To discover that a loved one is suffering with asbestos-related mesothelioma with only a few months left to live is more than a shocking blow. When asbestosis symptoms such as, shortness of breath, chronic coughing and chest pain first appear, they are often simply mistaken for common respiratory complaints or other lung conditions that an elderly person might be prone to develop, especially if they used to smoke, or still do.

Where wives and close family believe there is good evidence to show that the deceased was in regular contact with asbestos at a former workplace, it is often felt that they have a strong case to claim mesothelioma compensation from one or more former employers. However, it can also be seen as a daunting process in trying to exactly determine how and where the exposure to asbestos occurred over the victim’s entire lifetime.

No known reason for how a victim was exposed

Increasingly, there are cases where there appears to be no known reason for how a victim diagnosed with the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer or an asbestosis condition was exposed to the deadly fibre particles. Whenever a death occurs from an industrial disease, which is suspected of being asbestos-related, under the Coroner’s Act 1988, an inquest is required to investigate and report on whether the patient had died from “unnatural causes”.

While samples of lung tissue are often taken for analysis, a post-mortem report may simply record that the cause of death was due to an “industrial disease”. Even though the Coroner may conclude that mesothelioma was probably a “key factor”, the same verdict may be given where the unfortunate victim was suffering with other known types of industrial diseases too.

The success of a mesothelioma claim relies on several factors, including the provision of key medical evidence, work records, pinpointing where asbestos exposure occurred and the extent of the employer’s failure to protect employees from exposure. Often a victim may leave a written statement, which refers to working with or near asbestos insulation and being covered in “clouds of dust” despite no safety protection or health warning from his employers. However, the widow will urgently call upon former work colleagues to also give their witness accounts of conditions at the victim’s former workplaces.

Under-reporting of work related illness

In recent years, a worrying trend has also emerged in which the “under-reporting” of work related illness has meant that just 0.3 per cent or 1,500 out of an estimated 500,000 new work-related illnesses are reported to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

Around 13,000 deaths each year are also reported to be the result of occupational respiratory diseases (or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – COPD), of which, two-thirds are linked to asbestos-related diseases. Latest available figures show that 3,760 new cases or nearly 9 in ten of occupational lung diseases were associated with past asbestos exposure, according to Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB), 2013.

While progressive changes to workplace legislation aim at improving protection for workers at risk from industrial diseases, the UK still does not have a legal requirement for occupational health services, which would detect the early symptoms of work-related ill health and disease. Instead, legislation, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988 (COSHH) places the responsibility on employers, “where it is reasonably practicable”, to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. Consequently, cases of negligence by employers to ensure their workforce is protected from harmful conditions are likely to go unreported and the hazardous conditions remain unchanged.

Lack of asbestos awareness to the fatal health risks

For most of the peak years of asbestos use in British industry between the 1950s and late 1970s, the lack of asbestos awareness to the fatal health risks meant thousands of workers were not provided with any safety information, training or protective equipment. Among a regularly occurring number of cases are historical exposures involving fitters and general maintenance staff who were employed to service heating systems and replace asbestos used to insulate boilers and hot water pipework.

Today, more than thirty years after the first asbestos ban, there is renewed concern that the British worker is still an unprotected victim of occupational illnesses. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that 1.8 million people continue to be exposed to asbestos every year, which leads to around 4,000 annual deaths caused by asbestos-related disease. The overwhelming majority of those at front-line risk of direct occupational exposure involve building contractors, demolition workers and tradesmen, such as plumbers, electricians, and heating/air conditioning installers.