The legacy of twentieth century use of asbestos is the continued suffering caused to the thousands of workers who developed asbestosis or mesothelioma cancer, for which mesothelioma compensation is still being paid to this day. Nowhere has the tragedy of asbestos exposure been more prevalent than in the old shipyards of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the once government-owned Belfast shipyard, Harland and Wolff, was privatised more than 2,000 of its former workers continue to seek asbestos compensation and are paid an average of £30,000 each for contracting diseases caused by exposure to the deadly material.

Extensive use of asbestos…

Ship building was one of the major UK industries, which made extensive use of asbestos as a cheap form of anti-corrosive, heat resistant insulation. It was not until the late 1970s, when asbestos awareness of the long-term health risk finally led to the introduction of the first ban in the mid 1980s, and under the terms of the Safety of Life at Sea convention, the use of asbestos banned on ships constructed since 2002.

Over 300 asbestos-containing materials were used as insulation on ships, mostly to cover hot steam pipes, hot water lines and fuel lines.

Another common use of asbestos was in brick and cement used on pumps, turbines, compressors and condensers, and virtually any other equipment that generated heat. Boilers contained asbestos brick and asbestos liners sandwiched between brick and steel layers. Asbestos was also used in exhaust systems including connectors and manifolds as well as in instrumentation such as meters, capacitors, dielectric paper, instrument panelling, rods, valves, packing assemblies, insulation felts and adhesives.

Beyond the engine room, asbestos could be found in electric cabling, brake linings, gaskets and packing in flanges and valves, and as a component in sealing materials. An asbestos insulation layer might cover steel decking beneath a layer of cement. Floor tiles, wall and ceiling panels could also contain asbestos.

Exposure in close quarters…

Onboard a ship where being in close quarters and poor ventilation increases asbestos hazards, nobody is immune from asbestos dust exposure. Personnel exposed to asbestos during the course of their work included shipfitters, machinists, pipe fitters, pipe coverers, boiler makers, electricians, welders, riggers and engineers. However, from initial exposure and breathing in of the asbestos fibre dust particles, a period of up to 50 years or more can elapse before the first signs of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms finally emerge.

Surveys conducted in the 1960s found that nearly 4 per cent of a 10 per cent sample taken from dockyard workers in Chatham, Portsmouth and Rosyth were shown to possess abnormalities directly caused by the inhalation of asbestos. As recently as February 2012, the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate of 104 deaths or just over 6 deaths per 100,000 people was recorded between 2006 and 2012 in the Medway area of the South East, including the towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham.

According to the Department of Enterprise (DETI) at Stormont, there have been £60 million of successful claims for compensation paid out to former shipyard workers at Harland and Wolff before privatisation in 1989. It has also been estimated that another £89 million will be paid out over the next 25 years at least for those yet who are yet to be diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases.