Legal Action As 300 Former Coke Oven Workers Seek Justice

Victims Suffering From Respiratory Illness Across the UK Join Forces In Large Group Case


By Dave Grimshaw

More than 300 former coke oven workers are taking legal action against British Steel and British Coal in a battle for justice for cancers and respiratory diseases they are now suffering because of exposure to harmful dust and fumes decades ago.

A landmark judgment against a Phurnacite plant in South Wales in the High Court last year paved the way for legal action in other regions with areas particularly badly affected including Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Humberside, the North East and Corby in Northampton and South Wales  where coking and steel plants were particularly prominent.

Today law firms Irwin Mitchell and Hugh James confirmed they had jointly issued a letter of claim against British Coal and British Steel on behalf of 300 former coke oven workers who became ill after working at coking plants and steel works across the country.

The majority of workers were employed in a range of occupations at the coke works between the 1940s and 1980s and suffered with various respiratory illnesses, including lung cancers, emphysema, COPD, chronic bronchitis and asthma. Many have now since died as a result of their condition.

Lawyers from the two firms have sent letters of claim to both the British Steel Corporation and British Coal Corporation and their subsidiaries outlining allegations that both companies:
• failed to correctly assess the risks of working on coke ovens; and
• failed to adequately protect workers from the significant dust and fumes generated.

The letters of claim also asks the defendants to agree to a limitation amnesty - removing strict time deadlines for bringing a usual workplace illness case - which would ensure that all those affected could get access to the justice they deserve.

Roger Maddocks, a specialist workplace illness lawyer at Irwin Mitchell’s Newcastle office, said: “Hundreds of former coke oven workers are now suffering from terrible conditions simply because of the work they carried out on a day-to-day basis. Employees have a basic right to be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day.

“Sadly, in these cases, the workers have been affected by very serious and in some cases terminal illnesses just because of the air they breathed at work. We have repeatedly called for improvements to safety in the workplace and will continue to campaign for the rights of the victims we represent.”

Kathryn Singh, of Hugh James solicitors, added: “Sadly this is yet another instance where workers are left paying the price of their employers not protecting their health and safety decades ago.

“We now hope that the defendants will work with us to resolve our clients’ cases quickly and amicably.”

Case Study

Grandfather of six Paul Bertram, 55, from Whickham, Newcastle upon Tyne suffers from lung cancer he believes was caused by exposure to fumes and dust while working at the Derwenthaugh Coke Works, near Newcastle.

After leaving school in 1974 he went to work for the National Coal Board at the Derwenthaugh Coke Works and was there until he was made redundant on the closure of the Coke Works in February 1986. 

Paul said: “I was devastated when I found out I had lung cancer, and although I’ve now been given the all-clear, for a while it was terrifying for my wife and two sons.

“The job at Derwenthaugh is the only one where I was exposed to dust and fumes. I started out as a trainee learning to do all of the jobs on the plant including working on the ovens for about two years. I then spent almost all the next 10 years working on the oven tops or oven sides. When coal was poured into the ovens loads of dust and fumes would come out of the top right where we were stood.

“When I first started working at the plant there were no masks or respirators available. For the last few years we were given paper masks which fitted over your nose and mouth but there were no use at all really and you couldn’t help but breathe the fumes still.

“It makes me angry and upset knowing that just by going to work every day I contracted lung cancer which could have been avoided if they had just given us better protection. Although I’ve been lucky enough to receive the all-clear from doctors, I just hope that the legal action will see all the victims and their families get some justice over what happened.”


In a series of test cases last year at the High Court against the National Coal operating the Phurnacite plant near Aberaman in South Wales, the Court ruled that the Coal Board had not taken all practicable measures to protect employees from the inhalation of dust and fumes at the site. The company finally introduced proper respiratory protection around 1981 but workers had already been exposed to dangerous chemicals for decades.

In August 2012, former coke oven workers with lung cancer also became entitled to industrial injuries disablement benefit, subject to meeting certain employment related criteria.

This followed a paper issued by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council in September 2011 which found that the risk of contracting lung cancer doubled for those employees who worked on the coke ovens for 15 years or more. Those that worked on the oven top doubled the risk of contracting lung cancer after only five years of employment.

Anyone who has developed lung cancer or other respiratory diseases after working exposure to dust and fume over a number of years whilst working at a coking plant, or who has information about conditions at any coking plant operated by National Coal Board/ British Coal, or its subsidiaries (National Smokeless Fuels, Coalite, Coal Products) or British Steel or its subsidiaries (including  Randolph Coke and Chemicals, Dorman Long), is asked to contact Irwin Mitchell or Hugh James on 0800 6525524.

If you worked extensively on or around coke ovens and have since become ill, our industrial disease & illness claims solicitors could help you claim compensation. See our Coke Oven Workers Compensation page for more information.