COVID compensation claims could be the industrial illness crisis of a generation, according to a legal expert who is preparing for the floodgates to open for potential cases and court action.

Experts say similarities can be drawn from cases in the past which included miners’ black lung disease from breathing in coal dust to the spread of workplace tuberculosis and outbreaks of superbug MRSA.

Enquiries for claims for covid-related issues from bereaved families or individuals seeking recompense as well as workers wanting to know if employers had taken all possible measures to prevent the transmission of the virus are on the increase.

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It comes as a charity set up to help workers in non-unionised sites, Scottish Hazards, says its enquiries have gone from a handful a week to more than 400 in the past 12 months.

One leading law firm, Thompsons Solicitors, which has a base in Glasgow, has decades of experience in handling compensation claims for industrial and workplace incidents, and has placed such importance on covid that it has a dedicated unit for virus-related claims and believes it will reach an unprecedented scale of claims for some time to come.

Leading the unit is industrial claims expert Bruce Shields, a partner and Solicitor Advocate, and while it has already been advising a number of clients and acting for others on covid-related issues, he believes they have only just skimmed the surface.

And Mr Shields believes we have yet to reach the full impact of covid on the lives of families left behind following the loss of a loved one, or the worker trying to return to employment while living with debilitating symptoms related to long-covid.

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Mr Shields said: “We recognised from the outset this was going to be a major ground for recompense, whether it be covid in workplaces – for example employers’ failure in their duty of care – deaths in care homes, hospital acquired cases and families who had lost someone to covid in the past 13 months.

“One of the earliest cases we worked on involved a nurse who contracted Covid at work and died in the hospital she had been working in. She also took the virus home and her husband was left fighting for his life with the virus. That is the extreme end of cases and it is tragic but sadly not unique.

“We have experience in dealing with cases of tuberculosis which have been contracted through the workplace, cases of MRSA in both healthcare staff and patients.

“Covid is no different from any other virus that exists in the workplace.

“It is the same as any exposure to a hazardous substance and measures should be taken by employers to prevent the transmission of the virus. They have a duty of care to do that.

“A worker could have been unable to work as they were told to isolate and often they might be low paid or on zero hours contracts.

“Those loss of earnings could be recompensed as could the case of a loss of earnings from a relative of someone who has lost their life. The family would have a claim in that instance. Now is the time we would urge people to come forward if they want to seek advice.”

Legal timeframes mean that a case would have to be brought within three years of the virus being contracted and Mr Shields also says the sooner the individual comes forward can play an important part in the success of any future outcome.

“There is no doubt the sooner someone comes forward can have an affect on the case which could be built up, witnesses sought and statements taken particularly in a workplace scenario where there might be more fluidity in that situation with people moving on more frequently,” he added.

Scottish Hazards has been advising workers on their rights if it believes a site is in breach of Covid regulations.

It was set up with the aim of reducing injury, ill health and death caused by work or workplaces with the Scottish Hazards Centre providing free and confidential information, advice, support and training to mainly non-unionised individual employees and groups of employees.

The charity has issued a manifesto for fairer, safer and healthier workplaces ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections which are entering their final days of campaigning.

Ian Tasker, of Scottish Hazards, said: “The experience of the Covid19 pandemic has underlined, yet again but very visibly, the crucial importance of good health and safety policy and practice, from hospitals to care homes, manufacturing facilities to schools. Scottish Hazards urges that priority be given to workplace health and safety in your election manifesto.”

Commitments from parties they want to see include the following.

  • Full devolution of health and safety regulation allowing convergence with existing devolved powers including health, environment, justice and local authorities.
  • Seek a commitment to make a comprehensive Scottish NHS-based Occupational Health Service a reality. A major recommendation of the 2019 Scottish Government Health and Work Strategy Review Report was to “establish a single, integrated National Occupational Health body for Scotland”.
  • Support for Scottish Government funding for the Scottish Hazards Centre. It says there will be a need to expand its advice and support service to ensure current fair work goals are available to all, especially in a time when growing the economy will be both vitally important and very difficult after the Brexit implementation date and post-Covid.
  • A commitment to support the development and adoption of a Scottish Toxics Use Reduction Strategy which would provide resources and tools to help businesses, local authorities and communities to find safer alternatives to toxic chemicals.

Mr Tasker said since April 2020 their service has heavily concentrated on assisting those with Covid-19-related health and safety concerns around both physical and mental health. The charity says this has resulted in a 10-fold increase in the demands being placed on our advice workers.

He added: “Despite this, we have continued to progress existing and new non-Covid cases. We have also worked in collaboration with the Scottish Government and other partners to provide assistance to small or medium enterprises to prepare for and cope with reopening or increased work activities as the Scottish routemap phased approach allowed.”