News of the recent loss of two scaffolders to an asbestosis disease highlights the risks of asbestos exposure in the UK building industry between the 1950s and the 1980s, even if the deadly insulation may not have been directly handled.

The risks of asbestos exposure in the building and construction industry throughout much of the middle decades of the 20th century are all too well-known. One in 20 tradesmen, on average, are diagnosed every week with mesothelioma or an asbestos-related disease caused by exposure to the toxic fibres.

It is expected that 90,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Britain between 1970 and 2050 will include around 15,000 men employed in the trade skills, such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

As recently as 2000 – in the months following the UK ban on white asbestos – HSE reported that since 1990, plumbers, heating & ventilating engineers recorded the third highest proportional mortality ratios. While nearly 600 carpenters and joiners had lost their lives to mesothelioma, more than 410 plumbers had become victims to the fatal cancer.

Health dangers that many British workmen faced

Unfortunately, this is not the whole story. It is also known that other types of tradesmen and building site workers could also be at high risk of exposure. One recent European study, which looked into the medical records of more than 367,000 construction workers between 1971 and 1993 found that there were even higher numbers of mesothelioma cases recorded among concrete workers, painters and foremen.

In the first of the two cases, a scaffolder in his late 70s died from mesothelioma – the incurable cancer of the lung linings – after 13 years working with different building firms, starting in 1965. The family are desperate to find out exactly how the exposures occurred and are calling for former work colleagues to help with describing conditions on the shop floor.

To gain a better understanding of the health dangers that many British workmen faced during this period, it should be mentioned that the first Asbestos Regulations only came into force in 1970. Up until this time, legislation from the 1930s only covered those who worked in the main asbestos manufacturing processes, and failed to deal with protecting many thousands of other workers who faced risk of exposure to asbestos in their workplace.

When the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 was introduced, the aim was to extend the scope of worker protection, including from asbestos exposure. Employers were required to “conduct their work in such a way that their employees will not be exposed to health and safety risks” and “to provide information to other people about their workplace which might affect their health and safety”.

Victims from a later generation working during the mid 1980s

Despite of the new legislation, in far too many cases, employers would still often fail to provide any breathing masks, protective clothing or safety information. The widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the long term consequences means that even to this day, mesothelioma claims continue to be brought against employers who neglected to protect those men who were at potential risk of exposure.

In some cases, their victims are from a later generation, often working during the mid 1980s when asbestos imports declined as a result of the first ban on blue and brown asbestos. In the second case involving a scaffolder it is believed there was exposure to asbestos throughout his working life during the 1980s. However, it is also thought that the cause of his mesothelioma was due to exposure to his father’s asbestos contaminated workclothes during childhood. His father was also a scaffolder and tragically, his scaffolder son died from the “secondary exposure”, aged just 52.

“Secondary exposure” occurs when asbestos-contaminated workclothes, overalls and boots are brought home each night to be cleaned. No special protective clothing would be issued and in many workplaces, there would also be a lack of adequate showering or cleaning facilities. The case is unusual because it is usually the wife or daughter who are most often affected by secondary exposure as a result of coming into contact with the contaminated clothing.

The HSE and professional building organisations repeatedly warn that no building constructed up to 2000 – just after the ban on white asbestos – should be considered asbestos-free. Anyone who worked in the industry could have been exposed to any of the different types of insulation materials containing asbestos, such as AIB (Asbestos Insulating Board), used in partitions, ceilings, wall linings, and service ducts.

The HSE estimated that more than a million people in the UK continue to be exposed each year to asbestos, many of whom are employed in the building, demolition and waste removal industries. At least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are also diagnosed annually.