In a tragic twist of fate, a maintenance builder who spent more than thirty years renovating the inside of prisons with asbestos materials received a devastating sentence of his own when recently diagnosed with mesothelioma.

The retired carpenter, now in his 80s, began working with asbestos in 1963 when more than 160,400 tons was imported for use as low cost insulation and fireproofing throughout British industry, manufacturing and construction. During the peak period of asbestos use during the 1960s and 70s, around 170,000 tons of asbestos minerals was imported each year.

Mixing the fibres with plaster by hand

Throughout this same period and up until his retirement in 1995, the maintenance man had worked in a number of prisons around the country. From 1964, and for over the next thirteen years, the retired carpenter worked continuously at one prison renovating a commercial laundry room. Frequent and regular tasks involved the replacement of asbestos corrugated sheeting, laying asbestos floor tiles and applying asbestos lagging to hot water pipes by mixing the fibres with wet plaster by hand. At the same time, other staff workers were employed to strip asbestos insulation from pipework, steam presses and irons.

It wasn’t until twenty years after retirement that the maintenance man begin to feel unwell and a visit to the doctor confirmed a diagnosis of asbestos-related lung cancer. A well-known characteristic of mesothelioma and other types of asbestosis disease is the 15 to 50 year interval from an initial exposure period to the eventual appearance of the first asbestosis symptoms.

Handled asbestos for most of his working life

As is so often heard in these types of cases, the maintenance man says he handled asbestos for most of his working life and the diagnosis was a “huge shock”. It is also often recounted by claimant victims that they had little or no asbestos awareness at all to the long term fatal health risks of exposure. Time and time again it is heard that employers failed to issue any personal protective equipment or provide health and safety information.

Even though the first asbestos regulations were introduced in asbestos-using factories as far back as 1931 and safe time limits for working with the materials began in 1968, it wasn’t until 1985 that the first blanket ban on the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types was enforced across all industries. However, the construction industry was still allowed to use asbestos insulation for at least another ten years before a final ban in 1999.

As a result, asbestos materials could find their way in to every type of industrial premises, commercial, residential and public building, including Her Majesty’s Prisons. Recently, asbestos was even linked to a future prison building with the discovery of asbestos-contaminated land in north Wales earmarked as the new site.

Issues including liability for dealing with the asbestos

The developers argued that the asbestos waste was buried in capped clay pits away from the main site and would have only been used as a land break between the prison and other housing. However, issues including liability for dealing with the asbestos, contributed to the halt on proceeding with the project.

Around 1.8 million people are exposed to asbestos every year in the UK, according to the Health and Safety Executive. Many of the most vulnerable to exposure are known to be building contractors and ground clearance crews who work on the redevelopment of former asbestos-using sites.

Building and skilled tradesmen, such as builders, plumbers and electricians who disturb asbestos during renovations or demolition are also still at risk of potential exposure. However, there is still a regular number of mesothelioma claims brought by former service and maintenance men, whose regular tasks often involved repairing and replacing asbestos insulation in buildings, boiler and pipework systems.

It wasn’t just in the private shipbuilding yards, factories, mills, and construction sites that men could be exposed to asbestos every day, but also in public buildings, including schools, hospitals and prisons.