An Australian-first judgment linking a Melbourne man's deadly lung tumour to toxic welding fumes has opened the door to new compensation claims by former welders battling cancer.
Anh Tran, a 54-year-old ex-smoker whose right lung has been surgically removed, won WorkCover compensation last week after a court ruled that working as a welder had raised his risk of contracting lung cancer.
His workplace injury claim had initially been knocked back because his cancer was considered unrelated to work. Mr Tran smoked up to five cigarettes a day from the age of 18 until he quit when he was 40.
But the Victorian County Court ruled in favour of Mr Tran in light of testimony from medical experts that former welders were 44 per cent more likely to contract lung cancer compared to people who have never worked in the field.
The court heard welders were 23 per cent more likely to develop Mr Tran's particular type of lung cancer - adenocarcinoma.
It is the first time in Australia that compensation has been awarded due to a link between lung cancer and welding fumes, which are formed when a metal is heated above boiling point and its vapours condense into fine particles. Welding fumes have previously been linked to bronchitis, asthma and welder's lung - a condition where iron particles are deposited in the lungs.
Law firm Maurice Blackburn said the ruling was significant for scores of present and former welders in providing legal precedence accepting the elevated risk of lung cancer in their line of work.
The Victorian WorkCover Authority and the federal regulator, Safe Work Australia, said they were not aware of any other cases where welders had received workers' compensation for lung cancer.
Mr Tran who came to Australia in 1988 after fleeing Vietnam and living in a Thai refugee camp, began working in a Clayton South welding shop in the 1990s.
The workshop was initially not fitted with fans or extraction devices, with the only ventilation provided by a sliding door that was left open in summer, but not in winter. In his first year of employment, he was not given a face mask to protect himself from the thick, white smoke that filled the workshop.
Oncologist Roger Woodruff gave evidence that Mr Tran's work as a welder in suburban Melbourne put him at a "significantly increased" risk of contracting lung cancer.
He told the court the risk was even higher for stainless steel welders, like Mr Tran, compared to mild steel welders, because stainless steels have larger amounts of carcinogenic chromium and nickel.
Dr Woodruff said Mr Tran's smoking "probably played a minor role" in causing his cancerous tumour.
Epidemiologist Timothy Driscoll said an analysis of 16 case-control studies, involving almost 570 welders with lung cancer, provided "strong evidence that exposure to welding fumes increases the risk".
The court heard evidence from other medical experts who disagreed, arguing that light smokers faced a 550 per cent higher risk of developing lung cancer, and that cigarette smoking was 26 times more likely to be the cause of lung cancer in welders who were also light smokers.
Judge Robert Dyer said he was persuaded by the evidence that people who had worked as welders had a higher risk of contracting lung cancer, including adenocarcinoma.
Maurice Blackburn lawyer Victoria Keays said Mr Tran's compensation payments had not yet been calculated, but would include weekly benefits and medical bills. Mr Tran is undergoing chemotherapy and was forced to quit his new job in real estate six months ago due to his terminal illness.
"He's the kind of bloke who has just worked so hard," Ms Keays said. "In more recent years, when he started running the real estate agency, he would take naps in his car between clients.
"Finishing work for him was very hard, and, financially, it's been hard for his family."
Ms Keays said the new legal precedent set by the County Court would not bypass the need for thorough analysis to determine whether a welder was eligible for compensation, "but it does demonstrate that there is a link and this is a high-risk industry".
Article used with permission
theage.com.au (read the article on the original website)
Date August 16, 2014