For much of the twentieth century and until a full and final ban was enforced by the early 21st century, there were few industries in England, Scotland and Wales who were not involved in using asbestos fibres as insulation materials, which formed an integral part of their manufacturing, engineering or construction process.
Minimal asbestos awareness of the deadly health risks or even a deliberate disregard by factory employers meant that thousands of unprotected workers were exposed to asbestos everyday at their place of work, many of whom would eventually succumb to asbestosis disease or malignant mesothelioma cancer of the lung or abdominal linings.
Commonly known asbestos–using industries included textile manufacturers, paper mills, shipbuilders, automotive assembly, foundries, power plants, building and construction. Hardly a week goes by without a mesothelioma compensation case being heard from a former employee (or their surviving spouse) who was regularly exposed to and breathed in asbestos fibres at workplaces, which were predominantly located in the industrial heartlands of North England and the Midlands.
As with shipbuilding, the railways was another key industry that regularly used asbestos insulation in applications such as the lining of steam boilers. Some regional areas where the former British Railways (as the national service was originally called), built and serviced their tenders, also became known as asbestos ‘blackspots’.
One area recently highlighted, but not typically in the north England, was Swindon, Wiltshire where according to research, over 100 people have died as a result of asbestos exposure just in the last 3 years. Asbestosis claims against British Rail to compensate victims of asbestos exposure have continued for over 30 years as a result of the former widespread presence of the deadly material in and around the town’s railway depots.
A most recent case concerned a railway worker, who was often involved in lining boilers with spray asbestos insulation while employed at the Swindon works for over 25 years. The typically long gestation period of between 15 to 50 years from the first inhaling of asbestos fibres and the eventual appearance of asbestosis symptoms meant that the victim was only recently diagnosed with asbestosis before passing away, and a quarter of a century after the original depot closed.
Use of asbestos only began to be restricted in UK industries from the late 1970s and 80’s onwards after the most lethal asbestos types were banned, although white asbestos was still allowed to be used in building materials for another ten years. However, the legacy of the peak use years from the end of WW2 means that the lives of at least 2,000 people are still claimed by asbestos-related disease every year. According to statistics released by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), there was a sharp rise in the number of UK mesothelioma deaths in 2009.