Wales politics

Asbestos: Mick Antoniw bill aims to make firms refund Welsh NHS over sick staff

Employers could have to pay the medical costs of staff who suffer from exposure to asbestos if legislation proposed by a Welsh assembly member becomes law.

Pontypridd AM Mick Antoniw's bill would oblige companies to reimburse the NHS for treating workers who suffer.

AMs backed the proposal on Wednesday - the first step in what could be a long process of passing legislation.

One expert said there was an argument for the idea but warned employers could "plead ignorance" in old cases.

Mr Antoniw worked on the cases of hundreds of victims and their families as a solicitor before being elected to the assembly.

The Labour AM said negligent employers should be accountable for the cost to the NHS of asbestos-related diseases.

AMs approved a motion allowing him to introduce the Asbestos (Recovery of Medical Costs) Bill by 54 votes to nil after a debate in the Senedd.

The money raised by the legislation would go into a special fund for ministers to spend on the care of victims.

The Welsh government would be able to recover the cost of treatment from an employer or an insurer after a judgement or settlement is reached in civil claims.

It would to apply to employers outside Wales if the victim was treated by the Welsh NHS.

Asbestos was widely used as a building material from the 1950s until the 1980s, often as fireproofing and insulation.

Lung complaints

The fibres can cause lung complaints if inhaled, such as asbestosis and the fatal mesothelioma.

Professor Stephen Spiro, vice-chair of the British Lung Foundation, said the success of the proposed bill depended on when asbestos was used.

"Asbestos has been known to be dangerous for some 20 years," he said.

"Since the health hazard became known, he's (Mr Antoniw) got a point, but if it was before it was known to be a danger then an employer could plead ignorance."

Prof Spiro estimated around 2,000 people a year required treatment as a result of asbestos-related illnesses at a cost of between £5,000 and £20,000.

"I would have thought it would be reasonable to have a cut-off - since we had the knowledge that asbestos was dangerous, employers should have been taking precautions," he said.

"And if they haven't then there is an argument for them to pay back for treatment.

Mr Antoniw highlighted the dangers for people working at power stations, steel works and factories, and the risk of exposure in some public sector buildings, including schools.

He said: "The cost of treating asbestos disease places a huge financial strain on an already over-stretched NHS in Wales.

"I believe that where an employer has been negligent and civil compensation is due NHS Wales should be reimbursed with the cost of medical treatment."

He added: "It won't matter where the exposure occurred. What is important here is where the medical treatment actually is received.

"If it takes place in Wales and the legislation is passed then it will enable the [Welsh] government to recover the full costs of that medical treatment.

"It doesn't create any new claim for damages that didn't already exist and it will only apply where an individual has already been able to establish that their employer was able to blame for their exposure."

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