Nicholson v Atlas Steel Foundry and Engineering Co Ltd: HL 1957

The deceased had worked in the defender’s steel foundry, inhaling there siliceous dust particles. He contracted pneumoconiosis and died. The complaints related to the defender’s failure to provide adequate ventilation to extract the dust. The deceased had inhaled large quantities of noxious particles about which he could have no cause of complaint. The question was whether, in addition, he had, at the fault of the defenders in failing to provide adequate ventilation, inhaled other particles which made a material contribution to his illness
Held: For the defender: ‘if the statute prescribes a proper system of ventilation by the circulation of fresh air so as to render harmless, so far as practicable, all fumes, dust and other impurities that may be injurious to health, generated in the course of work carried on in the factory, and if it is proved that there is no system or only an inadequate system of ventilation, it requires little further to establish a causal link between that default and the illness, due to noxious dust, of a person employed in the shop. Something is required as was held in Wardlaw’s case. I was a party to that decision and would not in any way resile from it. But it must not be pressed too far. In the present case there was, in my opinion, ample evidence to support the appellants’ case.’ Since the family could not complain of the production of dust, and the deceased had been forced to inhale some noxious particles without having any legal complaint, it was doubly incumbent on the employer to safeguard him against any additional risk. Viscount Simonds said: ‘dust containing dangerous particles of silica was emitted into the air by the operation of pneumatic hammers on the castings, that this dust hung about in concentrated form longer than it would have if there had been better ventilation, and that improved roof ventilators were practicable and would have effectively improved the conditions. It follows that owing to the default of the respondents the deceased was exposed to a greater degree of risk than he should have been, and, though it is impossible, even approximately, to quantify the particles which he must, in any event, have inhaled and those which he inhaled but need not have, I cannot regard the excess as something so negligible that the maxim ‘de minimis’ is applicable. Accordingly, following the decision in Wardlaw’s case, I must hold the respondents liable.’ Lord Cohen: ‘Pneumoconiosis is a progressive disease. The longer a workman is exposed to an intense cloud the graver must be the risk of infection. In the present case it is clearly established by the evidence that at any rate down to 1949 the tool with which the deceased was working on dirty castings created a thick cloud of dust which must have necessarily included siliceous particles to an extent which cannot classed as ‘de minimis’. The respondents are admittedly not to blame for the generation of this cloud, but any failure to provide proper ventilation must, I think, lengthen the period during which the cloud remains intense. It seems to me to follow that the respondents’ failure to provide adequate ventilation must increase the risk to which the workmen are exposed. Reading the evidence as a whole, I think it establishes that (to use the language of Lord Reid in Wardlaw’s case) ‘on a balance of probabilities the breach of duty caused or materially contributed to’ the injury.’
Viscount Simonds, Lord Oaksey, Lord Morton of Henryton, Lord Cohen
[1957] 1 WLR 613, [1957] 1 All ER 776
Factories Act 1937 4(1)
England and Wales

  • Applied – Bonnington Castings Ltd v Wardlaw HL 1-Mar-1956
    The injury of which the employee complained came from two sources, a pneumatic hammer, in respect of which the employers were not in breach of the relevant Regulations; and swing grinders, in respect of which they were in breach.
    Held: It had . .
    [1956] 1 All ER 615 HL(Sc), [1956] 2 WLR 707, [1956] AC 613, 1956 SC (HL) 26, [1956] UKHL 1

Cited by:

  • Cited – Fairchild v Glenhaven Funeral Services Ltd and Others HL 20-Jun-2002
    The claimants suffered mesothelioma after contact with asbestos while at work. Their employers pointed to several employments which might have given rise to the condition, saying it could not be clear which particular employment gave rise to the . .
    Times 21-Jun-02, [2002] UKHL 22, [2003] 1 AC 32, [2002] Lloyds Rep Med 361, [2002] 3 All ER 305, [2002] PIQR P28, (2002) 67 BMLR 90, [2002] 3 WLR 89, [2002] ICR 798
  • Cited – McGhee v National Coal Board HL 1973
    The claimant who was used to emptying pipe kilns at a brickworks was sent to empty brick kilns where the working conditions were much hotter and dustier. His employers failed, in breach of their duty, to provide him with washing facilities after his . .
    [1973] 1 WLR 1, [1973] SC (HL) 37, [1972] 3 All ER 1008, [1972] UKHL 7, [1972] UKHL 11

These lists may be incomplete.
Updated: 02 December 2020; Ref: scu.190113