Tag Archives: asbestos exposure

Sloper v Lloyds Bank – a salutory example of the difficulties faced by some mesothelioma victims

The decision in Sloper v Lloyds Bank this week is a stark reminder of the type of challenges faced by some mesothelioma victims when they have not worked directly with asbestos and are seeking to bring a successful legal action.

Carole Sloper was only 54 years old when she was diagnosed with mesothelioma in November 2014. Her claim against her former employer, Lloyds Bank, centred around her belief that she was exposed to asbestos whilst working at two Lloyds Bank branches on the Isle of Wight over 30 years ago. She believed that in the two branches where she had worked the banks had suspended ceilings which had asbestos tiles and that during maintenance when tiles were removed and when strip lights were changed she was exposed to asbestos dust being disturbed.

The judge, Mr Justice Spencer, found there to be serious doubts over the reliability of the evidence given by Mrs Sloper and her witnesses, due to contradictions he considered there to be in that evidence and that defence witnesses and documentary evidence produced pointed to there not being suspended ceilings in the branches and there being no asbestos tiles present. Ultimately he considered that Mrs Sloper had failed to show on the balance of probabilities that there was either a suspended ceiling in the branches or that they had asbestos tiles.

During submissions, defence barrister, David Platt QC, referred the judge to comments made by Lord Pentland, in deciding the Scottish mesothelioma case, Prescott v The University of St Andrews, earlier in the year. Lord Pentland had stated, The process of attempting to remember events in the distant past is an inherently fallible one; it is a process that is highly susceptible to error and inaccuracy. The Prescott case as with the Sloper case concerned whether a mesothelioma victim who had not worked directly with asbestos would be able to show that they had been negligently exposed to asbestos sufficient for liability to be established. Robert Prescott was a lecturer at the University of St Andrews, when over 35 years ago he believed he had been negligently exposed whilst renovation work was being carried out on the University library. The judge concluded that Mr Prescott’s recollection of events was unreliable and alongside inconsistencies in his evidence led to a finding that he had not proved that he was exposed in the words of the judge to dangerous quantities of asbestos.

It is without doubt that mesothelioma victims, especially those who have not worked with asbestos, are severely hampered by having to try to remember events 30-40 years previously, which will lead to the almost inevitable inaccuracies and potential contradictions in the evidence they provide. Many such victims will have little awareness of asbestos and where it may have been present in the places they worked.

Perhaps there was no asbestos present in the places Mrs Sloper worked, we will never know. But we do know that she has mesothelioma. She is another victim of the invidious nature of asbestos. It might have been that she was exposed at school, but of course it is even less likely that as children we would be able to 30-40 years later remember the necessary details that might lead to a successful legal action. Clearly Mrs Sloper was not appropriately protected as she was exposed to asbestos at some point in her life, and she is paying the ultimate price for that failure.

Again it must be asked how can we be sure that in 30-40 years time there will not be victims of asbestos who have been exposed in situations where the asbestos in situ has been supposedly safely managed by being sealed in?

A visit to HMS Belfast

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On September 13th I wrote a post about the asbestos lagging that is still present in the old warship HMS Belfast, which is now a tourist attraction moored on the Thames in Central London. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit the Belfast.

In my earlier blog post I wondered whether visitors were warned about the presence of asbestos before buying their tickets to go on board. I couldn’t see any warning notices in the ticket office. However, once on board there is a detailed notice concerning the various potential hazards of the ship, including a section on the asbestos. It is the type of notice that in reality few tourists are likely to take the time to read.

The ship contains huge quantities of asbestos lagging, and unless you stay on the outside deck during your visit it is impossible not to be within a few inches of it throughout your time on the ship.

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Whether it is ‘safe’ I suppose depends upon your perspective of asbestos. Obviously, the licensing body responsible considers it ‘safe’, with the asbestos being encased in some sort of fabric and then painted over. As tourists move about the ship there are sections of the vessel where the walkways are so narrow it is almost impossible not to come into contact with the lagging.

Undoubtedly, it would be argued that with the precautions taken to encase it, it is safe and therefore there is no need for the asbestos to be stripped out. The cost of such an operation would be substantial, and of course who would foot the bill other than the Imperial War Museum. It is a dilemma, as without question this is a marvellous ship with a huge history, and the presentation of its history on board is excellent, as are the wonderful group of volunteers who work on the ship.

In my earlier post I mentioned the implication of the ship’s asbestos legacy, and whilst it is a fantastic tourist attraction, for me the asbestos remains an ever present dark cloud. Highlighting this asbestos legacy, I actually spotted whilst on board a couple of young asbestos stripping workers, who were working in an area around the main funnel. As I walked below this raised area I saw one of them putting waste material (it didn’t look like asbestos itself) into a special transparent asbestos plastic sack which had on it printed warning notices. The only form of protective clothing the guy had on were a pair of eye goggles and gloves. No overalls, no respirator. I assumed they had just finished the job they were doing and were clearing up any general non asbestos waste material, and that the asbestos plastic sacks were all they had available to put the waste in. But then I saw the guy using sticky tape to seal the transparent bag; a clear sign that whatever waste it was must have been contaminated with asbestos fibres. If what I witnessed was an unauthorsised practice, it raises the further matter of why such work was being carried out when the vessel was open to tourists?

From my personal perspective, whilst the ship is an historic treasure, the asbestos is not, and it is folly to allow anyone anywhere near what might be claimed to be a ‘safe’ environment, but in reality remains a deadly potential hazard where exposure can occur by a simple accident or inadvertence, or by poor working practices.

Asbestos laden HMS Belfast

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(HMS Belfast by Michael Drummond)

I came across an interesting blog post from the Recognition, Evaluation, Control blog which provides a stark reminder of the fact that vast quantities of asbestos remains in public buildings and other locations in the UK. The blogger, an occupational hygienist, was recently on holiday in London and visited HMS Belfast which is permanently moored on the Thames. As an occupational hygienist they found it difficult to leave their day job behind, especially when they saw the asbestos on the ship. They actually state in their blog that they don’t think they have ever seen so much asbestos in one place before!

They provide several interesting pictures which show how close members of the public are able to get to the asbestos lagging. However, the blogger states that they were glad to see that the Imperial War Museum who run the vessel, take their responsibility to protect the health of visitors and employees seriously, as all the lagging is said to be in good condition, and warning notices were positioned where asbestos was present.

I have never visited HMS Belfast, but I wondered whether there are any warnings regarding asbestos provided at the ticket office before visitors buy their tickets to board the ship? If there are no effective warning notices before boarding, only once on the ship, whilst the Imperial War Museum may argue that there is no risk, surely a visitor should be given the opportunity to decide whether they want to go on an asbestos laden ship.

I checked out the HMS Belfast website and to find any mention of the asbestos you need to dig around a bit. For those interested, from the left hand side menu you need to click on Groups and Schools. This brings up a number of options, and the one you need is Risk Identification. On clicking this it states that teachers and group leaders should carry out a preliminary visit in advance to conduct their own general risk assessment, of all possible risks. Still no specific mention is made of asbestos on this page, and it requires clicking on the Internal Environment section before we find a mention of asbestos, and this comes in the fifth item down and states:

‘All public areas on HMS Belfast identified as containing asbestos have been sealed or encapsulated and are inspected regularly by the ship’s maintenance crew.’

Should children really be allowed on board this ship whilst asbestos remains present, especially as it is clear that visitors are allowed in close proximity to the asbestos. To me the belief that supposed encapsulated, well maintained asbestos lagging is safe is a fallacy. All buildings and structures move, and with the added element of human activity inside there will always be risk. It will be financially costly, and perhaps that is why it remains, but the asbestos should be removed, not just for the safety of visitors but also for another reason. I have no doubt that some of those who put the asbestos lagging on the pipes in HMS Belfast will have died from asbestos related diseases, and to keep such material in full view of the visiting public is a slur to the memory of those unknown laggers who have lost their lives as a consequence of their exposure to it.

Romanticism v’s Asbestos Reality (Part 2) – the BBC Response

Following my blog post on the BBC’s programme Restoration Home and its failure to highlight for viewers the dangers of asbestos in domestic situations where renovation is being carried out I made a formal complaint to the BBC.

I had originally been alerted to the programme by my sister, who had already before she told me about the programme complained to the BBC. Whilst we were both complaining about the BBC’s failure to inform viewers of the dangers of asbestos and the way asbestos removal was handled in the programme, my complaint differed in that I as well alluded to the way the architectural expert was seen on camera moving about the barn, giving the viewing public the perception of a lack of danger, but in fact he and the camera crew would be clearly at risk from the asbestos dust that would be lying on the floor of the barn.

As my sister’s complaint was sent some days before my complaint, she as the first to receive a reply, with their response to me coming several days later. The email responses are word for word indentical, but are signed by different members of the BBC Complaints unit. I wonder if the genuine author of the email is concerned about a false attribution in the other email!!!

This is what the email says:

I understand you  are concerned that some of the building practices featured on the programme, particularly in relation to asbestos, were unsafe. I have raised your concerns with the programme makers who would like to assure you that they in no way condone or endorse any building practices carried out by the subjects of the programme. Restoration Home is an observational documentary and, as such, the works being carried out by the owners and contractors are of their own doing.

We are there in an observational capacity only and we do not advise on issues as they are deemed as competent people. While I acknowledge your very strong and very personal views on this subject, it is important to note that the series is in no way intended to be instructional.

 Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. So because it is an ‘observational’ programme they have no responsibility towards the viewing public for its content! I take it as well that because it is an ‘observational’, non instructional programme, they would not have to provide a warning for example if there were flash photography, or need to provide that familiar warning in programmes – please do not try this at home. What absolute nonsense.

It seems clear to me that this response email was written for my sister’s complaint and they felt able to try to also fob me off with it. It totally fails to address my point regarding the risk faced by the architectural expert and the film crew and the impression given to the viewers. Such risk was nothing to do with the couple carrying out the renovation, and the fault for potential negligent exposure to asbestos lies entirely in the hands of the production company.

I have informed the BBC that I reject their explanation and have asked them under their complaints procedure to review my complaint again. Stay tuned for the next instalment.