A hospital has allegedly refused to reveal whether its patients and staff may be at risk of a deadly asbestos-related disease, on the grounds of “commercial confidentiality” – a move branded “scandalous” by the devastated family of a former nurse.
Wycombe Hospital is facing a claim by former employee Jemima Abraham that she contracted mesothelioma – a deadly disease caused by breathing in asbestos dust – while she and her husband worked there.
Mrs Abraham, who worked as a nurse at the Queen Alexandra Road hospital between 1977 and 2002, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in July last year.
While use of asbestos is now banned, it was widely used in cladding and insulation in the 1970s and 80s. Her lawyers fear that if she did come into contact with asbestos during her time at the hospital, it could mean other staff and patients were put at risk.
Now her daughters are demanding to know why their mother was not protected by her employer – but the hospital has refused to disclose what problems it might have with asbestos.
Under a formal Freedom of Information request, lawyer Martyn Hayward of Ashtons Legal, asked Bucks Healthcare NHS Trust for details of its asbestos inspections and surveys – 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”.
Mrs Abraham recalls seeing pipes in the hospital “lagged with asbestos” and said the hospital was in a “poor state of repair”.
Her late husband Robert also began working at the hospital shortly after she joined, as a fitter and maintenance man, and Mrs Abraham claims he brought the deadly dust home on his work clothes – which she would brush before putting in the washing machine.
She also used to visit her husband in his office, where she also remembers seeing “worn pieces” of asbestos “lying on the floor”.
“On the face of it, the Trust’s refusal to disclose any asbestos risks is scandalous. 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.
We know there is asbestos in the hospital building and that it may not have been in good repair several years ago. It’s likely that the illness was caused by my client’s having worked in the hospital for 26 years, and others may still be at risk.
I have written back to the Trust making clear I expect a more responsible reply, and if they still refuse to disclose information which by rights should be in the public domain anyway, we will take the matter further.”
A spokesman for Bucks Healthcare NHS Trust said:
“We were very saddened to hear about Mrs Abraham’s illness. We can only apologise that we made a mistake in not responding in the correct manner to the initial Freedom of Information request we received from her solicitors. We are undertaking an internal review to ensure an error of this kind does not occur again.
We take our responsibilities for the health and safety of our patients, their visitors and our staff extremely seriously and we would like to reassure Mrs Abraham that we will provide whatever support we can to her and her family, including providing any relevant documentation or site plans we have on record that may help with her claim.”
Martyn Hayward would like any of Mr and Mrs Abraham’s former colleagues who may be able to provide further information to get in touch on 01223 431112 or at Martyn.Hayward@ashtonslegal.co.uk