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Damages for Southampton man five decades after asbestos exposure
A Southampton man who developed lung cancer after being exposed to asbestos more than 50 years ago has received provisional damages of £45,000 in an out of court settlement.
After leaving school at 15, Graham Smith, who is now 76, was exposed to asbestos whilst working as a plumber for one of Southampton’s major employers, Vosper Thornycroft UK Limited, from 1951 up until his retirement in 1996.
“Mr Smith was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2012, more than five decades after he was first exposed to asbestos during his involvement in the construction of Royal Navy frigates, destroyers and submarines at the company’s shipyard in Woolston,” said Edmund Young, an industrial disease specialist at Fentons Solicitors LLP.
“In June last year, even though he had never smoked, he developed a persistent cough which he couldn’t seem to get rid of,” added Mr Young, a partner with the firm. “After seeing his GP, he underwent numerous chest x-rays and scans at Southampton General Hospital and was told he had a cancerous tumour on his left lung and that a layer of asbestos fibres had been found at the bottom of both lungs.”
Mr Smith, who lives with his wife in Southampton, worked as a pipe-fitter on board HMS Juno, HMS Duchess, HMS Blackwood, HMS Duncan, HMS Otago, HMS Abdiel and HMS Southampton, amongst others, as well as numerous minesweepers.
“It could take up to two years to equip each ship with all the necessary pipework,” said Mr Smith. “We worked alongside teams of laggers who would lag the pipes with an asbestos paste made from mixing water with powdered asbestos which was kept in large Hessian sacks.
“I used to tie a handkerchief around my face as the air was always so full of tiny asbestos fibres and dust from the mixing process,” he added. “I don’t think it did me any good though and as there was never any ventilation or extraction system in place, it was impossible not to breathe the stuff in all day. At the end of my shifts, I used to go home with my overalls, hair and glasses absolutely covered in asbestos.”
Mr Smith said that from around the early 1970s, Thornycroft UK Limited started to change their work practices and face masks known as ‘Martindales’ became available although they were not compulsory to wear.
“Although we did begin to receive talks on asbestos given by outside contractors, as far as I can recall, no respiratory equipment was provided to us until the mid-1980s,” he said. “Before then, we were never advised about the risks of asbestos, we were constantly walking and crawling though asbestos dust and it wasn’t unusual to see the material being thrown around like snowballs.”
Fortunately, the pensioner was still in touch with a number of former colleagues and after they provided crucial witness testimonies confirming that he had been exposed to asbestos during his time working for Thornycroft UK Limited, the company’s insurers accepted that they were liable for his exposure.
“After undergoing a successful operation to remove the carcinoma and part of his left lung in December 2011, Mr Smith was told that there were still some abnormal cells left in his lungs which would need careful monitoring,” said Mr Young.
“Before last year, he was always gardening and doing DIY around the house which he would redecorate about once every two years. He used to be able to walk for miles without a care in the world - but now feels completely exhausted and out of breath after only a short distance. Since January, he has lost about a stone and a half in weight and his appetite has all but disappeared,” he said.
“After working diligently throughout his life, Mr Smith has now been robbed of his health, he has no energy and he remains at risk of his cancer returning,” said Mr Young. “Whilst no amount of compensation can make up for that, I hope the provisional settlement, which enables him to request further damages should his condition deteriorate, will allow him and his wife to concentrate on his care and treatment without needing to worry about their financial security.”
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