Secondary exposure to asbestos continues to claim innocent victims decades after initial contact with the deadly fibre dust. In a recent case, a family relative in her early fifties was diagnosed with severe and ultimately, fatal lung condition, which were claimed to be caused by secondary exposure to asbestos up to forty years earlier.

There can sometimes be a challenge in bringing a prosecution of liability by a husband’s former employer and / or insurer for a wife’s secondary exposure, alleged to have eventually caused the development of mesothelioma. Success in a mesothelioma compensation case can be more difficult simply because the victim has not been directly exposed to asbestos at the defendant’s workplace.

Workclothes covered in the deadly fibre dust

During the peak period of British industry’s widespread manufacture and use of asbestos insulation from the 1940s until the late 1970s, wives or daughters came into contact with asbestos when the father returned home from work in overalls and workclothes covered in the deadly fibre dust. The wives would inadvertently inhale the dust particles when shaking out the dust before washing the overalls by hand. It was also not unusual for daughters to sometimes clean the dust from workboots and comb the fibres out of their father’s hair.

In a recent and unusual case of secondary exposure, the victim was neither the wife nor the daughter but a cousin to the wife of a worker employed at a company, which manufactured industrial products, including asbestos insulation board. The deceased would often visit her cousin’s house to use the washing machine as she did not have one of her own. At the same time, she would help her cousin with washing the husband’s dirty overalls, which were brought home several times a week from the factory.

Washing facilities were inadequate

Many workplaces failed to provide any washing / showering facilities or, if they did, were simply inadequate for allowing the men to completely remove all the dust before leaving the premises. Lack of asbestos awareness by much of Britain’s workforce to the long term fatal health risks of developing mesothelioma or asbestosis diseases was not helped by employers who often failed to provide safety information or appropriate protective equipment.

In the present case, the employers of the factory where the husband worked claim that there were washing facilities available to clean the overalls. However, witness evidence collected from other former employees confirm that the facilities were inadequate for the number of workers. It was also found that there was no regulations in force to prevent workers from taking their overalls home to be washed more frequently than once a week.

Witness statements

Initially, the former employer defendant was unwilling to enter into settlement negotiations. The claim involved the victim’s partial collapse of the lung and abnormal airway dilation due to lung fibrosis, most likely caused by long term exposure to asbestos when washing her cousin’s husband’s overalls. An examination of the work history of the deceased had also failed to find any source of asbestos exposure at the workplaces where she was formerly employed.

However, following the disclosure of the various witness statements and other documentary evidence, a high court considered that “on the balance of probabilities”, the company employers had been aware of the risks posed by their workers taking overalls home to be washed and had not provided adequate information or facilities to prevent secondary exposure. Consequently, the defendant eventually entered into an out-of-court settlement.

Threefold increase in the overall female death-rate

In law it is established that the family members of workers who suffer with an asbestos-related industrial disease can succeed in claims against the employer where they are able to show that the employers should have been aware it was ‘foreseeable’ that the workmen would go home with asbestos on their clothes.

“Secondary exposure” alongside “environmental exposure” has been found to be responsible for the deaths of around 1,200 female mesothelioma victims since as recently as 2008. Research also indicates there has been a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970.