Workers who have paid heavy price

Simon Pickvance
Simon Pickvance
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A new medical research project being carried out in Sheffield is looking for links between the region’s steelworks and bladder cancer. Sarah Dunn spoke to the man who first picked up on a potential connection, and found out more about his four decades of work in occupational health.

A new medical research project being carried out in Sheffield is looking for links between the region’s steelworks and bladder cancer. Sarah Dunn spoke to the man who first picked up on a potential connection, and found out more about his four decades of work in occupational health.

Simon Pickvance

Simon Pickvance

IT is a cruel irony that a man who has dedicated his life to supporting and advising workers whose health has been affected by their job has found himself diagnosed with an incurable industrial disease.

Simon Pickvance had always wanted a career in occupational health - but, although it was his true passion, back in the 1970s there was little money to be made in the field.

So for half of the year he toiled away on building sites around the city, earning money to make ends meet, so that the remaining months could be spent working in the job he loved. He spent 10 years that way and during his time in the building trade came into contact with asbestos.

By the late 1980s he was able to go into occupational health full-time - but by then the damage had been done. The 62-year-old was diagnosed with mesothelioma last autumn - an incurable form of cancer that develops from the protective lining that covers many of the body’s internal organs, usually caused by exposure to asbestos.

Simon is philosophical in the face of such a diagnosis, insisting that much of the time he still feels well despite currently enduring a “difficult patch” which is resulting in treatment at the Northern General Hospital.

He is in the process of standing down from his role with the Sheffield Occupational Health Advisory Service, a pioneering project when he set it up 30 years ago.

Today it is a service which is well respected and much valued by local GPs and public health workers, and has also been copied by other industrial towns and cities across the north.

In the beginning Simon worked with a local GP called Martin Walsh and a steelworkers’ union rep named John Lawson, to lay the foundations which have grown into a team of five advisors who work via GP surgeries across the city.

The first advice session was run from a working men’s club in Darnall and attracted queues of steelworkers on the hunt for information and advice about a work-based health concerns.

Over the following years Simon and his colleagues continued to be heavily involved with the steelworks, as well workers from the coal mines - the other key industry in South Yorkshire 30 years ago.

They have seen employees carrying the burden of years of heavy lifting and met with those who struggle to breathe because of the amount of dust they inhaled at work.

Another project saw the organisation offer free hearing tests to thousands of steelworkers and miners to help them gain the proof they needed to secure successful compensation claims for their deafness and partial hearing.

One of their biggest campaigns in the 1980s centred on vibration white finger - a disorder which causes numbness in the hands and fingers suffered by many from the region’s heavy industry stemming from their use of vibrating hand-held machinery.

They were also the first agency to uncover what has now become known as hard metal disease - a respiratory condition caused by the inhalation of fine particles of cobalt.

There’s no disputing that the nature of much of the Advisory Service’s work has now changed - the numbers of steel and pit workers in the area having drastically reduced.

But they have been replaced by those suffering from work-place induced stress, or women who work night shifts who could be at an increased risk of breast cancer, to name just a couple of examples.

Simon, from Crookesmoor, says: “We have followed the world of work over the years. We have always been about serving the patient - for us it about the individual and what they are experiencing.

“But we have also done what we think needed to be done - with our findings often resulting in new guidance being issued by the Health and Safety Executive to improve safety for employees. We cannot claim to have made big differences in the law, but our guidance has certainly been followed.”

Although the problems employees are living with at work today are much different compared to the seventies and eighties, there are still many former-workers in South Yorkshire living with the consequences of the time they spent down the pits or at the foundry.

It is Simon’s regular contact with such people, and the vast knowledge and anecdotal evidence he has picked up as a result, which has led to the introduction of a new research project attempting to find potential links between chemicals used in heavy industry and bladder cancer.

He first began noticing a potential link around three years ago, as he explains: “It started during routine interviewing with people at their GP practices as we tried to work out what special industrial disease benefits, if any, these bladder cancer patients were entitled to.

“I spoke to about 30 different people in five different practices and what transpired immediately was that some of them had worked with dyes.”

Simon visited urologist James Catto at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital and shared his initial concerns. More cases were found where there was history of working with such chemicals and the pair informed the HSE of their initial “strong suspicion” that there was a link.

“We were finding there were particular chemicals being used in the steelworks and foundries that kept cropping up in bladder cancer patients,” he said.

Now, with the help of a grant from Yorkshire Cancer Research, Mr Catto is set to follow up Simon’s initial findings to find out whether being exposed to workplace chemicals has impacted on the number of people from the region suffering with bladder cancer.

They know that smoking contributes to the disease, but because incidence and death rates are much higher for the area - while the trend for smoking remains the same as most other parts of the country - they believe something else must be playing a part.

Researchers will conduct laboratory work testing cells with metals that people are exposed to during work to see if they cause cancerous changes in the test tube.

Alongside this, they will also conduct a survey with 2,000 bladder cancer patients from the Royal Hallamshire Hospital to find out their occupational histories. The ultimate aim at the end of the three year study is to have enough evidence to help the government bring in new legislation to protect workers.

Simon says he is excited about the potential the study holds - particularly as he has seen so much of the ‘human face’ of the disease.

“This is something that could save lives,” he said. “It will also hopefully help patients to gain compensation but not only that, it should help them understand why this has happened to them. If they can make sense of that then you will often find it is easier to deal with and that is very important.

“But the real highlight of my career has been being involved in this service which has helped so many people. Good work is enriching and life enhancing - anyone will tell you that if you have a good relationship with the people you work with and are happy in your job, then it is good for your health.

“Sadly for a lot of people this is not the case. I have always been passionate about more people having that - and feel proud of the achievements we have made to help workers in this way.”

The Sheffield Occupational Advisory Service can be contacted on 0114 275 5760.