At a first visit to a local doctor, a female patient in her early 60s was asked about her ex-husband’s work in the shipyards and the cleaning of his workclothes even though she was only a young girl and not yet married. A female claimant may find their mesothelioma compensation is viewed differently by the courts if asbestos exposure is said to be caused indirectly.

The woman had visited her doctor because she had been suffering with a persistent cough – one of the early common asbestosis symptoms – and was eventually diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer.

Looking for a history of indirect or “secondary exposure”

When a female patient is suspected of suffering with an asbestos-related condition, it is not unexpected that a doctor might begin his enquiries by looking for a history of indirect or “secondary exposure”. Today’s asbestos awareness of twentieth century British engineering – along with other asbestos-using industries – clearly recognises the part that secondary exposure played in the daily lives of wives and, sometimes, the daughters of shipbuilders and dockyard workers.

Often the lack of adequate showering facilities would mean that husbands would return home from work each day with overalls, workclothes and boots contaminated with asbestos dust. The wives would shake the excess dust free from the garments before washing (often by hand) and at the same time, inhale the airborne dust fibres.

Despite the possibility of former employers disputing liability in cases of secondary exposure, wives and family members of workers who suffer with an asbestos-related industrial disease can succeed in mesothelioma claims. Claimants need to show that it was reasonably ‘foreseeable’ for an employer to be aware that his workmen would go home with asbestos on their clothes.

Increasing number of women exposed to asbestos at work

It is, however, also recognised that in the years following the decline and the first ban on asbestos use in heavy industry, manufacturing and construction from the late 1970s and 80s onwards, there continues to be an increasing number of women highlighted, who have also been exposed to asbestos in their work environment.

In the case of the female patient, first assumed to be a victim of secondary exposure, it soon became clear that the cause of her mesothelioma was probably not exposure to asbestos on her ex-husband’s clothes. The patient explained to her doctor that she wasn’t married to her shipbuilder husband at the time because she was only ten years old when he was serving his apprenticeship at the dockyard.

Instead, the patient, now a grandmother, felt sure that exposure to asbestos had actually occurred at weaving factories where she worked as a young woman. Asbestos fibres were commonly used for their material strengthening and insulation properties in thousands of industrial and household products, including textiles.

Rise in female primary school teacher deaths

Some of the highest numbers of female occupational exposure to asbestos is known to take place in primary schools as mortality among school teachers has been shown to have increased since 2001.

The Proportional Mortality Ratio for female primary school teachers is a particularly worrying trend. Recent Education Sector figures reveal that between 2002-2010, there was a significant rise in female primary school teachers deaths from mesothelioma to just over 118 compared to 85 for nurses, 66 for male secondary teachers and triple the number if asbestos exposure had not taken place at all.

In the last three decades, the number of mesothelioma cases has risen in the UK by almost four-fold. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that secondary exposure, together with “environmental” exposure, has caused the deaths of around 1,200 female mesothelioma victims since 2008. Previous studies have also found that there has been a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970, many occurring in just the last 10 years.