“I was exposed to asbestos…and it could cut short my life”

When Paul Retallick became a well-paid factory inspector at just 18 years old, he thought it was a career move that would set him on course for a bright future, he told the Diss Mercury.

Little did he realise that instead, it would be a job that many years later could cut short his life through exposure to potentially deadly asbestos.

In 1969, a job at Cape Manufacturing seemed like a gift from heaven. Unlike most companies at that time, it paid even youngsters like Paul a £24 per week adult wage – far more than any other firm would offer a teenager.

It was hard work, often a 54-hour week. But as he was just starting a family, it gave Paul and his wife Shirley a golden opportunity to save for a deposit for a house they otherwise would never have had.

However, it came at a dreadful cost that would only become clear many years later.

Paul’s job inspecting and cutting boards made of asbestos materials, which he stayed in until 1971, came with a high degree of exposure to the potentially deadly material.

On some days the dust would be so thick that, according to Paul, his dark blue overalls “would change colour to medium blue within 10 mins, and by the end of the shift, they were stone white.”

He and his co-workers were offered masks, which Paul said were uncomfortable and suffocating, so much so it was impossible to wear them.

Never, though, were they told of the risks – that breathing in asbestos day in, day out could cause fatal lung diseases such as mesothelioma many years later in life.

An extractor fan under his work station blew away some of the dust, but there was no other form of ventilation in the factory in Cowley, Middlesex. Paul added;

“I hadn’t experienced anything in my work and career like that, so I never thought anything of it. We would get out of breath, but we thought that’s because we were working hard.”

Paul also had nasal problems as a child, thinking that explained any breathlessness he felt. But when his problems got worse, a GP advised him to get a scan of his lungs at hospital.

A consultant at the respiratory clinic performed further tests and found a shadow on his lung. This was later found to be diffuse pleural thickening, an asbestos-related condition which has reduced Paul’s lung capacity by 50pc.

Doctors believe it has shortened the life of his lungs by 11-and-a-half years. He also cannot have surgery for arthritis on his left hip for fear his lungs could not cope with an anaesthetic.

Paul took the case to court for compensation, with help from Thompsons Solicitors and the Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team.

Days before a hearing in London, Cape agreed to settle Paul’s claim with provisional compensation of £20,115.  Should his condition worsen, that means he will be able to go back to court and claim money to help with the cost of care.

It was a big success and a valuable settlement – but it can never change the dramatic impact on what he can now do and how he lives his life.

Ultimately, if his condition develops into mesothelioma, it could kill him. Said Paul, who also has spinal stenosis, a condition unrelated to asbestos;

“It’s so restrictive in everything you do. Even getting up to go to the loo, you have to stop because you get out of breath.

In conversation, you can’t express what you want to say and people get impatient. There are lots of things I used to do that I now can’t do. It gets frustrating.

At times, the amount of dust in the air was ridiculous. When the dust settled it would cover the entire factory floor.  I never once saw my employer take account for the air quality and we weren’t advised on the issues that breathing asbestos can cause.

There were a load of us that joined the firm when we were just 18, so I dread to think whether they have been affected and if they are suffering like I am.

I started there at 18 and because they paid the adult rate
of pay, £24 a week, within 18 months we had the deposit for a house – without realising what it was going to cost me in my health.”