According to a recent study, women remain mostly unaware of the dangers of asbestos, and social expectation leaves them substantially out of pocket when compared with men.
These results came from a study carried out by the University of Sheffield on behalf of Mesothelioma UK. We're proud to be one of the financial donors that supported the project.
The Gendered Experience of Mesothelioma Study (GEMS) was launched in 2019 to investigate the differences experienced by men and woman diagnosed with mesothelioma. The results have confirmed what had been suspected by experts for some time, and has armed specialists with the knowledge they need to assure their clients that taking full advantage of the support, services and legal advice they're entitled to is the right path.
We asked one of our expert solicitors,
Oliver Collett to examine the report more closely. Gender experience in focus – Oliver Collett
I've aimed to consider in further detail one of the key findings of the report: that gender can play a significant role in influencing a person's willingness to pursue benefits and civil compensation. I'll look at some of the reasons behind the findings, and consider the implications for practice and what can be done to best support people living with mesothelioma.
The study came about out of a recognition that, whilst the higher incidence of mesothelioma amongst men was well documented, less was known about any differences between the genders. When it came to initial symptom development, experiences at the point of being given the diagnosis, occupational risk factors and the extent to which a person would seek legal advice, was there any difference between men and women? The desire to understand the different gender experiences comes at a time when, although men form 83% of mesothelioma cases, evidence has shown that in the last 30 years the rate of mesothelioma being diagnosed in women has doubled.
There have been growing concerns, as highlighted by the GEMS report, that women with mesothelioma may:
Be less likely to be aware of asbestos and the risks associated with exposure
Be less likely to have a clear occupational link
Be less likely to be diagnosed quickly, and at an early stage
Encounter assumptions that exposure must only be likely to come from secondary exposure (e.g. from washing the contaminated clothing of a male family member) rather than their own occupation
Be less likely to have a successful claim for compensation.
One of the clear messages from the study, from my perspective as a lawyer, was confirmation of the widely-held assumption that women were much more unlikely to be able to identify their source of exposure when first diagnosed. This highlighted to me the importance of a patient seeking specialist advice at the earliest opportunity. The study also found examples of women who initially presumed that the only exposure was via washing contaminated clothing, but it was later established that there was a credible link to their own employment. It's so often the case that valuable evidence comes to light only after the involvement of legal professionals. The importance of giving additional support and information to women patients at the point of diagnosis is understandably emphasised by the study, so they are encouraged to take that step.
Obtaining a detailed work history and having the experience to appreciate the circumstances in which asbestos exposure can occur is a vital skill of any specialist asbestos lawyer. GEMS provided evidence to show that men were more likely to have been directly exposed to asbestos, whereas for women it was much more likely to be in a manner that was indirect and largely unknown to the individual. This isn't surprising when you consider that the highest risk industrial occupations at the time when the use of asbestos materials was at its peak were dominated by male work forces. The study went on to show that there was generally a greater level of awareness of asbestos and its risks amongst men because they worked directly with it and handled it on frequent occasions. It was also more likely that men were aware of ex-colleagues who had also sadly developed mesothelioma.
The lack of the same level of awareness amongst women was stark. Many women interviewed for the research had never heard of asbestos, did not know what the associated risks were, and had never even heard of mesothelioma. It's perhaps this lack of knowledge that presents the first barrier to women seeking advice on benefits and compensation.
However, there were many more influencing factors identified in the study when it came to the experiences of women. It was striking that 60% of women, compared with 80% of men, were likely to consider seeking legal advice. This figure dropped to 51%, compared to 75% of men, when it came to actually going on to obtain that legal advice. The responses from patients also highlighted a significant proportion of women who held very strong feelings that they were not interested at all in receiving legal advice (35% compared with 18% of men).
This presented the fact there were further barriers in the way of women diagnosed with mesothelioma. Not only did it seem that many women didn't think they were entitled to claim for compensation because they didn't immediately know where and how they were exposed, but they were also influenced by social expectations and stereotypes that deterred them for fear of being perceived as financially motivated or greedy. The data also suggested that women may be more likely to avoid seeking civil compensation out of a sense of not wanting to emotionally burden their families. The perception of costly and acrimonious legal proceedings being a drain on them mentally and physically also weighed heavily on the minds of the women participants.
It's perhaps here where legal professionals in particular, as well as healthcare professionals, can make a real difference to best support all people living with mesothelioma, by having the awareness of how gender can influence people's perception and ideas of what the process of seeking compensation entails. With this awareness, we must ensure that we explain clearly, reassure and encourage gently about the importance of seeking legal advice at the earliest opportunity, even where a sense of hopelessness prevails initially. The potential for a successful outcome to make a positive impact on a patient's ability to access novel private treatments or bespoke care/support packages is too important to not try it.
With all of this in mind, I remember my own experiences working on behalf of a recent client who came to me, not knowing where she could have been exposed to asbestos. Thankfully she'd been given excellent support and encouragement from her lung cancer nursing team and local mesothelioma patient group, who encouraged her to seek legal advice even though she was convinced it wouldn't lead anywhere. My client had no spouse to rely on, and was understandably fearful of what her future would hold. I reassured her that investigating a potential claim wouldn't cost her anything, and after a detailed work history was taken, I was able to establish that a highly likely source of workplace exposure was when she was working as an administrator and classroom assistant in a school. A successful request for documents held by the council responsible for the school showed that temporary classroom cabins where she'd sometimes worked were lined with asbestos sheets and were likely to have been disturbed. An admission of liability from the defendant swiftly followed. As a result, my client had the security that any future non-NHS funded treatment would be paid for privately if she needed it. She also took the opportunity to pay for a case manager to help co-ordinate her anticipated future care needs, so that the stress and burden was taken off her and her children's shoulders.
I take great pride in the fact that I work alongside dozens of highly experienced asbestos lawyers spread across the country. We not only know the law inside-out, but also understand how vitally important it is to treat each person living with mesothelioma with compassion, and who see their primary role as doing the best they can to make a horrible situation a little easier for their clients to cope with.
The GEMS outcomes will certainly help me make sure that I look to reassure all clients, but perhaps especially our female clients, that there's no financial cost to them for pursuing a mesothelioma claim, that they shouldn't feel stigmatised for seeking their rightful compensation from negligent employers. I and my colleagues are here for them to do any necessary fighting on their behalf so they can be left to concentrate on the more important things in life.
Finally, I would echo the call from the final paragraphs of the GEMS report: understanding the reasons for not wanting to, or not being able to claim benefits or pursue a civil claim, requires further exploration both in practice and future research. You can find out more about the GEMS study and its results
Thank you to everyone involved in the study for making this happen and shedding new light on how to help support those living with mesothelioma.
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