Occupational exposure to asbestos in the 1960s and 70s – Britain’s peak period for its industrial use as an insulation material – is generally held to be a risk almost entirely affecting male workers. The reality is that females employed in all types of light manufacturing industries and assembly lines were also likely to face the same dangers of breathing in the deadly dust particles. Female victims of occupational asbestos exposure go all the way back to the first named case of asbestosis in 1924, and 33 year old Nellie Kershaw who worked at a Rochdale textile mill.

More than ninety years later, and an 80 year old former textile worker is the latest female victim to be diagnosed with the incurable mesothelioma cancer, believed to be caused by daily exposure to asbestos-insulated equipment. It’s a clear reminder of the harm also faced by woman in a traditional workplace setting. A recent Freedom of Information request has found that a high percentage of female victims of asbestos exposure were born in the late 1930s, early 1940s (Health & Safety Executive – HSE).

While half of female mesothelioma could now be caused by the presence of asbestos in schools, say The Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC), that still leaves the remaining 50 per cent whose asbestos-related conditions were caused by secondary / environmental exposures and direct contact with the potentially fatal fibres. The HSE indicate that there could be as many as 400 female mesothelioma fatalities every year – double the rate of the US and EU countries.

Decline of asbestos use in traditional male-dominated industries

The visible rise of female cases of mesothelioma or other asbestosis conditions is seen to be related to the first mid 1980s ban in the UK and the decline of asbestos use in traditional male-dominated industries, such as shipbuilding, road and rail vehicle assembly and construction.

However, asbestos had been widely used in countless thousands of commercial premises and factory units to insulate heating systems and lag the many miles of hot water pipework feeding the main boiler. Factory machinery and equipment operating at high temperatures were also likely to be lined with asbestos. The thick thermal insulation surrounding the outside of hot water pipes was produced by mixing cement with between 55 per cent and 100 per cent of asbestos fibres.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the female claimant was employed at two large textile manufacturers in W. Yorkshire and a well known confectionary brand. The victim worked as a machinist at the wool and textile mills in her early 20s, and recalls the factory pipework covered with insulation, now believed to be asbestos lagging. Fragments of wool would often fall away from the machinery and the air would be thick with dust.

Asbestos lagged pipework continues to claim victims

Employed at the sweet factory between 1964 and 1965, the 80 year old claimant would fill trays of melted confectionary paste from a large, heated vat lagged with asbestos. Often she would be standing alongside maintenance men who would disturb the asbestos while working on the equipment.

Historical occupational exposure to asbestos lagged pipework continues to claim victims – both men and women – often many years into their retirement. A diagnosis of mesothelioma up to 30 or 40 years after the initial period of exposure is almost always a complete shock.

The elderly claimant, who is widowed, has found it very difficult to accept that her illness was caused by “exposure to asbestos decades ago” and is determined to find out “how and where” the exposure occurred. A call has gone out to former colleagues at the sweet factory and the textile mills in the hope that they can help with providing further evidence for a failure to protect against the risk of breathing in of the fatal dust.

Around one in three females exposed to asbestos either at work or environmentally

As is regularly written in a victim’s statement, the widespread lack of asbestos awareness in the British workplace throughout most of the 20th Century meant that breathing masks or protective equipment was almost never issued to company employees. Neither was any health and safety information about the potential health risks provided. It was not until the introduction of The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 that employers were required 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”.

There is now an increasing number of mesothelioma cases, which involve women aged just into their 50 or 60s who were occupationally exposed to asbestos during the late 1960s, 70s and 80s. The HSE have said that between 1968 and 2011 the mesothelioma fatality rates in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups, “have not reduced as strongly in women as in men”. Around one in three females who fall victim to mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos either at work or environmentally, both of which have been responsible for the deaths of around 1,200 women since 2008.