How many ordinary female clerical workers – from the 1960s, 70s and 80s – were exposed to asbestos dust during the course of a normal working day at the office? Decades later, increasing numbers of women in their 60s and 70s are being diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestosis diseases. Women now account for 1 in 6 mesothelioma deaths, according to latest available figures from The Health and Safety Executive (HSE Annual Report, Great Britain, 2014). Of 2,515 mesothelioma deaths, 414 were female fatalities.

As female victims of asbestos exposure continue to be reported, sadly, there is a need for their families to appeal to former work colleagues in helping with describing working conditions at workplaces up to 30 to 40 years earlier. In one recent case, a former female personal assistant lost her life in her middle 60s to the deadly cancer of the lung linings prior to making a mesothelioma claim. However, the Coroner was “satisfied” that exposure to asbestos was the cause of her eventual death from an “industrial disease”.

Constant maintenance and repair work released asbestos fibre dust

Throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, the widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the long term health risks of asbestos exposure meant that ordinary male shopfloor workers were not provided with any safety advice or supplied with protective equipment. In many cases, the company employers deliberately withheld information while also ignoring regulations aimed at protecting workers from risk of harmful exposure. It was not until the introduction of The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 that 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”.

At the same time, countless thousands of women were also employed as office workers in the UK’s industrial sector. Often their office areas were in close proximity to factory floors where constant maintenance and repair work released asbestos fibre dust into the atmosphere.

Staff remained in the office without any protection from breathing in the dust particles

In the present case, the former PA, started her working life at an industrial equipment firm aged 16 where she worked for nearly ten years until the mid 1970s. In a statement made prior to her premature death, the deceased described how, as part of her normal duties, she needed to walk through the factory floor up to a dozen times a day without wearing any protective clothing.

Furthermore, her office space was actually two post-WW2 prefabricated units (from the late 1940s and 50s) built with asbestos-containing materials in the roofing, partition walls, and used for lagging the pipework. Asbestos was widely used in countless thousands of commercial premises and factory units at this time. The thick thermal insulation used to lag the outside of hot water pipes, was produced by mixing cement with between 55 per cent and 100 per cent of asbestos fibres.

The statement went on to describe how the units often needed maintenance work, which involved holes being drilled into walls for rewiring or repair, “potentially causing harmful fibres and dust” to be released. Throughout the maintenance work, the staff remained in the office without any protection from breathing in the dust particles. Tragically, forty years later, the Coroner concluded that those frequent and regular exposures were directly involved in the early death of the former personal assistant.

Mesothelioma fatality rates… not reduced as strongly in women

The very noticeable rise in female mesothelioma is considered to be the result of the first mid 1980s ban in the UK and the decline of asbestos use in traditional male-dominated industries such as, shipbuilding, road/rail vehicle assembly, and construction. However, around 25,000 tons of white chrysotile asbestos was still being imported each year for use by the construction industry to insulate ceilings and walls, as well as to line heating and air conditioning systems, pipes and boilers.

The Health and Safety Executive have said that the the mesothelioma fatality rates in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups, “have not reduced as strongly in women as in men” over the last four decades. Around one in three females who fall victim to mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos either at work or environmentally, both of which have been responsible for the deaths of around 1,200 women in just the last ten years alone.