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TUC figures reveal 18,000 deaths from asbestos in four years

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Over the past four years, 18,000 people – 12 every day and more than the 14,000 killed on the roads since 1997 – have died in Britain as a result of working with asbestos, according to a new TUC report published on Saturday.

Mapping the misery of asbestos contains a series of league tables showing the asbestos hotspots – the counties and local authority areas that have seen the most deaths from asbestos since 1997. The TUC report is released to coincide with International Workers’ Memorial Day, which this year is being used by the TUC and trade unions around the world to remember those who have already died from working with asbestos and to make the case for action to prevent more deaths in the future.

Every year in the UK 4,500 people die from asbestos-related diseases, and by 2020, it has been estimated that the substance will be responsible for over 10,000 deaths a year.

Mapping the misery of asbestos reveals that no part of Britain is immune from asbestos-related deaths, with most victims living in areas traditionally associated with shipbuilding, manufacturing, railway engineering, and the docks. Based on the death rates per million, Tyne and Wear is home to the highest asbestos death toll. Shipbuilding and its asbestos legacy have been responsible for 768 deaths on Tyneside since 1997.

On the south coast, Devon features highly. It is the second hardest hit English county, with the dockyards of Plymouth alone responsible for 612 deaths in the last four years. The docks in London’s East End – into which much of the UK’s asbestos was imported – also register as one of the fatal fibres’ hotspots. Barking and Dagenham (which also had an asbestos factory, increasing the risk to local workers) has seen over 120 deaths, Havering over 100, and Newham 80, and the capital as a whole has recorded 1,800 asbestos fatalities – a death a day since 1997.

Mapping the misery of asbestos also looks at the asbestos-related deaths figures per head of population by local authority area, and finds that Christchurch in Dorset (over 70 deaths since 1997), Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria (over 100 deaths), and Eastleigh in Hampshire (affected in particular by the railway engineering industry) are the towns where workers are more likely to die following asbestos exposure.

The TUC report says that over the past 100 years, asbestos has been used in a variety of different products, from gas masks to ironing boards, hairdryers to overalls, brake linings to pipe lagging, and roofing materials to cement products. And although it was finally banned in the UK last year, there are still millions of tonnes of the fatal fibres in buildings across the UK.

The TUC hopes that by highlighting the shocking scale of asbestos deaths in the last four years, and by revealing the extent of Britain’s asbestos legacy, it will be able to help asbestos victims and their families by speeding up the compensation processes. And by awareness raising, the TUC hopes to prevent more deaths from occurring, by stopping now healthy workers from unnecessary exposure in the future.

To mark International Workers’ Memorial Day today (Saturday), the TUC is hosting a rally at its central London HQ from 2pm-5pm. Speakers will include Health and Safety Minister, Michael Meacher MP, Crosby Moni from the South African National Union of Mineworkers, Bill Callaghan from the Health and Safety Commission, George Brumwell, General Secretary, UCATT, John Edmonds, General Secretary, GMB, and Gordon McVie, Director of the Cancer Research Campaign.

TUC General Secretary John Monks said: “These sad statistics are a legacy of our industrial past. It has been known for more than a century that asbestos is harmful, and frequently fatal. But thousands of workers have been exposed to asbestos – many have already died, and the plague will go on killing in greater and greater numbers. All we can do to help those already affected is to fight to ensure that they and their families receive the compensation they are entitled to, that they get the treatment they need, and that the search for a cure goes on.

“The dead and the living both deserve justice. That’s why the TUC wants to see a global ban on asbestos, tougher measures regarding the control of asbestos in buildings, fairer, more efficient compensation and better medical care.”

In Mapping the misery of asbestos, the TUC is calling for:

  • a global ban on asbestos. Bans are now common in Europe, and are beginning to spread to countries such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Australia, but the deadly substance is still mined in Canada, Russia and Zimbabwe;
  • a public register of the asbestos which still exists in so many buildings in the UK to enable workers and tenants to find out easily and reliably whether properties contain asbestos;
  • more help for sufferers, including full and fair compensation (even where the insurance company has collapsed, as in the case of Chester Street Holdings).

Mapping the misery of asbestos contains a number of case studies:

  • Gill Edwards lives in Stockton on Tees and has two children aged 11 and 14. When her husband Brian was 15, he started work as a sheet metal worker at Rolls Royce in Derby. Twelve years later, in 1968, he moved jobs and began working as a foreman in first Rugeley and then Dungeness power stations, employed by a company called Aiton & Co. Gill – and Thompsons Solicitors who are backing her case for compensation – believe that Brian was exposed to significant quantities of asbestos in both jobs. Brian subsequently worked as an ultrasonics engineer, working on gas pipelines and oil rigs around the world. Gill says that although Brian was a very fit man, he started to suffer from chest pains and was always getting bronchial type colds. In 1998 whilst working out in Norway, Brian fell very ill and was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Within six months he was dead, having spent much of this time in excrutiating pain. He was 59. Brian’s death has hit the family very badly. But unfortunately the Edwards’ case for compensation is being overshadowed by two events. Firstly, insurance company Chester Street (formerly Iron Trades) – the company against whom Gill has made her claim – recently collapsed, leaving Gill and many widows like her facing an uncertain future. And earlier this year, in the Fairchild case, a judge ruled that the widow of an asbestos victim was entitled to no compensation, because it was unclear as to which one of her husband’s previous workplaces had been responsible for his coming into contact with asbestos. The Fairchild case should be going to appeal later this year. In the meantime Gill’s case for compensation is in limbo.
  • Kimberley Stubbs’ mother June Hancock grew up in the Armley area of Leeds in the 1930s and 40s. The neighbourhood in which she lived was also home to the JW Roberts factory which produced asbestos products, and as a child, June regularly played near the factory, sometimes at hide and seek in and around the yard, or jumping up and down on the sacks of asbestos lying in the loading bays. Many years later June’s mother, died of mesothelioma, and in 1994, aged 58, June discovered she had the fatal disease herself. Determined that some good would come out of her family’s suffering, June took T and N (the parent company of the JW Roberts factory which had closed in 1958) to court on the grounds that the factory should have done more to protect the local community from the poisonous dust, and because it had known at the time just how hazardous asbestos could be. June won what turned out to be a landmark case, with a successful claim made against T and N for environmental asbestos exposure. But she was horribly ill for three and a half years, with her family helpless to ease her suffering. June died in 1997, aged 61. Kimberley says; “Asbestos has destroyed my family. We have lost a wonderful mum and grandmother, who suffered more than anyone should ever have to. We too will never stop suffering. We are just one family, if you magnify our experience by all the others who have suffered because of asbestos, and who will do in the future, you can see why it is so important to raise awareness of this national and international disaster. ” In her memory, Kimberley, her brothers and the legal team – Irwin Mitchell Solicitors – have set up the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund which fundraises and campaigns on behalf of asbestos victims and their families. (Donations to the Fund should be sent c/o Irwin Mitchell Solicitors, St Peters House, Hartshead, Sheffield S1 2EL.)
  • Ian Evans is 46 and lives in Fishguard. In the 1970s and 80s he worked as a shore-based electrician and later as a sea-going electrical officer based in the town and in the Port of Dover for British Rail Shipping and International Services (which has now become Stena Line Ltd). He was responsible for survey work on the ships, replacing any defective equipment that he came across. On the old steam ferries, all the pipes were lagged with asbestos and Ian would have come into fairly regular contact with the substance. He was completely unaware that the asbestos had damaged him, until one day in 1996 when messing around with a colleague, a “bear hug” lead to a cracked rib and collapsed lung. Doctors tried unsuccessfully to reflate his lung several times, and was not until Ian was referred to a chest specialist that it was discovered that he had extensive pleural plaques and pleural thickening (the asbestos-related condition doesn’t show up on X-rays). Following keyhole surgery, Ian spent many weeks in intense pain. Although he is now in good health, he knows that at any stage in the future his health could deteriorate, and that because of the asbestos he is at risk of developing asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer. Thompsons Solicitors helped him make a successful claim against his old employer, and Ian is at present getting ready to launch his own graphics and digital photography business.

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