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Asbestos a huge issue for hospital workers and patients

Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust have paid out £1.3 million in compensation to asbestos victims according to reports in the media, with around 20 claims being made since 2001. Many of our hospitals were constructed in the Victorian era and earlier, and continue to pose a significant danger to the health of medical staff, maintenance workers, and patients.

The UK asbestos ban of 1999 heralded a new age in construction, but public and private properties built prior to this still contain large amounts of the substance. It was widely used in hospitals, particularly in areas below ground-level – within boiler and central heating systems, for example, and as lagging for the extensive network of pipes.

Asbestos regarded as safe when intact

A spokesperson from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) pointed to the ‘duty to manage’ asbestos in public buildings when they were contacted by the press about Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals.

They suggested asbestos regulations were being followed by the London hospitals, and that asbestos surveys and risk assessments had allowed them to identify where asbestos lies within the buildings.

She said:

“If you want a building used as a work place then the duty holder has a duty to manage the asbestos. And sometimes it’s less risky to leave it in place.”

But does the extensive practical use a hospital building undergoes make it unlikely asbestos-containing materials will remain intact, when compared with other types of public building?

Asbestos in Guy’s Hospital

Guy’s is a large teaching hospital in London, and with 19 interconnected buildings there’s a high chance that porters, maintenance workers and medical staff would be exposed to asbestos during their working day.

The nature of hospital work results in ongoing damage to the fabric of the buildings, due to constant movement of beds and wheelchairs. With no asbestos awareness training available in previous decades, employees would have little knowledge of the danger they were in.

Trainee doctors and dentists victims of asbestos exposure at Guy’s

Guy’s Hospital and St Thomas’ Hospital are both teaching establishments – two of the oldest in the UK. The site also contains the largest dental hospital in Europe, and overall, employs over 13,000 members of staff.

Consultant anaesthetist at Guy’s, Andrew Lawson, died from mesothelioma in 2015 after being exposed to asbestos whilst training. In 2010, he wrote a letter describing the huge impact asbestos had on his health, and that of others who trained alongside him at the hospital:

“It seems that there may have been a lot of asbestos in the tunnels at Guy’s Hospital where I spent six years training. Everybody – students, nurses, doctors and porters – used the tunnels. One wonders how many of my contemporaries will get the same disease? Of four doctors who trained at Guy’s Hospital and who subsequently developed Mesothelioma in the past five year…I am the only one left alive.”

A spokesperson for Guy’s and St Thomas’ later said the asbestos in that area had been removed during the 1990s.

Managing asbestos in hospitals

There have been various other reports of asbestos exposure in hospitals around the UK over recent years, including:

Liverpool NHS Trust: prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive after an investigation in 2013, receiving a fine of £10,000 in 2015. They had failed to heed a warning following an asbestos survey in 2006, about a basement area where patient records were held. Asbestos was found to be in the doors of a nearby lift, as well as other areas of the basement.

Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Hospital Trust: investigated for breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations, 2012, and for dismissing a worker who brought the problems to light. Disciplinary hearings were held, and asbestos management policies improved.

West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust: fined almost £90,000 after being prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive. “Very serious and persistent failures” included placing employees at risk of asbestos exposure for a period of 11 years.

Christie Hospital Foundation Trust: found to have failed to maintain a reliable and up-to-date asbestos risk register in 2014, and potentially exposed maintenance workers to asbestos over an extended period of time.

Many hospitals site their canteens in the basement of these buildings, leading to the potential for asbestos fibres to be ingested as well as inhaled. Ingestion can result in a different but equally dangerous form of mesothelioma which attacks the peritoneum, or the mesothelial lining of the abdomen.