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Thoughts from the mesothelioma team, November 2016

Partners Andrew Morgan and Peter Williams share their experience of working with clients and families affected by asbestos-related cancer.

North-west England's tragic asbestos legacy

New figures released this month by the Office for National Statistics show that Barrow-in-Furness, in the North-west, currently has the highest rate of deaths from mesothelioma in England and Wales, with nearly three times the national average.

Six people every day die from mesothelioma in England and Wales, estimated by Cancer Research UK to be around two and half thousand each year across the UK. The national average for England is 4.51 deaths for every 100,000, rising to nearly 12 per 100,000 in Barrow-in-Furness.

According to mortality figures and projections from the Health and Safety Executive, the number of deaths from asbestos-related cancer has rocketed by nearly a third over the past 10 years and is expected to peak in 2018, before beginning to tail off.

Current evidence shows that this increase is the tragic consequence of people, mainly men, having been exposed to the widespread use of asbestos at their place of work between 1950 and 1980. Most of the deaths included in these figures are those aged 75 and above.

As the website Asbestos.com reminds us, the UK has one of the worst records of mesothelioma deaths in the world because the UK government permitted the use of asbestos long after other countries had banned it. The use of blue and brown asbestos, the most dangerous forms, was banned in the UK in 1985. In Sweden, for example, the use of asbestos for insulation was banned in 1972.

In other words, when you translate these figures into personal stories, ordinary, hardworking people are paying the price of their former employment and the heritage of where they live.

Similar to the Scottish shipbuilding industry on the Clyde, shipbuilding and its associated industries have defined Barrow for more than 200 years.  

Watch the video below for rare footage of asbestos products being produced in the 1950's

Source - YouTube

Iron ore was discovered in Barrow in the mid-1800s and the railway to export it to the coast quickly followed, transforming Barrow from a sleepy farming community to a Victoria boom town. Huge steelworks and thriving shipbuilding yards soon turned it into one of the world's industrial powerhouses. 

Great news for the local economy and many of the community who prospered from the boom. But shipbuilders, and associated construction workers, are now considered most at risk from developing health problems associated with asbestos. And shipbuilding defined much of the history of UK, particularly in the Second World War. 

Asbestos was used everywhere aboard ships up until the 1980s – in engine and boiler rooms, in walls, ceilings, sleeping areas and galleys – it was even used in hull covers of submarines patrolling the Arctic.

After the war, when military spending on naval flagships declined, nuclear submarines, ocean liners and oil tankers kept the shipyards in Barrow going.  The BAE Systems shipyard is still the town's biggest employer.

It goes without saying that asbestos exposure largely occurred in male-dominated occupations. But as our case studies show, women and children who lived with men who worked surrounded by asbestos can sadly be affected by the fatal dust, bought home in overalls and work clothes.

And this not only applies to manual workers. We had a case of a bank manager who worked for one of the big four exposed to asbestos dust in the basements of local branches when he went down to collect money from the safe. During building work, his suit was often covered in dust, which he then unknowingly took home to his family.

Mesothelioma is almost always fatal. It can take 30 years to appear, often killing someone within 12 months. It is a cruel, vicious disease, with sufferers unaware that symptoms of coughs and tiredness are more than the curse of old age. In one of my colleague's most recent cases, the patient was unaware he had mesothelioma before he died. His sons received the diagnosis when he was too ill to understand.

In 2014, five times as many men died from mesothelioma than women but, sadly, wives and children continue to live the consequences of a husband and father killed by the disease.

When it comes to shipbuilders affected in Barrow and elsewhere, solicitors cannot claim compensation from the Royal Navy for failing to protect their employees since it's not possible to sue the Crown.

It is possible to claim a form of state benefit for families to help support them. Nothing brings back the person affected by this terrible disease, but at least it can provide some financial support for those left behind.

More often than not, they also confirm that the employer failed to provide sufficient protection for employees, something that underpins many of our compensation claims. This is particularly useful where the claimant and the family can't remember specific details of a working life which usually goes back years. Let's face it, most of us would struggle to recall such details.

Our most recent case was featured in the Telegraph and in several local papers. Frederick Hodge worked as a maintenance engineer in the Houses of Parliament during the 1970s and 1980s. Most days, he came into contact with pipes and boilers lagged with asbestos. Sadly, he died in the summer without knowing that he was suffering from mesothelioma, very likely caused by his long years of service.

The Telegraph was interested in the story for two reasons – one, because Mr Hodge's sons Malcom and Stephen discovered that their father had kept detailed work diaries for 20 years of his time at the Houses of Parliament, some of which indicated his unease with the safety conditions and the way air quality was monitored. And secondly, because Mr Hodge's fate forewarns that hundreds of other people working in the iconic building could also have been affected – and that includes not only other maintenance staff but also civil servants and MPs.

The story was particularly timely since MPs are about to vote whether to up sticks and exit en masse to other facilities while the Palace of Westminster and other buildings undergo essential repairs. If they do so, it would be the first time MPs have moved out since bombing in the Second World War.

A report last year estimated that if MPs stayed in the building during the restoration work, the cost could be as much as £7.1bn. Forcing MPs and peers to move into temporary accommodation for six years would halve the cost, with the overall expense closer to £4bn.

Part of the reason for moving out would be to protect people working there from asbestos that would be released when walls and structures were demolished or repaired.  Mr Hodge's case raises the unwelcome spectre that, despite these safety precautions, many people will have unknowingly been working there in the presence of fatal dust for years.

We did receive a couple of responses to the story from the public, which hopefully will prove useful and help settle the claim on behalf of Malcolm and Stephen. One response was unrelated to Mr Hodge's specific case but was from the widow of a man who died in 2006 aged 73 from work related mesothelioma.

Pauline Brearley's husband Colin was also an engineer and, according to Pauline, didn't have a sick note in all his working life until retiring aged 66. Fortunately, she has had a claim settled.

She wrote to us thanking us for getting Mr Hodge's story into the press because she feels strongly that not enough publicity is given to the dangers of asbestos, "even now when it is present in so many schools and public buildings".

Colin didn't work in such a high-profile building as the Houses of Parliament, but his story was reported locally in the Yorkshire Post. Colin and Frederick are rare examples of mesothelioma tragedies that reach the general public. Thousands of other ordinary people working in ordinary buildings die too soon from asbestos-related cancers, most of whom the public never hears about.