Employers and public authorities found responsible for 'Ardystil syndrome'

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In June 2003, a Spanish court issued its judgment on the 'Ardystil syndrome', one of the country's worst occupational health disasters, which resulted in six deaths and over 70 serious illnesses among employees in textile printing companies in Valencia in the early 1990s. The long-awaited ruling found that the employers concerned were clearly responsible, and that the public authorities failed to fulfil their role as a guarantor of safety.

In mid-1992, a number of workers in the textile printing sector in the El Alcoià area, in the region (autonomous community) of Valencia, suffered serious health disorders that were apparently caused by contamination arising from poor working conditions. Several of them died as a result. These unusual health disorders became known as the 'Ardystil syndrome', referring to the name of one of the companies involved in which there were most victims and most deaths. Between February and October 1992, six workers (five women and one man) at the Ardystil and Aeroman companies died from pulmonary fibrosis, and another 72 suffered (mostly young women) from various types of pulmonary disease. All the survivors suffer from permanent disability which prevents them from working in environments with dust in suspension. The companies involved were involved in aerographic textile printing, and the working procedure consisted of printing fabric by spraying it with pulverised dyes. Furthermore, to remove stains from the fabric the workers sprayed them with solvents.

Reactions

The social partners and authorities all regretted the Ardystil tragedy, but disagreed about its causes. This was to some extent due to the scientific difficulty of identifying a specific causal agent - the investigations concentrated on finding the chemical agent that caused the fatal pulmonary fibrosis (an approach seen by some as restrictive).

Though they did not deny the involvement of chemical products in the appearance of the Ardystil syndrome, the trade unions claimed from the start that the socio-economic context and working conditions were decisive factors. They argued that a combination of precarious employment, a 'semi-underground' economy and poor working conditions was decisive in making the problem more acute and prolonging it.

Employers' organisations, on the other hand, stressed the need to find the specific agent that had caused the disease (presumably a chemical product) in order to determine who was responsible. They also sought to separate the events from the working and employment conditions of the persons affected. The government tended to share this viewpoint, but the publicity that the case received in the Spanish media gave rise to considerable pressure. As a result, in 1993 the government added the Ardystil syndrome as a risk factor to the official list of activities and products that are regarded as leading to 'occupational illness' (the only modification made to the list since it was published in 1978). Furthermore, the regional labour authorities in Valencia decided to close all the companies in the aerographic textiles sector.

Despite several years of epidemiological and toxicological research, notably with regard to one chemical product (Acramín, manufactured by Bayer), neither the experts of the Valencian regional government (Generalitat) nor specialists consulted at the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) were able to determine the factor that triggered the syndrome. Recent technical reports from the National Institute of Toxicology (Instituto Nacional de Toxicología, INT) suggest that the disease cannot be attributed to a single product used to paint fabrics, but is the result of the joint action of the toxic substances used or of the possible appearance of chemical compounds different to the basic ones in the mixture.

Court ruling

A long-running court case over the Ardystil syndrome finally reached its conclusion on 30 June 2003, when the Alicante court (Audiencia de Alicante) issued its judgment. It found seven of the employers concerned guilty, and considered it to be proven that the eight companies involved had used dangerous chemical products without the necessary health and safety and personal protection measures. The ruling states that the workers and the employers had no knowledge of how to handle the chemical products concerned, and considers it to be proven that the serious pulmonary damage suffered by workers was directly related to the lack of preventive measures and continued exposure to mixtures of different chemical products. The court sentenced the owner of the company in which there were most victims (Ardystil) to a six-year prison term, stating that she showed no interest in providing the necessary preventive measures in her company. The court also mentioned that she started the factory without the necessary permits and failed to make social security payments for some of the employees — mostly women and some minors.

A six-month prison sentence was given to a labour inspector for negligence, because the court considered that he had failed to fulfil his duty with regard to health and safety on his visits to the company. A further six employers were sentenced to 10 days' imprisonment and a fine for offences against the safety of workers and failure to adopt preventive measures. Finally, subsidiary responsibility was attributed to the Valencia regional government, which must guarantee that the victims receive the total of EUR 4.1 million awarded in compensation. However, these guarantees apply only to the ex-workers of Ardystil, and not to those of the seven other companies involved, who are dependent on compensation from their former employers (providing that the latter do not declare themselves bankrupt). The judgment did not attribute civil responsibility to the three suppliers of the chemical products (Bayer, Solvay and ICI), which would have provided a greater guarantee of payment of the compensation. Many of the victims have stated that they will appeal against the ruling.

Commentary

The Ardystil case was a prime example of poor management of occupational risks. It has become a key to understanding the development of occupational risk prevention in Spain because it involves a series of circumstances that have been found in many contexts during the past decade.

As the Alicante court ruling states, the employers were ignorant of the risks present in their workplaces and showed little concern to prevent them. This may have been due to a desire for profits at all cost, but in fact some of the companies were accused of unfair competition by other firms in the sector (because they were 'semi-legal', sometimes working without the proper permits and without declaring all their workers). However, these companies were attempting to respond to the demands of larger textile companies that outsourced production to them. This is a typical case of subcontracting in which most of the technical conditions were imposed by the dominant firms. The subcontracted companies were able to offer lower prices thanks to the use of very rudimentary technical procedures and cheap labour (through government-subsidised temporary contracts for young unemployed people). Such employers therefore often argue that they cannot always decide how to organise their own factories.

It is curious that even the Labour Inspectorate (Inspección de Trabajo) showed a scandalous lack of concern about the working conditions in these companies. It seems that the inspector who visited Ardystil only reviewed its administrative documents and social security records, and ignored the noxious environment in which the work was carried out. This is a cause for concern, because state institutions must at least ensure certain levels of health and safety. The case also questions the habitual method used to investigate damage to health at work, based on seeking single risk factors and ignoring contextual factors.

Another surprising feature is that, although the workers at the companies concerned suffered from many complaints (nose bleeds, coughing, general disorders of the upper respiratory apparatus and bronchial hyper-reactivity), they continued going to work in the toxic environment day after day. This behaviour may be due to ignorance of the risks. However, it is more likely that it was because the workers had no alternative. They were mostly young people on temporary contracts and with little work experience. The employee turnover was very high, and there was a context of increasing unemployment. In these conditions it is very difficult to demand improvements in working conditions, because any attempt to complain might involve non-renewal of the contract (or covert dismissal).

The long-running Ardystil case is illustrative of a different period and of a change in the way of understanding risk prevention in companies. The fact that both the employers and the Labour Inspectorate were unconcerned about the health and safety of the workers shows how these issues were deal with in Spain in the early 1990s. The defendants in the Ardystil case were surprised by a change of attitude and a general change of mentality and sensitivity (public, political, institutional) towards occupational risks, which was given official recognition in 1995 through the Occupational Risks Prevention Law (Ley de Prevención de Riesgos Laborales) (ES9708216F) - based on the 1989 EU health and safety 'framework' Directive (89/391/EEC)- and has gradually penetrated the fabric of industrial relations, particularly among trade unions and some employers. Nevertheless, the expansion of temporary employment, precarious employment and subcontracting makes it difficult for this change to reach all sectors of production. (Pep Espluga, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, UAB)

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