Sad news has been reported of the deaths earlier this year from mesothelioma of two former workers at the Vickers shipyard based at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria in northwest England. Both victims were aged in their early eighties and the diagnosis of asbestos-related industrial disease is a reminder of how the deadly insulation still claims the lives of former shipbuilders many years after the first asbestos ban was introduced in 1985.

A post-mortem of occupational asbestos exposure was diagnosed late last year of an 82 year old former Vickers shipyard worker. Soon afterwards a doctor diagnosed malignant mesothlioma in another 82 year old Vickers Yard employee just six weeks before they passed away.

In the second case, the victim was a female worker whose primary cause of death was a result of exposure to asbestos while working as a cleaner at the shipyard from 1967 to 1972.

Asbestos dust filled air

A written testimony by the former cleaner tells of how she worked for more than three hours every day in the asbestos dust filled air as she cleaned work benches, wiped surfaces and mopped floors. As is so often reported, a lack of asbestos awareness to the long term fatal health risks meant that the company failed to issue any safety information or adequate protective masks.

The coroner said that the victim also suffered “secondary exposure” to asbestos as her father, and her first and second husband all worked in the shipyard too. It was common practice for men to return home from work still wearing their overalls and workclothes, which were covered in the fibre dust. The wives would be exposed and susceptible to breathing in the deadly particles when shaking out the dust before washing the overalls by hand.

From the late 19th century onwards, the Vickers shipyard at Barrow developed a long and reputable history of naval shipbuilding. One of the largest ever ships commissioned by the Royal Navy, ‘HMS Invincible’ was one of the many ships built by the yard. Other notable vessels included Britain’s first nuclear submarine, ‘Dreadnought’ and the first Polaris-armed, ballistic nuclear submarine, ‘Resolution’.

Protect against corrosion

Up until the late 1970s and early 1980s, over 300 types of insulation products were manufactured with asbestos fibres and widely used by shipyard workers to line a ship’s boiler, bulkhead and exhaust systems. Throughout the shipbuilding industry asbestos lagging was a common method to protect a vessel’s components against corrosion including, electrical fixtures, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves hot steam pipes, hot water and fuel lines, turbines, compressors and condensers.

During the height of industrial use as insulation and fireproofing when around 170,000 tons of asbestos was being imported each year, two of the most vulnerable groups of workers in British industry were shipbuilders and dockyard workers, including engine and electrical fitters, shipwrights, joiners, caulkers, labourers, rope makers, supervisors, cleaners and asbestos lagging installers.

Linked to asbestos exposure

Another former Barrow shipyard worker who recently died, aged 89, from a respiratory disease caused by fibrosis of the lung said he had been regularly exposed to asbestos while working at the shipyards.

The coroner stated that “ asbestos exposure was proven to have occurred and could be almost certainly linked”, adding that of the 100,000 men who worked in the shipyard since the war, the majority of whom died from relatively common ailments like heart disease and stroke, “a significant number will” have died from asbestos exposure.

Lung abnormalities

By the middle of the 1960s, the deadly dangers of sustained exposure to asbestos in the shipbuilding and dockyard works of south east England were already being uncovered by medical researchers. A 1965 survey at the Devonport Naval Dockyard, Plymouth found that that 4-5 per cent of men aged 50-59 years showed abnormalities of the lung likely to have been caused by exposure to asbestos dust – one of the highest rates of asbestos-related illness, according to Ministry of Defence (MoD) data.

A similar survey at the dockyards of Chatham and Portsmouth found between 2 and 3 per cent displayed lung abnormalities most probably caused by asbestos exposure – the second highest figures reported. Even as recently as February 2012, it was found that the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate occurred in the Medway area of the south east, including the towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham, where 104 deaths from mesothelioma were recorded between 2006 and 2012.