Even hidden and symptomless injuries arising from breaches of health and safety rules in the workplace can form the basis of successful compensation claims. The Supreme Court established that point in a guideline ruling that, for the first time, defined the concept of actionable personal injury.
The case concerned a number of workers who had been exposed to platinum salts in the course of their work at a factory that manufactured catalytic converters. There was no dispute that the exposure arose due to their employer's breach of duty under both health and safety regulations and at common law.
The exposure led to the workers becoming sensitised to platinum salts. Although the condition is symptom free it means that further exposure to platinum salts would trigger an antibody that would be likely to lead to allergic reactions, including asthma, rhinitis and skin rashes.
When the workers' sensitisation was detected, their employer prevented them from working in areas where they might be exposed to platinum salts. They launched proceedings on the basis that the condition meant that they either had their employment terminated or had to take up different roles at lower rates of pay. Their cases were, however, dismissed by the High Court on the basis that they had sustained no actionable personal injury and that their claims were thus for pure economic loss. That ruling was subsequently confirmed by the Court of Appeal.
In unanimously upholding the workers' appeal against the latter ruling, the Supreme Court noted that no decided case provided a definition of actionable personal injury. In filling that gap in the law, the Court found that the workers had sustained such an injury in that they had suffered physical changes to their bodies which made them appreciably worse off in respect of their health or capability.
They had lost their capacity to work in the vicinity of platinum salts and it did not matter that, in the absence of further exposure, their conditions were symptomless and not apparent. The physiological changes to their bodies were undoubtedly harmful and, by virtue of their sensitisation, they were no longer able to do jobs that had formed part of their ordinary lives.
The amount of compensation payable to the workers remains to be assessed.