Asbestos was widely used as an insulation and fireproofing material in almost every type of building around Britain until the most dangerous types (blue and brown asbestos) were banned in the mid 1980s. Despite growing asbestos awareness to a ‘foreseeable’ health risk, white asbestos continued to be used for at least another ten years or more by the construction industry in all types of public and private building projects.

Consequently, many men and women breathed in the deadly fibre dust in many workplaces without knowing the deadly danger to which they had been unwittingly exposed. Cases are not, infrequently, heard where an unexpected fatal exposure to asbestos occurred in a school, nursery, hospital, office or retail environment.

In these situations, exposure to asbestos took place over an extended period and involved breathing in fibre dust released from direct handling or contact with asbestos shelving, floor or ceiling tiles in a state of disrepair.

However, in a recent case, exposure took place through directly inhaling the fibre dust during a buiilding reconstruction where the female victim was working on the telephone switchboard at a Exeter hospital (now demolished) in the early 1970s.

There is a known gestation period of up to 50 years from an initial exposure to asbestos fibres and the emergence of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms. It wasn’t until 2011 that a diagnosis of the fatal incurable mesothelioma cancer of the lung linings was confirmed and the patient passed away just 12 months later. Depending on the stage that the disease has spread, life expectancy can be between 4 to 18 months.

A friend has said that not only was the victim, “shocked when diagnosed with mesothelioma” but also recalled that “when the hospital was being built she walked alongside builders and remembered that it was an extremely dusty environment.”

While today, the Control of Asbestos Regulation 2006/12 clearly sets out a comprehensive set of procedures for the identification, management and disposal of asbestos, for most of the peak period of asbestos use from the 1940s onwards, protective equipment such as breathing masks might not have been worn or even available.

Asbestos exposure at a hospital can still be a risk today. Despite a management survey being carried out, which recently led to the discovery of asbestos insulating board (AIB), building contractors were not prevented from drilling through a ward door and surrounding wall board to install cables at a Sunderland NHS Foundation City Hospital.

Echoing events which occurred at Exeter to the unfortunate telephonist forty years earlier, fibre dust was released into the surrounding atmosphere posing a health risk to hospital patients, visitors, medical and other hospital staff.

According to the Office of National Statistics the incidence rate of mesothelioma in the UK has steadily risen to being one of the world’s highest, with a four-fold increase just in the last thirty years. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have estimated there are at least 4,700 asbestos disease related deaths recorded every year in the UK.