Billy Dickson spent 38 years working as a mechanical engineer at the Bell Helicopter Textron plant in Hurst, Texas. It was a job he enjoyed but one that would eventually kill him.
The culprit was asbestos, a toxic mineral to which Dickson was regularly exposed during much of that four-decade stretch when he was employed by the well-known helicopter manufacturer.
Dickson died of mesothelioma in 2013 at the age of 74. But immediately after he was diagnosed in 2012, the victim and his family filed suit against Bell, alleging that the company knew that employees were in danger of inhaling dangerous asbestos fibers but continued using products that contained the material anyway.
This week, there came an end to the five-year-long asbestos suit with a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and an award of $8.8 million. A jury in Dallas found that the company was guilty of gross negligence and chose to compensate the family handsomely.
The trial took a week and deliberation lasted for 5 hours. In the end, the “clear and convincing evidence” was there for everyone to see: Bell Helicopter cared nothing for the health of its employees. Chances are the company will appeal.
“Trial testimony showed that Mr. Dickson, who at one time tested components used to build helicopters for the Vietnam War, was often exposed to asbestos in amounts 200 times greater than is considered permissible by government safety standards,” noted an article profiling the trial.
But the kicker was the fact that there was evidence available during the trial showing that Bell Helicopter knew as early as 1955 that it was exposing employees to unreasonably dangerous levels of asbestos in the workplace.
Dickson began working at the company in 1963.
Mechanical engineers, especially those employed in their field in the years prior to 1980, have long been prime candidates for developing asbestos-related diseases.
In the U.S., friction products like brakes, clutches, and brake pads were made with asbestos until around 1980 and some friction products made in other countries still contain asbestos.
Through the act of grinding these products or simply installing them in helicopters, mechanical engineers at Bell were likely to inhale asbestos dust. Gaskets, valves, and other products engineers may have encountered also contained asbestos during the earlier years of Dickson’s employment.
Sadly, Bell Helicopter isn’t the only company that has shown disregard to the health of its employees. Hundreds of other U.S. companies were similarly negligent and many have been hit with lawsuits.
Many have been made to pay though some have literally gotten away with murder.
It’s important for today’s mechanical engineers to remember that they can STILL be exposed to asbestos on the job if they encounter old products that contain the toxic mineral.
Hence, respirators should always be worn if there’s a chance of asbestos exposure and any exposure should be reported to management.
If no actions are taken, OSHA or some other workplace safety agency should be notified.