An increasing number of mesothelioma claims are pursued by men once employed in house building and service maintenance – occupations known to have exposed thousands of British workers to asbestos during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. For one council house maintenance worker just recently diagnosed with mesothelioma, the belief that he was exposed to asbestos has apparently been ignored by his former council employers.

Every week an average of 20 tradesmen – builders, electricians, plumbers and service / maintenance staff – will lose their lives to mesothelioma cancer, asbestosis or suffer other asbestos-related conditions, such as pleural plaques due to years of inhaling the deadly mineral dust.

Ever since legislation was first introduced into the UK workplace during the 1930s, asbestos awareness to the potentially fatal health risks of working with the insulation materials has significantly improved. Yet, as recently as the 1980s, many employers still failed to provide their workforce with the necessary personal protection, such as the correct type of breathing mask or relevant health and safety information.

Robust defence from employers

Pursuing a civil claim for mesothelioma compensation can often be met with a robust defence from employers who argue that a claimant’s mesothelioma cannot be proven to be directly linked to the period of time when employed at their company.

While in many instances there are former employers who will make an out-court settlement there can also be cases where the victim and their families could face a more lengthy process. In one recent example, the claimant alleges that his former local authority employer was deliberately ignoring correspondence sent from his solicitor. The victim, aged 85, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in early 2016, and believes he was exposed to asbestos while working as a labourer on council houses some thirty years earlier in the 1980s, and later as a school janitor.

In response, a council spokesman said they were unable to comment and all communications would be made via the solicitor and not direct with the claimant. Both the victim and his family would obviously hope that communication can come as soon as possible.

Exposed to the fatal fibres at different workplaces

From the 1950s until the late 1970s and early 80s around 170,000 tonnes of asbestos was imported each year into the UK. Until the introduction of the first ban in the mid 1980s, the use of asbestos as a low-cost source of insulation and fire-proofing material was widespread across many different industry sectors, including in building and service maintenance. In many cases, workers were exposed to the fatal fibres at any number of different workplaces throughout their working lives.

At the same time, industry stocks of white asbestos – often misguidedly thought of as ‘low risk’ until very recently – was still allowed to be used for a further ten years or more. The practice of using insulation materials made from white asbestos fibres is known to have continued in some areas right through until the 1990s when around 10,000 metric tons of white asbestos was still being annually imported until a complete ban came into force in 1999.

Due to the unusually long gestation period of between 15 to 50 years from an initial exposure to the first appearance of asbestosis symptoms, a majority of young men born in the 1940s or 50s would be only diagnosed for mesothelioma many years after retirement. Consequently, there has been a fourfold increase in mesothelioma mortalities since the 1980s.

Highest risk before the age of 30

A recent study by Cancer Research UK and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that those men who worked as carpenters for more than ten years before they reached 30 have a one in 17 risk of contracting mesothelioma. Data collected from more than 600 patients with mesothelioma and 1,400 healthy respondents also discovered that men employed for more than ten years before they were 30 in other key trade occupations of plumber, electrician and decorator were at a one in 50 risk.

The researchers concluded that the risk of asbestos-related disease in some occupations, particularly in the building industry, was higher than previously thought, and the most vulnerable were those exposed to asbestos before the of age of thirty.

The construction industry repeatedly warns that any premises built or refurbished up until 2000 should always be suspected of containing up to 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials (ACMs). This also includes local authority housing and council estates where asbestos could be present by up to 10 per cent in cement panel ceilings and in outbuildings. At least 5 per cent could also be present in fire protection materials, including the underside of garage roofs and boiler cupboard enclosures.

It is believed that there could be around half a million properties around the UK still containing asbestos insulation hidden within walls, ceilings, roofs and floors. The materials only come to light when demolition or refurbishment projects are begun.