Evidence of significant exposure to asbestos in the workplace can often be indicated by a clear diagnosis of pleural thickening, accompanied by the build up of a pleural effusion. A former fitter at a steel making company who spent twenty years working directly with asbestos insulation materials was recently awarded a five figure sum for the “provisional harm” caused by pleural thickening. The ruling allows the possibility of claiming further asbestos compensation for future asbestos-related complications.

Pleural thickening is a non-malignant condition, which develops when asbestos fibre dust particles are taken into the lungs, eventually leading to fibrosis of the outer membrane lining of the lung (pleura). Thickening reduces the elasticity and ability of the lung to function, producing symptoms, such as shortness of breath, feeling of tightness across the chest and general chest pains. Although considered benign,  the condition can potentially develop more serious symptoms, and the fatal mesothelioma cancer.

Height of asbestos use

The former maintenance worker was employed at the steel works from the early 1960s until the early 1980s, exactly coinciding with the height of asbestos use as an insulation and fireproofing material across British industry. During peak periods, an average 170,000 tons of asbestos was imported every year until the first ban on the most toxic brown and blue asbestos fibre types was introduced in the mid 1980s.

The retired steel worker recalls the air filled with asbestos dust while regularly working in areas where there was constant “lagging” of asbestos insulation lining the boilers and steam pipes running throughout the plant. The fitter was also involved in directly constructing and installing 30 foot long asbestos rope seals by hand into boiler inlets, which left his work clothes, face, hair and hands completely covered in asbestos dust. Another duty involved removing and replacing the asbestos brake shoes in the plant’s dozen or more cranes and other moving machinery nearly every day of the week. The operation would involve filing the asbestos shoes to shape before fitting, which released further airborne dust fibre particles.

Lack of safety information or protection

The general lack of asbestos awareness to the potential health risks, which was common and widespread throughout much of UK industry during this period, was reflected in the lack of safety information or protection against inhaling the deadly dust. Asbestos-related disease is known to usually develop over at least ten to 50 years from initial exposure before the first asbestosis symptoms, such as breathlessness, coughing and tight chests start to affect a victim. Just over three decades had passed since the fitter retired from the steel works before a diagnosis was made and a claim for compensation started.

In an estimated one in four of pleural thickening cases, the level of disability caused by a worsening of the condition will increase on and off in the first ten years after diagnosis. Many victims will not suffer a further deterioration in their health. While pleural thickening is almost always an indication of exposure to asbestos and is present in patients with asbestos-related diseases it can also be the result of rheumatoid arthritis, surgery or caused by a previous respiratory infection.

More than 10 per cent disability

Asbestosis disease is generally accepted as “potentially progressive”, which means a claim may also be successful if the effect upon a claimant can be medically identified before they are aware of any symptoms. A claim for pleural thickening where there is a respiratory disability of between 1 and 3 per cent may also be considered “significant”. Compensation can be substantial if there is more than a ten per cent disability and causing progressive breathing problems.

The annual number of pleural plaques has been constant over the last 10 years, with an average of around 430 new cases per year, according to the latest available figures assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit, 2014.