It is exactly 45 years ago since the UK was brought into the EU by the European Communities Act (1972), which is now set to be repealed by the government as part of the Brexit process. This year also marks the 45th anniversary of the first ever successful asbestosis claim in the UK, and a new era in seeking justice for the countless numbers of men and women exposed to asbestos during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Today, those victims diagnosed with mesothelioma, and who ask asbestosis lawyers to trace former employers, are more likely to see redress for the devastation caused to themselves and their family as a result of laws introduced during the 1960s and 70s. More than 50 years later, we still see cases where elderly claimants, their wives, or other family members, call upon former work colleagues to help provide their accounts about the presence of asbestos in the workplace, and the lack of any safety protection as required by the new laws.
It is still shocking to realise how long it took for legislation to be introduced, which would provide wider workplace protection from asbestos exposure. Many of the cases brought today will involve former employers who are found to have neglected a legal duty of care to their workers under legislation, such as the Asbestos Regulations 1969 or the The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974.
Focus of attention during the early years of the 20th century
The dangers of exposure to asbestos had increasingly become the focus of attention during the early years of the 20th century. However, it wasn’t until a government-commissioned report into the effects of exposure – specifically in asbestos using industries – that the first measure to protect workers from the “escape of dust” was introduced in the 1930s. But legal redress was still decades away.
The use of asbestos as an effective, low-cost source of building insulation and fireproofing saw its use reach peak levels during the post WW2 reconstruction of the 1950s and 60s. Imports of asbestos jumped from around 54,300 tons in 1946 to 171,000 tons in 1966 – one year before the first ever legal writ was issued for a personal injury claim as a result of exposure to asbestos.
The attendant interest eventually led to the Asbestos Regulations 1969, enforced in May 1970, which expanded the statutory duty of employers to ensure that all staff were protected from the dangers of working with asbestos, whether they worked in factories, mills, power stations, warehouses, or any other type of premises. Nevertheless, it was not until 1972, when an appeal led all the way to the House of Lords, that the first ever successful claim was achieved.
Two years later, the introduction of The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, now required employers to “conduct their work in such a way that their employees will not be exposed to health and safety risks” and to also “provide information” on potential risks to health and safety at their workplace.
Around 1 in 14 deaths were asbestos related
The full extent of the terrible human cost that exposure to asbestos, which led to mesothelioma and asbestos related lung cancer, is still being counted to this day. In a 30 year Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Survey dating from 1971 involving 98,912 participants, there were 15,557 deaths, of which around 1 in 14 were asbestos related with 477 asbestosis and 649 mesothelioma deaths identified on the death certificate.
The results of the survey also found that the risk of asbestosis and mesothelioma rose with an increase in the duration of exposure, reaching a peak at 30-39 years. The highest risk of asbestosis was observed 50 or more years after first exposure and 40-59 years for mesothelioma after first exposure. It is now known that the potential to develop an asbestos-related disease may not develop for between 15 to 60 years before the first appearance of asbestosis symptoms. Hence, the tragic number of victims occupationally exposed during the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, which continue to this day. More than 2,540 people died from mesothelioma in 2014, according to the most recent HSE figures.
Forty five years on from the first successful claim, the prospects for victims or their families to see justice have greatly improved. However, not without a number of legal obstacles often presented at court by employer defendants who may still deny their responsibility and liability for their former employee’s mesothelioma. Apart from a civil claim, there are now several other forms of financial redress, such as the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme 2014, a fast track for those unable to trace former employers but with a limited eligibility to those diagnosed after 25th July 2012.