Recycling firm's 'blatant' failure left staff with mercury poisoning

WORKERS at a Yorkshire factory became sick with mercury poisoning in one of the region's most "blatant" examples of management neglect of health and safety.

Staff at Electrical Waste Recycling Group in Huddersfield, which recycles hazardous electrical equipment including light tubes and TVs, suffered headaches, stomach upsets and mood swings.

Mercury poisoning can damage the brain and other organs, leading to personality changes and even low level exposure can cause brain cancer.

Yesterday, at Bradford Crown Court, company director Craig Thompson, 38, of Woodlea Avenue, Huddersfield, admitted two charges of failing to discharge his duty in relation to hazardous substances.

The company, which traded in Huddersfield as Matrix Direct and is one of the UK's leading recycling firms, said it would be pleading guilty to all 10 health and safety charges within the next seven days.

Both will be sentenced in January.

At an earlier hearing at Huddersfield Magistrates' Court, the breaches were described as "very grave offences indeed" by Health and Safety Executive inspector Jeanne Morton.

Ms Morton added: "This is a blatant example and one of the worst failings of health and safety management seen for a long time."

The factory filtration system was not working and had pumped air containing mercury vapour and lead from TVs into the factory office, she said.

Tests on 34 workers revealed that 20 showed mercury "way above the limit expected in the general population".

Thompson knew about the high levels of mercury as he was given readings carried out by his own staff but he "ignored" them and the poisoning continued, the court was told.

Among the workers affected was Ryan Wilkes, who worked there for 10 months.

After just six weeks he began passing blood, suffered headaches and mood swings.

"I had tests and they found I had 57 times more mercury than should be there," he told the Yorkshire Post.

"I was hospitalised for two nights. It is not something you expect an employer to put you through."

Colleague Andrew Makison, 26, suffered anxiety attacks, a possible symptom of mercury poisoning.

He believed the exposure may have damaged his brain and is seeking medical advice.

"Friends say I keep blanking out. I may have something wrong."

He added: "Production was more important than health and safety."

Mr Makison, who carried out mercury readings at the plant, said he alerted Thompson about the "off the scale" figures.

"I got told off for talking about mercury," he added. "A colleague was pregnant and was worried about her baby. She was in tears."

The woman has since given birth and tests are still being carried out to determine if the child has suffered any damage.

Last night, industry experts said that poisoning from heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium was increasing and claimed that the "green" industry was to blame.

Professor Rory O'Neill, an expert on green jobs, said: "In many instances the recycling industry is the old and extremely hazardous waste industry in green livery.

"There is an assumption that green jobs are safe jobs but much of the recycling we do is to recover hazardous metals like mercury and lead. Recycling is going to lead to global epidemics in poisoning."

Prof O'Neill, the editor of Hazard magazine, said more stringent controls and enforcement were needed.