Towns in the north of England, such as Drax, Ferrybridge, and Eggborough, for example, have an historic association with some the largest power stations in the UK. Unfortunately, there is also a tragic history of power workers who contracted mesothelioma after they were fatally exposed to asbestos used in the construction of the plants as far back as the 1950s or 60s when many were first built.

Their construction coincided with the peak period of asbestos use right across British industry when around 170,000 tons of all types of asbestos fibres was imported into the UK each year to be used in insulation and fireproofing products. Once power stations had been constructed, the testing and maintenance of equipment continued, which involved the replacement of asbestos linings and gaskets, removed by cutting or sawing.

A natural gas storage facility at Atwick, near Hull in Yorkshire, was recently reported to have exposed more than a dozen employees and contractors to asbestos fibres. But the exposures occurred, not in the 1950s, 60s or 70s – one of the most dangerous periods for British industrial workers when a widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the fatal health risks meant they were often not supplied with any protection – but after 2002.

Sealing gasket was proving difficult to remove

East Yorkshire is home to two large underground gas storage facilities, one of which – the Atwick plant – has been operated by an energy subsidiary company since 2002. It was the maintenance workers employed by the subsidiary who were recently exposed to asbestos during the removal of a non-return valve from a compressed air system.

The maintenance men resorted to using a wire brush mounted on an electric drill as a sealing gasket was proving difficult to remove from within the valve. As a result, fibre dust released from the gasket was scattered over the floors and work benches of the workshop, as well as the men’s clothing. It was only after suspicions were later aroused over the dust particles that it was discovered that the gasket had contained white “chrysotile” asbestos.

The Atwick facility was originally built in 1979 by British Gas – six years before the UK introduced the 1985 asbestos ban on blue and brown fibre insulating products. As is well-documented, white asbestos continued to be used for nearly a further 15 years. At the time, medical studies reported that white asbestos was less of a health risk because the fibre type could be more easily expelled from the lung linings by the immune system. Today, exposure to white asbestos fibres is considered a Class 1 cancer-causing risk in the UK, and was also eventually banned in more than 55 countries around the world.

Maintenance team leader “not undertaken any asbestos awareness training”

A subsequent investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the company’s risk assessment for carrying out the valve removal had failed to identify the attached asbestos gaskets. In addition, records held on site, which could have helped identify the presence of asbestos, were “not adequate”. The maintenance team leader had also “not undertaken any asbestos awareness training”. At court, the subsidiary company were found to have breached the Health & Safety at Work etc, Act 1974 and fined a total of £301,731 including costs.

Under the Control Asbestos Regulation, 2012 (CAR 2012), there is a legal requirement for a proper and authorised survey/risk assessment to be carried out before any renovation or removal works are begun. Asbestos survey reports are made to create asbestos registers, and to provide information and training – aimed at protecting all those likely to be as risk from asbestos exposure.

HSE also stipulate that whoever carries out a risk assessment must have a “sufficient level of knowledge, training and expertise” to ensure they understand the risks and identify the appropriate action required for reducing risk.