Asbestos exposure at a hospital is usually associated with the potential risk of airborne dust fibres during building works or renovations. In some cases, the presence of asbestos was known about years or even decades earlier but there has been a failure to manage and monitor the materials. There can also be occasions when contractors have not been supplied with survey information as to where asbestos is located in any part of the hospital buildings.

However, past issues of limited asbestos awareness and the historical risk occupational exposure in a public building can still lead to the tragic loss of life of hospital workers to mesothelioma, the fatal, incurable cancer of the lung linings. For most of the twentieth century, low cost asbestos insulation was commonly used in almost every type of public building, in particular, schools, nurseries, libraries, town halls, council offices, and hospitals.

In a recent case, a former hospital worker was just 65 years old when diagnosed with the deadly disease. The father of four was employed at a Surrey hospital as a porter between 1970 and 1981, prior to the 1985 ban on brown and blue asbestos use as an insulation material.

The former porter never actually handled asbestos over the eleven years he worked at the hospital but believes he inhaled the tiny dust particles during the periods he spent in the porters’ rest room waiting for calls from hospital staff requesting his help.

“Surrounded by …asbestos dust”

In his statement, the victim points out that it was the hospital boiler room, which was also used as a porter’s rest room. Up until the late 1970s and early 80s, the construction industry extensively used asbestos fibres in public buildings for acoustic and thermal insulation, and fire protection of structural steel work. In hospitals and other healthcare facilities built or refurbished during this period, asbestos can be found in pipe insulation, building materials such as wall board, floor and ceiling tiles, HVAC duct, boiler and electrical wiring insulation.

So it was almost inevitable that the boiler and the pipework system were all insulated with asbestos. The former porter recalls that the pipes ran throughout the entire length of the “three and a half miles of corridors at his hospital”, most of which were lagged with asbestos… in various states of disrepair”. As a result, he and his co-workers “must have been surrounded by bits of dust.” The hospital, which consisted of six blocks, housed more than 800 women and five blocks for 700 men, eventually closed in 1994.

The buildings where asbestos exposures occurred may long be gone but the tragedy of the victim is almost always left behind. Asbestos fibres can lay embedded in the lung lining tissue for between 15 and 50 years, with the potential to turn cells cancerous, before the first asbestosis symptoms appear. The former hospital porter, who was only diagnosed with mesothelioma at a routine health check more than thirty years later, is appealing to former co-workers to provide their evidence of conditions at the time.

Staff disturbed asbestos without knowing they were at risk of exposure

Issues involving asbestos materials and the apparent failure to manage their presence in hospitals can also appear at any time. In 2014, three hospital trusts continued to carry out maintenance work without putting in place a management or monitoring plan to control the risk of airborne dust. It was also found that the NHS Trust maintenance staff could have disturbed asbestos fibres without knowing they were at risk of exposure or possessing the correct protection equipment.

A year earlier, a NHS Foundation Trust in the north of England carried out a prior asbestos survey, which led to the discovery of asbestos insulating board (AIB) in the ward door frames. In the subsequent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation, it was found that no information on the location or condition of any asbestos was given to the contractors. The lack of communication led to the building contractors drilling through the ward door and surrounding wall board when installing cables. Asbestos releases fibre dust was released into the air with a potential risk posed to hospital patients, visitors, nurses, doctors and other hospital staff.

Under Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, every Hospital Trust has a duty to manage asbestos within all of its properties. In addition they must provide all staff with appropriate information regarding the presence of asbestos in the buildings where they may be required to carry out their daily duties. Any individual who may risk contact with asbestos must also be given relevant awareness training.

Nothing less than the total removal of all asbestos

It is now believed that nothing less than the total removal of all asbestos from every public building, including hospitals, can be the only real answer to the potential risk of exposure. In the UK, a Parliamentary Group has recently called for a “timetable” which will see the removal of asbestos from every single workplace in Britain by 2035. In 2014, The European Economic and Social Committee put forward a proposal, which recommends the “total removal of all used asbestos and all asbestos containing products” across the EU.

In the same year, HSE reported that asbestos exposure will cause the annual deaths of an estimated 5,000 people and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths are also expected by 2050.