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Your guide to asbestos illnesses

Worker putting tape on a pipe

Asbestos has been illegal for decades, but there was a time when it was used extensively in commercial, public and private buildings due to its insulating properties. Asbestos could be found in any building built before the year 2000.   As a product, its total use was finally banned in 1999.

Even now, Asbestos still kills around 5000 workers each year which is around twice the number of people who die from road traffic accidents.  

Asbestos diseases have a long latency period; an asbestos-related illness often develops many years after exposure, but not everyone who works with it will be affected. In fact, the vast majority will not.

Asbestos Diseases

There are a number of conditions associated with exposure to asbestos; some are more serious than others.

Pleural Plaques are areas of areas of fibrous thickening on the lining of the lungs (pleura) or diaphragm.  The plaques can calcify over time, but they don’t cause long-term health problems and don’t affect life expectancy. Pleural plaques are benign, which means they’re not cancerous. Furthermore, they can’t become cancerous over time. In nearly every case, there are no symptoms, and for this reason, at present, no claims can be made.

Diffuse Pleural Thickening is a lung disease in which extensive scarring thickens the pleura, the lining of the lung. As the scar tissue grows, it can encase the lung and close off the space between the lungs and pleura. The condition is one of the most commonly diagnosed signs of asbestos exposure. It may cause chest pain and a significant decline in breathing function, but has no effect on life expectancy.

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease causing scarring of lung tissues.  It leads to long-term breathing complications which can be disabling.  As with other conditions, it may not be diagnosed until decades after the exposure occurred but symptoms include shortness of breath, some finger clubbing, and chest sounds known as ‘basal crackles’.

Asbestos-related Lung Cancer usually occurs against a background of Asbestosis.  A history of smoking is known to increase the likelihood of diagnosis where there is also a history of working with asbestos.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lung. The disease can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos before it shows obvious symptoms that permit a definitive diagnosis. Whilst no cure for the disease exists, and the prognosis is typically poor, research continues to make significant progress in developing new treatment options and alternative therapies.

It is more usual for these conditions to develop in those who have worked with asbestos, but it’s also possible that family members could have been exposed to asbestos if, for example, overalls were taken home for washing, or if the family home was near to a factory where asbestos was often used.  Increasingly, more information is available about the use of asbestos in hospitals and schools, and illnesses are developing in a few people who have worked in such places.  Asbestos is no longer the villain of the industrial age, but it remains a silent and indiscriminate attacker.

Symptoms of Asbestos Illness

Symptoms arising from asbestos exposure take several decades to develop, often at a time when older age is causing its own problems with shortness of breath.  However, if you are concerned about breathlessness or a prolonged cough, and particularly where you are anxious about your history of exposure to asbestos in the past, it’s always prudent to seek the advice of your GP quite quickly.

A GP will always refer you on to a chest consultant for further investigation  as an asbestos illness can’t usually be diagnosed without some clinical tests, such as chest x-rays, a CT scan, lung function tests, and a biopsy where required. 

Ultimately, if it’s confirmed that you have an asbestos-related condition, please seek legal advice as soon as possible, and ideally straight away.  Do make sure that any legal advice you seek comes from a specialist lawyer with expertise in dealing with your type of claim and a proven track record of success in this field.

Who can you claim against?

You may have worked with asbestos for more than one employer and some, or all, may no longer be trading.  You should aim to claim against all employers regardless of whether or not they remain in business.  However, if you have Mesothelioma, only one employer need be identified in order for a claim to proceed. 

It is often possible to trace the insurance companies who provided employers’ liability insurance to those firms, and, once they are located, these insurers will investigate their liability to pay compensation to you.  If they accept negligence, each insurer should pay compensation to you based on the number of years for which that the company exposed you to asbestos, except with Mesothelioma (where one company will pay all the compensation that falls due). 

If court proceedings are necessary, it may be that some companies that are no longer in existence have to be restored to the Companies House Register for that purpose.

How to claim for compensation

There are a number of hurdles you will need to overcome in order to succeed with a claim:

1         Causation – you must be diagnosed with an asbestos disease which has been caused by work in an environment where asbestos was present and in use.  We obtain medical evidence on your behalf to prove diagnosis, and we will discuss your work and exposure history with you in detail to establish the source of that exposure and over what period.

2         Foreseeability – you must prove that your employer could have foreseen that exposure to asbestos could have caused an illness. A link was established between asbestos and cancer as long ago as the 1950s and most employers knew of the dangers before then.  Indeed, the first Asbestos Regulations were published in 1931.

3         Negligence and breach of duty – you must be able to demonstrate that your employer exposed you to asbestos in breach of those regulations and with a disregard for your safety. Most employers did not warn their workers of the dangers of asbestos exposure even though they had known for years of its propensity to cause serious illness.

4         Limitation – you must bring your claim within 3 years of the date when you knew that your asbestos illness was, or could have been, caused by exposure to asbestos.  The 3 year time limit is extended from the date of death in circumstances where a living claimant dies before or during a claim.

It is important to note that all of these hurdles must be overcome; not just one or two.

How Your Legal Friend can help you

As experienced occupational illness specialists, we have years of experience in managing cases of asbestos-related illnesses.  We are committed to guiding you through every step of the process and will ensure that your claim is handled sensitively and professionally by specialist solicitors with a record of success in this field.

We can get your claim underway immediately and advise you about applying for welfare benefits from the Department for Work & Pensions and securing a lump sum payment which is available under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 for certain asbestos diseases in certain circumstances.  For more information about the benefits available, take a look at this government information or contact the Disability Service Centre for help with PIP and DLA.

Your Legal Friend is committed to ensuring that victims of occupational illness receive appropriate compensation for their condition and that their relevant financial expenses are properly met both now and in the future.