The national rail authority SNCB is facing a lawsuit brought by 60 employees who claim they were exposed to a hazardous substance that can cause cancer.
The employees have asked for compensation of €400,000. The SNCB has denied liability and called for the case to be dropped.
The substance in question is chromium trioxide (CrO3), also known as which is mainly used in chrome plating. It is highly toxic, corrosive and carcinogenic.
The plaintiffs say they were exposed to the substance six years ago, in the central workshop in Gentbrugge. About 60 employees may have come into contact with the substance when cleaning old equipment.
“Some colleagues, all about 50 years old, have died in the meantime. Is there a link with chromium trioxide? We don’t know. But the fear is there,” said one of the workers, Patrick Hebbelinck, now aged 60. “We had safety glasses and gloves. But there was no protection against whatever we were breathing in.”
At the time, the work on renovating old train engines was stopped when it appeared there was something wrong with the paint. Inspectors were brought in to take samples, and a random five workers were tested.
Four of the five showed a heightened concentration of chromium trioxide. The trains were transferred to Mechelen where they could be worked on in a workshop equipped for working with hazardous substances.
As well as its use in electroplating, chromium trioxide was often used as an additive to paint, because of its waterproofing qualities.
The legal action started in 2018, but was delayed when samples had to be collected and tested. At the first real hearing this week, held in the presence of only lawyers for the two sides, counsel for the SNCB argued that it had taken adequate precautions at the time, and that measurements taken later had no value.
The auditor of the court, however, found that the SNCB had not taken adequate precautions and that three of the five workers tested in 2015 had not in fact been working in the affected zone.
The SNCB now faces a fine of between €280,000 and €400,000 for failing to take the proper precautions. The employees are seeking personal damages of €2,500 each, as well as a guarantee that the rail authority will pay their medical expenses should they become ill as a result of exposure to chromium trioxide.