Raising asbestos awareness to the continued risk of fibre dust exposure, together with the recognition of a hidden environmental presence are still life-threatening issues today as they were during Britain’s peak years of industrial use.

Recent news reports highlight how employees have continued to be just as vulnerable to unsuspected asbestos exposure, years after the most toxic types were first banned in the mid 1980s. Equally worrying is the persistence of attitudes, which finds some employers who appear to “downplay” the fatal risks or seem to be withholding vital information about the possible presence of asbestos in their premises.

The incidence of female employees who become victims to mesothelioma is on the rise yet there appears to be no direct link to any known source of long term asbestos exposure. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) say that there has been a threefold increase in the average female mesothlioma mortality of those aged under 65 since 1970.

Source of asbestos exposure denied

One recent and increasingly typical example was the case of a 61 year old female council worker who died from mesothelioma, according to a coroner’s report, yet there is no confirmed evidence as to exactly where the exposure to asbestos may have occurred. Before passing away, the victim said she believed that exposure was likely to have taken place while working at the parks and recreation department of the council based in the Surrey area, between 1992 and 1995.

The council denies that the source of asbestos exposure occurred at their offices, claiming that any records or further exact details from 20 to 30 years ago have been “difficult/impossible to obtain.” However, the possibility that the buildings may have contained hidden asbestos at that time has yet to be discounted.

Support from co-workers?

The use of white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos as an insulating material in the building industry began to decline from the 1980s onwards. However, it’s generally considered by the industry that any building constructed or renovated for up to ten years later may still contain some form of asbestos insulation, for example, as hidden interior wall board, exterior soffits or roofing sheets.

As with similar cases, it’s hoped that fellow co-workers may come forward as witnesses and offer any evidence for the possible existence of asbestos and exposure at the time. It has been suggested by the family of the unfortunate victim that those who might be able to support their claim may fear “losing their job” if they speak out.

No action taken for ten years

The denial by the council that asbestos was present in the particular building where the former employee worked coincides with another recent case, this time, an east London council. When the council was first made aware that asbestos was present in the basement of the town hall in 2002 it appears no further action was taken, despite being a legally requirement under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.

However, after ten years had passed, one council employee entered a Freedom of Information Act request but was refused permission to view the documents and instead, contacted the HSE to carry out an investigation. It was only when HSE began an asbestos survey was it revealed that council staff had been exposed to the most toxic brown and blue fibre types as well as white asbestos, a confirmed Class 1 carcinogen.

Although the council claims the rooms containing the asbestos were not in use all the time it is not only HSE who question the statement. The worker who suspected asbestos was present believes the council “showed absolutely no regard for the life of him or his colleagues” by delaying the announcement of its discovery and also “downplayed” the risk when staff were finally informed.

Employees were kept in the dark

During the height of asbestos use during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, many factory employees were kept in the dark about the potential fatal health risks of working with asbestos. Lack of health and safety information and often no proper breathing equipment or protective clothing meant that thousands of workers would eventually succumb to mesothelioma cancer and other asbestosis diseases.

For many years afterwards, former employers would deny any knowledge of the harm that asbestos could cause their staff when confronted with liability for paying mesothelioma compensation to victims of the fatal disease. The recent cases suggest that it is still possible to seek to deny the potential presence of asbestos as a cause of mesothelioma and instead minimise the health risk.