A lawyer for hundreds of former South African gold miners accused their ex-employers of failing to provide access to regular check-ups for silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by inhaling dust.
Richard Meeran of London law firm Leigh Day said thousands of miners in South Africa's impoverished Eastern Cape Province had missed out on compensation because they had been denied access to free, two-yearly tests, in contravention of South African laws protecting the rights of ex-miners.
A lack of occupational health units able to carry out the medical examination, which involves a chest X-ray and breath-test, was first known in 1996, but little had been done to remedy the situation, Meeran said.
"It's a scandal," he told a news conference in Johannesburg.
"Fifteen years after this issue was raised, nothing seems to have changed at all. In the intervening period, thousands of people must have been deprived of compensation. Who knows how many must have died."
The allegations follow a landmark ruling by South Africa's Constitutional Court this year which allowed lung-diseased miners to sue their employers, rather than simply accept standard compensation packages.
The ruling may open the door for tens of thousands of former mineworkers to sue South African companies at a cost analysts estimate to be up to $100 billion.
Meeran said medical researchers had found silicosis in 25% of former miners in the region, historically one of the main sources of labour for an industry that, at its height, employed half a million men.
He is already representing 700 silicosis-afflicted miners, most of them from the Eastern Cape, in a suit in London seeking "billions of rand" in compensation from London-based mining giant Anglo American.
Anglo American South Africa, the wholly owned entity being sued by the miners, was one of the world's largest gold miners through much of the 20th century.
At the height of South African gold production under apartheid, many black miners worked without respirators and had no access to on-site showers, making them vulnerable to inhaling the crystalline silica dust that causes silicosis.
South Africa's cash-strapped health authorities were partly to blame for the Eastern Cape failings, Meeran said, although mining firms bore the ultimate responsibility for a condition that can set in years after a worker has left the mines.
"The industry can't just wash its hands of people once they leave the gate of the mine," Meeran said.
South Africa's Chamber of Mines, the main industry body, was not immediately available for comment.
(Reuters Health, Ed Cropley, November 2011)