Outdated technology is being blamed by HM Revenue and Customs for long delays in obtaining records for employment-related asbestos compensation claims. Although claims by surviving mesothelioma victims have now been guaranteed a 10-day turnaround time, the average wait for sufferers of other asbestos-related disease is around 383 days.
Awareness of the danger of asbestos at work was severely lacking in previous decades, at a time when its use was most prevalent. Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were widely utilised in construction, as well as in shipbuilding and the automotive industry from the 1950s onwards.
This has led to thousands of former workers in these industries suffering life-threatening illness, caused by inhaling asbestos fibres. Nowadays, asbestos training is compulsory for workers and tradespeople who are likely to come into contact with the substance, but historical exposure is still causing serious issues.
An outdated system
HMRC retrieve the employment information needed for a claim from old microfiche machines. Not only are some of these machines in need of repair, but prominent advertising by the claims industry is also pushing up the number of cases being brought against former employers.
HMRC systems went digital in 1997, and reports that only 36 microfiche machines are available, suggests that waiting times will not be reduced in the near future. A spokesperson from HMRC has said that they are in talks with the Ministry of Justice, and hope to “reduce demand for our records” and lessen the strain on their systems.
An enormous task
To put their task into some context, it is said that applications for employment records has risen over the last five years from 40,000 to 120,000 a year. With an average of 20 records required for each claim, this is clearly a huge task for HMRC staff, who also have to search the internet for parts when the machines break down.
Roger Maddocks, workplace disease and illness lawyer from Irwin Mitchell, said:
“We have yet to receive any indication that HMRC is taking any adequate steps to address these serious issues, which are having a significant impact on those who have developed terrible illnesses as a result of their employment, who are desperate for answers from their former employers about why steps were not taken to protect them.”
Asbestos awareness now a key factor for workers
As the body responsible for worker health, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) can prosecute contractors and employers who fail to take the necessary precautions when dealing with asbestos.
Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations, contractors have a legal duty to manage asbestos safely, and where applicable to only use those licensed to handle or remove ACMs.
Their legal obligation to provide asbestos awareness training starkly contrasts the situation in previous decades when worker health was largely ignored in relation to asbestos.
As the wife of an insulation engineer who died from mesothelioma waits 18 months for confirmation of his employment dates, it is hoped that investment in new technology will soon be on the cards for HMRC.