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Wartime mines exploded around him but asbestos dust the real enemy

Les Lawler was one of thousands of ex-servicemen exposed to asbestos dust during his time in the Navy and, like others, contracted the deadly cancer mesothelioma.

HMAS Pirie

His only exposure to asbestos was for two and a half years, from 1943 to 1946 when he served as a stoker on the Corvette, HMAS Pirie. Les had to clean the boilers every two or three months. The fuel pumps and steam and water pipes were lagged with asbestos cloth, asbestos rope or a slurry containing asbestos. Les had to remove the lagging and then replace it whenever a repair job had to be done. He had to rip the asbestos off with his hands, cut the new cloth and stitch it around the pipes. There was no way he could avoid breathing in the dust.

Like a dust storm

The worst of it was when mines exploded near the ship making it vibrate. “The boiler room was like a dust storm,” Les told his Turner Freeman lawyer. Even when he slept, there was asbestos dust in the air. His hammock was slung under the steam pipes. “Whenever the guns were fired …the air was thick with asbestos dust,” he said.

Just before his death, Les gained a substantial compensation pay out, which went some way to make up for the pain and distress from suffering with mesothelioma. It also provided security for his wife Ailsa. Les did not have to actually attend the court as his case was settled out of court. Les Lawler joined the Navy when he was a boy of 18. He died in 2002.

Compensation benefits do not necessarily affect other entitlements

“It is important to understand that just because you are receiving benefits from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, it does not necessarily mean that you are prevented from bringing a claim for damages at common law,” his lawyer explained. “Each case is different and we always check with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs before commencing a claim. In Les’s case his pension was unaffected by receiving a lump sum compensation payment.”


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