Asbestos warning sign

Publish date

12 October 2015

Asbestos and dockyard history

The widespread occupational and industrial use of asbestos in HM and private dockyards has caused numerous deaths due to the industrial disease mesothelioma.

Workers at HM Chatham Dockyard were exposed to and/or handled existing asbestos until the Dockyard closed in 1984. In 1985 the UK banned the import and use of blue and brown asbestos. Thomson Snell & Passmore has dealt with and settled many asbestos HM Dockyard claims. Below is a short history of asbestos use in Chatham Dockyard.

Barry Newman was continually exposed to asbestos when he worked as a maintenance operative at Chatham Dockyard. He developed mesothelioma. Barry was interviewed by Channel 4 in 2007 and described asbestos “being in the air” and “dusty asbestos footprints”. The claim was settled.

Asbestos exposure in dockyards occupations include:

  • Laggers
  • Fitters
  • Labourers
  • Marine engineers
  • Welders
  • Carpenters and joiners
  • Electricians
  • Boilermakers
  • Mattress shop workers
  • Apprentices

An example of asbestos exposure

Asbestos was used ubiquitously throughout the dockyard for fire-proofing and heat insulation. It was regarded as the choice of building material for many years – the “magic mineral” as it was called. Many exposures to asbestos and the lack of protection took place during refits both in dock and afloat without adequate protection contrary to Factories Acts and other legislation.

This was despite guidance by HM Factory Inspector in a letter sent in August 1945 headed ‘Asbestos insulation aboard ships’ and sent to the majority of UK shipyards and the ship-building industry including:

“I would, however, emphasize that, while asbestos dust may not have any apparent effects at first, experience shows that, particularly if the workers are exposed to dust in substantial concentrations, serious results are apt to develop later”.

I would suggest that protection can be secured on the following basis:

(3) The provision of a respirator (Home Office Mark No. 584042 or other approved type) for each workman engaged in the fitting or removal of any dry insulating material containing asbestos, on board ship.

(5) No person under 18 should be employed in any process giving rise to asbestos dust or in any compartment or enclosed space where such a process is being carried on.”

We now know this guidance was ignored at HM Dockyard Chatham (and other UK dockyards). Asbestos was used and handled throughout the dockyard and is reported to have been piled up on docksides.

People from all walks of life have developed mesothelioma. A famous example is actor Steve McQueen who believed that he developed mesothelioma due to his asbestos exposure in US navy shipyards. The US has a similar history as to our own of the lack of precautions taken in naval dockyards. Jacqueline Karnell Corn, Associate Professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, and a leading researcher in industrial and environmental health and safety history, has stated that:

the US Navy and Maritime Commission appreciated the need to protect heavily exposed shipyard insulation workers in the early 1940s. This knowledge was not disseminated to a wider audience…

So this is the legacy that so many families in Medway have had to face given the fatal disease of mesothelioma. The disease may take anything from ten to 40 years to develop from the time of actual exposure. There is no cure.

In 2000 Dr Stewart a consultant in respiratory medicine at the Medway Maritime Hospital described a “time-bomb” in Medway primarily due to the Dockyard incidence of asbestos disease. For many years Medway has been known as national ‘hotspot’ for asbestos and mesothelioma disease and therefore continuing personal injury claims.

The Ministry of Defence now usually deals with personal injury claims for the formerly Admiralty dockyard sympathetically. It is rare that the Ministry will deny liability these days. In 2008 in reply to my Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Defence regarding H M Chatham Dockyard I was informed that they do not hold records going back to 1945 but that they had 55 mesothelioma claims registered since 2001.

What milestones has there been?

The HM Factory Inspector in 1898 stated:

The evils of asbestos dust have also attracted my attention, a microscopic examination of this material which was made by HM Medical Inspector clearly revealed the sharp, glass-like jagged nature of the particles and where they are allowed to rise and to remain suspended in the air of a room in any quantity, the effects have been found to be injurious as might have been expected.

But it was not until the 1930s and the HM Factory Inspector Merewether report that industry and government were fixed by our courts with knowledge that they “ought to have known” of the hazards of respiratory disease due to high dose exposures to asbestos at work.

By 1960 HM Factory Inspector was saying that “It was doubtful whether it was safe to assume that any finely divided dust was harmless if inhaled in sufficient quantity over a sufficient period”.

In 1965 mesothelioma and lower dose asbestos exposure came into the wider public spotlight. A Sunday Times article Scientists track down killer dust commented on the findings of the Newhouse and Thompson publication Mesothelioma of the pleura and peritoneum following exposure to asbestos in the London area in the British Medical Journal. This publication included 83 case reports of mesothelioma arising from the London area and breaks them down into exposure to asbestos for factory workers, dock workers, laggers and insulators, relatives and in the neighbourhood.

In 1971 P G Harries of the Medical Research Unit, H M Dockyard Devonport, published his report: Asbestos Dust Concentrations in Ship Repairing: A Practical Approach To Improving Asbestos Hygiene In Naval Dockyards.

“The results show that application and removal of asbestos materials both create high dust concentrations, and measures to reduce the health hazards associated with such processes are described. ”

In 1982 documentary, Alice. A Fight for Life, was the first airing about asbestos hazards. Indeed around this time power stations began to take on board precautionary measures.

Case study and an example of a mesothelioma claim

RAS was employed at Chatham Dockyard and developed mesothelioma. He was exposed to asbestos whilst working as a rivet boy from about 1943 to 1947 on HMS Modeste and Nereide and other vessels.

Ernest Watson worked at HM Chatham Dockyard since leaving school at age 15 in 1955 until 1982. Ernest was exposed to asbestos as a welder aboard ship refits between 1958 and 1969. While welding in the boiler and engine rooms, asbestos laggers carried out asbestos lagging nearby.

Mr T became an apprentice at the Chatham Dockyard in November 1954. During 1958 and 1959, he was regularly exposed to significant quantities of asbestos when working as an engine fitter. Mr T was involved in the repairing and fitting of various ships. Mr T removed asbestos lagging often in confined spaces with chisels, saws and knives. At the end of his shift, his hair and clothes were covered in asbestos dust. While exposed to asbestos in this way, Mr T breathed in asbestos fibres. No protective clothing or masks were ever provided to Mr T and he went on to develop mesothelioma.

Mr P performed general steam machinery maintenance and had worked on diesel tugs and on steam tugs. Whenever he repaired a steam joint or performed other general maintenance on the steam machinery, Mr P’s work released asbestos dust into the atmosphere. This asbestos dust settled on his clothing and fell to the floor. In 1977, blue asbestos was found on the Experimental Trials Vessel Whimbrel on which Mr P was working. Contractors were brought in to remove this blue asbestos but appropriate safety measures were not taken and a substantial amount of asbestos dust was generated into the ship to which Mr P was exposed. Mr P had never been provided with any equipment to prevent him inhaling asbestos fibres.

Not only have the workers employed in the dockyards developed mesothelioma but also their families. Lawyers refer to these cases as “shake down” claims (i.e. shaking contaminated work clothing before laundering). The leading case is Maguire v Harland & Wolff PLC 2005. In that claim the Court of Appeal decided that laundering work clothes from 1961 to 1965 by a wife who contracted mesothelioma did not give rise to liability as the employer could not have known of the hazards of asbestos in this context until 1965. Thus any shake down exposures before 1965 can be described as “innocent” rather than “guilty”. Harland & Wolff had however been sent the Chief Inspector of Factories 1945 letter as mentioned above.

But probably the last word as to what “ought to have been known” by the dockyard authorities and when is best left to Senior HM Factory Inspector James Simpson Evans who was in post in the Devonport Dockyards in the 1940s and in a court affidavit [1980 H No 1288 RCJ QBD Ronald Hill V ICI and others ] stated:

“Trying to adopt the most charitable view towards shipbuilding employers… they must certainly have known or should have known of risk to health from asbestos dust in the air for their employees by 1945. ”

If you have any questions about this topic, please get in touch

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