Spoor vs Assmang

At a Department of Labour inquiry on Monday into cases of manganese-related illness at the Assmang manganese factory in Cato Ridge, claims were made that Assmang manganese company had offered brain-damaged factory workers inducements of R800 000 each to be re-evaluated by an American medical expert.

Workers’ attorney Richard Spoor referred to Assmang and said that in his 25 years as a human rights lawyer, he has yet to see a company as egregious and as contemptuous of human rights.

"I am furious with Assmang’s conduct." said Spoor

Professor Warren Olanow

Richard Spoor charged that Warren Olanow who had been paid at least $2,9-million (about R29-million) in research fees from the manganese industry. These payments were for medical research and to testify as a defence expert for the industry when it had been taken to court in America by sick welders.

Spoor also told the inquiry that Assmang tried to use traditional leaders in the Cato Ridge area to persuade sick workers to sign deals that they had not seen or properly understood. It seemed Assmang was very determined to get the workers to see Olanow.

Dr Murray Coombs

At the inquiry, Spoor cross-examined Pretoria-based Dr Murray Coombs, a corporate health consultant for Assmang.

Earlier in 2008, Coombs (of Elixir Health Solutions) gave evidence that, in his opinion, 10 workers had been "misdiagnosed" as having manganese-related illnesses by a panel of medical specialists, including Dr Susan Tager, head of the movement disorders clinic at Wits University.

Without seeing any of the patients, Coombs and Olanow reviewed the medical surveillance files of the workers and both concluded that they were not suffering from the manganese-induced occupational disease, manganism .

Spoor wanted to know from Coombs how such a conclusion could have been reached without an examination of the patients.

Spoor also enquired if Coombs had the consent of the workers to "grub about" in their medical files and to disclose personal and private details to Assmang and other third parties. In reply Coombs said that there was a distinction between personal medical records and medical surveillance records held by the company in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act .

Attorney Willem le Roux objected to Spoor’s line of questioning but Spoor said if Coombs went digging about in the medical records of people who were not his patients then it was essential for him to inquire into Coombs’s "ethics, professionalism and independence".

Later Coombs admitted that he had also provided medical surveillance information to Olanow. Coombs also recommended that the patients be referred to Olanow. According to Coombs, Olanow was an eminent specialist and one of the few doctors who had examined 13 people with suspected manganism in 1995.

Spoor put it to Coombs that Olanow was "an interesting choice" considering that he was frequently cited by manganese industry defence attorneys and had received $2,9-million from the manganese industry and welding rod manufacturers, and had testified in court on behalf of the manganese industry.

Spoor said that Olanow had been "made rich" to defend the industry and could not be considered independent, just like Coombs could not be considered independent.

Responding to Spoor’s suggestion that the company was negotiating to pay R800 000 to workers behind their attorney’s back, Le Roux said that such negotiations were "without prejudice" and that workers had previously rejected a less favourable offer.

However, he confirmed that the company no longer wished to negotiate directly with Spoor because of the "extremely acrimonious nature of the negotiations".

"That is why the company deals with the employees directly," said Le Roux, who denied all the other allegations which were being made "solely for the benefit of the media".

Spoor wanted to know why Assmang hired Coombs to go through the records of workers who were not his patients and attempt to "rubbish" the evidence of more qualified specialists who had diagnosed workers with manganism.

Coombs later conceded that he was not suggesting that the 10 employees did not have manganism, but that they should be re-examined.

Source: The Mercury
Posted: 11November 2008
By: Tony Carnie


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