Medway remains in UK’s top four for asbestos deaths
At its peak, Chatham Dockyard was not only an essential cog in the Royal Navy’s ship-building empire, it was the beating heart of the community. The Medway towns relied on it for the employment of thousands, as did ancillary businesses which supplied the site, and the families of workers. Little wonder its closure in 1984 dealt such a devastating blow. But what no-one can have imagined all those years ago is that almost 30 years after its closure, people would be dying through illnesses they contracted there.
The use of asbestos in heavy industry such as dockyards and factories was widespread by the end of the 19th and early 20th century due to its resistance to heat and insulating properties and its ability to act as a good insulation material.
What would only come to light by the early 1960s, however, was that when disturbed, inhalation of the fine fibres could cause a cancer which, decades later, would kill many. This came too late for a number of employers who realised they had exposed staff to a carcinogen.
Recently released statistics found that Medway is one of the top four areas in the UK when it comes to deaths caused by asbestos-related illness.
According to the figures from the not-for-profit Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) 4.7 of every 100,000 deaths in Medway are put down to asbestos. Specifically, mesothelioma; a cancer caused by the fibres attaching to the inside of the lungs.
Across the county, 12 out of 15 local councils recorded a higher death rate than the national average. Not all will be dockyard-related – asbestos was widely used. Nationwide, there are some 3,000 asbestos-related deaths a year.
The difficulty, however, comes for those victims – or their families – regarding compensation. In some cases, half a century will have passed from inhaling the fibres which kill them. Companies have closed, dockyards shut, insurance policies are forgotten.
This week, law firms once again called for the compensation process to be simplified.
Industrial disease lawyer Craig Howell, from Birchall Blackburn Law – which works alongside the National Asbestos Helpline – said: “Asbestos conditions take up to 50 years to develop. It has an incredibly long latency period, so you might have been exposed to it in the 1960s and then all of a sudden you get this cancer now. People have to think back years to find where they were exposed.”
The difficulty in tracking down companies, and perhaps more importantly their insurers, means compensation claims are difficult to complete.
Mr Howell adds: “One of the problems is that a lot of the companies who employed these people have gone bust in the mean time, they aren’t still around. So sufferers from a compensation point of view had the difficulty of trying to find insurers. Back then companies weren’t required to keep records of insurers. So people with this disease that is going to kill them can’t get compensation because they can’t find the insurers.
“In 1965 there was an article in the Sunday Times, which was really the first time it was in the public domain where the authors were talking about how a new cancer could be connected with asbestos exposure.
“For claimants, that was important because the article should have put people on notice about the dangers.
“We have had quite a few cases, particularly from Chatham docks, and I am looking into one now in relation to a cement company. Chatham docks is one of the main culprits I have seen. It is one of the reasons Kent has a heavy number of incidents.”
It is predicted that the number of cases of asbestos-related diseases will peak in 2016 but Mr Howell explained that the types of cases coming forward are beginning to change.
“Typically it used to be heavy industries, shipyards, power stations – from 1960s industrial England. But what we are seeing now is a change in the nature of people with it to school teachers, caretakers and office workers because you don’t have to have had much exposure to get this.”
The asbestos claims are set to change for the better next year under government rules making it easier for victims who cannot find their former employers or employer’s liability insurers (ELI) to obtain compensation.
Karl Tonks, former president of APIL, said: “We know the majority of employers were insured, and ELI was compulsory from January 1972. So there’s been a campaign to get a ‘last resort fund’ to meet the gap where the insurance industry have taken premiums but when it comes to meeting a claim, there is a hole in the records.
“The mesothelioma bill is going through parliament to set up a fund, created by a levy on insurers that currently offer ELI.
“Claimants won’t get full compensation, they will get 75 per cent of a fixed amount, that is a hell of a lot better than the previous situation where people with a good claim fail because the insurers can’t be found.”
R B Asbestos Consultants serve the UK with accredited asbestos services.