Tragically, cases continue to still be heard of former shipyard workers and naval engineers who were exposed to asbestos during the 1960s and 70s. Most recently, the family of an Edinburgh shipyard worker who developed mesothelioma and passed away in early 2017 aged 81, was awarded mesothelioma compensation of a six figure sum. The court ruled that the shipyard employer had failed to provide adequate protection from the potential fatal health risk.

Just weeks earlier, an inquest in north west Devon found that the death of former Royal Navy engineer who died aged 73 from an acute, lower respiratory infection was due to pulmonary fibrosis caused by asbestosis. Pleural plaques was also present and sadly, the deceased also suffered from a number of other health issues including, angina, diabetes and a stroke.

Throughout most of the 20th century, asbestos mineral fibres were widely used as an inexpensive anti corrosion and heat resistant insulator. 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.

It’s been estimated that more than 300 types of insulation products containing asbestos fibres were installed by shipyard workers to line a ship’s boiler, bulkhead and exhaust systems. Asbestos lagging was also a widely used method to protect a vessel’s key systems and components including, electrical fixtures, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves hot steam pipes, hot water and fuel lines, turbines, compressors and condensers.

Could not help but breathe in the clouds of dust

Before passing away, the former Royal Navy engineer prepared a statement, in which, he recalls working in the boiler and engine room compartments, repairing machinery and pipework. Throughout his shift, he was continuously exposed to asbestos which was clearly visible, and “could not help but breathe in” the clouds of dust released into the air.

It’s an all too familiar story. Naval engineers, shipbuilders and dockyard workers in their teens and early twenties were not provided with any form of protection against the risk of exposure, nor were they warned about the health dangers of asbestos. The engineer also worked at a marine steam pump manufacturer during the 1960s and 70s where, once again, exposure to asbestos regularly occurred. When the former employers are traced, the courts can find that their failure to protect their workforce, was a material or contributory cause of the victim’s asbestos related disease.

The historic shipbuilding regions in the north of England, Scotland and the South East coast have long been known as key asbestosis ‘hotspots’ with as many as one in three male deaths and one in five female deaths. One particular example is Barrow-in-Furness in the north west. The region, once famous for the Vickers shipyard amongst other vessel builders, recorded the highest mortality rate with 241 male deaths from mesothelioma – more than two and a half times the rate of deaths than the national average. Barrow-in-Furness, Sunderland and South Tyneside also consistently show some of the highest mesothelioma death rates in the UK, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Former shipbuilding regions have shown an increase

Twenty years before the first UK asbestos ban, the deadly dangers of sustained exposure 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.

Figures recently released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that in North Tyneside, there were 491 male mesothelioma deaths compared to 411 four years earlier, while South Tyneside reported 364 deaths, up from 321 deaths. Over the past two decades of reported figures, the HSE report that nearly all the former shipbuilding regions have shown an increase in fatalities on previous year’s figures.

High mesothelioma rates are forecast to continue up until 2030 or even beyond. Sadly, the fatality numbers for former shipyard workers, and the devastation that the sudden news of their diagnosis brings to victims and their families, are also likely to continue to be heard in the courts and at coroner’s inquests for the foreseeable future.