The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Victimisation of victims - denial, death and why Asbestos victims are suffering in the dark

“Of course death is inevitable but it should always be dignified and peaceful. I do not want to see more people die without their cases for compensation heard or legal proceedings bogged down in the quagmire of litigation and politics, all in the interests of the Insurance companies.”
Asbestosis victim, Belfast, 2003.

Christina Sherlock • 05.06.03

Commenting in 1903 on the dreadful working conditions of Belfast’s mill and shipyard workers, James Connolly observed that Belfast’s “industrial conditions are the products of modern industrial slavery and can be paralleled wherever Capitalism flourishes.” 100 years on and despite the floundering of Belfast’s two main industries, a different generation of shipyard and industrial workers and their families are suffering from the legacy of dangerous working conditions and deliberate industrial negligence. Asbestos related disease is said to have claimed the lives of over 3,000 people a year in Britain with this number likely to increase to 10,000 people a year by 2020. In the North of Ireland hundreds of people have died as a result with thousands of more deaths expected in the years to come. Caused by inhaling the fine asbestos dust, a mineral commonly used in the construction industry up to the 1970’s, victims can suffer from four different forms of the disease: asbestosis which is scarring of the lungs; lung cancer; mesothelioma which is cancer of the lining of the lungs and chest or pleural disease which is fluid on the lungs. There are no cures and with symptoms taking up to 40 years to appear many people suffer and die from the effects of asbestos exposure without realising it. Victims range from the men who worked, unprotected, with asbestos material even after companies became aware of its harmful effects, others are the women and children who shook asbestos dust out of their work clothes and, in some cases, to people who worked in construction projects that included the installation of asbestos insulation inside buildings. Today, for most sufferers being diagnosed is only the beginning of a long battle for justice and compensation, a process that often sees them being victimised again by former employers, the British Government and insurance companies, all of whom would rather stay silent rather than deliver justice to these victims.

In his collection of essays ‘Some Recent Attacks, Essays Cultural and Political’, James Kelman argues that there is a “war being waged by the State against the victims of asbestos” and that many people who are not diagnosed properly by the medical profession remain ignorant of the cause of their illness. Other victims never get to know that their deteriorating condition is a prescribed industrial disease caused through negligence. As the condition must be diagnosed before any redress can take place the ignorance or downright dismissal of the disease among the medical profession has caused many problems for the sufferers. Many find sickness benefits and compensation claims hampered or delayed. While suffering from the crippling pain of the disease, victims and their families face uphill battles to secure compensation from those responsible. In most cases the burden of proof falls to the victim and by the time the disease is diagnosed, the employer accountable may have gone out of business, or the time-lapse may prove a major obstacle to bringing a successful court action. What can only be calculated stalling by insurance companies, former employers or sub-contractors (those employed by sub-contractors are at a greater disadvantage, as they are sometimes required to prove which company is culpable but it is difficult to pinpoint at what time the fatal exposure occurred) and the British Government has led to many people dying before their cases reach a conclusion. When the victim dies the crux of the compensation claim disappears and the families left behind are not accorded the same consideration. Some are awarded a nominal sum, if at all.

In recent years two people close to me were diagnosed with suffering from the effects of exposure to asbestos. Both were women and both did not come into direct contact with the material but were covered with the dust, one while washing asbestos dust out her father’s work clothes and the other when washing it out her husbands’ overalls. Both suffered for years with chest pains and breathing discomfort and were advised continually by their GPs that they were suffering from common chest infections. After diagnosis the real battle began with the fight for compensation and for help with coping with what is essentially a terminal illness. To further hamper their condition, there is no NHS specialist advice service for asbestos victims or their families. There are some organisations and projects like the Justice for Asbestos Victims in Belfast, which fill this gap on a voluntary basis. This means that although they may get some grant aid from local authorities, health authorities, and some of the larger charities, funding is insecure, resources are scarce and the workers providing the advice are volunteers, with occasional help from paid staff. Quite often the advice workers are themselves ill with asbestos diseases.

Asbestos exposure is in the main a disease that is affecting the working class and is destroying the lives of workers and their families. Successive British governments have ignored, denied and even worked against the campaign for justice and truth for asbestosis sufferers and in the process have caused further unnecessary grief for victims and their families. Over the next four years compensation payouts are expected to total £40m and over the next 50 years this sum will potentially reach £190m. With many people exposed to asbestos right up to the 1970’s it is likely that over the next 20 years many more people will face the same battle that has seen many people die without proper recognition and justice. It is the working class that has to conquer the stonewalling of those who, clearly culpable, must accept responsibility and compensate accordingly.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



I have spent
many years of my life
in opposition, and
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- Eleanor Roosevelt

Index: Current Articles

5 June 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Irish State Collusion with MI5
Eamonn McCann


Use of Loyalty
Mick Hall


Victimisation of Victims
Christina Sherlock



Newton Emerson


Heat, Not Necessarily Light

Anthony McIntyre


The Party's Fool

Karen Lyden Cox

Targetting Iran
Michael Youlton


2 June 2003


Nameless, Faceless
An Apology to Our Readers

Carrie Twomey


Hypocrats Accuse West Belfast Man of Being RUC Tout
Anthony McIntyre


Connolly and the First World War: Political Lessons for Today

Liam O Ruairc


I Got Your "Stake Knife"
Brian Mór


Hey, Fugheddaboutit
Brian Mór


It Wasn't Me
Brian Mór


The Chessboard: Another Great Game

Davy Carlin

The Last Time I Saw Mu`ab
Annie Higgins




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