A fight for justice: how Dutch trade unions stood up for chromium VI victims

A fight for justice: how Dutch trade unions stood up for chromium VI victims

Kees van Es (mechanic naval air station Valkenburg) and André Vinke (painter for various Royal Air Force bases) in The Hague, June 2021, during a roundtable discussion in the House of Representatives about the use of Chrome-6 paint by the Ministry of Defense.

(Bart Maat/ANP MAG/ANP via AFP)

Yet another Defence Ministry scandal, thought Anne-Marie Snels, chairperson of the military personnel union AFMP (Algemene Federatie van Militair en Burger Personeel). The year was 2014. It had just come to light that Defence Ministry personnel were exposed to the carcinogen chromium VI in the course of their work at NATO maintenance facilities. Sanding, grinding and welding work on American equipment led to the release of the toxic metal, which has been used for decades in the paint and steel industry because of its anti-corrosion properties. A fairly large number of these workers had become ill, and even died.

“We immediately demanded an independent joint committee of inquiry from the [defense] minister, independent medical check-ups for victims and a damage settlement for personnel who had become ill,” says Snels. “No stone was to be left unturned.” Under pressure from both public opinion and the Defence Committee of the House of Representatives (the lower house of the bicameral parliament of the Netherlands), the minister agreed, with the reservation that the Defence Ministry denied any liability. Within a few months, a ‘goodwill settlement’ (partial compensation without a formal admission of culpability or obligation) was agreed on, offering a provisional system of advances of between €3,000 and €15,000, for which all (former) personnel (including agency and flexi-workers) were eligible if they had worked for at least one year in specific jobs and had developed specific health problems. The findings of the inquiry would be followed by a definitive financial settlement.

The inquiry lasted a good three years. The joint committee worked closely on it with the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and a number of experts. According to Snels, also a member of the committee:

“The inquiry was conscientious. People who’d left the service a long time ago had to be traced. We held meetings to collect questions from personnel members and, on the basis of those, we set up all sorts of sub-committees.”

“Cause and effect had to be established between certain illnesses and exposure. There was scant expertise in this field. Not in the Netherlands, not in Europe. That made the inquiry extremely valuable.”

In June 2018, the committee of inquiry unveiled a list of medical conditions shown to be potentially caused by chromium VI: lung cancer, nasal cancer, contact dermatitis, allergic asthma and rhinitis, and lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Cancer of the larynx was added to the list later. The committee recommended compensation to former personnel or their families of between €5,000 and €40,000 (more for comorbidities), monitoring of all personnel involved, improved health and safety measures and two follow-up inquiries, one of them an inquiry into chromium VI exposure across all the armed forces, to be completed by December 2020. In the meantime, it had become clear that some 2,400 workers had potentially been exposed to chromium VI during the period 1984–2006.

Snels is happy that the independent committee of inquiry was able to penetrate the bastion of Defence Ministry affairs. “They couldn’t keep the lid on this huge scandal. It is appalling and shocking that workers are exposed to a carcinogen. The defence ministry knew about the risks. Financial compensation can never make up for damage to someone’s health. And there are people who aren’t covered by the definitive settlement. That’s very hard. A lot of people have sued.”

Fast financial compensation

During this large-scale inquiry personnel, another scandal was already brewing. In 2016, it emerged that in Tilburg, a city in the south of the Netherlands, some 800 people on unemployment benefits had been exposed to chromium VI between 2004 and 2011 while working on a back-to-work project. They had been employed, on pain of losing their benefits, in a shed where they had to refurbish rolling stock of Dutch Railways (NS) and the Railway Museum – with no protective equipment and under intimidating and strict conditions.

“Here too an independent committee of inquiry was set up straight away,” says Marian Schaapman, who was then a member of the committee in her capacity as director of the Occupational Diseases Office of the Dutch Trade Union Confederation (FNV) and has, since 2017, headed the Unit for Health & Safety and Working Conditions at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI). “From my experience at the Occupational Diseases Office, I knew what was important: independent medical check-ups, free access to healthcare and ultimately leaving no stone unturned in securing financial compensation for illness and distress. It was disgraceful how vulnerable people – usually refugees and low-skilled individuals – were forced by the city of Tilburg and by Dutch Railways to endure the very worst kind of work conditions, while their employer, the railway company, was fully aware of the risks.”

In the course of the inquiry, all former personnel quite promptly received medical check-ups and partial payment of their medical insurance costs. In 2019, the independent committee of inquiry ruled that the city of Tilburg had failed in its duty of care and that Dutch Railways had known the risks. The recommendation was that all former personnel should receive a payment of €7,000, whether they were currently ill or not. This was to compensate them for the distress they had had to endure up to the time the inquiry was completed.

The committee also ruled that a financial settlement (of between €5,000 and €40,000) should be made to those who had developed one of the illnesses scientifically shown to be linked to chromium VI (in the RIVM list) during their work in the shed.

It seems that, when it comes to exposure to hazardous substances, the Netherlands lurches from one incident to the next. Partly because of this, the latest scandals have led to consideration of a general system of indemnification, whereby workers shown to have been exposed to hazardous substances would receive compensation from the government. A settlement of this kind (in the form of a one-off payment of €21,000) already exists for victims of asbestos and workers made ill by organic solvents.

An opinion with the title A question of substance was delivered to the House of Representatives. “Dutch victims find it hard to get recognition that it is their job that has made them sick,” says Schaapman. As director of the FNV’s Occupational Diseases Office, which provides union members with free legal advice, she conducted countless court cases. “A generic system of compensation will save a lot of people from all that pain, whilst keeping open the possibility of legal liability. Procedures of this kind create legal precedents, which are sorely needed in order to, on the one hand, improve the position of workers and, on the other hand, make employers aware of the risks to which they are exposing their staff.”

In Europe, a million workers are exposed to chronium VI every day

Partly as a result of the chromium VI scandals, the permitted limit value in the Netherlands was set at 1 μg/m3 (microgram per cubic metre of air) in 2017. That is strict compared with the European value of 10 μg/m3, which will be cut by 2025 to 5 μg/m3. In 2014, France also adopted an occupational exposure limit value of 1 µg/m3 for chromium VI.

In Europe, about a million workers are exposed to chromium VI every day. “Employers must be forced to register their hazardous substances, and the rules on exceeding limit values must be enforced,” says Wim van Veelen, employment standards policymaker for the FNV and member of the chromium VI committees.

Dutch law requires employers to register their carcinogenic substances every 10 years and to list the jobs that potentially place workers in danger, but only seven percent of them do so. For Van Veelen, the solution is clear: “Employers know that countless rounds of cost-cutting mean that the Labour Inspectorate does hardly any checking. They laugh at these strict limit values. We should enforce the registration requirement, on pain of a fixed penalty, and have companies file their risk inventory and evaluations (RI&E) online with the Labour Inspectorate. The Inspectorate can have only a vague picture of actual practice and can check properly only if it has a database of sector-specific information. There should be an online resource of this kind for the whole of Europe. With one click, you’ll then be able to see that someone was grinding down an aircraft or tank at any given time and may have been exposed to carcinogenic substances.”

This article has been translated from French.

This article was first published in the ETUI magazine, HesaMag (issue 22, published September 2020), with additional testimonials. It is available in its original Dutch version, alongside French and English translations.