Exactly forty years ago the first optical cable system in Europe, which formed part of the public telephone network in the UK, was installed between the Post Office Research Centre at Martlesham and Ipswich telephone exchange in Norfolk. In 1982, the world’s longest optical fibre telephone cable was brought into service between London and Birmingham.

A revolution in digital telecommunications was underway with thousands of cable installers and engineers employed in the transformation of the UK telephone network. Tragically, they would also became part of a “third wave” of workers at regular risk of exposure to asbestos, and would eventually lose their lives to mesothelioma or asbestosis disease

Face to face with the old asbestos conduit pipes

There is still an estimated 75 million miles of copper cable in service across the UK telephone networks, dating back to the middle of the 19th century. Since the 1980s and 90s, the demand for ever faster broadband continues to present a challenge to replace the old copper wire with fibre optic cable. However, another less well-known issue also confronts the engineers – coming face to face with the old asbestos conduit pipes housing the cables.

The men who were originally exposed to asbestos during the mining, processing and production of textiles and construction/building materials were known as the “first wave”. Those employed in installing asbestos insulation during peak industrial use until the early 1980s – identified as the “second wave” – were generally shipbuilders, foundry, railway / auto assembly workers and maintenance men. The “third wave’ usually refers to property construction services and tradesmen, such as builders, plumbers, heating engineers and electricians – including telephone cable layers.

Crawling through confined spaces to lay cables

Asbestos reached peak use in the UK as a low cost source of insulation / fireproofing material and material strengthener in the 1960s and 70s. An estimated 10-15 per cent of asbestos fibres was added to industrial products, including underground drainage /sewer pipes, and electrical and telephone-line conduits. Asbestos was also used in both higher voltage AC or DC electrical wiring as well as in low voltage wiring products, such as telephone cabling.

In recent years, asbestosis claims have been made by former telephone engineers regularly exposed to asbestos when installing new cabling both underground and in buildings. Many of their written testimonies recall almost identical working conditions, which often included crawling through confined spaces to lay cables.

Men would become covered in the fibre dust

The men would often find themselves in constant close contact with asbestos insulation and pipe lagging, and could not avoid breathing in the fibre dust. Especially when trying to pull out old cabling from a building where asbestos was present in the lagging wrapped around the pipes running next to the cables.

The laying of cables underground would often involve working in manholes, where once again, the men would have to crawl alongside and over asbestos lagged pipes. In many cases, the lagging would be disturbed and the men would become covered in the fibre dust. An electrical engineer could often be further exposed when stripping back the outer linings of electric cable, which included two layers of asbestos between copper foil and colour-coded wiring.

Cable engineers received no warnings

Despite of the introduction of The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, which requires companies to ensure their employees would not be exposed to health and safety risks, there was often a lack of asbestos awareness and understanding of the potential long term damage that could be caused. As was so often the case throughout many British industry sectors, cable engineers received no warnings nor was any breathing apparatus supplied to protect against inhaling the toxic dust.

The first asbestos import ban was introduced in the mid-1980s as well as the introduction of The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987, which applied to all work activities directly involving asbestos. However, an increasing number of mesothelioma victims continued to be exposed to asbestos in their working environment throughout the 1980s. Tragically, the first time a victim becomes aware that they have an asbestos-related condition can be up to 30 or 40 year later when they start to experience the early asbestosis symptoms of breathlessness or tight chest pains.

The Health and Safety Executive say that more than 1.3 million people are still likely to still come into occupational contact with asbestos every day. The majority are “third wave” construction and related trade workers, including electrical and cable engineers who are likely to still encounter asbestos as they continue to replace original copper cables.