When retired electrician and family man Michael Steel began to understand that what had begun as a persistent cough, was now being diagnosed as a deadly lung disease contracted through exposure to asbestos he was devastated, turning bewildered to his wife June to say: "But the only crime I've committed is going to work!"
Michael was a qualified electrician who for most of his career worked seven days a week to build a good life for his wife June and their growing family of three sons: Gary, Glyn and Greg.
After leaving school in 1957, Michael entered a six-year apprenticeship ("at only 10d an hour!' he would complain", the equivalent of four pence today says June). He met June when he was 19 and she was just 17 years old, and they married in 1965 to set up home in Stannington, Sheffield. As a contracting electrician he was prepared to work all hours for his family, and for some years he took on a variety of jobs across the country. He was employed as an electrician on some major construction projects to build schools, universities, coal, cement and retail developments, although he later tried to find jobs closer to home. For some time he worked as a maintenance electrician in the steel industry. Throughout this time asbestos was a silent presence. "It was used in most electrical switchgear, for example, but at no time were any risks mentioned" says June. "There was no training to raise awareness or understanding, and Michael was never provided with protective equipment," she adds.
Michael was to pay the price for this later when, at the age of only 63, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. At first he was well enough to enjoy several holidays including a major trip to Seattle, USA, to join son Glyn, who was working in the city as a chartered design engineer with Rolls Royce. Yet, with so much still to enjoy with wife June, he was to die only two years later on 5 June 2006, shortly after celebrating his ruby wedding anniversary, and the birth of the two of his three grandchildren - Abigail, whom he treasured as the family's first girl, and Adam who was only 7 months old when Michael died. "He used to say - 'I've got everything, and I've got nothing'", says June, "and he went on to miss his second son's wedding in August 2006, he will also never know his youngest grandchild Luke who was born only five months ago," she adds sadly. Michael also missed Greg's, his youngest son's graduation after he gained an honours degree in Biomedical Sciences.
'Asbestos - the hidden killer' is the Health and Safety Executive's campaign aimed at young tradesmen who know that asbestos is dangerous, but who don't believe they are at risk.
Says June Steel:
"No-one should underestimate the danger of asbestos. It is a killer and you don't have to be old to feel its deadly effects - people are falling ill in their 30s and 40s."
"Michael was not bitter - he felt that his adopted trade had much to offer young people. In fact, my eldest son Gary, who has since moved into project management, was encouraged to follow his father's example. On leaving school he was apprenticed to become a qualified electrician. I can only hope the college training he received has armed him with a good technical knowledge and understanding of the risks involved."
"Even so he, and other young workers, should be vigilant, and they should make sure they always get the support they need from their employers."
Currently six electricians die every week as a consequence of exposure to asbestos dust while at work. Asbestos is a real and relevant risk to today's tradesmen, any building built or refurbished before the year 2000 could contain the deadly substance.