Handling toxic chemical ‘ just part of the job’
Every week, for 15 years, Steve Walker ( pictured) handled trichloroethylene as a New Zealand Post Office telephone exchange technician. No gloves or masks. No safety briefings or training courses. And it was often used in small, confined rooms.
Based at the Balclutha exchange from 1969 to 1984, Walker took bottles of trichloroethylene ( TCE), or trichlo, tricho, or trike — as the technicians called the potent solvent with fumes “strong enough to bowl you over” — and applied it liberally to a hand- held tool to clean switching terminals.
“We’d tip the trichlo around, spilling it on to ourselves, with no safety measures at all, other than you were to try to not breathe too much in,” says Walker, now 65 and living in Christchurch with Parkinson’s disease.
“The smell was enough to nauseate you for the rest of the day. When you started feeling dizzy, you’d go outside for a breath of fresh air.
“It could irritate the skin something shocking, and never get it on your eyes. It seeped into your skin, into your clothes. It took over you completely.”
Walker tried not to inhale the noxious fumes but found it unavoidable.
“Otherwise you’d never get the job done, and the attitude in those days was, you just do what you’re told.” Walker was diagnosed with Parkinson’s eight years ago. The debilitating disease cost him a marriage, his business, home, income, and ability to play his beloved guitar . Walker read the Herald article last month that revealed the navy veteran’s compensation victory after proving TCE exposure contributed to his Parkinson’s.
Now, he wants to know whether he has similar grounds for compensation. “I want to explore it but anything I get out of it will go back into Parkinson’s research.”