During the UK’s peak period of asbestos use as an insulation and fireproofing material between the 1950s and 1980s, many trade occupations would almost certainly had been in direct contact with working materials, such as asbestos insulating board (AIB), boiler and pipe lagging, floor and ceiling tiles, roofing sheets and sprayed surface coatings.

Sometimes referred to as “second line” or “second wave” victims, the absence of asbestos awareness to the long-term health risks meant that many categories of tradesmen manually handled building materials manufactured from asbestos fibres and breathed in the airborne fibre dust particles.

Tradesmen, in particular, carpenters under 30 years old who worked with asbestos for 10 years or more are estimated to have a one in 17 chance of contracting mesothelioma. Other key trade occupations, including those who were employed as plumbers and electricians have a one in 50 risk (Cancer Research UK).

Direct contact with asbestos pipe lagging

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning installers / maintenance engineers in public buildings and industrial premises were another group known to have been exposed to asbestos fibre dust. Numerous examples have been recounted of men in their late teens or early twenties who spent the formative periods of their working lives in direct contact with asbestos pipe lagging and the linings in boiler / heating units.

In a recent case, a 75 year old former employer at a pressed steel factory near Oxford died of mesothelioma, almost certainly caused by his work with asbestos. For the first fourteen years at the firm, which began in 1954 at the age of 16, the metalworker was responsible for removing and relaying lagging asbestos lagging in ovens and furnaces.

Despite being promoted to a different position in 1968, the first asbestosis symptoms of breathlessness emerged some four decades later and just over twenty years after leaving the firm in 1988. A typical gestation period for mesothelioma is between 15 to 50 years. As is so often the case, the victim passed away a year following radiotherapy, leaving the family to undertake a mesothelioma claim.

It has been repeatedly found that throughout much of British industry in the middle decades of the twentieth century, there was little to no real protection given to workers in daily close contact with asbestos materials.

Inadequate breathing masks or clothing protection

Another clear example shows how young men would strip asbestos lagging at their workplace without adequate breathing masks or clothing protection in the 1980s. A 16 year old demolition worker was employed to manually remove asbestos at several gaswork sites and was only supplied with thin paper overalls and rubber masks.

The worker, now nearly 50 years old recalls that the overalls “regularly split” and just using handkerchiefs over the nose and mouth rather than the rubber mask, and sometimes no protection at all. In addition, any masking that might be worn would be removed when drinking refreshments despite, “the air being so thick with asbestos dust” that they couldn’t see for more than a few feet ahead.

As was so often the case, there were no shower facilities and workers would travel home in the clothes they worked in. The incidence of wives and other family members contracting mesothelioma caused by “secondary exposure” to asbestos-contaminated clothing not infrequently appears in mesothelioma compensation cases.

Despite the UK ban on the most dangerous blue and brown asbestos types in the mid 1980s, the use of white asbestos in building insulation materials continued for at least another ten years before imports were stopped at the end of the 1990s.