From the 1940s to the first ban in the mid 1980s, nearly 2.4 million tons of asbestos mineral fibres were imported into the UK, to be widely used as a low-cost source of insulation and fire- proofing throughout all areas of British industry. The enduring tragedy is that anyone employed in any shipyard, factory, or industrial plant during this time was likely to be at high risk of asbestos exposure, whatever their job description. 

Recently, a former shift production supervisor at a large chemical plant near Stockton-on-Tees lost his life to the fatal mesothelioma cancer of the lung linings in his early 70s despite never having actually handled the deadly material. 

Clothing and breathing masks also contained asbestos fibres 

From as early as the 1930s, studies found increasing evidence of the link between breathing in asbestos fibre dust particles and the later development of asbestosis diseases. However, the widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the health dangers meant that most employees were never issued any protective breathing equipment or provided with any health and safety information. 

Workers at the chemical plant, which produced paints and polymers, were more likely to have been given some form of protection against chemical burns and contamination than for exposure to asbestos. Ironically, the clothing and breathing masks that chemical workers were given to wear could also contain woven asbestos fibres. 

During the peak years of installing asbestos insulation in almost every type of building, the construction of a major chemical plant would involve the insulation of walls with loose fill asbestos. In particular, asbestos was applied to high-temperature equipment such as boilers, heat exchangers, extruders, ovens, tanks, pumps and the associated pipework system. Asbestos was also used to lined work benches and tables. 

Plant pipework systems lagged with the fibre insulation 

The former supervisor started his career at the chemical company in 1974 as a packer and fork lift truck driver. Over the next two decades, he worked as a process operator then promotion to shift production supervisor before retiring in 1992. It is believed that exposure to asbestos occurred when working in a number of plant areas where the pumps, valves and pipework systems were all lagged with the fibre insulation. 

Research into the health risks of asbestos exposure faced by chemical plant workers identified key problems common in most industrial workplaces, such as poor ventilation, working at close proximity to asbestos and excessive material disturbance. Over time, asbestos lagging breaks down causing debris to accumulate on the floor and fibre dust particles to become airborne. 

One study carried out in 1979 found asbestos fibres in the lungs of a quarter of a sample group of former chemical plant workers and an even larger proportion suffered with pleural thickening. Examples of chemical plant workers linked with asbestos exposure include, chemical and process engineers, maintenance technicians and electrical engineers. 

Late husband often covered in dust believed to be asbestos 

Only two months following a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma, the former chemical plant worker lost his life to the fatal cancer. His widow, who recalls her late husband often returning home covered in dust now believed to be asbestos, is determined to find answers. She is asking former work colleagues to give their account of working conditions at the time. 

In 2016, the family of another former chemical plant worker, aged 81, appealed to former colleagues to come forward following death from cancer two years earlier. It is also strongly believed that the cause was exposure to asbestos during his employment at the plant between 1961 and 1990. 

Mesothelioma compensation was awarded following the death of a chemical plant engineer in 2010 from the malignant cancer. The engineer was employed at the Trafford chemicals plant between 1961 and 1984. In the previous year, a Blackpool Coroner ruled a former chemical process worker had died from exposure to asbestos, aged 71, after working at a large chemical plant since 1965. His statement also recounts how repairs on the plant’s asbestos lagged pipes were carried out while others were working nearby without any protection. 

85 per cent of all male mesothelioma can be traced to asbestos exposures 

Workers at industrial facilities, such as foundries, oil refineries, power plants and chemical plants could run the risk of exposure until the 1980s or even later in environments where asbestos was present. Around 85 per cent of all male mesothelioma diagnoses can be traced to asbestos exposures, which occurred in “occupational” settings, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). 

More than 500 male and female annual deaths from mesothelioma were recorded in the early 1980s, twice the number of deaths from ten years earlier. By the early 1990s, the toll was more than 1,000 deaths per year, doubling again to above 2,000 by the end of the following decade.