Asbestos was a readily available, low-cost building material during the immediate period of Britain’s reconstruction after 1945, and which continued to be used for the next forty years. An average of 133,000 tons was imported each year during the 1950s, rising to 163,000 in the 1960s, and topping more than 183,000 by the mid 1970s. By the time of the 1985 ban on the most toxic blue and brown fibre types, asbestos containing materials (ACMs) had been installed into almost every type of public building, in particular, schools, nurseries, libraries, town halls, council offices and hospitals.

Today, asbestos awareness can often be at its most acute during the regular reporting of its continued presence in UK schools, where an estimated 80 per cent are thought to still contain the deadly fibres. However, it is estimated that around the UK, half a million properties of all types are believed to still contain asbestos, often in a poorly managed state.

One of the most vulnerable groups of workers

The presence of asbestos in some of the UK’s more older hospital buildings tends to only come to light during renovations, demolition or when a former hospital worker is diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestosis disease. However, both the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the professional construction industry repeatedly point to the 1.3 million people at daily risk of exposure to asbestos, of which, it is builders, plumbers and electricians who have historically always been one of the most vulnerable groups of workers.

The HSE have stated that, “most mesothelioma deaths occurring now are a legacy of past occupational exposures to asbestos when it was widely used in the building industry.” An estimated average of 20 tradesmen lose their lives every week to an asbestos-related disease.

One recent case involves a construction worker who was exposed to asbestos during the building of a hospital in South East England over a 12 month period in the mid 1960s.

Men lagging the pipes with asbestos

It was during the installation of iron piping in the service ducts that the installer, aged 23, would be working alongside other men involved in the lagging of the pipes with asbestos. A thick thermal insulation was produced by the men manually mixing cement in a bucket with between 55 per cent and 100 per cent of asbestos fibres. Clouds of dust would naturally become airborne, which could easily be inhaled by all those working in the confined space of a service duct.

As is often heard in mesothelioma claims related to a period of exposure during the 1960s and 70s, the company employers failed to supply any type of protective equipment or provide health and safety information about the potential health risks.

It was only in 1969 that regulations, which were originally applied to minimising exposure risk to workers in the main asbestos manufacturing industries, were extended to the general workplace. The introduction of Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, placed a duty on employers 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.”

Nevertheless, cases continue to be heard today, which clearly show that even after this time, when asbestos use was also in decline, that company employers could still neglect to provide the required protection. Many construction workers and maintenance engineers continued to be at daily exposure risk.

Working in the same space where asbestos was being replaced

As in the case of the 23 year old pipe fitter, victims of asbestos-related diseases may never have directly handled the deadly fibres. They were simply working in the same space where asbestos was being replaced, and inhaled the dust in the air or from the debris, which had fallen to the floor.

In most cases, up to 40 years or more may elapse before the first asbestosis symptoms appear. The construction worker was confirmed with mesothelioma and died 12 months later at the age of 73. Now his widow is left to make an appeal for former colleagues to help provide supporting accounts of the working conditions during the building of the hospital.

Today, there can still be issues surrounding the management of asbestos, which was originally installed into a hospital during the last century. While many NHS trusts will try to take action when asbestos is found, it appears that long or even permanent delays, a failure in communication or possibly a fear of publicity can all play their part to prevent proper measures being taken.