds Phenomenon, it restricts blood supply to the fingers and is particularly triggered by the cold.

It begins with numbness and tingling sensations.

It can lead to disabling pain and whitening of the fingers.

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22 Jan 99 | Medical notes
Vibration White Finger: the facts

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