Victims of exposure to asbestos, tragically, can come from all occupations, not just the traditional asbestos-using industries of shipbuilding, construction and engineering. In the three decades since the widespread industrial use of asbestos began to decline – followed by the UK’s first asbestos ban in 1985 – many men and women who never directly handled asbestos at their workplace also continue to lose their lives to mesothelioma, the fatal, incurable cancer of the lung linings.

In one recent case of non-occupational exposure, a former clerk came into indirect contact with asbestos when visiting his company’s factory store during the peak years of Britain’s asbestos use. Diagnosed with mesothelioma in his early 80s, the former clerk was employed right through the 1960s, 70 and 80s – a period of time also noted for a persisting lack of asbestos awareness to the potential health risks of exposure. Company employers often neglected to provide any form of personal protection to their workforce nor supply safety information about the potential health risks.

The victim, who sadly passed away four months following his confirmed diagnosis, recounts in his witness statement that he would innocently sit on a sack of asbestos insulation while carrying out his duties and then have to shake the dust from his coat. Meanwhile, men would regularly use brooms to “dry sweep” the floor, which invariably caused thick “clouds of dust” to rise up and fill the air. At other times, a significant amount of dust would also be created when machinery was replaced or moved, which involved the removal or replacement of asbestos insulation.

True extent of exposures to asbestos has become more evident

Today it is known that more than 80 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths occurred amongst generations of men who worked directly with asbestos during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Typical industries included shipbuilding, vehicle and railcoach assembly. There was also a large army of service and maintenance men who would regularly remove and replace asbestos materials used to line machinery, boiler heating systems and pipework in all types of industrial and commercial workplaces. Typical premises would range from print and paper mills, oil refineries and power stations to research laboratories, bakeries, factory warehouses, plant and production units.

However, the true extent of the number of exposures to asbestos has only become more evident as earlier generations of occupational exposure in the industrial workplace decline. Increasingly, there has been a noticeable rise in so-called “white collar” deaths from asbestos exposure, and not just in the well-known locations of school buildings, council properties and local authority amenities.

The latest available figures from the Department of Works and Pensions, based on the deaths of those aged 16 – 74 between 2002 and 2010, highlight the many other sectors where “white collar” workers are employed.

Managers, clerks and book-keepers

Of more than 9,030 registered mesothelioma male deaths during the 8-year study period, 87 were marketing & sales managers, 52 were civil service administrative officers & assistants and 34 were accounts & wages clerks, book-keepers. Other non-asbestos occupational workers include 69 shopkeepers & wholesale/retail dealers. Other occupations where more than a minimum of 20 deaths from mesothelioma were recorded include, sales & retail assistants, care assistants & home carers, printers, fork-lift truck drivers, farmers, police officers, bus & coach drivers.

For females aged 16-74 during the same eight year study, those occupations recorded with less than 20 deaths by mesothelioma combined were 603, while the total number of fatalities was 1,335. The number of primary & nursery education teaching professionals was high (53), as were the number of nurses (52), cleaners & domestics, which were recorded with the highest total at 115 followed by sales & retail assistants (94), personal assistants & other secretaries (75) and care assistants & home carers (67). Other occupations recorded with more than 20 fatalities included female labourers in process & plant operations, sewing machinists, chefs, cooks, and receptionists.

Malignancies such as mesothelioma are now responsible for more than half of all cancer fatalities in Britain today, according to a report based on data collected from the National Cancer Intelligence Network. Despite pleural mesothelioma accounting for just one per cent of all cancers, it is believed that the increase to more than 50 per cent related to all types of asbestos exposure each year continues the deadly pattern originally set by occupational cancer exposure in the UK during the 20th century.