Asbestos use at Devonport Dockyard was extensive – and its harmful effects are still being felt today
As the largest naval base in Western Europe, Her Majesty’s Naval Base (HMNB) Devonport has long been one of Plymouth’s largest employers.
Even today it employs around 2,500 service personnel and civilians, supports some 400 local firms and generates approximately 10% of Plymouth’s income*.
Its history spans back to the late 17th century when it was built to be a vibrant shipbuilding dock. Shipbuilding ceased in the early 1970s but ship maintenance has continued, with Babcock Marine taking over the privatised maintenance facilities in 2007. In fewer than three centuries, more than 300 vessels were built at Devonport Dockyard.
This busy dockyard has provided employment for thousands of local Plymouth people, with many relying on the income they gained from working on building these large and impressive ships.
The downside of so many Plymouth people being employed by the dockyard, was the exposure to high volumes of asbestos. In the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, in particular, the long-term health effects of asbestos were unknown to the workers.
The use of asbestos in the shipbuilding industry was extensive, as it was considered a wonder material with strength that surpassed steel, while having high heat resistance and being non-flammable.
Even individuals who did not work with asbestos were exposed to it though fibres on the work clothes of family members. Due to the nature of the harmful substance, it is often decades later that any symptoms appear.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally-occuring mineral. Its fibres are soft and flexible, yet resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion.
It is an effective insulator and can be used to strengthen cloth, paper, plastic and other materials.
It is these characteristics which made it a popular material in manufacturing and shipbuilding.
James Walsh, partner at GA Solicitors in Plymouth and a nationally-recognised asbestos disease claims specialist, explains that exposure to asbestos can lead to a variety of serious health conditions.
He says: “It can take as long as 50 years before any symptoms of exposure are apparent. Conditions include lung cancer, pleural thickening, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
“These diseases are long-term lung conditions of which there is no cure. Symptoms tend to be breathlessness, immobility, or pains to the chest. Fortunately, in many cases the condition progresses very slowly or not at all. Other cases, however, can be significantly debilitating and fatal.
“Mesothelioma is a cancer which stems from exposure to asbestos. It is a rare cancer which usually starts in the lining of the lungs or the abdomen and the prognosis of recovery is unfortunately very low.”
Since the UK ban of the use of asbestos in 1999, around 40,000 men and women have died from mesothelioma, and the Health and Safety Executive estimates that a similar number will die within the next 20 years. At present, more than 2,500 people die of mesothelioma each year – that’s more than the number of people who die in road traffic accidents.
“The South West is one of the most-affected areas in the country for asbestos-related diseases,” says James. “Sadly the number of diagnosed cases is expected to continue to rise each year until it peaks around 2020 to 2025.
“A Mesothelioma Audit Report, undertaken by the Royal College of Physicians, shows the South West has one of the highest proportions of cases due to the industrial nature of business in the region, particularly shipbuilding.
“The patients affected are predominantly male, with the majority falling into the 60 to 85 age group. However, there is a substantial number of women who have been diagnosed, many of whom are family members of workers that were exposed to asbestos.
“This level of secondary exposure is always very hard-hitting. This year I dealt with a case where the wife of a Devonport Dockyard worker died after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. It was traced back to secondary exposure from her husband’s clothing in the Seventies when, of course, he would have had no idea of the risk he was putting her in.”
Since the ban in 1999 organisations have changed their working practices and have strict guidelines to adhere to in regards to the safety equipment that should be provided to their employees. The next few years are expected to see an ongoing rise in cases, however after this numbers will, over time, greatly reduce.
What to do if you or a family member has suffered from asbestos exposure
If you have suffered from exposure, then you need to seek medical help as soon as possible. Detailed descriptions of symptoms and effects of asbestos exposure can be found on the British Lung Foundation’s website.
Once you have a diagnosis, you may be able to make a claim for asbestos exposure. To do this you must file the claim within three years from the date of diagnosis, or when you were made aware of the link between your symptoms and exposure to asbestos.
If you are claiming on behalf of a deceased family member, this time can be extended as the claim must be filed within three years of the date of death.
Damages can be substantial in these claims to cover the pain and suffering, as well as any financial losses or expenses incurred by the sufferer or their family. Funding can also be obtained to help provide care and home adaptations, such as stair lifts and walk in showers.
To make a valid claim you must be able to prove some important points related to your exposure and the liability of your employer. This can prove complex, particularly if liability is disputed by the employer in question.
Additional complications can ensue if the company no longer exists; the insurer is difficult to track down; or if it is difficult to determine where the source of exposure came from.
James says: “Asbestos cases are very complex, which is why it is considered a unique, specialist area of the law and separate to more general personal injury claims. Detailed medical reports are required and you must be able to link exposure back to a specific workplace or source, as well as proving a level of negligence or breach of duty. Inevitably, you will need to go back decades to track down all of the necessary information.
“I have more than two decades of experience in asbestos claims and am a member of the Law Society Personal Injury Panel and an accredited occupational disease and asbestos disease specialist with the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL). This experience has meant I have been able to help hundreds of asbestos victims claim hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation and offer the additional support and guidance they need.
“For anyone seeking legal advice surrounding a claim, always ensure you have an asbestos disease specialist on your side to achieve the best possible outcome.”
For further information please call 01752 203500, email james.walsh@GAsolicitors.com