Asbestos workers at serious risk of cancer

The Health and Safety Executive has named asbestos as the single biggest cause of work-related deaths in Britain today (HSE, 2009i). Prolonged exposure to harmful asbestos fibres found in buildings across the UK, especially schools and colleges, can lead to the serious illness asbestosis, cancer of the lung and mesothelioma.

With the highest risk group by far being tradesmen, from which asbestos claims 20 lives every week (HSE, 2009ii), it’s vital that you know the risks – especially if you don’t know you are being exposed to asbestos.

Asbestos fibres are released when asbestos-containing walls, insulating panels or floor or ceiling tiles are damaged, particularly during refurbishment or demolition. Any building built before 2000 could contain asbestos, but it’s most common in public buildings built between the 1950s and early 1980s.

Lives at stake According to the HSE, among those who are likely to be exposed to asbestos are

  • heating engineers
  • demolition workers
  • construction workers
  • carpenters and joiners
  • plumbers
  • roofing contractors
  • painters and decorators
  • plasterers
  • those who install fire or burglar alarms
  • shop fitters
  • gas fitters
  • caretakers
  • building surveyors
  • electricians

The Hidden Killer Campaign

The HSE, which calls asbestos the “hidden killer,” is running a campaign to raise awareness and clamp down on health and safety carelessness where dangerous asbestos poses a threat to workers, tradesmen and employers.

It’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure at all costs a worker’s health, safety and welfare in the workplace, including off site, in residential homes and public buildings during contraction work. “It’s your right to be protected from this dangerous substance,” says the website which advises workers to ask an employer explicitly if the building has been checked for asbestos – and if it hasn’t, no job is worth the risk.

Points to look out for include:

  • making sure you’re fully trained for asbestos work
  • having the right equipment
  • making sure you know what asbestos is, and if not, seeking help
  • minimising dust
  • keeping materials damp, but not wet
  • wearing a suitable respirator
  • not smoking, eating or drinking around asbestos
  • double bagging and labelling
  • appropriate disposal
  • wearing suitable overalls (disposable, for bagging after use) and boots without laces
  • not carrying asbestos into the home
  • following decontamination procedures

Asbestos death rate in Devon rises with another life

Devon has one of the highest death rates due to asbestos out of all the counties in England, according to a TUC survey (BBC News, 2001i). TUC general secretary John Monks said “Thousands of workers have been exposed to asbestos and the plague will go on killing in greater and greater numbers. All we can do to help those affected is to fight to ensure that they and their families receive the compensation they are entitled to,” (BBC News, 2001ii).

In 2009, a particularly rare case of asbestos exposure claimed another life in Devon. An inquest has found that the pensioner, who showed indications of asbestosis, died of industrial disease, despite not having come into contact with asbestos in her work. However, the court concluded that her husband, who had worked as an electrician inspecting sub-stations, had been exposed to low levels of asbestos. Remarkably, contact with her husband’s work clothes had caused the pensioner to inhale dangerous asbestos fibres which eventually led to her death.

It was noted that her husband was initially under no obligation to wear protective clothing in his work and, had better precautions been taken to manage the risk of asbestos during the period around the 60s, 70s and 80s, her death could have been prevented. (Devon 24, 2009)

Asbestos kills officer who gave his life to serve his country

Just six months after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, the cancer of the lining of the lung associated with asbestos exposure, former naval officer Mick Knighton was dead. At the stage of his diagnosis, the cancer was both incurable and untreatable. Mr. Knighton, from Tyne and Wear – the county with the highest incidence of asbestos-related deaths in the country – worked on Royal Navy ships where he was exposed to the hazardous material.

What’s even more staggering is the fact that despite years of serving in a job which was to eventually kill him, Mr. Knighton was not eligible for compensation from the military services, which have crown immunity. Calls for reforms in the compensation process have been made, including a plea from his widow for the government to take greater control of the critical asbestos situation. (BBC News, 2005)

The charity set up in Mr. Knighton’s name has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for mesothelioma research and in 2008 planted 2,000 flowers in Tyneside in memory of the victims of tragic asbestos deaths. (BBC News, 2008i)

Husband and father claimed by years of asbestos exposure

One in 50 painters and decorators, plumbers and electricians born in the 1940s will die from asbestos-related illnesses, researchers in the British Journal of Cancer predict (BBC News, 2009). In 2005, decorator Alexander Kerrison died aged 58 from mesothelioma. Despite being “fit and active,” Mr. Kerrison was exposed to asbestos from the time he began working for his employer in the 1970s, and a recent High Court settlement has awarded over £60 000 compensation to his estate and family for his “pain and suffering” and his widow and children’s loss of dependency.

Although Mr. Kerrison’s employer argued against the ruling on the grounds that he was self-employed for a period in which he could have been exposed to asbestos, there was found to be insufficient evidence for the claim. If his employer had taken control of the asbestos risk, by performing audits, training employees and not sending any workers into a high-risk environment without the right safety equipment, a shocking and untimely death could undoubtedly have been prevented.

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