Provisional statistics for 2014, published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), show that for the third year running more than 2,500 people died from mesothelioma as a result of past exposure to harmful asbestos fibres.
Asbestos is most commonly found in buildings erected or refurbished before 1985, although it may be present in those constructed more recently. Examples of materials that could contain asbestos include pipe and boiler lagging, ceiling tiles and insulation material.
When asbestos fibres enter the body, they can cause healthy cells to mutate into cancerous cells. These can lie dormant for many years before a victim shows any signs of illness. By the time mesothelioma is diagnosed, the survival rate is poor, with around 75 per cent of sufferers dying within one year of diagnosis. It is therefore vital that compensation is paid to those affected at the earliest possible time.
A recent personal injury case is illustrative of past working conditions that put employees at risk.
Kathleen Allcock was employed as a cashier and typist for the Mond Nickel Company Limited for 14 years, from when she left school until 1963. Even though she was based in the office, her job involved visiting other areas of the plant, including the furnace room. The furnaces used in testing alloys had to be replaced on a regular basis, and they were dismantled and constructed in the furnace room. Mrs Allcock's husband had also worked for the company, as a laboratory/technical assistant, and part of his work was carried out in the furnace room. He described conditions in the room, where raw asbestos powder and asbestos wool were used daily. The air was filled with asbestos flakes, which covered their laboratory coats, hair and skin. The dust also spilled over into other areas of the building.
In April 2014, after she had retired, Mrs Allcock was diagnosed with mesothelioma.
The Mond Nickel Company, which still exists, at first denied liability for Mrs Allcock's illness on the ground that her office job would not have required her to enter the furnace room. After court proceedings were issued, however, her personal injury claim was settled for a six-figure sum.
Exposure to asbestos remains a risk. Buildings all need repair and maintenance work from time to time and it is when asbestos fibres are disturbed, e.g. by drilling or cutting, that they are most likely to be inhaled as a deadly dust.
Under the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, all owners of non-domestic premises have a duty to identify and manage any asbestos in their buildings. The law requires owners to presume asbestos is present unless there is evidence to prove that it is not. However, even though the dangers of exposure to asbestos are well known, businesses continue to put workers and visitors to their premises at risk by failing to comply with the law.
General Motors UK Limited was recently prosecuted by the HSE after it failed to instruct a contractor to stop work after asbestos insulating boards (AIB) were uncovered during work at its motor vehicle assembly plant in Ellesmere Port. The work, including the removal and cutting of holes in the AIB, continued without suitable health and safety precautions being taken.
There is a great deal of useful information on this topic on the HSE website.