According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), widespread use of asbestos-containing products in the past, particularly in the building industry, has resulted in a large increase in asbestos-related disease in Great Britain since the Second World War.
Recent figures released by the HSE show that there were 2,595 mesothelioma deaths in 2016. The HSE also estimates that a similar number of deaths due to asbestos-related lung cancer occurred in the same period. Many of these deaths came about because workers were exposed to toxic conditions without being warned of the dangers or provided with any protective clothing or equipment.
Mesothelioma is a deadly cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs and is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. The disease can lie dormant for decades after the exposure which causes it. There is no cure for mesothelioma and it is often at an advanced stage by the time symptoms appear.
In general, 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.
Asbestos was also considered ideal for use aboard ships until the 1980s and could be found in the engine and boiler rooms, as well as in the walls, floors and ceilings of cabins and the galley. There have been many cases of people who have developed an asbestos-related illness because they were exposed to asbestos fibres while working in the shipbuilding industry prior to the 1980s or while serving aboard ships containing asbestos.
There are now strict laws on exposure – the control limit is 0.1 asbestos fibres per cubic centimetre of air (0.1f/cm3) – when working in the presence of asbestos. Anyone wishing to do any building or maintenance work in premises or on plant or equipment that might contain asbestos must identify where it is and its type and condition. Having completed an assessment of the risks posed by the material, a plan must be devised for how to manage and control those risks. In the majority of cases, building or maintenance work with asbestos needs to be done by a licensed contractor.
Sadly, however, the tighter laws were introduced too late for many people exposed to asbestos earlier in their working lives who have gone on to suffer serious illness or died as a result. In addition, the historic nature of the exposure can make it difficult to gain evidence in support of a personal injury claim.
The HSE expects the number of deaths from mesothelioma to continue at current levels for the rest of the decade before starting to decline.