Whenever an investigation finds that building contractors failed to properly act after the discovery of asbestos during renovations, it’s also another stark reminder of the widespread historical risk from non-occupational exposure. In one recent case, a former nine-storey office building in Kent was found to contain asbestos.

Failure by the contractors to carry out the required prevention measures during removal of the materials led to more than 40 people being exposed. But how many past office employees who worked every day in the building may have also been innocently exposed over the years? The same worrying question may also be asked of the countless thousands of ordinary people across Britain, who during the 20th century, worked in office buildings where asbestos insulation was hidden from sight? Asbestos was used to line walls, ceilings, heating ducts and hot water systems.

Almost every type of public, private and commercial building

During its peak period of use from the 1950s to the late 1970s / early 1980s, asbestos could be installed as insulation and fireproofing into almost every type of building, whether public, private, industrial or commercial. An average of 170,000 tons of the mineral fibre was imported every year, reaching 183,000 tons in 1973, alone. Even during the 1990s, around 10,000 tons of white asbestos was still being annually imported and building firms could also rely on stockpiled asbestos products. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the still readily available, low-cost anti-corrosive and fire proof insulation would find its way into almost every type of public, private and commercial building.

It is well-known that those who eventually fell victim to mesothelioma, asbestos-related cancer or other asbestosis diseases were exposed to the fibres widely used in producing insulation materials for traditional heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, textile manufacturing, building construction, railway and vehicle assembly.
But increasingly, as use of asbestos in traditional industries declined from the mid 1970s, it has become evident that men and women employed in asbestos-unrelated occupations, such as teachers, nurses and shop assistants also fall victim to asbestos-related disease. Non-occupational exposure to asbestos is now reported as regularly as the more traditional, historical contact with the deadly fibre dust.

Thousands of private office buildings employing white collar staff

Today, as a result of frequent asbestos awareness campaigns we know that an estimated 80 per cent of the UK’s 29,000 schools may still contain the hazardous materials. We can also regularly hear of incidents where asbestos is uncovered in a variety of other public buildings including, hospitals, sports centres, cinemas, town halls and libraries.

However, the reality is that thousands of private office buildings employing white collar staff, were also constructed using asbestos containing insulation materials. The construction industry and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) repeatedly warn that any building constructed up to 2000 – just after all asbestos types were banned from use in the UK – may contain up to 30 per cent of the deadly materials.

In recent years, cases of mesothelioma are increasingly confirmed where the victim is unable to account for how they might have been exposed. It can often be left to the widow, close family and their asbestosis lawyers to try and piece together the likely sources of exposure over an entire working lifetime. In most cases, a desperate appeal goes out to former co-workers to provide a statement of conditions in a former factory, warehouse, engineering or assembly plant.

But what happens if former workplaces were office buildings where the presence of asbestos was unsuspected?

Sales and retail assistants

The rise in non-occupational fatalities caused by exposure to asbestos has become an increasing cause for concern, and not just in schools and council properties. The HSE estimate that there are at least 8,000 work-related cancer deaths each year, more than half caused by past exposures to asbestos. The latest available figures from the Department of Works and Pensions, based on the deaths of those aged 16 – 74 between 2002 and 2010, highlight the many other sectors where “white collar” workers are employed.

Of more than 9,030 registered mesothelioma male deaths during the 8-year study period, 87 were marketing & sales managers, 52 were civil service administrative officers & assistants and 34 were accounts & wages clerks, book-keepers. Other non-asbestos occupational workers include 69 shopkeepers & wholesale/retail dealers. Other occupations where more than a minimum of 20 deaths from mesothelioma were recorded include, sales & retail assistants, care assistants & home carers, printers, fork-lift truck drivers, farmers, police officers, bus & coach drivers.

The wholesale use of asbestos insulation in just about every type of building, whether industrial, commercial or residential across Britain has become increasingly clear as the years pass and the innocent victims of non-occupational exposure continue to be reported.