Skip to main content

Lawyer reflects on the legacy of Rochdale factory worker Nellie Kershaw and explores the impact asbestos continues to have on women 100 years on

International Women's Day will be recognised on 8 March, 2024, celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. This year seems more significant as it coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the death of Nellie Kershaw. 

Who was Nellie Kershaw?

Nellie was exposed to asbestos whilst employed as a textile worker at Turner Brothers Asbestos Company in Rochdale. Nellie sadly developed and subsequently died of pulmonary asbestosis in March 1924 aged 33. 

Following her diagnosis, Nellie sought to challenge her employers, but she died without them admitting liability. Furthermore, there is no record of her employer ever making a payment of compensation to Nellie or her family.

However, Nellie’s cause of death was the first such case to be described in medical literature, and the first published account of pulmonary asbestosis being attributable to occupational asbestos exposure. The subsequent enquiries into her death led to the first set of Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931.

The female experience of asbestos

A century after Nellie’s death, the impact of women developing asbestos-related diseases remains ever more prevalent. Cancer Research UK reported, in 2023, that the number of women developing mesothelioma - a type of cancer linked to asbestos exposure - increased by 93% between 1993 and 2018, compared to an increase of 47% in the male population.

Despite this marked increase, there remains a lack of awareness of the link between women being occupationally exposed to asbestos and developing mesothelioma. 

Historically asbestos-related diseases have been linked to men working in heavy industry, such as shipbuilding and the construction industry.

Teaching, healthcare, retail and administrative roles also carry a risk of asbestos exposure

The Gendered Experience of Mesothelioma (GEMS) study published by Mesothelioma UK and researchers at the University of Sheffield has demonstrated women who have been employed in the teaching profession, in healthcare, retail, and administrative roles are also at a high risk of developing mesothelioma.

In addition, there have also recently been numerous lawsuits filed against the pharmaceutical giant, Johnson & Johnson in the USA, from people who have alleged they've developed mesothelioma from using talc products. 

There's now an increased awareness of asbestos fibres being present in certain talc and talc-based cosmetic products, which are more commonly used by women, and in specific circumstances such claims can also be brought by UK nationals against the USA manufacturers of talc products, such as Chanel and Estee Lauder. 

Asbestos-related disease lawyers support women following a mesothelioma diagnosis

Whilst these US claims help increase awareness, the GEMS study confirms when diagnosed with mesothelioma, women have different priorities to men, on a broad range of matters from accessing medical treatment to finances. It's important, as lawyers, that we acknowledge these differences when supporting our female clients.     

One such difference is that women diagnosed with mesothelioma are less likely to instruct solicitors to pursue a civil claim for damages. Research indicates that this can be due to various factors, from the lack of awareness of women being occupationally exposed to asbestos, to the fact that women sadly feel less entitled than men to pursue a civil claim. 

Female clients raising awareness of the dangers of asbestos

In my role as an asbestos-related disease solicitor, I've seen first-hand the impact our female clients have made in raising awareness of asbestos-related diseases. 

Rose Hall and Pauline Harrison both secured damages after developing mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos in school buildings. 

Rose and Pauline’s cases have been vital in highlighting that asbestos is still present in thousands of public buildings across the UK and we've called on the Government to make necessary and long overdue changes. I would like to think, a century later, our female clients are continuing Nellie’s legacy. 

I hope, this International Women’s Day, we all recognise the many women involved in raising awareness and supporting those diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, including Mesothelioma UK, support groups and charities, medical professionals, and most importantly all the women that have been personally affected by an asbestos-related disease. 

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families affected by asbestos at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section.