Former Harland and Wolff workers are due to receive a sum of £150 million in compensation from the government, reports the BBC.
The payout comes after thousands of former employees claimed asbestos exposure in the government-owned Belfast shipyard left them with a multitude of degenerative health conditions, ranging from asbestosis to lung cancer.
Over 2,000 claimants have already received compensation and many more are expected to follow suit. Prior to Harland and Wolff’s privatisation, a substantial amount of shipbuilders were exposed to insulation which contained asbestos.
The dangerous material widely used until the 1970s, when it was discovered that its fibres permanently scar the lungs and result in excessive coughing, shortness of breath and chest discomfort.
Employees who worked in the shipyard prior to privatisation in 1989 have successfully filed for compensation in the amount of £60 million, or £30,000 each.
Billy Graham, who worked at the site for two decades, told the BBC employees were never warned about potential health risks. “We were told nothing about asbestosis,” Mr Graham said. “When you were working with old boilers, there was an asbestos ring around them and we just pulled them off and the dust was flying everywhere.”
Direct exposure like Mr Graham’s can lead to chronic and severe lung problems. In addition to asbestosis, an incurable condition caused by irreparable scarring, former workers may be at an increased risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma and pleural disease, which exacerbates chest discomfort and breathlessness. Swollen fingers, commonly known as finger clubbing, may develop in advanced cases.
Reports of asbestos-related conditions contracted by former Harland and Wolff workers continue to surface, as it often takes 15 to 30 years for symptoms to appear following initial exposure.
Although asbestos exposure is uncommon today, the most recent figures from Health and Safety Executive show that over 1,000 new industrial injuries disablement benefit cases were filed in 2011 as a result of asbestosis and pleural thickening.
Not only are former employees at risk of developing lung conditions, so too are their families. Eddie Harvey, who worked at the shipyard in Belfast for 20 years, is a prime example of the far-reaching effects of asbestos exposure. In 2008, after years of washing his work clothes, Mr Harvey’s wife, died from inhaling the damaging fibres left on his uniform. She was 65.
“I lost my wife to it,” said Mr Harvey. “She couldn’t breathe in the end. She was in and out of the hospital for three years and tried to fight it. She went from being 12 stone to a frail old woman of maybe five stone.”
He urged anyone who has been personally affected by the harmful effects of asbestos to file an industrial disease claim for occupational illness. Although compensation may not heal physical or emotional wounds, it may help victims maintain their quality of life.
Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise estimates another £89 million will be paid to people who have not yet been diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions. Claims are expected to continue up until 2040.
By Francesca Witney