There HAS been a 70% increase in the number of legal actions taken by trades unions on behalf of stressed workers.

Figures from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) reveal that the number of stress-related cases soared from 459 in 1997 to 783 in 1998. The TUC and the British Safety Council have called for tougher penalties for employers that break health and safety laws.

The unions also claim a 96% success rate in settling personal injury cases. More than 50,000 were settled last year, with average compensation awards of £5,110. A further 850 cases were taken to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme.

The shock figures will put risk management of employee working conditions at the forefront of the debate on employer liability into the next millennium. Already the Health and Safety Executive has announced a probe into conditions in Britain's call centres. Meanwhile, there have been groundbreaking legal judgments in relation to workplace injuries such as emphysema, vibration white finger, acoustic shock and voice loss.

The TUC has thrown down the gauntlet to the legal expenses industry by claiming that the average cost of £3 for its membership to access its legal services represents the best value in the marketplace.

The TUC, which includes the figures in its annual survey, also claims to have got round the cross-selling chestnut. A massive 94% of union members and their families are covered for free legal assistance for road traffic accidents, while 49% have access to union-run legal helplines.

"This shows union members get real value for money," said TUC general secretary John Monks. "They continue to get the cheapest and best legal help in the country, not only if they are injured or made ill at work, but also when they need legal services for non-work related problems."