Wimborne firefighter takes on QinetiQ and gets recognition for work-related health problems

A Dorset firefighter whose pre-existing asthmatic condition was made worse, and who suffered a back injury at work, has been compensated with the support of Unite Legal Services and Thompsons Solicitors.

Peter Eaton’s pre-existing asthmatic condition became worse after being exposed to diesel fumes at Boscombe Down military airfield’s fire station, where the 52-year-old’s began working in 1997. Trucks would frequently drive in and out an unventilated vehicle garage and fill the area with diesel fumes.

“We really started to notice the issue around 2010,” he said. “We tried to tell our employer by voicing our concerns about having to work in a toxic soup day in, day out, but our comments were held against us and we were warned that we would face sanctions if we continued to complain.”

During his employment, Peter, from Wimborne, also developed a painful back injury after being told to carry and lift heavy Carbon Dioxide cylinders and fire extinguishers – sometimes as heavy as 50kg – without any lifting equipment.

Peter turned to Unite the union for legal help having been a union member for a number of years, though at the time he became ill he wasn’t any longer a member.

An inspection of the depot as part of the case brought by Peter found that QinetiQ had installed ‘local exhaust ventilation’, which took fumes from vehicle exhausts out of the depot via a large pipe. However, Unite Legal Services and Thompsons Solicitors argued that the depot – which was only built in 2000 – should have had this ventilation in the first place, as the dangers of exhaust fumes were by then already well known.

It turned out that the company had only installed the extraction system because of an order from the Health and Safety Executive.

“I feel the way we were treated by QinetiQ was draconian with management-led employee forums in place of proper union representation,” said Mr Eaton. “In the end, I had to leave as my condition made work impossible and I didn’t think I would be able to afford to fight my former employer in court.

“As I was no longer a union member when I went to Unite, for them to give me the backing they did was a lifeline and a huge shock. They didn’t have to acknowledge my previous membership but they listened to my story and, with Thompsons Solicitors, helped me ensure my employers were forced to acknowledge what their lack of care did to me. “I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Stuart Davies, Unite regional legal officer in the South West, said:

“We will always fight tooth and nail to improve working conditions across the UK, especially with those firms that take a ‘union-busting’ stance and terminate recognition of trade unions. Peter suffered for a number of years as a result of working conditions that were unacceptable and for too long his efforts to raise concerns about working conditions fell on deaf years.

“Peter’s situation is a unique and extreme example of employer negligence and for that reason we felt compelled to recognise his years of past union membership and ensure he received free legal support. We worked with Thompsons Solicitors to ensure that QinetiQ faced up to what they had done, which if they have any sense at all should lead to a positive change in the working environment for others still working at the airfield.”