HC Deb 29 March 1934 vol 287 cc2157-70

11.28 a.m.


I wish to call attention to the very wide prevalence of the industrial disease known as silicosis and the extent of injury caused by it. I am very pleased that the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Secretary for Mines are present this morning. They have for a very considerable time been keenly interested in the subject. I have recollections of my first visit to the Home Office back in 1925 when I made a suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor. I was then referred to the Secretary for Mines. Following upon that, I was able to cite a very large number of cases to the Mines Department, and an inquiry was held. It may be information to the House that that inquiry was held by the Mines Department. The Report was made to the Department in October, 1925, by Dr. Pirow, an expert who, I believe, now occupies a high position with the South African Government, and he fully confirmed our belief that silicosis in this country was identifiable with miners' phthisis which has caused such ravages among the South African miners, and for which special legislation was provided.

From 1925 there have been investigations, and references to Departmental Committees, and we had to wait with very great displeasure and disappointment until February, 1929, before a regulation appeared from the Home Department acknowledging the liability of employers to pay compensation to the victims of this awful disease. The Home Secretary will excuse me from making too detailed a reference to the orders and regulations which have been published from time to time since then. I have frequently had to refer to the Home Department in order to express our disappointment, here and in the mining industry, with the conditions under which compen- sation has become payable to the victims and dependants of the victims of the complaint.

Silicosis is spreading in an alarming extent in the mining industry. Those of us who know how cases develop observed as far back as 12 or 15 years ago the incidence of this disease, and saw men struck down. We collected particulars of cases and related them to the operation of boring machines in the rock in coal mines. We then only but dimly appreciated the possibilities of the growth and of the widespread effect of the disease. We saw strong men struck down, disabled and dying years before their time. There was a large number of cases of premature death among the strongest of my workmates in the days gone by. We did not realise that, as fresh men were put on to employment of this kind and the spread of mechanical appliances took place, a larger number of men were coming under the deadly influence of stone dust, and that in the course of time we should reap a large harvest of broken and disabled men such as we witness at the present time.

The Secretary for Mines must have been surprised at the result of the inquiries made at my instance a short time ago. He reported that during a certain period there had been certified in the mines of this country 400 people so disabled as readily to obtain certification. I believe that that figure represents only a small part of the incidence of this disease. I dread to estimate the number of people who will become certified year after year as time goes on. We recognise how serious it is becoming, and we are to-day asking the Secretary of State for the Home Department to pursue those inquiries which we know to be taking place by the medical staff of his Department, working in collaboration with a special medical man appointed by the Mines Department. We would very much like the two Ministers to expedite those investigations with all possible speed.

We know that this is a disease due to the inhalation of stone dust, and while we use the term "silicosis," we fear that it may be a misnomer. The term may be misleading. We are convinced that silica is not the only mineral which is responsible. Experts have issued reports, which are thoroughly consistent with our own experience, that in those rocks there is an element called sericite which is present in the silicious rocks, and which plays a very large part in the production of these cases of disease. We would like that special side of the inquiry to be expedited, because we are convinced that there is no stone in certain mines and in certain districts of the British coalfield which is worked upon underground which does not produce silicosis cases, while in other districts there is not the same incidence. Although the men breathe large quantities of dust when working with percussive machines on shale, sandstone and other rock, the rate of incidence of silicosis is not so high. In certain parts of those coalfields, the presence of silica and the percentage of it do not account for such widespread prevalence of the disease as in other areas. For example, the figures given by the Inspector of Mines show that, of 424 cases in the whole of Great Britain, 386 have been certified in South Wales; that is to say, in that one coalfield, where there is 25 per cent. of the mining population, 80 per cent. of the silicosis cases were found. We go further, and say that the incidence is higher in certain parts of South Wales than over the whole coalfield on an average. There are special areas where the incidence is exceptionally high, and that cannot be explained by varying degrees of contamination with silica, but must be ascribed to some other cause. Therefore, we would urge that the investigation in which serici[...]e was discovered to be a very important element in the causation of this disease should be pursued further at the earliest opportunity, and that other minerals that may be suspected should be observed.

To-day, however, we are not taking this opportunity merely to ask that these investigations should be pursued; we have come to the conclusion that no time should be lost in adopting preventive measures. The unfortunate fact about this disease is that there is no escape from it. No person who breathes stone-dust in sufficient quantities in some parts of the British coalfield can escape contracting the disease, and, once a person has been disabled by it, his doom is pronounced. Medical science is quite helpless in this matter. No medical treatment can help these people or relieve their condition in the slightest; it is simply a case of awaiting the death which comes, sometimes quickly and sometimes less quickly, but always inevitably, years before the natural span of life has been reached. We would urge these facts upon the three Ministers who are here this morning, and who are responsible to these men who are the direct victims, who are responsible to those dependent upon them, and are responsible to the large number of people who have not yet been certified, but who certainly in due course will be certified by the medical boards, and who will die unless some medical treatment is discovered which will give them relief.

It is because there is no cure that we insist so much upon prevention. Prevention is always better than cure, but in this case it must be prevention, because there is no cure. We would like the three Ministers to put their heads together. I am not quite sure where the responsibility lies, and I gratefully acknowledge the action of the Secretary for Mines, who has always been ready to impart information and to give the widest publicity to the work done by his Department. He has consented to preside at a conference which is to be held in West Wales during the next month, and really he has earned our appreciation by his willingness to give publicity to all that he knows about this matter. But it is not so much a question of publicity regarding the work of investigation which is being carried on; we should like now to see the Department embark upon a "safety first" campaign. "Safety first" applies just as much to health matters as to preventable accidents. If it is possible to save life by warning people against the dangers of disease, that is just as important as safeguarding them against other hidden dangers in the mine.

We should like to see such a "safety first" campaign directed to known preventive measures. We believe that that would save an enormous number of people who are doomed to die unless something is done. The three Ministers know quite well what has been happening in South Africa. I well remember the time, 30 years ago, when large numbers of Cornishmen went out to the Band gold mines, and came back year after year to die. They died from silicosis—that form of phthisis which in South Africa, as in our own mines, was so fatal—and there appeared to be no possible way of escaping the heavy annual toll of lives in that industry. But a way was found in South Africa, and now they have nearly wiped out miners' phthisis. Strict regulations have been laid down that, whenever the compressed air is turned on in a pneumatic drill, water must be turned on at the same time, so that, when the drill strikes the rock and pulverises it, when the rock is being ground to dust by the rapid action of the pneumatic drill, water is turned on at the spot where pulverisation takes place, and the dust is laid at the point where it is made, so that there is no possibility of dust escaping into the air current or being breathed by the men who are working these machines.

I know that the Department, and other people in this country, think there is a possibility of another alternative. Inventors have offered various kinds of dust-traps, which they claim to be adequate and efficient in collecting the dust at the mouth of the bore-hole where it escapes, and thus preventing its circulation in the air which the workpeople breathe. But I am not satisfied that any effective dust-trap has yet been invented; I fear that no dust-trap that has yet been produced has been effective in collecting all the dust at that point. I would not say that it cannot be done, but we are not satisfied that it has been done effectively up to this moment. Another means of trying to cope with the dangers of dust is by persuading the men to wear respirators—a kind of muzzles which are said to afford protection by filtering the air which the person breathes. There again, however, we are not satisfied that an effective respirator has been invented which can be made portable and which persons can be obliged to wear.

We would like to make these measures automatic—not merely dustproof, but foolproof, with no possibility of pollution of the air taking place; and the only way in which we believe that can be done is to lay the dust at the spot where it is made, before it emerges into the atmosphere. For doing that effectively a system of wet drilling is the only one that commends itself to us, and we know of no reason why an Order should not be made by the Secretary for Mines. I hope I am not infringing the Rules of Debate by suggesting new legislation, but I believe that by regulation it would be possible to-day, in the interests of these men, to prescribe wet drilling wherever drilling is done. We believe that, if that were done, those men who have not yet contracted this disease will be immune from it so far as it is contractible by working with these compressed air machines. We believe that hundreds of lives would be saved if wet drilling were compulsorily imposed as from to-day. In the years that are to come, unless something is done, we shall see a growing list of disabled people, which, judging from my own district, will run into thousands, who in the South Wales industry alone will be doomed to die. We believe that the imposition of wet drilling would save a very large number of these people. I fear there is nothing that can be done immediately, as science has not yet come to our assistance for those who have already breathed so much stone dust as to have caused fibrosis, and who are so far gone that there is no hope of escape for them, but new men should be made immune by the adoption of the preventive measure which is so simple, so cheap and so direct of application.

I should like again to urge that the work of investigation should be expedited. I do not think for a minute that further investigation is necessary in regard to men employed on pneumatic drills. We know enough. That employment in the end is always fatal. I do not know of any case of a man who has worked with a pneumatic drilling machine who has escaped disablement from silicosis. The thing to do is to adopt the preventive measures which we offer to the Minister to-day. In regard to other elements responsible for causation, such as trampling on some dust laid for a certain purpose in every coal mine, it has to be remembered that the stone dust, which has been prescribed by the regulations, it itself a safety provision to prevent the spread of explosion caused by gas. It may be responsible for a certain proportion of so-called silicosis cases.

We should like investigation into that matter to be pursued, and we should like Ministers to search still further for causes of silicosis not yet fully ascertained. But will they please come at the earliest possible moment to cases where causation is known, and where disablement and death always ensue upon the employment. We urge them to take their responsibilities seriously in this matter, which means death and disablement and which causes great apprehension. Unless something is done very soon we shall see large numbers of men in the South Wales coalfield refusing to work. They see around them neighbours who have been struck down, and they see the ever-increasing number who have been disabled, and they fear for themselves. We should like the Government to take immediate action to deal with this disease as far as it is caused directly by boring with the pneumatic drill and, while dealing with that independently, they can pursue other investigations with perhaps more leisure and more care into other possible causes of the disease which are not directly connected with rock drilling. Thousands of men are using pneumatic machines on stone in the mines. Everyone of them working in certain areas in South Wales is expected to break down in the employment. We urge Ministers to take very serious note of what we have said and to adopt compulsory preventive measures at the earliest possible moment in order to save life.

11.50 a.m.


I should like to direct attention to the difficulties experienced in securing compensation where a miner has been permanently disabled. The regulations stipulate that a man who has become disabled has to prove that he has been working in the process on rocks which contain 50 per cent. of free silica, and it is exceedingly difficult to prove that. While I am all in favour of wet drilling and of using scientific inventions which can be obtained to end this thing, and while I appreciate the difficulty of adding water in drilling, particularly in mines with a high temperature, I think it is inevitable, whatever instrument you may adopt, that we shall have men suffering from this disability. While a man may escape in the drilling and filling processes, there is the unloading process, in which he is compelled to inhale dust, because in the filling of the old roads you invariably find that there is no ventilation at all, and the atmosphere is charged with dust. Having inhaled enough to cause permanent dis- ability, he may later on become a collier and then, as he is not working in the process, he is unable to secure compensation. I want particularly to direct attention to stone dusting. That is a subject upon which there are a variety of opinions. I have made a few observations since I came into this House. I found, first of all, that the temperature was fairly decent and the air was subjected to some kind of process that was unfamiliar to me. Pursuing my investigation, I found that the people who made provision for the ventilation of this historic edifice had some regard to the health of Members. The air goes through a process of heating and moisture and dust extraction. It comes through cotton wool, which extracts all the dust and practically all the moisture. To-day, while the temperature of London is probably 100 per cent. saturated, the little instrument behind Mr. Speaker's Chair indicates 10 degrees of difference between the wet and dry bulb.

The great scientists of to-day, among them Professor Haldane, suggest that a man can inhale as much dust as he likes, if it is silica free, without causing any discomfort. There are three diseases, anthrocosis, fibrosis and silicosis. The first two do not come in for compensation at all. The Secretary for Mines was asked the other day what was the minimum quantity of coal dust necessary to cause a coal dust explosion, and he replied one-tenth of an ounce per cubic foot. I have made a slight calculation. If there is an ounce of dust present, there must be an ounce, or at least an equivalent percentage, of stone dust, so that we must multiply by two if we are to get the right proportions. If we get a heading 12 feet wide and 10 feet high, and taking a yard run, there is the equivalent of 4 lbs. of dust from that yard run of the mine. I want the House to imagine that if by some turbulent means that dust is raised into the atmosphere, there will be a dense cloud of smoke, and one would be unable to see the illumination of a lamp a foot away. A man has constantly to inhale that dust when passing, perhaps, for 3,000 yards along the main airway. These main airways are high velocities, and when horses are travelling, or when the "journeys" are travelling, they disturb the air in the atmosphere, and a man is compelled to inhale dust. The dust is raised into the atmosphere and the man has to inhale it over the whole distance along which he travels. The collier at the face cannot escape it. I am not accepting the dictum of the scientists that inhaling such a large quantity of dust does not eventually disable a man. I say that it does.

I asked the Secretary for Mines the other day if he could tell me when those samples of stone dust were taken, and how often, in order to secure that the content did not include any silica, and the reply was excedingly disappointing. If the public authorities acted upon that dictum, it would be a bad thing for the health of this country. We are to assume, from the reply given, that once having examined any such rock and finding no silica, the rocks were to be considered free from that condition. The reply was that the inspectors in the area having taken samples of the rocks which were to be used for grinding for stone dusting, found that they were free from silica, and they were satisfied. Surely, if I take a test of London water to-day and find it all right I cannot assume that it will be all right next week. These samples ought to be taken more often, because it is our experience that, while you might get a pit suitable for stone dusting, geological disturbances make it impossible, but still they go on with the stone dusting. I want particularly to stress that point. I admit straight away that the presence of stone dust, in the event of a fire damp ignition, acts as a neutralising agent in preventing the projection of flame; at the same time, that is a remote possibility, because an explosion of firedamp can be prevented if the first law of mining—which is ventilation—is observed. Therefore, we introduce an added danger into the mine, and subject the miner to this insidious enemy. Notwithstanding all our efforts to prevent his having inflicted upon him any violence from falls of roof and other dangers, we introduce this danger in addition to the others with which he has to contend. I would add to the appeal of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. D. Grenfell) that all investigations which can take place should be pursued, but I hope that it will not be concluded that the presence of stone dust used for the purpose of preventing explosions is not a danger.

In our area, where men are paying specific attention to this complaint, we are convinced that the presence of stone dust is producing disability. In view of the fact that stone dust is not necessary if the Mines Act is carried out properly, our men ought not to be subjected to that added danger. As long as mining continues they will always be subjected to the danger of the dust in the working of the mines. You cannot escape it. But in that connection, I hope that the Home Office will try to make preparation for providing compensation for the men who fail to prove that they have had their disability produced as a result of working in a pit with a 50 per cent. silica dust content rock, or working in connection with the various processes. It is a duty due to the miners that this House should take some cognisance of this important matter. I know that the Home Office has expressed sympathy with the miner on many occasions in consequence of the effects of the disabling condition through inhaling stone dust, but I want it to go further. While it is no consolation to a man to have compensation if his wife becomes a widow, it is some consolation, while he is alive, to have the limited amount of compensation to which we think he is entitled. I hope-that the Home Office will give special regard to that matter.

12.1 p.m.


I intervene at this stage as it may be thought that because the two previous speakers; are South Wales Members this is a disease confined to South Wales. It is true that the ravages of the disease are better known in South Wales than in any other part of the British coalfield, but we in Lancashire have also experienced its ravages, although, I am pleased to say, not to as large an extent as have those hon. Members. I want at once to confirm what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. D. Davies). Some 18 months ago I had the unpleasant experience of descending into a mine immediately after an explosion. I was very much impressed by the manner in which the explosion had been confined within exceedingly narrow limits. I was surprised to find how near I could get to the seat of the explosion without any sign of the explosion or of any indication whatever of an explosion. I found that the main reason was because of the exceedingly heavy stone dusting which had been carried on for months. There is no doubt that the colliery company, know- ing the danger in case an explosion should take place, had done all they could to confine it. I feel, however, that stone dusting can be carried on so exceedingly well that there is a possibility of endangering the health of the miner from another point of view, and that something ought to be done in the matter.

I want also to add to the appreciation of the activities of the Secretary for Mines. His boundless energy has enabled him to take much action in this direction, and I should like, at the same time, to express appreciation of the interest shown by the Home Office. We do realise the difficulty of the situation in dealing with this most difficult of diseases. I know that there is much to be said on both sides of the question of stone dusting in mines. In so far as it saves life when an explosion takes place, one must appreciate the need for stone dusting. But in so far as the quantity required for safeguarding life endangers health, we want investigations to be made into the matter. I leave the matter for the Secretary for Mines and his two colleagues to attend to, as I know they will attend to it in the near future.

I want to emphasise to the Home Secretary especially the difficulty experienced in getting compensation for men who have been subject to the effects of the dust. We experience great difficulty in regard to the delays in the matter. We find it difficult to get a decision as to whether a man has a compensation case or not. I was wondering whether the Home Office could do something to make it easier to decide the question by having some quicker method of enabling a man to qualify for compensation. I do not wish a man to be able to qualify if not entitled to do so, but I desire, where it is thought that a man may qualify, that the decision should be facilitated by the quickest way possible. We have had cases standing over for months. That is very unfair. At the end, it is true, the man has qualified, but it must be realised that a working man with a large family cannot afford to wait for months; the anxiety and worry are too much for him.

I wonder whether the Home Office can find some method of ascertaining sooner than is the case now, whether a man has a compensation case or not? There is no need to tell us how difficult it is; we know. But we think that it should be possible to arrange machinery to enable decisions to be taken sooner. In the case of death, where the man has not been before the board and his case has not been decided—we have had this question to deal with in Lancashire—the Home Secretary will appreciate how difficult it is for the employer then to agree that it is a compensation case, because the liability is more serious. We have succeeded in Lancashire. When a firm of Lancashire employers have accepted the evidence of a specialist that silicosis was the cause of death, we have not experienced much difficulty. I would, however, ask the Home Secretary to do what he can to facilitate an earlier decision and to make it possible for the man who may not be able to prove the 50 per cent. which is necessary at the present time, to get a fair deal. It is very difficult in this machine age when men's jobs change and their minds change, to deal with this matter but I do ask for a fair deal for the man who is suffering from this terrible disease. As the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. G. Grenfell) said, there is only one cure in this case and that is prevention. I ask the Home Office and the Minister for Mines to take all steps possible to make the burden of this hapless number of men much easier, and to bring about quicker decisions.

12.8 p.m.

The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Sir John Gilmour)

The House will agree with me when I say that it is very fitting that this human problem should be discussed on an occasion like this. I cannot claim to speak with really expert knowledge of some of these matters, but all my life I have lived on the edge of a large coalfield and I have been down coal pits. I realise the difficulties of some of these problems and all of us are anxious to do what we can to help in the matter. One of the great administrative difficulties in dealing with them is to find absolutely sure and certain ground upon which we can work. As we have heard to-day, opinions are held by some that the use of water in dealing with drills or laying dust is considered to be a solution. If it were so simple as that we could at once feel that we could take a step forward, but as I am informed by those who have studied the problem while there may be much to be said for using part of this system it is really not conclusive. We have had some experience with this problem in other industries where we have taken some effective steps to deal with it by preventive measures, and special Regulations have been brought into force, for example, for the Refractories Industries and certain processes in the Pottery Industry.

It is I believe true to say that we are only working on the fringe of these problems, but I understand that the scientists have been working with a common purpose and with all possible expedition to try if possible to improve matters. I understand, for instance, that there is a mask or respirator which shortly will be available for trial. I appreciate what the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. D. Grenfell) said. He would like to have these things made compulsory, but every one of us knows the difficulties of getting a workman unaccustomed to these appliances to make use of them consistently. We know tow necessary it is that the beneficial results of such appliances should be explained to the workmen, so that he will realise that they are provided for his benefit if he has to work under unpleasant conditions.


It is often more uncomfortable to work with respirators than to work without them in the dust.


That is what I am trying to say. It is so difficult to convince a man on this subject. Perhaps he has been brought up from boyhood in the mines and has not realised the real difficulties and dangers of the work. Therefore, if we are to make progress it must be by a close educative process on the part of his fellow workers and those in whom he has confidence. We realise that there are difficulties in the width of the source from which infection can come. Reference has been made to sericite. I have asked about that and I understand from those who have investigated it that while it is true that sericite is found in certain cases to have deleterious results it has never, I understand, been established that any case has been proved in which at the same time silica has not been present. If I am right, while sericite may be a contributory cause of the disease, it is not a primary cause. The hon. Member for Gower said, this particular trouble is confined largely to an area in South Wales. I can assure hon. Members opposite that we are endeavouring to investigate the problem. The Minister for Mines is going down into that area, and every effort is going to be made to see what can be done. Undoubtedly, better ventilation in the mines is, and must be, of immense importance. In regard to the problem of dust in mines, methods for limiting the range of the explosion are being investigated from all practical sides, and I can assure the House that we are doing everything we can in the matter.

With regard to delay, if there is anything which one can do to lessen the period of time within which it is possible to decide whether compensation is payable, we should look upon it with the greatest sympathy. Hon. Members who are concerned with this matter must know that we have to depend upon those who are experts in the problem. Although knowledge of the problem is increasing and more people may be coming into the arena to whom we can apply for help, the fact remains that this question can only be decided by those who are really conversant with the problem. We have had no very recent complaints of delay but if hon. Members have cases and choose to communicate with me on the subject I should be very happy to look into them. I will only add that we are at the present moment in communication with the mineowners upon this problem, and that we are actively discussing the aspects—some of them new aspects—upon which quite clearly there are divisions of opinion on which science has not yet definitely come to a conclusion. I can assure those who have raised this very interesting subject—


May I be excused for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman to ask whether he will be prepared also to accept representations from the Miners' Federation?


Undoubtedly. We are not sleeping. We are moving in the matter, and we are in fact in direct negotiation and communication with those who represent the mine-owners in this country at the present time, and I hope perhaps at a later stage in this Session I may be in a position to say something further upon this matter.