The recognised use of asbestos fibres in the production of inexpensive, durable insulation and fire retardant products throughout the peak years of the mid to late twentieth century was not limited to the most well-known occupations of manufacturing, construction, shipbuilding and car assembly.
Frequently, asbestosis cases are reported where victims were employed in industries or workplaces ( such as in schools, hospitals and retail stores) where asbestos was extensively used as insulation and employees would be regularly exposed to breathing in the deadly fibre dust.
Legislation to protect the nation’s workforce only really began to be introduced from the late 1960s. The most toxic forms of asbestos were only banned from 1985, while white asbestos continued to be used in building applications until 1999 when its import was banned. A persistent lack of asbestos awareness to the health risks of exposure meant the absence of information, protection and procedures continued in a wide variety of heavy industries, extending also to chemical plants, steel mills, oil refineries and power plants, etc.
In these types of environments, asbestos was not only used to cover pipes, boilers, generators and other machinery, molded asbestos insulation also protected electrical wires, asbestos blankets were regularly used for fire barriers and some employees – e.g. working in foundries – even wore protective clothing made from asbestos fibres!
The most recent example of this type of activity came to light at the recent inquest of a 76 year old retired electrician who worked at a power station located in south Derbyshire between 1959 and 1993. The annual maintenance schedule required not only the shutting down of boilers and turbines but also the physical removal and replacement of the asbestos material used for pipe lagging and equipment linings.
A statement written by the deceased read out at the inquest mentioned the “huge amount of asbestos” released would surround him in an asbestos “snowstorm”. It is well documented that asbestos fibres lodge in the lung linings for a long gestation period of up to at least 40 years, eventually causing asbestosis disease or the fatal incurable mesothelioma cancer. The appearance of asbestosis symptoms after such a long incubation period can often mean the disease is at an advanced stage and the survival rate from diagnosis may only be 4 to 12 months.
Although the coroner’s court stated that the victim had died from bronchial pneumonia, the condition was “brought on by lung cancer and pulmonary asbestosis”, the latter disease probably playing the “biggest part” in also causing the cancer.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate there are around 4,000 deaths each year as a result of past exposure to asbestos and the number of asbestosis claim cases had more than doubled in three years to over 1,160 by 2010.