Former British Rail workers diagnosed with asbestos-related mesothelioma cancer of the lung linings hope there will be fewer delays on their journey through the compensation process. Even in 2014 and 2015, courts could still hear mesothelioma claims cases involving former fitters and maintenance engineers exposed to asbestos when either installing or stripping away the insulation used right up until the 1980s on fleets of British Rail carriages.

Fortunately, British Rail are more aware of the long term health dangers of asbestos exposure caused to former employees than other employers. A settlement is usually considered if a claimant with diagnosed mesothelioma can provide proof of employment at a British Rail depot and clear evidence of exposure to asbestos. As a result of the widespread presence of the insulation materials in and around the town’s railway depots, asbestosis claims against British Rail to compensate victims of exposure have continued for more than 30 years.

Key industry that regularly used asbestos insulation in boilers

Asbestos fibres were widely used in the production of insulating / friction materials in the UK from the 1940s until the late 1970s and the first ban on blue and brown asbestos in 1985. A total of 5.1 million tons of asbestos had been imported into the UK over the forty five year period. A further 156,760 tons of asbestos, consisting of entirely white chrysotile, continued to be brought in until all imports were finally stopped in 1999.

Apart from building and construction, asbestos awareness of where the insulation materials were used in large scale industrial production is generally focused upon the lining of boilers and pipework in shipbuilding, and brake shoes, clutch pads and gaskets in auto assembly. However, the railways was another key industry that regularly used asbestos insulation in boilers, pipes, brakes, gaskets and in the electrical and heat insulation in the walls, ceiling and flooring of carriages and buffet cars.

Particular areas, such as Swindon and Crewe where railway fleets were built and serviced also became known as historical asbestos ‘blackspots’. Wherever a railway building works or depot was located, including Manchester, Derby, Doncaster, Wolverhampton, Bristol, York and Wolverton, it was highly likely that asbestos was also being used. In York, more than 141 deaths, including 59 coachbuilders have known to have died from the incurable mesothelioma cancer and at least five or six mesothelioma cases are confirmed in York every year.

Breathing masks may not have been commonly available

Following the final asbestos ban, British Rail began removing the insulation from train coaches and issuing protective clothing to workers. Up until this time, according to statements from former workers, health and safety information or protective equipment, such as special breathing masks may not have been commonly available to the workforce.

Consequently, regular exposure to asbestos during the building of railways coaches was now replaced by daily exposure during the removal process. In December 2015, a former British Rail worker who died from mesothelioma aged just 66 was employed as an asbestos stripper during the late 1970s and early 80s. The task involved removing asbestos insulation from old train carriages, which were then refurbished and brought back into service.

Earlier in the same year, another former British Rail worker only discovered he had mesothelioma in 2014 more than forty years after leaving a job he had started straight from school. For more than twenty years the maintenance fitter was exposed to asbestos lagging wrapped around the steam pipes heating the railway workshops as well as removing asbestos lagged pipe work and locomotive boiler linings. His witness statement highlights that he was never given any masks, protective clothing or safety warnings.

Asbestos had to be stripped out as part of the refurbishment

In 2014, British Rail paid mesothelioma compensation to a former employee who spent 25 years from 1958 as a labourer cleaning asbestos lined-pits and also removing asbestos-lagged exhaust pipes from 1980 until retirement in 1988. Once again, no safety protection was said to be have been provided. In 2012, research discovered that more than a hundred deaths within a three year period were caused by original asbestos exposure as a result of working on railway engine / carriage construction.

This month, a small number of original railway carriages used as buffet cars, which were scrapped in the 1980s were reintroduced to operational service by a diesel preservation society. It was noted that extensive amounts of asbestos had to be stripped out as part of the refurbishment. By the 1990’s most of the buffet cars in the particular fleet, which had also been previously preserved had to be scrapped due to asbestos contamination.

How many workers who originally worked on the carriages and were exposed to asbestos are still with us today?