In the last quarter of 2012, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released new statistics, which showed that the number of mesothelioma deaths had increased in Britain – for the twentieth consecutive year. According to the World Health Organisation, the UK possesses the highest mortality rate at more than 13,500 or nearly 18 mesothelioma deaths per million people.
It may be no coincidence that organisations like the HSE have been renewing their asbestos awareness initiatives – currently in Scotland and Ireland – as a constant reminder that asbestos and the real risk of contracting asbestosis disease is not consigned to history but very much a reality in the twenty first century.
The HSE state that of the 8,000 deaths each year caused by occupational cancer, more than a half – or 4,500 – are believed to be related to asbestos exposure. As might be expected, those most at risk continue to be males who work in the building industry, with around 8 in 10 occupationally exposed. The exposure level for females, which is considerably lower, has been attributed to ‘non-occupational’ exposures.
While the majority of mesothelioma claims are made by those victims or their spouses based on original exposure to asbestos fibres as far back as 50 or even 60 years ago, there are now an increasing number of cases based on asbestos exposure as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. It must never be forgotten that the gestation period from original exposure to the appearance of asbestosis symptoms can between 15 to 50 years or more.
In the building industry, white asbestos was still being used in products such as insulation wallboard up until the 1980s at least. Today, occupational risk is faced by new generations of builders, plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen involved in building refurbishment and development.
Just in the first week of February 2013, a case was heard where architects failed to pass on vital information about the presence of asbestos insulation board to the builders at a sports premises in January 2012. Then a failure to recognise asbestos by the builders meant the soffits containing the material were removed from a wall, which under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12 requires removal by licensed companies under strictly controlled conditions. At the court hearing, the architects firm pleaded guilty to a breach of Section 3(1) of The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £8,317 including costs.
It seems a week never passes when there is not a report of asbestos being uncovered during building renovations and the inability of either the contractors or duty holders to properly survey, control and/or dispose of the material due to a breakdown in communication or lack of awareness to the health risk.
It has been predicted that 5,000 people will die from asbestos exposure each year and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths can be expected by 2050.