Despite intentional exposure to asbestos in the workplace ending more than 20 years ago, it is now the source of Britain’s worst occupational health crisis.

Mesothelioma is a form of lung or digestive tract cancer, caused almost always by exposure to industrial asbestos dust.

Most of its victims are craftsmen, laborers and process workers from heavy industry, chemicals, vehicle workshops and the building trade.

Asbestos was once commonly used for insulation, fireproofing, and vehicle brake shoes.

With deaths rising steadily, the GMB trade union in Cumbria has a team of lawyers to ensure families of its members, who fell victim to the disease, are properly compensated.

The Workington family of electrician Derrick Fisher, who died of lung disease after decades of asbestos exposure, is suing the government for up to 100,000.

Mr. Fisher spent much of his career in dust-filled coalmines packed with the lethal insulating material.

The father-of-three died at 83 from industrial mesothelioma in February 2005.

Mr Fisher started legal proceedings before his death and his sons Barry, 63, Kevin, 56, and 55-year-old Michael are continuing the legal action.

Their solicitors have lodged papers at the High Court in London, claiming damages of between 50,000 and 100,000 from the Department of Trade and Industry successors of the National Coal Board.

Documents argue that the coal board was negligent in failing to ventilate Mr Fishers workplace, not safely removing asbestos or providing breathing apparatus and protective clothing.

They also allege that he was not warned of the dangers of exposure to asbestos.

Other unions, including Amicus, Unison and the T&G also negotiate settlements but not everyone is in a union and,it is not always possible to work out how and when the victim came into contact with asbestos.

At an inquest into the death of former Woolworths sales supervisor Pauline Stephenson, of Main Street, Distington, three years ago, mesothelioma was found to be the cause of death but none of her family could think of any time when she could have inhaled asbestos dust. She died at the age of 54.

Employers have been able to legally absolve themselves over claims on behalf of secondary victims like 89-year-old Anna Baird, of Wakefield Road, Cockermouth.

An inquest in 2001 decided that she had inhaled asbestos dust while handling and washing the work clothes of her husband, a London docker who had died 30 years earlier from the same illness.

The seriousness of the epidemic-in-waiting was recognized on Tuesday by National Action Mesothelioma Day.

It takes between 15 and 60 years after exposure before the invasion of soft tissues by asbestos fibres develops in to cancerous mesothelioma and deaths in West Cumbria and the rest of the UK are expected to rise sharply from 2011 and to peak in 2015.

At least 160 Cumbrians have died from mesothelioma since 2000.

The biggest concentration is among Barrow in Furness shipyard workers.

Since 2000, the West Cumbria coroners office has held inquests in to the deaths of 14 people where mesothelioma was found to be the cause.

They were employed at various sites, including HDA/Pechiney at Distington, both of Workingtons steel industry sites, collieries and at the Marchon chemical works in Whitehaven.

James Weir, of Fairview, Little Clifton, who worked at the HDA/Pechiney aluminium works for 36 years, died from the disease in October 2004 at the age of 72.

He and fellow workers routinely handled hot alloys with improvised glove pads made by tearing off asbestos fabric from long rolls.

They didn’t wear face masks and clouds of dust were produced every time they tore a piece off the roll.

James’s widow, Isobel, 69, said: The dangers were not known then and the company treated us fairly with a compensation payment before James died.

He took early retirement because of breathlessness and we were both shocked when the consultant got the results of tests and sat us down to give us the bad news.

He gave James between one and two years to live and advised us to get a good lawyer.

I remember that day well, it was January 2 2002, the day that our grandson was born.

They say time is a healer but James was not old when he died and I miss him every day.

West Cumbria coroner John Taylor said: Unlike a previous era in West Cumbria when there was a national government scale of payments for coal and iron ore miners who contracted pneumoconiosis from dust exposure in the pits, that doesn’t happen with mesothelioma, but I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing.

Asbestos in the lungs is easily demonstrated and it is not difficult to find an experienced lawyer to take on a compensation claim.

One of the sad things at inquests is that former workmates at places like HDA come and describe the procedures they carried out with asbestos without any protection.

They must go away wondering all the time whether the next diagnosis will be theirs.

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