The arrival of 2018 marks 120 years since UK factory inspectors first flagged up their asbestos awareness and concern about the “evil effects” of exposure to the fibre dust. In the closing years of the 19th century, and as early as 1900, the first cases of asbestosis were noted among workers in manufacturing and then shipbuilding.

Well over a century later, the long history of asbestos use in Britain’s shipbuilding cities and towns continues to leave former dockyard workers with a grim legacy of being among this country’s highest number of victims of asbestos-related mesothelioma cancer. Two of the most vulnerable groups of workers in British industry were former shipbuilders and dockyard workers, including engine and electrical fitters, shipwrights, joiners, caulkers, labourers, rope makers, supervisors, cleaners and asbestos lagging installers. In 2017, and the latest tragic case of a dockyard worker who developed the incurable mesothelioma cancer, the victim simply worked in the docks canteen.

Over the last 20 years of reported figures alone, The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that nearly all of Britain’s shipbuilding regions showed an increase in fatalities on previous figures. Male mesothelioma deaths rose in North Tyneside by nearly 20 per cent in only four years from 411 to 491 fatalities while South Tyneside saw an increase of 12.5 per cent – 364 deaths, up from 321 deaths. There was also a high number of female mesothelioma fatalities in areas such as Barrow-in-Furness, Leeds and Blackburn. However, it was Sunderland which recorded the second highest female mesothelioma mortality, most often as the result of “secondary” exposure to their husband’s asbestos-contaminated overalls.

Dockworkers and stevedores were completely unaware of the potential health risks

In the present case, the canteen worker was a female who suffered “secondary exposure” but not via her husband’s contaminated overalls. The victim – who passed away in mid-2017 – was employed at the Royal London Docks between 1965 and 1980, where she worked in several canteens at the docks serving breakfast and lunch to the workers who visited the canteen in overalls contaminated with asbestos dust. She would also travel around the docks in mobile canteens to directly serve the men with hot drinks and snacks.

The 1960s and 70s were the peak years of Britain’s use of asbestos as an insulation and fireproofing material when around 170,000 tons of the raw mineral was annually imported, before the first ban on the most toxic brown and blue asbestos fibre types was introduced in the mid-1980s.

Throughout the period when the victim worked at the docks canteen, cargos of hessian sacks filled with asbestos were shipped into the Royal London Docks. The fibre materials would often leak on to the overalls of dockers and stevedores who unloaded the sacks from the holds of the ships. As is often reported in these cases, the men were completely unaware of the potential health risks and would playfully slap each other on the back or clap their hands together to create clouds of asbestos dust, which covered their overalls.

The family of the deceased victim are appealing to anyone who worked at the dockyard at the same time as their mother to come forward with their accounts of how exposure to asbestos occurred as result of contaminated overalls.

Cargos of paper sacks containing asbestos, which left his overalls covered in dust

The north of England is not the only shipbuilding region where 20th century exposure to asbestos has also left a devastating legacy in the 21st. Over the century, there has been decades of sustained exposure to asbestos in the shipbuilding and dockyard areas of London and south east England. In another recent case of “secondary exposure” from 2015, the wife of a London dock worker lost her life to mesothelioma after washing her husband’s asbestos-contaminated overalls 50 years earlier.

The husband was employed at the London Docks from 1963 to 1969, where his work involved handling cargos of paper sacks containing asbestos, which left his overalls covered in dust. His wife had regularly washed his contaminated overalls throughout the entire period he was employed at the docks.

In the mid-60s, researchers also found that between 2 and 5 per cent of ship workers were found suffering with lung abnormalities linked to asbestos in areas, such as Plymouth and Portsmouth. Between 2008 and 2012, of the 396 mesothlioma deaths recorded in Devon and Cornwall, 120 people lived in the Plymouth area, and in 2012 there were 104 deaths from mesothelioma recorded in the south east Medway towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham.

Incidence of mesothelioma has increased in the UK almost four-fold in the last thirty-five years. The HSE repeatedly warn that Britain’s overall mesothelioma mortality rate will continue to increase to at least 2020, and claim more than 2,500 fatalities each year.