Two workmen aged in their early 60s when they were recently diagnosed with mesothelioma reflect the increasing reports of ‘next generation’ victims of asbestos exposure. Increasingly, men and women in their late fifties or early sixties are increasingly being diagnosed with the fatal, incurable cancer or other asbestosis diseases.

In a number of cases, victims cannot exactly identify the particular workplace where they may have been exposed to the deadly fibre dust. Many victims were under 30 years old when they worked with asbestos for 10 years or more and are estimated to have a one in 17 chance of contracting the fatal cancer. Those who began their working lives in the 1970s and 80s now form part of a high number of mesothelioma deaths expected to continue to 2020 at least.

In the first case, a maintenance fitter aged just 63, was diagnosed with the fatal cancer of the lung linings forty years after a period of employment where it is believed exposure to asbestos occurred. Between 1969 and 1975, the retired fitter worked with domestic appliances, which were often installed with asbestos insulation before the first ban was introduced in the mid 1980s.

The second victim was 64 years old when mesothelioma claimed his life just three months after a confirmed diagnosis. The deceased began work as a carpenter when he left school aged 15 in 1966 and two years later continued his career at a second timber engineering firm until 1973. He believed his exposure to asbestos occurred when machine cutting of blocks for building construction caused the spread of airborne dust, which was the responsibility of each machine operative to clear up afterwards.

Lack of asbestos awareness a common experience

In both cases an all-too familiar story emerges from the statements of the victims. While the appliance fitter is at a loss to know exactly where exposure took place and the carpenter can more clearly recall the exact circumstances, both victims point to the lack of asbestos awareness, a common experience throughout British industry still in the 1970s and even into the 80s.

Company employers routinely failed to issue their workforce with any safety equipment, such as a breathing mask or provide health information about the potential health risks. A court can often find a former employer could have minimised the potential risk and prevented their workforce from exposure to asbestos if they had taken the appropriate safety measures.

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to “conduct their work in such a way that their employees will not be exposed to health and safety risks and to provide information to other people about their workplace which might affect their health and safety.”

Many firms who are investigated for failing to observe the statutory regulations for working with asbestos are still prosecuted for breaching sections of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. The use of the most toxic asbestos types began to slowly decline from the mid to late 1970s as imports were reduced. Nevertheless, white asbestos was still used throughout the building industry as a cost-effective method of insulation and fire-proofing until imports halted in 1999.

Men exposed to asbestos from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s

Recent research has found that there has been a gradual shift in the age group of those victims who lose their life to mesothelioma. Figures released by the Office of National Statistic (ONS, 2015)  indicate that between 1968 and 2013, the number of male mesothelioma deaths aged between 50 and 70 increased by about 25 per cent and will increase by about a further 20-35 per cent by 2050.

The next generation victims – often referred to as the second wave – involve those men who were exposed to asbestos during the latter period of peak use from the late 1960s through to the first ban on the most toxic brown and blue fibre types in the mid 1980s. Many are service, cleaning and maintenance engineers whose regular tasks often involved repairing and replacing asbestos insulation in buildings, boiler and pipework systems.

More than thirty years on from the first ban and more cases of next generation mesothelioma sufferers are being reported. The Health and Safety Executive have previously estimated that more than 1.8 million people still come into occupational contact with asbestos materials, most of whom are employed in the building industry and related skill trades, such as joiners and electricians.