Plymouth in Devon has a special reason to fear asbestos – the Devonport Dockyard was a hotbed of asbestos in the past and in the five years from 2008 to 2012, 120 deaths occurred in Plymouth due to asbestos related causes. In fact, during those five years, a total of 396 asbestos related deaths were recorded in Devon and Cornwall, a particularly high number. The death figures would be higher still, it’s thought, if it weren’t for the efforts of former dockyard Union leaders, Bill Goffin, John Williams and Dick Powell. As senior dockyard conveners they were a thorn in the sides of management with their insistence on new safety regimes being introduced and adhered to, despite the consequences.
Bill Goffin worked in the dockyards for more than 30 years before he retired in 1986. As a shop steward in the late 1960s he attended a meeting which was addressed by a TUC doctor. When he raised the issue of asbestos at the meeting, nobody seemed to care. Nobody had even heard of mesothelioma in those days and Goffin’s concerns were ignored. Not long afterwards, one of his union members became ill due to asbestos and died within a matter of months leaving a young widow and three year old daughter.
This incident led to Bill Goffin adopting a “zero tolerance” approach when it came to asbestos and he campaigned for years to strengthen legislation on its safe use. In a bid to ensure a safe and clean working environment with regular inspections Bill was fearless. Eventually management was forced to negotiate which resulted in an inspection process which had to be signed off by management and union reps.
Asbestos regulations were tightened during the 1980s and it was eventually totally banned in 1999. However, for so many workers in the UK and their families, this legislation came far too late. Because the symptoms of asbestos related illness can take more than 25 years to develop we are sure to see more problems, more illness and more deaths in the coming years.
Asbestos related diseases are very random in nature, affecting some workers early, some very late and leaving others totally unscathed. Secondary asbestos related disease has also been coming to light in recent years with the wives and families of workers developing symptoms. This is often due to asbestos fibres from work clothes being released into the air during laundry activities.
With so many workers spending so much time in asbestos areas over their working lives without any protective clothing or equipment, the fibres were often brought home at the end of the working day. This meant that wives and children were also at risk of developing the deadly asbestos related illnesses.
We’re lucky in the UK that our Health and Safety legislation has become so stringent in recent years. There are still many countries in the world where asbestos is used as a matter of course, with no protective measures being taken whatsoever.