Successful asbestos payout after long search for former colleague

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An extensive search that reached to the other side of the world has resulted in a large compensation payout for the widow of an asbestos victim who died from mesothelioma. Mary Atkins, whose husband Richard was exposed to asbestos over 50 years ago, has been awarded £228k thanks to her determination to obtain justice for her late husband.

The length of time since the original exposure made it challenging to find workmates who might have witnessed it, but Mrs Atkins’ solicitor was able to trace a former colleague to New Zealand.

Fortunately, he remembered the instances when exposure took place, and was prepared to provide a statement to the court. Mr Atkins’ employer was then obliged to admit liability, and ordered to pay compensation for his suffering as well as the loss of income for his widow.

Asbestos exposure in the 1960s

Mr Atkins worked as an apprentice and engineer, and was originally exposed to asbestos during the 1960s. The long latency period of asbestos-related illness means that many decades can pass before victims suffer any symptoms.

The characteristics of asbestos fibres make them difficult to expel once inside the body. In the case of mesothelioma, needle-like fibres lodge within the pleura, or membranes lining the outside of the lungs, and set up disease in later life.

Biological changes occur over many years, generally resulting in a disease which is at an advanced stage before serious symptoms are felt. This makes it difficult to treat successfully, and with mesothelioma the prognosis is generally between one and two years depending on the stage of the disease.

Asbestos and the shipbuilding industry

Mr Atkins had worked on ships and pumping stations in the north-west and Portsmouth, installing and servicing turbines, diesel engines and pipe work. Asbestos is known to resist corrosion, and this along with its fireproofing and insulating properties made the shipbuilding industry one of its heaviest users.

Shipyards throughout the country made wide use of asbestos during the 1950s and 1960s, not only in boiler rooms, but in most areas of a ship, including the galley and the crew’s sleeping quarters. Asbestos was also commonly sprayed onto the walls and corridors to provide protection against fire.

Confined spaces would have made it impossible for Mr Atkins and his colleagues to avoid breathing in the dust and fibres. With no asbestos training in those days, and little awareness of the dangers of their situation, worker health and safety in these circumstances was placed at severe risk every day.

Brigitte Chandler, solicitor for Mrs Atkins, commented:

“Asbestos was widely used in boiler and engine rooms on ships; quite often the work involved removing small amounts of asbestos.
Developing asbestos disease can take up to 70 years from the point of exposure. Mrs Atkins was able to bring a claim for damages due to her husband’s pain and suffering and her loss of income.”