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Dozens of Helsinki midwives take hospital to court over chronic air-based illnesses

With help from their union, 24 midwives filed a legal suit against the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa, claiming a total of 840,000 euros in damages.

File photo of Helsinki's now-defunct Kätilöopisto Maternity Hospital. Before it was shut down, the final birth at the hospital took place in October 2017. Image: Kai Gustafsson / AOP

Twenty four midwives from Helsinki's now-defunct Kätilöopisto Maternity Hospital are suing the administration that ran it after it refused to pay compensation for chronic illnesses the midwives claim they suffered, allegedly caused by poor air quality at the facility.

The midwives are carrying out the lawsuit with the assistance of Tehy, the Union of Health and Social Care Professionals in Finland.

The midwives are each claiming some 35,000 euros - for a total of 840,000 euros - in compensation for work-related illnesses they claim they suffered while working for the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS), which operated the maternity hospital.

Tehy's mediation manager Riikka Rapinoja said the hospital neglected to protect its workers.

"We believe the employer neglected its occupational safety duties when it allowed employees to work in areas that caused them illness and permanent damage," Rapinoja said.

Three of the 24 midwives have received diagnoses of workplace-caused illnesses; medical assessments which were verified during legal proceedings.

"The compensation demands for all of the 24 midwives still stand, but in the first step of the legal process we're focusing on the three diagnosed [plaintiffs]," Rapinoja said, adding that she hopes a precedent is set in the case.

"We want to reverse a ruling by the Supreme Court that threw out a lower court's decision to compensate a similar group of plaintiffs," Rapinoja said, referring to a case from 2016 involving three midwives who said they fell ill from mould issues while working at a facility in Karleby, in western Finland.

The new lawsuit has the largest number of plaintiffs who have collectively sought compensation for indoor air-based illnesses.

Breathing problems

Jenni Haapanen, who worked as a midwife for 15 years - and was one of the workers affected by indoor air problems at the Helsinki Maternity Hospital - said her symptoms started in 2015.

"I had trouble breathing and now I am seriously ill, I have asthma. I'm on sick leave now, but hope to be able to work again," Haapanen said, adding that she'll likely change employers when she does return to work.

"We have to take better care of workers. I do not think that HUS adequately addressed the indoor air problems. They tried to hide it. The problem has to be taken care of better," she said, adding that she's hopeful about the trial.

"It feels good. It's clear that HUS made mistakes. Indoor air problems are a big issue across the country. It will be a long legal process but I hope one day to receive compensation for the health problems caused at [my workplace]," Haapanen said.