Asbestos was so widely used onboard ships and in the shipbuilding industry that anyone who served on a navy or merchant ship or worked on the shipyards or in the boiler room of a ship from the 1940s to the 1980s may well have been exposed to asbestos.
The incidence of mesothelioma amongst shipyard workers is several time higher than that of the population at large. In the communities supporting the shipbuilding hotspots such as Barrow-in-Furness, Liverpool, Southampton, Plymouth and Portsmouth many will know of a friend or colleague who has been affected by asbestos, many having since died. One worker said “We used to pack asbestos in a ball like a snowball and we would throw it at each other, not realising the danger we were putting ourselves in”. Another said “We didn’t think asbestos was dangerous, it was everywhere, just a normal part of daily life”.
Workers returning home in dusty overalls would hand these over to their wife or mother. The first thing that she would do is take them out to the yard and give them a good shake causing a cloud of asbestos fibres and dust to rise into the air. This put families of shipyard workers at risk of asbestos exposure and it is now far more common to hear of cases of asbestos disease where the only known exposure came from the work clothes of a relative.
The asbestos legacy of our shipbuilding past does not always end in the UK. Many decommissioned ships were sent abroad to be broken up. Some have ended up in the poorest countries of the world where regulations and knowledge of the dangers of asbestos are little known. For example, in Bangladesh or the notorious scrap yard beaches in India, parts of ships are dismantled by workforces that include children. During the process of breaking up the ships asbestos is often found and smashed up by hand, sometimes by children with no safety equipment.
Governments in the developed world have been criticised for not acting quickly enough to inform the public of the dangers posed by asbestos and to reduce public exposure. Documents that have come to light as a result of litigation against the asbestos industry have shown that as early as the 1960s the dangers were known and deliberately concealed from the public eye. It is a scandal that asbestos continues to be mined and exported by countries such as Russia and Canada.
We support a worldwide ban on asbestos and asbestos products. If you think that any of these issues have affected you or your family please call Simpson Millar on 0808 129 3320 for friendly legal advice.