‘Scandalous’ refusal by hospital to confirm asbestos dangers on grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’

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A hospital has refused to reveal whether its patients and staff may be at risk of a deadly asbestos-related disease, on the grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’.

High Wycombe Hospital is facing a claim by a former employee that she contracted mesothelioma, a deadly disease caused by breathing in asbestos dust, while she and her husband worked there. The hospital is part of the Buckingham Healthcare NHS Trust. Mrs Jemima Abraham, aged 76 and now living in Ely, Cambridgeshire, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in July last year. She worked at the hospital as a nurse from 1977 until 2002. If Mrs Abraham did come into contact with asbestos during her time at the hospital, it could mean other staff as well as patients might also still be at risk. Now her daughters, Sheona Ramsay-Edwards and Heather Abraham, are demanding to know why she wasn’t protected by her employer. But the hospital has refused to disclose what problems it might have with asbestos.

Mrs Abraham’s late husband Robert also began working at the hospital shortly after she joined, as a fitter and maintenance man. He brought the deadly dust home on his working clothes. Mrs Abraham used to wash her husband’s overalls, which would be covered in asbestos dust and needed brushing before they could be put in the washing machine. Mrs Abraham recalls that pipes along the corridors of the hospital were lagged with asbestos, which was in a poor state of repair. She used to visit her husband in his office, where she also recalls asbestos being present, with worn pieces lying on the floor.

The use of asbestos is now prohibited, but during the 70s and 80s it was widely used in cladding and insulation. Mrs Abraham may have a legitimate claim against her former employers if her lawyer can show that the workplace was contaminated by asbestos at the time.

Mrs Abraham’s lawyer is asbestos specialist Martyn Hayward of Ashtons Legal, and it is his enquiry which has been rebuffed by the Trust. Under a formal ‘freedom of information’ request, Martyn Hayward asked the Trust for details of its asbestos inspections and surveys, which documents the hospital is required to keep by law. But in reply the Trust claimed that the information is ‘commercially sensitive’, and its disclosure ‘would be likely to prejudice the Trust or a third party in its commercial dealings’.

“On the face of it, the Trust’s refusal to disclose any asbestos risks is scandalous,” Martyn Hayward claims. “They seem to be putting their own commercial interests above the safety of patients and staff, in spite of being required by law to keep a record of asbestos in the building. In fact, any contractor who works there is required to read and sign the records to make sure any asbestos present isn’t disturbed during activities. Yet with lives at stake, the trust arrogantly refutes any responsibility. My client has suffered an extremely serious illness which can only have come from being in contact with asbestos.”

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