In a recent mesothelioma claim – in which the family of a deceased victim was awarded a six figure sum – nearly all of the most common factors leading to an early death from exposure to asbestos were present.

The tragic victim of incurable mesothelioma cancer was a female in her middle 60s, an increasing trend among women (well below the 75 plus years historically associated with male victims). She was employed as an office worker so did not directly handle asbestos materials. Exposure occurred when the victim was under the age of 20, considered by medical researchers to be the most vulnerable period for contact with asbestos. Her employers chose to ignore the increasing asbestos awareness to the long term health risks by failing to provide a suitable breathing mask or any other form of personal protection.

Five years at a steel foundry office

The victim was first exposed to asbestos 50 years earlier when she worked for five years at a steel foundry office after leaving school in 1963. This was just before the introduction of Asbestos Regulations 1969, which aimed to protect all company workers from exposure not just those involved in asbestos manufacturing. Nevertheless, by the middle 1960s, a writ for the first asbestos-related injury claim had begun.

It was not until the introduction of The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 that employers were 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”.

Office areas were close by to factory floors

As well as the clear dangers to male workers, it can often be overlooked that at the same time, countless thousands of women were also employed as office workers in the UK’s industrial sector. Often their office areas were close by to factory floors where constant maintenance and repair work released asbestos fibre dust into the atmosphere.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that there are at least 8,000 work-related cancer deaths each year, more than half caused by past exposures to asbestos. The latest available figures from the Department of Works and Pensions, based on the deaths of those aged 16 – 74 between 2002 and 2010, highlight the many work sectors where “white collar” workers are employed. During this period nearly 100 female sales & retail assistants and 75 personal assistants & other secretaries lost their lives to the deadly cancer.

Exposed to significantly high levels of dust

Despite her office worker role, the court found that during the period of employment at the foundry, the teenager was exposed to significantly high levels of dust, which included asbestos fibres. It is well-documented that from the initial period of exposure an average of 30 to 40 years can elapse before the first asbestosis symptoms appear. In many cases, the disease would have reached a late stage and life expectancy can often be between 2 and 12 months. Tragically, in the present case, the victim was diagnosed with mesothelioma four months after first falling ill but tragically passed away just one month later.

At the hearing, it was concluded that “exposure was to an extent likely to be injurious to her”, the injury was “reasonably foreseeable” and the “defender did nothing to prevent it”. The judge awarded the family of the deceased £360,000 in compensation and set a further hearing to determine any additional expenses.

One in three female victims exposed to asbestos at work

Female victims now account for 1 in 6 mesothelioma deaths, according to latest available figures from the HSE Annual Report, Great Britain, 2014. Of 2,515 mesothelioma deaths, 414 were female fatalities. The very noticeable rise in female mesothelioma is considered to be the result of the first mid 1980s ban in the UK and the decline of asbestos use in traditional male-dominated industries such as, shipbuilding, road/rail vehicle assembly, and construction.

The HSE have said that the mesothelioma fatality rates in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups, “have not reduced as strongly in women as in men” over the last four decades. Around one in three females who fall victim to mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos either at work or environmentally, both of which have been responsible for the deaths of around 1,200 women in just the last ten years alone.