At Asbestos Justice we frequently represent clients who have worked in the heating and plumbing trade. One such particular case involved Mr. M. who began his working life, as many did, as an apprentice at the age of 15. He was employed by a relatively small heating and plumbing company as an apprentice heating and plumbing engineer and was exposed to asbestos during his time with the company.
Known asbestos history
Due to the fact that Mr. M. was aware that he had been exposed to asbestos during his working life, he voluntarily went for regular chest x-rays from the age of 30. For many years nothing concerning showed up, however, as he approached his 50’s he began to notice some shortness of breath together with a general feeling of tiredness. He went to see his GP who referred him for x-rays and this ultimately lead to a diagnosis of mesothelioma.
When we were instructed by Mr. M. to consider a claim for compensation, a number of occasions stuck out in his mind when he recalled being exposed to asbestos. He knew that the asbestos exposure had occurred with the company where he had completed his apprenticeship and later worked for on a qualified basis. As for the rest of his working life, he had been self-employed working on smaller domestic jobs and knew that he had not been exposed to asbestos.
One particular job Mr. M. recalled working on was at a pub where he was required to help remove the old boiler and refit a new one. It was in an external boiler house with no ventilation. He recalled that the job had already started when he arrived and he remembered walking in and being unable to see the other side of the room as the asbestos dust was so thick. The other lads he was on the job with were removing the old asbestos by hitting it with a hammer.
Mr. M. went in to the boiler house to take them some rubbish bags for the debris. He said that he could not breathe properly as the air was so thick with the asbestos dust. None of the workers were provided with masks or other breathing equipment and so inevitably they breathed in the asbestos dust and fibres.
The lads removing the asbestos had simply tied handkerchiefs around their faces to make it easier to breathe but the conditions were very unpleasant.
Mr. M. also recalled working on an industrial boiler at the Council’s offices. This required him and his colleagues to cut back 2 feet of asbestos around a 2.5 inch diameter pipe leading to the boiler. Mr. M. recalled that the asbestos was about 2.5 inches thick. He was required to break the asbestos, which he knew to be blue asbestos, off the pipework and connection which was about 2ft 6 inches in length.
Blue asbestos or “crocidolite” is considered to be the most potent form of asbestos. The boiler and the pipes took up most of the boiler room and there was very little ventilation in the room. Mr. M. smashed the asbestos off the pipework with a hammer.
Once the painted exterior had been smashed the asbestos underneath crumbled like powder. Mr. M. described the pipework as being level with his chest and so his face was very close to the asbestos as he did this job. A lot of dust was created when he smashed the asbestos lagging off.
He describes it rising into the air and he inevitably inhaled it as he was not issued with a mask or any other breathing equipment. As he worked, the asbestos debris would fall to the floor and he would then have to sweep it up into plastic rubbish bags.
The job took three full days and he described him and his colleagues being white with dust in their hair and covering their overalls. The asbestos lagging was then replaced with a non-asbestos alternative product.
As well as these specific incidences, Mr. M. was also aware of general use of asbestos products and listed several examples which he had regularly encountered over the years.
He recalled that the company regularly used asbestos cement flues. These were stored in a shed with other equipment and were not wrapped. Our client had to go into the shed on a daily basis to collect flues for jobs and other equipment. He was required to load the unwrapped flues into the works’ van when required and believes that he was exposed to the asbestos dust by handling them.
The flues came in various sizes measuring from approximately 4 inches to approximately 8 inches in diameter. When they arrived on site the flues would have to be cut to size with a hack saw. Mr. M. would place the flue on a surface and lean over it and cut it. Asbestos fibres would be released into the air around him as he worked and he inevitably breathed in the asbestos. This was not something our client necessarily did every day but it was certainly something he did on a monthly basis.
Another source of asbestos exposure was the use of asbestos rope and string. This was similar in appearance to cord. The thickest measured about 1.5 inches in diameter and came in balls like normal string. It was used to seal the joints of the new flues on boilers. This was a job our client did regularly. The string would be cut to the required length using a hack saw or a knife.
Mr. M. described the string being very fibrous and he could see the fibres coming off the string as he cut it. The string was then wedged into the gaps around the flues to seal the joints.
Sometimes our client was working above head height and so the asbestos fibres would fall down onto him as he worked. He described the fibres floating down onto his face and settling in his hair and clothes.
Mr. M. also described working on grey asbestos water tanks. He described these as being generally old tanks in houses. He had to cut holes in the tanks to put pipes in to make new connections for new heating systems. The tanks were usually in loft spaces and Mr. M. would have to crawl into confined spaces. He would use a drill bit or hole-cutter to make holes in the tank.
He would stitch drill it which meant drilling a series of holes around the circumference of a hole and then pushing the asbestos disc out with his finger. He would then use a metal file to smooth the edges of the hole prior to inserting the connections. His face would only be about 18 inches away from the tank at this time and he could not avoid breathing in the asbestos dust and fibres released.
Mr. M. also recalled drilling through asbestos soffits and asbestos pipe boxings to install various pipes and overflows. He would work outside on the soffits by climbing a ladder and using an electric drill. He described asbestos dust being blown into the air around him as he worked. This was a common type of work when working on council properties.
Through the various uses of asbestos and the frequency with which it was present on sites which Mr. M. worked on, he was regularly exposed to asbestos dust during his employment with this company. He was never provided with a mask or other breathing equipment and so worked completely unprotected throughout his employment.
We were able to prepare a very detailed statement on his behalf giving all of these examples and as a result the defendant company admitted liability. Our evidence was helped by a further statement from an old colleague but this was not vital to the claim’s success.
Outcome of the Claim
The case ultimately settled for £703,000. The reason the claim had such a high value was sadly due to the fact that Mr. M. passed away at the age of 51.
The medical evidence obtained in the case confirmed that it was likely that the mesothelioma had cut short Mr. M.’s life by 32 years. A large proportion of the claim related to the loss of financial dependency that Mrs M. suffered as a result of no longer having her husband’s income to rely on. Given that he was self-employed with a successful family business, it was intended that he would work until at least the age of 70.
His role could have become more consultancy focused than manual as he became older and indeed an element of this was already being introduced into his role. Whilst the money will never replace the husband that Mrs M. so tragically lost, it has allowed her to look towards retirement and look at income streams which allow her to take it easier, such as property rentals.
It has also given the family some sense of justice that someone has been held account for unnecessarily exposing Mr. M. to asbestos and putting him in danger. This could have been avoided had the company avoided using asbestos products which were known to be dangerous or if Mr. M. had been provided with the appropriate breathing apparatus when he was working on jobs involving asbestos.