Exposure to asbestos continues to claim the lives of trade skill workers and maintenance men more than thirty years after Britain introduced the first ban. On average, one in 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, electricians and plumbers – are diagnosed every week with asbestosis disease or mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure. Use of the most dangerous brown and blue asbestos fibre types was prohibited in July 1985, followed by a full ban on white asbestos in November 1999.
In one recent case, a west Yorkshire plumber maintained and repaired pipework at a hospital from 1980 until 2004. His duties required that he worked in poorly ventilated service tunnels containing asbestos-insulated pipes, which he regularly maintained by first removing the asbestos by hand. Direct physical contact with asbestos in this way was not unusual between the 1950s and 1980s, the peak period of use in the UK as an insulation and fireproofing material.
No protection whatsoever against the airborne fibre dust
A total absence of asbestos awareness was also not unusual across much of British industrial life at this time. Employers would neglect their duty of care and fail to provide any protective equipment or safety information beyond, perhaps, a basic paper face mask. The plumber said that he had no protection whatsoever against the airborne fibre dust for the first seven years of his employment at the hospital.
As a result, he developed regular chest infections towards the end of his working life and was diagnosed with asbestos-related pleural thickening. Years of inhaling asbestos dust particles had caused chronic irritation and inflammation as the fibres embedded in the tissue linings of the lungs
One in 17 chance of contracting mesothelioma cancer
Tradesmen, such as plumbers and joiners under 30 years old who are known to have worked with asbestos for up to 10 years or more are estimated to have a one in 17 chance of contracting mesothelioma cancer. Research UK has previously found that plumbers and electricians generally have a one in 50 risk of developing an asbestos-related condition.
In another recent case, a heating engineer was forced to go to the appeal court because his former employers disputed they had breached their duty of care and also claimed the asbestos risk was minimal. The plumber also reported that he was exposed to asbestos dust every time he removed asbestos from pipes and replaced with lagging prepared by mixing in a bucket.
Aged just 60 years or below exposed to asbestos at work
Another typical example involved a west Sussex heating engineer who was diagnosed with terminal mesothelioma at the age of 57. For more than forty years, the plumber had installed, maintained and repaired boilers, which regularly exposed him to asbestos materials of the type commonly used in aspects of insulating heating systems, such as internal linings, pipe lagging, cement and insulation-board enclosures.
Doctors are increasingly finding that the number of males and females aged just 60 years or below who were exposed to asbestos at work during the 1970s and 80s are now being diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness.
Exposure to asbestos early in life
Research also continues to find evidence that exposure to asbestos early in life increases the likelihood of developing mesothelioma or asbestos-related disease. Analysis of medical data indicates that the highest incidence of malignant pleural mesothelioma (cancer of the lung linings) was among victims under the age of 20 when first exposed to the fibre dust.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have reported that the average lifetime risk per 1,000 for occupational or residential asbestos exposures over a 10 year period before the age of 30 was 59 among carpenters, 20 for plumbers, electricians and painters, and 8 for other construction workers.
Plumbers recorded the third highest proportional mortality ratios
In a ten year period up to 2000, coinciding with the enforced ban of UK asbestos use, HSE reported that plumbers, heating & ventilating engineers recorded the third highest proportional mortality ratios. While nearly 600 carpenters and joiners had lost their lives to mesothelioma, more than 410 plumbers had become victims to the fatal cancer.
Today, more than 1.8 million people in the UK still come into occupational contact with asbestos, and building trade workers are still a high risk category. HSE predict that 90,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Britain between 1970 and 2050 will include around 15,000 employed in the building industry.
In June 2014, the HSE reported that the number of mesothelioma deaths had increased by nearly 11 per cent in just one year to more than 2,500 in 2012 and in 2015, HSE also revised up their estimated death rate caused by asbestosis diseases, from 4,000 to 5,000 deaths per year.