In the digital age of the 21st century a 3D printer can build a component at the click of a mouse. The future looks like it may simply consign the knowledge and skills of the carpenter to fitted kitchens, trade repairs and basic DIY. But it also seems likely that it will take a long time indeed before the tragic 20th century catastrophe of asbestos exposure, which continues to claim the lives of joiners and carpenters, will finally come to an end.

Decades after retirement, former joiners employed in the building industry are still being diagnosed with fatal mesothelioma cancer, pleural plaques or other asbestosis diseases of the lung linings. In more recent tragic cases, two men diagnosed with asbestos-related disease a few years into their retirement, once worked as a carpenter and a wood machinist, respectively.

The former carpenter was only 76 when diagnosed with mesothelioma while the second wood worker discovered he was suffering from asbestosis and pleural plaques – scarring of the lung linings – aged just 65. Both men had been exposed to asbestos during the 1960s when they were in their teens and early 20s, and at a time when asbestos awareness to the long term health dangers was almost non-existent in the workplace.

Complete lack of personal protection

Undoubtedly, one of the most often heard statements written by a mesothelioma claim victim is an account that recalls the complete lack of personal protection, and health and safety information, when regularly handling asbestos-containing materials or in close proximity to asbestos insulation.

The former joiner was exposed to asbestos when working with sheets of the deadly insulation at different workplaces including, various schools. He says in his statement that he had “no idea it was dangerous at the time”, adding that “he would not have done this job… as there was so much dust from cutting the sheets you could barely see.”

In the second case, the wood machinist, who was employed at a timber merchants between 1964 and 1970, recounts making snowballs from the asbestos fibre dust to throw it at his co-workers. In both cases, the company employers simply did not provide any form of breathing protection, clothing or health warnings before working with asbestos insulation materials. As a result, the two men had no reason to ask for protection or safety precautions.

Company owners fail to recognise the dangers

Asbestos fibre dust had been linked to severe lung damage as far back as the late 1920s, plus, growing medical evidence and concern over the impact on worker’s health led to official government studies into asbestos exposure in the workplace ten year later. Nevertheless, use of asbestos as a low cost source for insulation products continued to be widespread in manufacturing and construction. Company owners appeared to fail to recognise the dangers or deliberately neglected their duty of care, claiming later that they simply could not foresee the long term consequences to individual workers.

As a result, Britain’s use of asbestos fibres in insulation/fire-retardant materials continued to be both widespread and intensive throughout the 1960s and 1970s until a first ban was introduced in 1985. However, it could take between 15 and 50 years or more before the first mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms appear and in many cases, life expectancy is around six months or less after a confirmed diagnosis.

Higher degree of susceptibility before the age of 30

Recent European into occupational exposure to asbestos has analysed the medical records of more than 367,000 construction workers who participated in health examinations between 1971 and 1993. The data shows that from a total of just over 400 cases of mesothelioma, which occurred between 1972 and 2009, the incidence of mesothelioma was high among those individuals who worked with some form of asbestos-containing insulation.

Medical evidence has also consistently found a higher degree of susceptibility to developing asbestos-related diseases when exposure occurs before the age of 30. A high proportion of all mesothelioma diagnosed today is the result of exposures that occurred before 1980, particularly those employed in the building trade.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have suggested that around one in 170 of all British men born in the 1940s will die of mesothelioma and one in 40 of all male cancer deaths are under 80 years of age. Of the 1.8 million people annually exposed to asbestos, an average of 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, electricians and plumbers – continue to lose their lives every week to mesothelioma cancer due to asbestos exposure, according to the HSE.