Courts often hear testimonies highlighting the widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the potential health risks of breathing in the deadly fibre dust when the mineral was at peak UK industrial use during the 1960s and 70s.

But during one recent mesothelioma compensation case the husband of a “secondary exposure” victim claims that “people knew asbestos dust was a killer” at the time. He went on to say that the employer had denied there was any risk of harm because the employees were “working in the open air.”

Victims of asbestos exposure are more likely to admit that they simply had no idea that breathing in asbestos dust could later cause incurable mesothelioma cancer or other debilitating conditions, such as asbestosis or pleural thickening. Not surprisingly, this is in stark contrast to most former employers who vigorously claim they had no knowledge of the health risks at the time.

An employer may also deny the “reasonable foreseeability” of a potential risk in an asbestos-related disease developing up to 30 to 40 years later caused by an exposure at their workplace. A further argument points to an employer’s lack of relationship, e.g. close “proximity” to an employee related to a duty of care obligation. As is repeatedly heard in asbestos claim cases, a former employer would neglect to reasonably minimise or prevent risk of exposure by failing to provide adequate protection or even warn their workforce of the potential health dangers.

Requests for protective equipment were simply ignored

In the present case, a South East dockyard worker – who unloaded raw asbestos fibres from cargo ships throughout the 1960s – was issued with basic protective clothing and masks. However, repeated requests for protective equipment were simply ignored. It was also common practice for workers to return home after every shift still wearing their dust-contaminated work clothes. In many workplaces, there was simply no washing / showering facilities provided.

When the men returned home, the wives or daughters would first vigorously “shake out the dust” and almost invariably inhale the airborne fibre particles – known as “secondary exposure” – before also washing the items by hand. Dust would also be brushed off from work boots, and washed and combed out from the hair. Tragically, the dockyard worker’s wife was diagnosed with mesothelioma caused by the secondary exposure more than 45 years later. However, before passing away the victim received a six-figure sum in compensation.

Take a little longer to realise that family members were also at risk

Success in a claim against a former employer often depends on being are able to show that the employer should have reasonably foreseen that a workers would go home with asbestos on their clothes. In addition, a court can also make provision against an employer who argues that it would take a little longer to realise that family members of their workforce exposed to asbestos were also at risk.

Since the late 1970s and 1980s, the numbers of former workers employed in heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, power plants, foundries, railway engineering, vehicle assembly or building where asbestos was in frequent use, have rapidly declined. Consequently, cases of “secondary exposure” suffered by wives or daughters have become increasingly visible.

More than 8,050 women in Britain have lost their lives mesothelioma between 1981 and 2015. Secondary exposure is also named alongside “environmental” exposure to have caused the deaths of around 1,200 female mesothelioma victims as recently as 2008.

Mesothelioma continues to claim victims of occupational and non-occupational exposure

Over three decades have passed since the first UK asbestos ban in 1985 and nearly 20 years since white asbestos was also banned in 1999. Nevertheless, mesothelioma continues to claim victims of both occupational and non-occupational exposure. Latest figures released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in March 2018 reveal that in England and Wales alone, there were 2,313 deaths in 2016 compared to 2,308 in 2015. The largest increases were recorded in South Tyneside, Swale, Cornwall, Brighton and Hove. Latest available Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures from November 2017 show that across the UK, there was 2,542 mesothelioma deaths in 2015.

The continuing occupational or environmental exposures throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, coupled with the 30-40 year time lapse normally associated with the emergence of asbestos-related diseases, it’s expected that mortality figures will continue to rise until after 2020/30. Even after this time, the HSE predict there will still be around 2,000 people who will still fall victim to the fatal disease each year.