Are there more types of occupations where exposure to asbestos occurred – and more people dying of mesothelioma – than are officially recorded? It’s a question that continues to be asked whenever a coroner records the cause of death simply as an “industrial disease”. Even when asbestos is suspected of being a contributory factor or mesothelioma cancer was actually responsible.

The true extent of historical asbestos exposure is an issue of continuing concern. Questions have also been raised in the House of Commons after it was recently revealed that “only occupational groups with more than 20 deaths observed” were listed in the published figures.

It is also often the case that only the last occupation of the deceased would be “routinely recorded” on a death certificate. If the deceased had been previously exposed to asbestos at one or more workplaces over an entire lifetime, then the likely source of exposure could prove difficult to determine.

More prevalent in heavy industrial environments

The potential for asbestosis disease to develop can lay dormant (known as the ‘latency’ period) for between 10 and 50 years or even before the first mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms emerge. In many cases the victim has only months or even weeks left to live. Family members will urgently call upon former work colleagues to provide witness accounts of workplace conditions and hopefully, also explain how exposure to asbestos may have occurred.

During Britain’s peak period of asbestos use from the 1950s through to the late 70s, many company employers neglected or willfully ignored their responsibility for ensuring the protection of the men who were in regular contact with asbestos. Exposure was often more prevalent in heavy industrial environments, such as shipbuilding yards, vehicle assembly factories, railway engineering depots, foundries, power plants, paper mills, and building sites.

Today, those known to be most at-risk from exposure to asbestos mostly work in the construction, demolition, building and related trade occupations, particularly plumbers, electricians, painters and decorators. In addition, emergency service crews can also be at potential risk when called to premises where the fabric of the building has been damaged by fire, flood, explosion or other extreme disturbance.

Nevertheless, cases are regularly reported which indicate that historical exposure to asbestos in a diverse number of occupation types was significantly more widespread.

Enlarged picture of workplace exposure risk

An extensive list of occupations – where more than 20 observed deaths over an eight year period were reported by a coroner as resulting from mesothelioma – has also recently revealed a much enlarged picture of workplace exposure risk. It also shows that the true extent of exposure over a victim’s working lifetime may never be fully known simply because only the last occupation is recorded for each individual.

The combined number of occupations with less than 20 deaths during the eight year period was found to be 1,404. Of the 9,038 registered mesothelioma male deaths, top of the list were carpenters & joiners with 857 fatalities, followed by electricians and electrical fitters (670) plumbers, heating & ventilating engineers (414).

There were also high death rates for metal working production & maintenance fitters (399) and the construction trades (390). Labourers in building & woodworking trades recorded 202. However, other male mesothelioma deaths reported in similar industry occupations include heavy goods vehicle drivers (180), labourers in process & plant operations (172), managers in construction (128) and production, works & maintenance managers (113).

Other sectors, which include “white collar” workers were also extensively featured from marketing & sales managers (87), shopkeepers & wholesale/retail dealers (69), secondary education teaching professionals (58), civil service administrative officers & assistants (52) and accounts & wages clerks, book-keepers (34). Other occupations with above the minimum 20 deaths also included sales & retail assistants, care assistants & home carers, printers, fork-lift truck drivers, farmers, police officers, bus & coach drivers.

For females aged 16-74 during the same eight year study period, those occupations recorded with less than 20 deaths by mesothelioma combined were 603 while the total number of fatalities was 1,335. Inevitably, the number of primary & nursery education teaching professionals was high (53), as was the number of nurses (52). Cleaners & domestics were recorded with the highest total at 115 followed by sales & retail assistants (94), personal assistants & other secretaries (75) and care assistants & home carers (67).

Workers were not directly handling asbestos materials

Other occupations recorded with more than 20 fatalities included female labourers in process & plant operations, sewing machinists, chefs, cooks, and receptionists.

Once again, the last occupation was only registered. However, in many of the above workplaces, workers were not directly handling asbestos materials. Employees were exposed to fibre dust particles released into the atmosphere from asbestos insulation installed into workplaces, offices and stores over three decades following the Second World War.

Campaigns by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), construction trade bodies and victim support groups continue to raise asbestos awareness to the potential health risks of exposure. Despite the UK asbestos bans from the mid 80s and the stricter enforcement of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 /12, more than 1.3 million people are still exposed every year, according to the HSE.

Recent research suggests that the 2,515 deaths from mesothelioma recorded in 2014 – the latest available figure that the HSE expect will continue until the end of the decade at least – may be under-estimated and could be nearer to more than 2,800 deaths every year.