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Asbestos and the dangers faced by firefighters

Asbestos is just one of the many hazards facing firefighters on a daily basis, but exposure to the substance doesn’t have an immediate or visible effect. Its insidious nature means that a victim’s health is compromised decades later, as the dust and fibres inhaled set up life-threatening respiratory problems.

Although the likelihood of asbestos exposure is commonly associated with the maintenance trades, the nature of a firefighter’s work makes asbestos a crucial health and safety issue. Any building constructed in the UK before 2000 is likely to contain asbestos in some form, making access to the correct protective clothing and equipment a vital factor.

Fighting for compensation

The family of a former firefighter from Leeds has recently received compensation, following his death in 2013. Bob Gay had instructed solicitors to explore claims that the fire service he worked for had been negligent in protecting their staff from asbestos, having been diagnosed with mesothelioma only three months before his death.

Although his employers, the Leeds and West Riding Fire Service, no longer exist, Mr Gay’s solicitors were able to secure compensation from their insurers to help his family cope with their loss.


Mr Gay attended numerous fire scenes where asbestos was present, and reportedly was not always provided with a protective mask. When asbestos breaks up it releases deadly dust and fibres into the air, and the very nature of his job meant that Mr Gay was in specific and almost constant danger at work.

Asbestos awareness among employers

It’s commonly alleged that employers in the 1960s and 1970s were fully aware of the dangers posed by asbestos, but failed to adequately safeguard their workers. The incidence of mesothelioma deaths is reaching a peak this decade, and figures from Cancer Research UK show that in 2013 there were 2,667 new cases of mesothelioma.

Protective clothing and breathing equipment is needed to mitigate the risks of asbestos, and it’s now compulsory for employers to provide asbestos awareness training to workers likely to encounter the substance.

Firefighters and the Twin Towers attack

One of the lasting legacies of 9/11 has been termed ‘World Trade Centre Cough Syndrome.’ A study by the New England Journal of Medicine shows that 332 firefighters suffered from this severe cough and shortness of breath and that those who arrived at the scene during the initial few days were more likely to develop it.

The study also states that few respirators were used at the scene – those used were simply paper dust masks – and that the 332 firefighters mentioned in the study were so ill that they took more than four weeks off work, with fewer than half of them returning to work within seven months of the attack.