A mesothelioma victim of asbestos exposure is sometimes classified as belonging to the second wave. The first wave refers to those men employed in industries, such as shipbuilding, property construction and vehicle assembly who worked directly in the production and installation of asbestos-containing insulation materials and products.
The second wave involves the vast armies of service, cleaning and maintenance engineers whose regular tasks often involved repairing and replacing asbestos insulation in buildings, boiler and pipework systems. A third wave describes the trade skills, such as builders, plumbers and electricians who disturb asbestos during renovations or demolition.
Most of the first wave and second wave refers to those who worked with asbestos during the peak years of use when around 170,000 tonnes were imported into the UK every year from the 1950s through to the first asbestos ban in the mid 1980s. The use of white asbestos continued in the building industry until a final ban on imports just one month before the end of the twentieth century.
Working amongst asbestos in the 1990s
Three decades on and the cases of mesothelioma sufferers who formed part of the tragic second wave of maintenance men continue to appear. In several instances, the men were still working up until the 1990s in environments where asbestos was likely to have been present. It was not unusual for men to potentially be at risk of exposure throughout their working lives at one, two or more different workplaces despite changing employment or occupations.
In one recent case, it is thought that a worker aged 77 could have been exposed to asbestos at three different companies as his job involved maintenance and cleaning in areas, which would have meant being directly in contact with asbestos.
Just before sadly passing away from the rare peritoneal mesothelioma cancer, which forms in the stomach linings, the former maintenance man described his work history and the potential exposures he believed were the cause of his industrial disease.
Not once was protection provided
In his early working life using industrial floor cleaning machines during the 1960s, he would clean a large storage area three or four times a week among broken and discarded asbestos pipe lagging. Once asbestos fibres are broken away from their cement mix binding, they become airborne and the tiny dust particles are easily inhaled.
His next job as a procurement engineer at a different company required the removal of asbestos panels and wall coverings at least once or twice a day, which he described as “very dusty work” and once again, saw the engineer having to walk through the debris of asbestos lagging. In the final years before taking retirement in the mid 1990s, the maintenance worker was employed as a school caretaker, where he strongly believed that asbestos was present in typical areas, such as the boiler room.
In all three workplaces, not once was the maintenance man issued with any form of breathing mask or personal protection equipment. While there was often a widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the potential health risks throughout British industry during the 1960s and 70s at least, the problem would commonly persist for years afterwards in some areas of employment.
Exposure to asbestos was likely at all three workplaces
The Coroner’s office concluded that death was caused by heart disease, cirrhosis and industrial disease including, “extensive mesothelioma” and that exposure to asbestos was likely at all three workplaces.
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. Plumbers and heating installers are more frequently exposed to asbestos than nearly all other tradesman – an average of 140 times per year, or nearly three times a week.
Plumbers and electricians also have a one in 50 risk of developing mesothelioma , according to Cancer Research UK. Joiners under 30 years old who worked with asbestos for 10 years or more are estimated to have a one in 17 chance of contracting the fatal cancer.