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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 17:59 GMT
Asbestos claims to cost millions
Harland and Wolff
Hundreds have died from asbestos related diseases
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By James Kerr
BBC Northern Ireland business editor

The UK Government is facing a huge bill for compensation from former employees of the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast over their exposure to asbestos.

Hundreds of workers have already died from asbestos-related diseases and doctors say they expect increasing numbers of people to fall ill in future.

As a result, the government is preparing itself for claims in excess of 100m.
Frankie Houston
Frankie Houston: Chest problems

Up until about 1970, asbestos was a widely used insulation material in a number of industries, but particularly in shipbuilding.

In the confines of a hull, thousands of workers were exposed to the deadly fibres.

In recent years, several hundred people have died from lung cancer as a result.

Several thousand more have suffered from a range of lung diseases.

Under review

However, the cancer can take up to 40 years to emerge and doctors expect to see more cases in future.

This, combined with a rise in the level of settlements, means there is a growing compensation bill.

As Harland and Wolff was in public ownership at the time, liability for the shipyard rests with the government.

No foreman or manager in my time ever said that there was asbsestos in here

Frankie Houston
Over the next four years it expects to pay out 40m and over the next 50 years potentially up to 190m, although that figure will remain under review.

One former employee of the shipyard, Frankie Houston from Belfast, has recently received a settlement of his claim for asbestosis.

Now in his late 70s, he is one of the lucky ones. He has chest problems, but is still relatively healthy.

'No extractor fan'

Throughout his working life he was exposed to asbestos and only years later discovered that was the cause of his problem.

"No foreman or manager in my time ever said that there was asbestos in here and that you had to watch yourself," he said.

"There was no mask provided and there was no extractor fan to take it away.

"We didn't know it was a danger. To us it was just something that broke easily."

Mr Houston was diagnosed with asbestosis two years ago.

Dr Liam Heaney
Dr Liam Heaney: "Latent time"

However, several hundred of those who worked in the shipyard before asbestos was banned in 1970 have died from cancers.

As many as 20,000 people worked in Harland and Wolff following World War II and it is estimated that more than 1,000 cases have already been settled.

Dr Liam Heaney of Belfast City Hospital said there was a latent time between the asbestos exposure and the development of the clinical problem.

"Because of this, it can be many years after you have been exposed to asbestos that the problem appears."

BBC NI's James Kerr:
"More people will die from asbestosis"
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