Living in today’s digital age, many of the manufacturing industries, which supply products involved in traditional forms of information, such as newspapers and magazines may no longer be the dominant force it once was in the twentieth century.

We can be regularly reminded of the existence of former production methods and the buildings, within which they took place, when we come across cases of paper mill workers who discover they were exposed to asbestos at the time and are now diagnosed with asbestosis disease or mesothelioma cancer.

In the most recently reported case, an 87 former electrician who was employed continuously at a Kent paper mill from 1947 until retiring in 1988, passed away only six days following a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma.

Although working predominantly in the boiler house, maintenance would have been undertaken throughout the entire mill premises where he would likely to have been exposed to asbestos in a number of different forms, including pipework lagging as well as boiler cladding.

Working life in close contact

Many of the maintenance personnel who spent most of their working lives directly in close contact with asbestos materials and inhaled the fibre dust particles were not provided with any safety information or protective equipment.

Often their lack of asbestos awareness of the long term and often fatal health risks meant that they would discover they had contracted an asbestos-related disease up to 50 years later when asbestosis symptoms would first appear.

Use of asbestos fibres as strengthening additives in manufacturing processes as well as insulation materials in the fabric of a factory building itself was at its peak in Britain from the 1940s onwards until the first ban was introduced in the mid 1980s.

Paper mill workers could be exposed to asbestos at any stage during the paper manufacturing process. An item such as talc, for example, used exclusively in paper bleaching and refining, was found to often contain asbestos.

Exposure during maintenance and production

However, as was common in many industrial, manufacturing and engineering plants, the majority of asbestos exposure in paper mills occurred as a result of equipment maintenance. Asbestos was used to line boilers, insulate pipes and vessels involved in the high temperature processes of pulping and paper production.

During daily routine maintenance, asbestos dust would be released from dryer felts in dryer machines. When the dryer felts had to be replaced workers were exposed to asbestos particle dust when they hand cut and fitted the new felt into the machines.

Power boiler workers would manually handle bark, waste wood and sludge from the effluent treatment system and in older mills, would also remove ash from the bottom of the boilers and reseal by applying a mixture of asbestos and cement around the boiler grate.

Many other men who worked in paper mills and were involved in different production stages were equally likely to be at asbestos exposure risk, from first line supervisors to cutting and slicing machine setters, operators, and tenders to paper goods and printing machine operators, and including vehicle drivers.

According to recent figures from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) there were 2,347 deaths from mesothelioma and a further 2,000 estimated asbestos related lung cancer deaths in the UK.