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Family of secretary who died from mesothelioma awarded compensation

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Employers are once again being reminded of their responsibilities regarding asbestos following a compensation award of £360,000 for the family of a woman who died from mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure in her workplace.  Catriona Ralls, Industrial Disease specialist in our Personal Injury team, explains the facts of the case and summarises employers’ duty of care.

Winifred Thacker worked as a secretary at the Atlas Steel Foundry for six years until 1967.  She went on to develop mesothelioma and sadly passed away from the disease in September 2014, aged 67.  Even though she was a secretary and did not work directly with the material, she was required to deliver memos and access the clocking in machine which meant walking through the foundry where substantial asbestos dust was created.

“The lawyers for the foundry acknowledged that Mrs Thacker had died from an asbestos-related condition, however they argued that as she was office based and not in direct contact with asbestos they were not liable to pay compensation,” begins Catriona.  “The judge in this case ruled against them and agreed with the family that the foundry could have taken measures to suppress the dust and therefore limit or even prevent the exposure, for example through the installation of large extractor fans.” 

Employer responsibilities and asbestos

Mrs Thacker died from malignant mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos which affects the thin membrane lining the chest and abdomen.  “We unfortunately see a number of cases following the diagnosis of mesothelioma, primarily from those working directly with asbestos, so a case of this nature is rare,” continues Catriona.  “While this case was heard in Scotland, the outcome would likely be similar if it were heard in England or Wales.  The timing of this case is also important; we know so much more about the dangers and consequences of working with asbestos than we did in 1967, many years before the substance was banned.  While not a justification for the employer not taking action, it is important that employers learn from their mistakes and realise that even though the substance is no longer in active use, it does still exist in buildings across the UK and due care must be taken.”

Asbestos is only dangerous once it is disturbed, meaning those in industries such as construction, demolition and plumbing for example are more at risk.  If asbestos is discovered, the person must not attempt to remove it themselves; the employer must be informed so they can conduct a necessary risk assessment, which will determine the level of PPE equipment that may be needed, and involve the appropriate asbestos specialists depending on the severity of the asbestos.  In those industries where exposure may be more prevalent, we would recommend asbestos training so employees are aware of what asbestos looks like, how to reduce the risk of disturbing the material and the responsibilities of their employer. 

“A recent study of 500 construction workers showed that a third of them had never checked the asbestos register before working on a site; a shocking figure considering the dangers of working with the material,” Catriona concludes.  “This highlights why employers should be aware of their responsibilities towards their employees and not solely rely on their employees doing the necessary checks.

“A diagnosis of mesothelioma will be devastating for the person and their loved ones, and unfortunately there is no cure for this form of cancer.  If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, we can help you.  We will work with you and your family to ascertain where you may have been exposed, and pursue a claim for compensation if that is the path you wish to take.  We will also put you in touch with other specialists who can help you make plans for the coming months.”

If you believe you have been exposed to asbestos, or you have been diagnosed, contact Catriona or a member of the team on 0800 91 92 30 or email


This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.