ASBESTOS DEBATE PART 2: Asbestos has added to the devastating exposure to industrial illness that we see in Scotland

By Bill Heaney

The asbestos industry in Scotland was world leading from the 1870s, Labour MSP Paul Sweeney, whose father was a shipyard worker, told the Scottish Parliament.

There were about 60 asbestos manufacturing companies in Scotland by around 1914, the most notable of which were in the Glasgow area, including Turner & Newall in Dalmuir.

Paul Sweeney  said he was grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and thanked Marie McNair,  the member for Clydebank and Milngavie, for bringing the motion on mesothelioma to the Holyrood chamber.

Labour politicians Paul Sweeney, Jackie Baillie and Richard Leonard.

He said: “I echo colleagues’ comments in commending Clydebank Asbestos Group and Action on Asbestos for all the work that they have done to support people and their families in dealing with diagnoses of asbestos-related conditions for some three decades.

“My colleague the member for Dumbarton, Jackie Baillie MSP, who is a long-standing supporter of those organisations’ work, was disappointed not to be able to contribute to the debate.

“We are all aware of the dangers of asbestos. In previous years, it was extremely prevalent because of its affordability and durability. Its prevalence in the United Kingdom and in Scotland in particular is in direct proportion to the extent to which our country was the first in the world to industrialise and went through the most intensive period of industrialisation in world history.

“The industry in Scotland was world leading from the 1870s. There were about 60 asbestos manufacturing companies in Scotland by around 1914, the most notable of which were in the Glasgow area, including Turner & Newall in Dalmuir, Cape in Springburn and Marinite in Glasgow.

“The fact that the UK Government was so late in banning the product has left a huge legacy that we are still dealing with today. We were one of the last countries in the developed world to ban the product. Blue asbestos and brown asbestos were banned in 1985, but asbestos products were fully banned only in 1999. That is why, even today, relatively young people are suffering from the horrendous effects of this toxic product.

” Shipbuilding is one iconic example of an occupation that had high levels of asbestos exposure, as asbestos was used to fireproof high-heat equipment on ships such as steam turbines, incinerators and boilers. It was also used throughout ship shell plating for insulation and to line pipes for heat resistance.

“When I was a young boy, my dad would come in from shifts at Yarrow’s and the powder would come off his overalls and his boiler suit. Young people—even children—can still be affected today because it was not just the people who worked on the shop floor or on board the ships who were exposed; the material that was carried home has caused terrible harms to family and friends who were in households.

“Asbestos was ubiquitous across Scotland. Building contractors and housing contractors used it—even school chemistry laboratories had asbestos fireproofing—and it was used to insulate boilers. Asbestos was everywhere and still is everywhere.

“It is worth noting that Scotland has the highest proportion of pre-1946 housing stock in Europe—the figure is 53 per cent, relative to 38 per cent in the UK as a whole and 22 per cent across the European Union. Asbestos is embedded across much of our housing stock, even to this day—it is still a live and present danger.

Comedian Billy Connolly,  Jimmy Reid and Asbestos Group stalwart Joan Baird from Dumbarton; Des McNulty and journalist John MacLeod and shop steward Bill Dickie.

“I was at an event at the King’s theatre, where the National Theatre of Scotland was doing a tribute to Billy Connolly. I distinctly remember him speaking at Jimmy Reid’s funeral about how it would be snowing asbestos on board the ships that he worked on at Alexander Stephen’s shipyard in Linthouse.

 “His description was that people would come up for a cigarette and then go down for more fumes.

“Shipbuilding was one of the most appalling industrial environments to work in anywhere in the world. Having worked in the industry, I know that there is a lot of romance around it. Great improvements have been made, but it certainly is not a pleasant place to work in the winter months.

“Asbestos has added to the devastating exposure to industrial illness that we see in Scotland. The fact that there are still difficulties in getting recognition and compensation, particularly because the latency of mesothelioma brings in the time bar, is unacceptable.

“We must take urgent steps to recognise the distinct and particularly pernicious effects that mesothelioma has in this country because of our industrial legacy and because of the time that it takes to manifest itself. We must adapt our social security system and our apparatus for addressing industrial injury to recognise the condition’s prevalence in our society today. It is still very much with us—this is not a historic situation.”

Conservative health spokesperson, Sandesh Gulhane, left,  declared an interest: “I am a practising general practitioner in the national health service. In fact, when I was a junior doctor, I saw a lot of lung X-rays that showed the results of exposure to asbestos.

“Mesothelioma is a devastating disease that continues to afflict countless lives. It is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen. It is primarily caused by exposure to asbestos and it demands our attention, empathy and action.

“Mesothelioma day serves as a crucial reminder of the on-going struggle that patients, their families and medical professionals face in combating that merciless disease. It is my wish that we can shed light on its impact, foster understanding and advocate for better support systems and resources.

“First, awareness is the cornerstone of progress. The more we understand mesothelioma, its causes, symptoms and effects, the better we will be equipped to address it. By disseminating knowledge about the risks associated with asbestos exposure, we can prevent future cases and protect vulnerable individuals, including workers who still use or handle asbestos. Educating the public, policy makers and employers about the dangers of asbestos and the importance of safety measures is crucial in preventing needless suffering.

“Secondly, empathy and support are essential in the fight against mesothelioma. This disease does not only affect patients’ physical health; it takes a toll on their mental and emotional well-being.

“By extending our compassion and understanding to those who are impacted by mesothelioma, we can create a supportive environment where they can find solace, comfort and the strength to face their challenges.

“Although there are local support groups, there are also online communities, counselling services and groups. Through those groups, we can ensure that no one battles alone. Furthermore, research and innovation are vital in the pursuit of better treatments.

“Allocating resources to medical research institutions and universities enables scientists and medical professionals to make breakthroughs in understanding the disease and to develop more effective therapies.

“By supporting and funding research initiatives, we can accelerate the progress towards better treatment options and improved patient outcomes.

“Finally, advocacy plays a vital role in shaping policies and regulations to protect individuals from asbestos exposure and support mesothelioma patients.

“By raising our voices and supporting organisations that are dedicated to mesothelioma advocacy, we can push for stricter safety regulations, improved compensation for affected individuals and increased funding for research and patient support programmes.

“We can make a tangible difference to the lives of those who are impacted by this relentless disease. We should support all efforts to reduce mesothelioma to nothing but a chapter in the history of human suffering.”

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Labour) said: I, too, want to congratulate Marie McNair on bringing this timely debate to the chamber ahead of action mesothelioma day 2023 next week.

“I also thank her for her kind words about my private member’s bill; I look forward to working with Marie McNair and other members of the Social Security and Social Justice Committee as the bill makes its way through the parliamentary process.

“With around 200 new cases of asbestos-related cancer and mesothelioma a year in Scotland, the risks from asbestos have not gone away. Mesothelioma is a painful, incurable and terminal disease, and—as many members have done already—I want to pay tribute to the long-standing and on-going work of Clydebank Asbestos Group and the information and support that it continues to provide to people with asbestos-related conditions.

“I also pay tribute to Action on Asbestos and Asbestos Action. Collectively, those organisations have provided decades of critical support and help to people across Scotland who have suffered from what is predominantly a workplace disease.”

He added: “Both Action on Asbestos and Asbestos Action have told me that their case load—the people seeking support for asbestos-related cancer—is increasingly female.

“They are nurses, care workers and hospital staff who have worked caring for our sick and dying friends and relatives for decades in buildings that are ridden with asbestos, and teachers who have worked in schools that have asbestos are also increasingly suffering.

“The disease can take up to 20 years to develop—long after people leave work—so most treatments rely simply on palliative care.

“In 2020, the gendered experience of mesothelioma—GEMS—study found that the high-risk occupations for asbestos exposure differed entirely for men and women, and that so too did the experiences of explanations and support that was provided at the time of diagnosis.

“Gender roles also influenced how people coped with a diagnosis of mesothelioma. These are very real gender differences that our industrial injuries system has not taken account of.

“That can be seen in the disparity in the applications for industrial injuries disablement benefit, which must be addressed urgently. The current benefit is gendered against women.

“For example, asbestos-related ovarian cancer—which the most common gynaecological cancer in UK women—is missing from the scheme. Even if we include cancers that affect men, the scheme includes only one fifth of the cancers that European schemes recognise.

“I want to put on record my thanks to the charities that are supporting those who are affected by asbestos for their support for my Scottish Employment Injuries Advisory Council Bill.

“The need for a new, powerful and independent council that puts workers at the heart of the new Scottish benefit—employment injury assistance—which can research the extent of mesothelioma and asbestos-related cancer in modern workplaces, is urgent, but so is the need for the council to have, at the heart of its purpose for that benefit, the driving mission to close the gender gap.

“It is because asbestos is still found in many older buildings that it continues to put the communities and workforces in every one of our constituencies and regions at risk, and that is why we must continue to recognise it in our policy decisions.

“There are homes across the country that will need to be retrofitted for net zero that still have asbestos in their lofts, floor tiles and pipe insulation.

“Asbestos is in our local schools, which will need to be renovated or rebuilt and maintained. It is in the NHS estate, where hospitals will need to be rebuilt or maintained, and it is in everyday places where we live, work and study or go to to get treatment. We can still be exposed to asbestos.

“Though asbestos was completely banned in 1999, the exposure risk remains, and there are real policy questions about managing and removing asbestos that we must tackle. I hope that we can heed calls and deliver the action that is required.”

Former Scottish Labour leader and leading GMB trade unionist Richard Leonard  said: “I, too, thank Marie McNair for lodging the motion in Parliament. It comes at a time when working people are continuing to contend with a deregulated labour market, the dilution of labour law and an onslaught on their trade unions.
I raise that because a strong and vibrant trade union movement is a precondition of a free and democratic society. It is also a prerequisite for justice for the victims of occupational diseases such as mesothelioma.

“For many years now, there have been domestic laws and international bans on exposure to asbestos in the workplace, but at the same time there have been precious few convictions, even when we know that fatal exposure to these deadly fibres is still prevalent.

“That is why we should restore the civil liability for breach of health and safety regulations; it is why we should significantly increase the number of inspections that are carried out by HSE and local government inspectors; and it is why we should bolster trade union rights as part of a wider, transformative shift in power in favour of workers, democracy and equality.

Fine Art Print of Trade Unionist Jimmy Reid at Marathon oil rig yard in #21573378

John Brown shop stewards Bill Dickie and Jimmy Reid being interviewed at the shipyard gate by journalist Joe Quinn, of the Press Association.

“Today, as well as to the trade union movement, we pay tribute to organisations such as Action on Asbestos and the widely respected Clydebank Asbestos Group. Both provide not just practical help and not simply monetary advice, but compassion and emotional support. They offer mutual aid and collective solidarity, but they also campaign for justice and truth.

“Friday 7 July is a time of remembrance. On that day, I will shed a tear for my dear old comrade Alex Falconer. In my life, I have grieved for and said an early farewell to too many workers who, in this crucible of the industrial revolution, from the dockyards and the shipyards to the factories and the construction sites, have paid with their lives, their families robbed of treasured years together. It is for them that we keep fighting, and it is because of them that we shall never give up.

“Today, we also think of fearless campaigners such as Bob Dickie, Joan Baird and Tommy Gorman, who gave evidence to the Public Petitions Committee of this Parliament on the need for urgent action on mesothelioma. We think of the greatly missed Frank Maguire and those who made the unanswerable case to this Parliament for legal reform, and we think of MSPs such as Bill Butler and Des McNulty, whose pioneering work led to the enactment of legislation that made the lives of the people we are here to serve a little better.

“The Scottish Parliament has a proud record on this question, and it is right that we hold this debate again this year, but we need to do more than simply debate the subject. We need action. We need more investment in health and care, in new research and in new treatments for a start, but we also need action now to tackle some of the outstanding legal matters.

“A year ago, I called on the Government to reform the so-called single action rule. Under this rule, a failure to lodge a claim for pleural plaques within a three-year time limit prevents any subsequent claim for a more serious condition such as mesothelioma being pursued even though both were caused by the same negligence by the same employer.

“The Scottish Law Commission published a comprehensive and compelling case for reform back in February 2022, and the consultation closed in mid-June 2022. Over a year later, the Scottish Government has still not responded. It has not uttered a single word, never mind proffering a remedy.

“I am bound to finish by warning that such inaction, such inertia and such indifference is not good enough—not good enough for a Government, not good enough for this Parliament, and certainly not good enough for all those working-class families that have been denied justice.

“This afternoon, a year on, I hope that those families will finally get an answer from this Government. They are entitled to nothing less. They deserve the truth, they deserve answers, and they deserve justice.”

Shipyard workers at Denny’s Leven shipyard in Dumbarton, including the women’s football team in the 1950s, and pictures of the yard from last century. Top of page picture: Lord McFall, then an MP and now Speaker in House of Lords, former MP Des McNulty and members of the Clydebank Asbestos Group who, Des McNulty, who was MSP, Alex Cunningham, Jimmy Cloughley and Tommy Gorman.. Pictures by Bill Heaney

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