Robert Kirk

Robert Kirk should have been walking his daughter Natalie down the aisle this December, but he was robbed of that chance by the deadly lung disease mesothelioma.

Robert was just 39 when he died in 1997, leaving behind his wife Julie, Natalie, and his son Marc. Natalie was only 14 and Marc just ten when their father died.

For much of his career, Robert was a heating engineer, often working away from home to build a good life for his family.

When he was 17 years old he started an apprenticeship in the trade with a family firm in Sheffield.

Whilst serving his apprenticeship, he and his colleagues worked mainly in old churches, pubs and clubs, working in confined areas like cellars where they were required to strip the lagging off pipes and boilers.

Julie, who married Robert in 1979, said: "They used to chisel off the lagging with hand tools and then clear it all away. The air was constantly full of dust. They were only ever provided with paper masks, and although they asked if they were working with asbestos, they never got a straight answer. At no stage were they warned about the risks."

Currently twenty tradespeople 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.

Robert left this heating company in 1980 after completing his five years as an apprentice. He then got a job in a local cement works where he was employed until 1993 when he was made redundant.

Julie said: "He hadn't been well at the time - he was losing weight and not sleeping properly because of night sweats. The doctor thought it was stress or overwork. He went into hospital for a couple of weeks and they thought maybe it was pneumonia. They kept asking him about asbestos but he wasn't even sure if he had worked with it."

In June 1993 Robert was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Julie said: "We just felt numb. We had no idea what the prognosis was. From then on, other employers didn't want to know and it was the last time Robert worked."

Robert's health picked up a little until the end of 1995 but by the beginning of 1996 he was back in hospital and began to deteriorate.

"This is a horrendous, incurable disease and it totally changed our lives," said Julie, who still lives in the home she shared with Robert in Owlthorpe, Sheffield. "We had young children who were living through it as well. They still had to go to school and although we tried to live as normal a life as possible, it was hard. Robert was anaemic due to the disease - he couldn't do normal family things like taking the children to the park. We had moved here in 1990 and I started to associate this house with everything going downhill."

A keen football fan and Sheffield Wednesday supporter, Robert had previously played for a Sunday team with his brother. "He had great humour and determination - he was still playing football into his mid 30s," said Julie. "He liked watching cricket, got into golf and enjoyed gardening and drawing."

Robert died at home surrounded by his loving family but he never lived to see his grandson, Harrison, now just a year old.

"It was the children and my friends and neighbours who kept me going," said Julie. "Towards the end, Robert was on oxygen and needed a stair lift and my neighbours had a collection to help buy it."

Now Julie is backing 'Asbestos - the hidden killer,' the Health and Safety Executive's campaign aimed at young tradesmen who know that asbestos is dangerous, but don't believe they are at risk.

"I feel anger against Robert's employers because they should have protected him," she said. "You have to look after yourself and you can't rely on going into a workplace and thinking you'll be alright. If you are not sure about something, you must ask and seek advice."

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Updated 2023-05-16