In 2013, the legacy of “First Wave” victims of asbestos exposure still continues alongside the almost daily news of potential “Second” and “Third Wave’ victims who are now most at risk of contracting asbestosis or the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer.

New generations of workers still seem to be falling victim to continuing lack of asbestos awareness to the presence of the material still known to lay hidden in many industrial buildings around the UK.

“First Wave” victims of asbestos exposure were the countless thousands of men and women who were employed in manufacturing, construction, engineering and heavy industry between the 1940s and 1980s, during the peak years of UK asbestos use.

Workers most at risk

Today, potential “Second” and “Third Wave’ victims refer to those workers who are now most at risk, especially property clearance / demolition services and the various related construction trades, such as builders, joiners, plumbers, electricians, plasterers and tilers, etc

In the latest case where an asbestos survey was not carried out in advance of refurbishment work, as required by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12, around 50 construction workers spent two days breaking up insulation boards and demolishing brickwork suspected of containing asbestos fibres.

A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation at an Ellesmere Port fertiliser manufacturer where the refurbishment of an industrial furnace was being carried out, found that asbestos was discovered only after work had begun two days previously. The 50-metre-high furnace – known as a ‘primary’ reformer – plays an important role in the production of pure ammonia formed from a mixture of nitrogen and hydrogen.

Failure to carry out asbestos survey

The HSE found that because of a failure to carry out a risk assessment and asbestos survey, workers had simply been breaking up rubble, placing into sacks and sending down a chute so the sacks could be reused, without knowing that the considerable amount of dust created may have contained airborne asbestos fibres.

Due to the high risk of contamination, work was immediately stopped and all protective clothing and equipment removed in sealed containers to be destroyed. At the subsequent court hearing, the fertiliser company pleaded guilty to one breach of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 and two breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and fined a total of £78,000 inc. costs.

Over the years, HSE have conducted regular asbestos awareness campaigns, and many construction industry companies and trade organisations collaborate in running courses aimed at educating new generations of builders and tradesmen in the ever present risks of asbestos in thousands of public, private and commercial buildings around the UK.

New victims of asbestos exposure

Unfortunately, potential new victims of asbestos exposure are created almost every week as another trade firm is reported appearing in court who appear to be either unaware or simply ignoring the regulations.

In 2011, the Great British Asbestos in Buildings Survey found that while a quarter of tradesmen are unaware they have come into direct contact with asbestos, over a third said they know when they have disturbed asbestos during their on- site work. Only one in six of building maintenance contractors say they have asbestos training qualifications and just one in eight claim to have a good working knowledge or qualifications in asbestos.

Despite the most toxic forms of asbestos being banned in the mid 1980s, building products, such as insulation board and cement made with white asbestos fibres could still be used in the construction industry right up until imports were stopped in 1999.

Every year, 1.8 million people are exposed to asbestos and at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the UK (HSE). It is of increasing concern that invariably, it is builders, tradesmen, and ordinary members of the public who are today in the frontline of asbestos exposure risk, mesothelioma and asbestosis disease.