Too Little Too Late – The Belated Race to Combat the Dangers of Asbestos

in General 01 January 1999

When we think of deaths in the workplace, accidents and fires immediately spring to mind. Somewhat surprisingly, asbestos, the fibrous mineral that became a popular building material in the 1950s, is still a leading cause of deaths related to the workplace in the UK each year.

A potent killer

In fact according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) asbestos is responsible for more than 4,500 deaths each year, which equates to 20 tradesmen dying each week in the UK due to asbestos exposure. These people include plumbers, electricians, joiners and builders and it seems no tradesman is immune to the potential dangers of asbestos. Even more worryingly, it’s not only those directly working with asbestos that are at risk. For example, in May 2010 the wife of a retired electrician died due to exposure to asbestos dust when washing her husband’s overalls. 66-year-old Yvonne Moaby contracted mesothelioma, an incurable lung cancer, while her husband repaired and stripped out storage heaters for four years in the 1960s. Earlier this year Mr Moaby was awarded £187,500 for his wife’s premature death. The case highlighted how secondary asbestos exposure is increasingly becoming a “legal and insurance wrangle”, as stated by Christine Winter of the Independent Asbestos Training Providers.

So where exactly can this dangerous material be found and how can we avoid it?

It was during the 50s when asbestos became a popular material to build with in the UK on both domestic and commercial buildings. The ubiquity and popularity of asbestos stemmed mainly from the fact it is a good insulator, offers fire protection and contains anti-corrosion properties.

The dangers of asbestos were widely ignored in the UK for four decades until 1999 when the use of the mineral was finally banned. Regrettably, for more than 40 years hundreds of thousands of people had been exposed to the material, thus placing them at risk from contracting an asbestos-related disease such as lung cancer and asbestosis.

Despite a ban being established in 1999, the dangers of inhaling asbestos fibres had been known for many years. According to, many companies were aware that this material was making their employees sick but were unwilling to expose the dangers. It was only when the number of mesothelioma diagnoses began to increase in the second half of the twentieth century that the government began to recognise the connection.

Part of the problem with asbestos derives from the fact it is typically submerged with other materials meaning detecting its presence is very difficult. As the ban was not inflicted until the late 90s, it is possible that anyone working on buildings made prior to this time might be exposed to asbestos. Anything from pipe insulation, tiles on the ceiling, boilers and sprayed coatings could possibly contain asbestos.

Who is at the biggest risk from asbestos-related diseases?

Those working in the building trade and other construction-related industries where they might be exposed to asbestos are most at risk, particularly those who had worked on building in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. That is not to say that those working in construction today aren’t at risk as we have already established only structures built post-1999 are guaranteed to be asbestos free.

A campaign to raise awareness

In 2008 the Hidden Killer campaign was launched with the aim to raise awareness about asbestos and its potential dangers. The campaign was initiated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and received widespread support and acclaim, topping the health category of the European Excellence Awards. With approximately 20 tradesmen dying every week from asbestos-related diseases in the UK, the HSE campaign’s aim is to prevent another generation of tradespeople having their lives stole from them because of this hidden killer.

Control of asbestos regulations

In 2012 a modified version of the Control of Asbestos Regulations were implemented which extend and tighten the previous asbestos regulations. The primary modification of the 2012 regulations was that some non-licensed work needs to be notified to the relevant enforcing authority. By 2015 all workers, including self-employed workers doing non-licensed work with asbestos must be under the health surveillance of a doctor.

As we can see much is being done in the race to prevent asbestos from causing more deaths, hurt and anguish. Sadly in the case of tens of thousands of people who have lost loved ones through asbestos-related diseases, it’s a case of too little too late.

If you do have any concerns or questions related to asbestos give the National Asbestos Helpline a call on 0808 250 6790.

The British Wheel of Yoga