Investigations into the fire at London Kings Cross Station in November 1987, which killed 31 people and injured a further 100, concluded that the cause was probably a discarded match or cigarette igniting grease heavily impregnated with fibrous materials found under the running-track and down the sides of the escalators.

Over the years, asbestos awareness has revealed another hidden danger lurking beneath moving staircases and lifts as former engineers are diagnosed with incurable mesothelioma cancer. Amongst the trades at high risk of asbestos exposure are electricians, and heating & ventilation engineers. In just the first decade of the 21st century alone, nearly 40 mechanical engineers have died from mesothelioma, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

In two recent cases, the men who lost their lives to mesothelioma – a terminal cancer of the lung linings – had worked as lift engineers throughout most of their careers. Lift shafts are frequently lined with fire-resistant material to prevent spread of fire from floor to floor, which during the peak period of UK use from the 1950s to the 1970s, would inevitably be made from asbestos fibres.

Pads would ultimately break down with wear and tear

Asbestos was commonly used to also make the friction material, which lined the brake shoe pads in contact with the lift cables. The asbestos brake shoe lining was often bonded with zinc but the pads would ultimately break down with wear and tear, and release their fibre dust particles into the air to be readily inhaled by maintenance crews. Similarly, motor control rooms were often lined with asbestos insulation and machinery components too, such as clutch and brake mechanisms, and switching gears.

Both men started working as lift engineers in their late teens during the early 1960s and were employed at various firms over the next forty years where constant exposure to asbestos occurred until recent retirement. At the inquest of one of the engineers who died in his early 70s, it was heard that exposure was known to have taken place while drilling into asbestos-lined lift-shaft walls and also when changing the lift brake shoes. The second victim, recounted just before he died, aged just 68, that he used to regularly crawl into “extremely dusty” asbestos-lined lift shafts, and would also regularly replace the worn lift brake shoe linings.

Neither engineers had ever been warned of the health dangers of exposure to asbestos from their employers. Following their deaths less than six months after mesothelioma was diagnosed, and to support their mesothelioma claims, the victim’s wives and close families have been calling upon former workmates to provide witness accounts of working conditions at the various workplaces.

All types of lifts and escalators

Today, under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012), those who are responsible for non-domestic premises need to be aware that they have a duty to manage asbestos in the building, which includes all types of lifts and escalators. Typical examples are passenger and service lifts, and window cleaning hoists and winches fixed to the roof. The law requires that lifts must be inspected by a competent person at six monthly intervals, although an independent lift engineer is recommended to carry out the task.

A record of all inspections must be kept and/or a certificate issued. A lift may have a maintenance agreement in place, but may not include statutory inspection. Information can therefore, be provided on the location and condition of asbestos to anyone who is liable to work on or disturb the materials, such as lift and escalator engineers or maintenance staff.

It may often be assumed that the potential risks of exposure to asbestos hidden in lift shaft linings or lift machinery components is no longer a problem. Yet there are still many passenger lifts in operation today, which were originally installed in hotels, hospitals, serviced private apartments, office blocks, department stores, and other public buildings up to 70 or 80 years ago or even earlier.

The number of lifts still containing asbestos may be unknown but tragically, there are still lift engineers who fall victim to mesothelioma up to 30 or 40 years after a working life regularly breathing in the deadly fibre dust.