The widespread absence of any personal protection against exposure to asbestos during the 1950s, 60s and 70s is often heard during a mesothelioma claim. Victims will recall that there was absolutely no asbestos awareness at the time to the potential health dangers of breathing in the fibre dust. Throughout many UK industries, employers failed to issue breathing masks or information about the potential health risk.

As far back as the 1920s and 30s, medical opinion and research had increasingly established a link between asbestos exposure and the later emergence of debilitating health conditions, such as the fatal malignant pleural mesothelioma.

Despite of the growing evidence and the introduction of the first safety limits in the late 1960s, company employers, big or small, neglected or wilfully ignored their responsibility to prevent the risk of personal harm to their employees. It was also by the late 1960s that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recorded a total number of 114 men and 39 women who had died in one year from mesothelioma. A figure which has steadily grown to more than 2,540 people who will lose their life each year to asbestos-related disease.

It is not unusual for statements to be read out in court, which tell of men who regularly worked in “clouds of dust” or in close proximity to asbestos materials at their workplace, often during service maintenance or building renovation. Some men used to simply wrap their own handkerchiefs around their face to prevent the dust being inhaled.

Firms around the UK failing to properly protect their employees

It is of concern that there are still regular reports of building firms around the UK who persist in failing to properly protect their employees when removing asbestos during property renovations. Once again, there is a neglect to provide breathing masks or training in the correct procedures when handling asbestos materials. In some instances, where a basic dust mask is available, the practice of “doubling up” and wearing two masks simultaneously is mistakenly thought will provide sufficient protection.

The HSE estimate that, on average, one in 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, electricians and plumbers – are diagnosed every week with mesothelioma or asbestos-related illness caused by regular exposure to the deadly mineral fibres. Over the last decade, the HSE have visited around 2,000 refurbishment sites during month-long ‘unannounced inspections’. Worryingly, the inspectors still continue to find a number of small-size building firms who persist in cutting corners and ignoring safety regulations just to get the job done as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

During one recent round of inspections, the HSE found nearly a half (46 per cent) of sites fell below the required standards. More than three in five of the Enforcement notices issued related to management of asbestos, failure to control exposure to harmful dusts, noise and vibration. The HSE once again pointed to firms who simply disregard the dangers if they are “not immediately visible” and fail to provide basic safety measures, such as protective equipment and dust suppression.

Removing asbestos needs the correct respiratory protective equipment

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 states that the control limit for asbestos is 0.1 asbestos fibres per cubic centimetre of air (0.1f/cm3) although the HSE makes clear that the ‘control limit’ is not a ‘safe’ level. Anyone handling and removing asbestos needs to wear the correct respiratory protective equipment (RPE). Importantly, the instructions also apply to those working in adjacent areas who will also need protective masks.

The wearing of suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is required to comply with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, although it is emphasized that the equipment is only suitable for short duration work. Licenced, high-risk work for long periods of time may require fan-assisted or air-fed respirators to protect against asbestos dust.

The HSE define suitable types of RPE as the following:

• Disposable respirator to standards EN149 (type FFP3) or EN1827 (type FMP3)
• Half mask respirator (to standard EN140) with P3 filter
• Semi-disposable respirator (to EN405) with P3 filter

A P3 ‘particulate’ filter protects against inhaling asbestos fibres as well as other toxic solid, liquid, hazardous, radioactive particles and micro-organisms.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 requires anyone wearing tight fitting RPE, such as disposable, half-mask or full face mask respirators must be ‘face fit tested’. All workers and subcontractors involved in activities liable to produce dust and generate airborne particles, such as asbestos need to be face fit tested to make sure that the RPE completely prevents any dust from being inhaled.

The HSE predict that of more than 90,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Britain between 1970 and 2050, around 15,000 would have been employed in the building industry.