Nancy Tait: Campaigner dedicated to fighting for the rights of asbestos victims

Nancy Tait was the foremost campaigner of her generation for the rights of the victims of occupational illnesses, particularly those related to asbestos. She grew up in an era when the mineral was regarded as a lifesaver, but she lived to see it become a "killer dust". Her life was dedicated to ensuring that everyone recognised that lethal potential and that victims of asbestos received adequate compensation.

Tait was unlikely material for a workers' rights campaigner. She was born in Enfield, north London, the daughter of William and Annie Clark. Her father was a compositor. She was educated at Enfield County School for Girls and then joined the Civil Service. Her career was interrupted by the Second World War, but she found herself working alongside her future husband, Bill Tait, who was a telephone engineer for the General Post Office (GPO). They married in 1943 and by the end of the war had a son, John.

Tait settled into conventional married life, the family income supplemented by her various clerical jobs. In 1967, however, Bill became seriously ill. He died the following year, at the age of 61. The cause was pleural mesothelioma, a virulent lung cancer associated with asbestos. Watching her husband become distressed and then destroyed by the disease proved life-changing for Tait, who engaged in a protracted battle over the occupational nature of the illness.

Bill had not worked in the asbestos industry, but he had inhaled fibres from asbestos products in his "downstream" occupation. In trying to establish that such exposure was enough to cause mesothelioma, Tait encountered official obstructionism that she later described as "completely unscrupulous and ruthless". Moreover, she had lost employment and pension rights, thus involving her in another battle for compensation. She was offered £4,000 ex gratia by the GPO (which she refused) and a £154-a-year pension. A government minister told her that she would not necessarily get both.

These injustices prompted Tait's second career. With the help of influential friends (such as Lord Plant of Benenden and Lord Avebury), she organised an informal action group. In 1976, she was awarded a Churchill Travelling Fellowship that allowed her to study the asbestos hazard abroad. In the same year she published Asbestos Kills, a booklet that emphasised the dangers of all types of asbestos (including white) and presciently flagged the hazards of environmental and downstream exposure.

These warnings were not welcomed by the asbestos industry or the government. The leading asbestos company, Turner & Newall, described her as a "self-appointed meddler", while scientists and the government dismissed her work as alarmist. However, when the asbestos industry launched an advertising campaign Tait (outraged at the sight of one poster that claimed "Asbestos Protects") stepped up a gear. In 1978, she founded the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases (SPAID), later renamed the Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association (OEDA).

The asbestos industry reached an accommodation with many of its potential critics, but not with Tait. She could be obstinate and uncompromising, even with those sympathetic to her cause. Her independence and steely determination were used to greatest effect in the thousands of compensation cases where her organisation provided free legal and medical help. That expertise was often highly sophisticated and sometimes involved the use of SPAID's own electron microscope to identify asbestos fibres in the lungs. She was always prepared to write that extra letter or make that extra phone call, and doggedly took on the medical, government, and industrial establishments on their own terms – achieving results by submerging herself (with the help of others) in the legalities and technicalities of any problem.

In 1996, Tait became an MBE. Three years later she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Southampton. In 2005, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (ISOH) presented her with the Sypol Lifetime Achievement Award.

Her life ended in a series of victories to which she had made an enormous contributions: the banning of asbestos in 1999; work regulations in 2002 that accepted the dangers of downstream risk; and in 2005 the promise of better compensation payments for asbestos-related lung cancer. Not that she would have seen these as "victories". She knew only too well that asbestos-related deaths are still rising and that gaining compensation remains as fraught as ever. For many present and future casualties of asbestos, Tait's death and the recent closure of OEDA have come much too soon.

Geoffrey Tweedale

Nancy Tait, occupational diseases campaigner: born Enfield, London 12 February 1920; married 1943 William Ashton Tait (died 30 June 1968; one son); died 13 February 2009.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform