The dreadful legacy of asbestos has taken its toll on workers in many industries, but shipbuilding is one that has suffered considerable turmoil. Statistics show that Barrow has three times the number of asbestos deaths when compared with the national average, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Vickers Armstrong was one of the largest shipyards in Great Britain during the shipbuilding heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. Unknown to many of those involved, however, worker health was to be hugely impacted by asbestos disease, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and asbestos-related lung cancers.
Triple the national average for asbestos deaths
Barrow has reportedly suffered 11.57 deaths per 100,000 of the local population, in comparison to the national average, which is 4.51 per 100,000 people. This statistic not only reflects the significance of shipbuilding in the area, but also the grave danger to which employees were exposed.
With no asbestos training for shipyard workers, there would have been little awareness of the health risks involved. The widow of one worker who died from lung cancer earlier this year is appealing for others employed at the shipyard to come forward with evidence of negligence by their employer.
Sam Eccles was a painter and decorator at Vickers Armstrong; his death was ruled as industrial disease by the coroner. Appeals have now been made for more information on the working conditions at Vickers, to establish whether any safety precautions were in place in relation to asbestos.
Toxic working environment
Working conditions at the shipyards were reportedly cramped and dusty. With little access to fresh air, it would have been impossible for workers on board the ships and submarines to escape asbestos dust and fibres emitted from pipe lagging, and other asbestos-containing materials.
Asbestos sprayed coatings were used throughout the submarines for fireproofing and insulation. They often covered the walls, floors and ceilings of sleeping quarters, eating areas, and corridors.
Joiners, laggers, and numerous other tradespeople involved in shipbuilding would have had little access to the protective equipment and awareness training that is now compulsory, and were likely to have breathed in asbestos fibres throughout long shifts.
“It’s a national tragedy”
President of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, Neil Sugarman, commented:
“Areas such as Barrow, which has a high rate of deaths from mesothelioma, are no doubt seeing the effects of past industry where workers were negligently exposed to asbestos. People went to work and came home with a death sentence because their negligent employers exposed them to asbestos. It’s a national tragedy.”
Being an inexpensive material to purchase, the shipbuilding industry made wide use of asbestos during construction, refitting and repair. Furthermore, secondary exposure was common as workers returned home to their families in overalls covered in asbestos dust and particles.
The average latency period for the onset of asbestos-related symptoms is said to be 35 years, with the shortest time between 10 and 15 years from the initial exposure.