A 91 year old man who spent his entire working life using asbestos in an industry that may not often be commonly associated with the deadly material was recently reported as dying from asbestos-related mesothelioma. It’s yet another reminder of how widespread the use of asbestos was in the ordinary British workplace throughout most of the twentieth century.

Until his retirement in 1980, the victim spent his entire working life working for a national firm, which makes security locks and safes until his retirement in 1980. Over a period of nearly fifty years, which coincided with the peak period of Britain’s use of asbestos insulation, the deceased was involved with installing linings manufactured with the toxic fibres into safes, as well as wearing safety gloves actually  made from asbestos.

Having continued to lead an active life for more than thirty years after retirement, the former security safe worker suddenly fell ill and quickly passed away. His death was recorded as being the result of an asbestos-related industrial disease. Asbestos is known to take up to fifty years from the period of exposure and breathing in of the fibre dust particles until the emergence of asbestosis symptoms.

Widely used as standard insulation

It has been estimated that more than 1.3 million tonnes of asbestos had been imported into the UK during the 1950s, peaking at 1.6 million tonnes in the 1960s and continuing around 1.5 million in the 1970s. Until the final import ban on white asbestos in 1999, more than five million tons had been used in British industry as a key insulation and fireproofing product and could be found in most products.

By the 1950s and 60s and into the 1970s, asbestos insulation was being used in almost every aspect of British life. Towards the end of the 1970s and until the first UK ban of the most toxic brown and blue types was introduced in 1985, asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were widely used as standard insulation and fire retardant in shipbuilding, railway/vehicle assembly throughout most manufacturing, industrial and construction industries.

Consequently, millions of workers employed in the many factories and shop-floors were regularly but unknowingly exposed to asbestos fibre dust simply because they were directly involved in either manufacturing or using products made from asbestos fibres.

More directly exposed to asbestos

No safety information, protective equipment or clothing would be made available to the workforce. Even when the presence of asbestos was known, often there was little to no asbestos awareness of the long term-health risk and in many instances, employers would choose to ignore or conceal the growing medical evidence of the link to cancers and other asbestos–related diseases.

Many industries, however, did provide standard safety gloves or mittens, of the type that the former safe worker would wear. Containing between 40 to 100 per cent white chrysotile asbestos, they were seen as a strong, flexible and abrasive-resistant insulation against high working temperatures for materials, such as hot glass, molten metals or dangerous chemicals and caustic acids. But it also meant workers were more directly exposed to airborne fibres, especially as the gloves became frayed, ripped or torn through constant use.

The fatal legacy from decades of asbestos use is set to continue to claim victims. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has previously reported that mesothelioma fatality has steadily risen in the UK with a four-fold increase just in the last thirty years. The HSE have also recently revised up their estimated death rate caused by asbestosis diseases, from 4,000 to 5,000 fatalities each year until at least 2037.