The recent case of a 79 year old former North West England shipyard worker diagnosed with asbestosis more than 60 years after first exposure is a grim reminder of the continuing legacy of UK asbestos use throughout the twentieth century.

According to the asbestos victim’s work history, exposure began at the age of 16 as an apprentice gas fitter in 1949. But it was nearly 40 years later that the first asbestosis symptoms appeared and a confirmed diagnosis made. Exposure to the deadly insulating material continued until 1971 at six different workplaces, including several shipyards.

Causing of a material increase in the risk of injury…

When a worker has been exposed to asbestos fibres on more than one occasion and by more than one employer, it can often be difficult to exactly pinpoint which employer’s workplace was responsible for first causing the disease.

Proving liability in a mesothelioma or asbestosis claim case can often require that the claimant must show that, “on the balance of probabilities”, it was the defendant’s negligence or specific actions which caused the damage / injury.

Alternatively, “the causing of a material increase in the risk of injury” may be viewed as sufficient. In some circumstances “all the relevant employers could be liable” and anyone could be pursued for mesothelioma compensation.

As is so often repeated by exposure victims, the former dockyard plumber and gas fitter reiterated that there was a profound lack of asbestos awareness to the health risks at the time despite the daily breathing in of the fibre dust. The use of asbestos fibres as a low cost insulating material was widespread across British industry, yet little to no health information or protective equipment was made available to the workforce.

Shipbuilding and dockyard workers most vulnerable…

It is now known of course, that Britain’s shipbuilding and dockyard workers were two of the most vulnerable groups to be continuously exposed to asbestos – a direct cause of asbestos related diseases such as asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma.

Until the first bans were introduced in the mid 1980s, over 300 asbestos-containing materials were commonly used in both naval and commercial British ship shipbuilding . Asbestos fibres were incorporated in materials used to insulate hot steam pipes and water lines, fuel lines on pumps, turbines, compressors and condensers and the lining of boilers. Elsewhere on a vessel, asbestos would be installed to line exhaust systems, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves, packing assemblies and many other items of equipment.

Abnormalities caused by asbestos…

When cases of asbestosis were discovered at the Devonport Naval Dockyard in the mid 1960s, a survey of 10 per cent of the dockyard population showed that 4-5 per cent of men aged 50-59 years displayed abnormalities of the lung or pleura, probably caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.

A similar survey conducted at the dockyards at Chatham, Portsmouth and Rosyth revealed that nearly 3 per cent also showed abnormalities likely to have been caused by the inhalation of asbestos.

Even as recently as February 2012, it was found that the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate occurred in the Medway area of the South East, including the towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham. Between 2006 and 2012, there were 104 deaths from mesothelioma, the equivalent of just over 6 deaths per 100,000 people.