Today, an increasing number of cases of mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer or another asbestosis disease, such as pleural thickening leave victims or their families completely mystified as to the source of asbestos exposure. Non-occupational exposure in the workplace, especially after the first asbestos ban in the mid-1980s, can usually be traced to breathing in the dust particles released from asbestos insulation installed in the fabric of the building, most notably in schools, hospitals, factories, public amenities and council properties.

Non-occupational exposure can sometimes obscure another equally grim reality – the widespread, actual hands-on exposure, which involved many thousands of men as a result of the work they were employed to carry out every day. Between the 1950s and 1980s – the UK’s peak period of asbestos use – many working in trade occupations were in direct contact with working materials, such as asbestos insulating board (AIB), boiler and pipe lagging, floor and ceiling tiles, roofing sheets and sprayed surface coatings.

Tradesmen – in particular carpenters under 30 years old who worked with asbestos for 10 years or more – are estimated to have a one in 17 chance of contracting mesothelioma. Other key trade occupations, including those who were employed as plumbers and electricians have a one in 50 risk (Cancer Research UK, 2009).

Direct contact with asbestos pipe lagging

Installers of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning in public buildings and industrial premises are another specific trade group known to have been exposed to asbestos fibre dust. Numerous examples have been recounted of men in their late teens or early twenties who spent the formative periods of their working lives in direct contact with asbestos pipe lagging and the lining in boiler / heating units.

Mesothelioma is often regularly diagnosed in the vast army of maintenance engineers who were employed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to constantly repair and replace machinery, equipment and pipework. The work often involved directly removing and replacing asbestos, which lined large heating boilers or to apply wet asbestos plaster lagging by hand to hot water pipework.

The thick thermal insulation surrounding the outside of hot water pipes was produced by men mixing cement by hand in buckets with between 55 per cent and 100 per cent of asbestos fibres. Other types of maintenance engineers would simply be working in close proximity to asbestos. In some recent mesothelioma cases, men aged in their mid-60s have become the latest victims of asbestos-related diseases despite having never directly handled the deadly insulation. They were simply working in the same space where asbestos debris had fallen to the floor and the airborne fibre dust hung in the atmosphere.

Asbestos lagged pipework can be still frequently found in basements, lofts, above false ceilings or within the infrastructure of both commercial and older residential premises.

Manually handle asbestos fibres at all stages in the spraying process

The existence of textured asbestos surface coatings (e.g. Artex) in residential properties is well known. During the peak period of use, which occurred up until the mid-1970s, asbestos  was commonly applied by industrially spraying to the underside of roofs (and floors) on steel and reinforced concrete beams/columns, and sometimes the sides of buildings and warehouses. Sprayed asbestos could contain between 55 per cent to 85 per cent asbestos fibres with a Portland cement binder.

Tradesmen involved in the actual spraying process would manually handle asbestos fibres at all stages in the spraying process. Bags of raw asbestos fibres would be lifted up and poured into a hopper and mixed with water for transferring via a hose up to the worker operating the spray gun. Sometimes the fibres would have to be separated by hand before pouring, which involved ripping open the tops of the paper bags containing the raw asbestos.

As is repeatedly heard, throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, no personal protection, breathing apparatus or even a face mask was supplied by employers. Neither was any safety information given on the potential health risks of breathing in the fibre dust. It was not until the introduction of The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 that employers were legally 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”.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have reported that between 1968 and 2013, the number of annual UK male mesothelioma deaths increased from 114 to 2,123 to reach a total of 44,131 over the same period. Sadly, the figures have continued to rise. Annual mesothelioma mortality reached more than 2,540 by 2015, according to the HSE.

While the full extent of exposures at the time may never be known, around 85 per cent of all male mesotheliomas can be traced to breathing in the deadly fibre dust, which occurred in occupational settings, according to the HSE.